Resnick on Radio …

I’ve always relished the opportunity to write for radio, whether adapting another writer’s work – I’ve been fortunate enough to be let loose on such as Graham Greene, A. S. Byatt and Paul Scott – or dramatising my own. The process of reducing a novel or short story to its essentials before beginning the process of building them up again in a different form is a task I’ve always enjoyed. A task for which I was unknowingly prepared by all those grammar school English lessons in which we were called upon to summarise a longer and usually very dull piece of writing into something succinct that captured its essence – the art, in other words, of précis. [I doubt, nowadays, if even the idea of it is allowed through the school gates. Though I’d like to be proved wrong.]

Having stripped the story down to its bare bones, its skeleton, the next task is to build it up again in a manner which does as much justice as possible to the original author’s style and intention; a task which, a certain amount of voice over narration and the occasional internal monologue aside, is achieved almost entirely through dialogue. Dialogue which has the function of revealing character and situation while propelling the story forward.

Where bringing Resnick to the radio is concerned, I was fortunate to work throughout with an experienced and sympathetic producer, David Hunter. We began in 1995 with a 2 part dramatisation of the fifth Resnick novel, Wasted Years, and then, a year later, a triple episode version of the third novel, Cutting Edge. Slow Burn, broadcast in 1998, was from an original two-part script, set in and around a Nottingham jazz club and later published as a short story, and this was followed in 2001 and 2002 by two single plays, Cheryl and Bird of Paradise.

All in all, a fair run, and Radio 4 Extra has been generous in lining them up for not infrequent repeats. Cheryl, in fact, is due to be heard again on Friday, October 30th. And they are all, as from today, October 22nd, available as an Audio Download from BBC Audio with the added attraction (?) of my stint as a guest on Radio 3’s Private Passions.

Quite frequently, repeat broadcasts bring forth a small flurry of questions. The theme song in Wasted Years, for instance: who is the singer and where can I get hold of a copy? And why on earth are there so many different Resnicks?

Last things first. in 1992/3, Tom Wilkinson had played Resnick in the televised adaptations of the first two books – Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment – that were produced by Colin Rogers of Deco Films & TV for the BBC, and he seemed the perfect choice to continue in the role on radio. After Wasted Years, he was pencilled in for its radio sequel, Cutting Edge, but film work interceded and the role went to Tom Georgeson, who was familiar with the character, having played one of a pair of cat burglars in the TV version of Rough Treatment

[Keeping up so far … ?]

Phillip Jackson, complete with authentic East Midlands accent, was Resnick in Slow Burn, followed three years later by Keith Barron, who played Charlie in both Cheryl and Bird of Paradise, reuniting in the first of those with his sparring partner from the long-running television sitcom, Duty Free – the wonderful Gwen Taylor.

Which brings us, finally, to the music in Wasted Years. The lyric and melody were written by the fine folk singer, Liz Simcock, whose demo was the basis for the version heard on the programme, which, appropriately, is sung by Gillian Bevan who plays the singer Ruth Strange.

Chilterns Ramble: in the footsteps of the Ashridge Drovers.

The weather looked promising on Sunday, if a tad on the chilly side, and with the Chilterns no more than thirty minutes or so away by train, Sarah and I made our pack-up, filled our water bottles and the thermos, and were on our way. Euston station was very well organised with more than usual staff ensuring that people kept, as far as possible, out of one another’s way. Everyone in the concourse was wearing a mask, as they were on the 12 carriage train, and we were able to sit with no one facing us or even particularly close. The surprise came when alighting at Tring station, when the platform was suddenly awash with ramblers, sixty of them at least, two organised groups and the remainder in dribs and drabs like us. And a further surprise, the majority oƒ them seemed to be aged 30 or younger. Not the kind of rambling groups we’re used to walking with.

Most of the other walkers seemed to be heading towards Ivinghoe Beacon – a fine circular walk marking one end of the Ridgeway [Britain’s oldest ‘road’, beginning some 87 miles away in Wiltshire], but a few miles longer than the Ashridge Drovers Walk, which would have us following in the footsteps of farmers and cattlemen of former times, who used the paths to drive their cattle between the villages of Pitstone, Ivinghoe and Aldbury. [Think an Ealing Comedy version of Howard Hawks’ Red River.]

Not far from the beginning of the walk, a long and steep climb (and I do mean steep) takes you up to the Bridgewater Monument [dedicated to the third Duke of Bridgewater, known as ‘the father of inland navigation’] and thence into attractive ancient woodland which, after progressing a mile or so northwards, curves eastwards and joins the Ridgeway, bringing you back over Pitstone Hill (steep, but not nearly as steep as before) and eventually down towards Tring Station. An easy and enjoyable six miles in all. And, if we hadn’t missed the Euston train by minutes, a perfect end to the day – as it was, we had a deserted platform on which to sit, suitably distanced, and eat our sandwiches. [Since you ask, Co-op’s Finest Mature Somerset Cheddar with banana and hot mango chutney, followed by chunky peanut butter and raspberry jam with yet more banana. Do we know how to treat ourselves or what?]

Body and Soul / Le Corps et l’âme

A quick check suggests my fiction has been translated into twenty plus languages by thirty or so different publishers and with contrasting results. A strong commitment has, unsurprisingly, proved more successful in terms of sales, whereas a single book, slipped like a wary toe into the water, has tended to make a mere ripple before withering away, forgotten. Worse still, there was a time when I was concerned about the effect I was having on the Italian publishing industry: no sooner, it seemed, had a contract for one or more of my books been signed than the business failed and went into administration.

No such problems, thankfully, in France, where Les Éditions Payot & Rivages have published and strongly supported all of my work, beginning in 1993, when the first Resnick novel, Lonely Hearts, made its debut as Coeurs Solitaires in the Rivages/Noir collection under the direction of François Guérif, up to the final book in the Resnick series, Darkness, Darkness / Ténèbres, ténèbres. And in January, 2021, they will publish Body & Soul / Le Corps et l’âme, the fourth and final novel in the Frank Elder series – and my final novel all told.

Mon dieu, how I love that cover!

By way of introduction to the novel, there is a short video made by Molly Ernestine Boiling, in which I talk about the novel’s beginnings in an unshakable dream, then read a section from the first chapter.

Everyday Heroes at the South Bank

Having stuttered in and out of the clouds since early morning, the sun was clearly shining; my therapeutic but painful 30 minutes of neck massage was over and my partner, Sarah, had awarded herself a few hours away from the computer. The open air Everyday Heroes exhibition was all around the South Bank Centre – and there’s a train from Kentish Town to Blackfriars every ten or twenty minutes …

Lydia Blakeley : ‘Jacqui’ 2020

Silvia Rosi : ‘Brother Studying on Phone ‘ 2020
Silvia Rosi : Brother Studying on Phone – [Detail
Benjamin Senior : ‘The Market Stall’ 2020
Juergen Teller : ‘Natalie’ + ‘Stephen’ 2020
Caroline Walker : ‘Elaine’ 2020
Caroline Walker : ‘Elaine’ 2020 [detail]

Poem for National Poetry Day

BREAKWATER

She woke, that summer, each day
at four twenty-five precisely;
lay there waiting for the first birds,
their anxious call,
the dawn pearling off the sea.

The last card he’d sent her:
Having a grand time, Mam,
wish you were here
.

She can hear his voice, low
amongst the day’s meanderings,
the shuffle of the busy shoreline
back and forth against the tide.

Today, she’ll clear out that cupboard,
herbs and spices she’d read about 
in some forgotten recipe and never used;
jars to be emptied, washed, restored;
shelves scrubbed clean
within an inch of their lives.

You damned fool, his father had said,
the first time he saw him in uniform.

She’d moved here not long after the funeral:
a walk along the pier after supper,
a cup of something warm,  a few pages
of her book before putting out light.

Tomorrow, perhaps, she’ll take the bus
north along the coast, watch the waves
battering the breakwater at Staithes,
the gulls wheeling past the cliff face
into the wind.

from Aslant, Shoestring Press, Nottingham, 2019

Wallander, Mankel and Me … a footnote

A quick follow-up to my previous post about re-watching the two series based upon Henning Mankel’s Wallander novels.

At the same time as the second series, featuring Kenneth Branagh, was being made, I was approached by BBC Scotland to see if I would be interested in presenting a documentary examining the world-wide success of Mankel’s novels and the popularity of their central character, both in print and on screen.

Hmm, I thought … a trip to Ystad in southern Sweden, where the stories are set and where Branagh was filming, along with a couple of days in Stockholm and, hopefully, the opportunity of interviewing the rather reclusive Mankel at his home in Gothenburg … why not? I knew the novels quite well and liked them a great deal, admiring Mankel as a socially conscious writer whose strong political values underscored his fiction without it ever coming close to propaganda.

Who is Kurt Wallander? was shown on BBC Four to coincide with the Branagh series, and later made available as an ‘extra’ on the BBC DVD containing the first three episodes. Aside from the embarrassment of watching myself walking through fields of wheat in my baggy linen suit while talking to camera, I was pleased with the finished programme, in particular the interview with a surprisingly relaxed Mankel, in which his intelligence and sense of purpose showed through clearly.

And if that’s whetted your appetite and you’re sitting there thinking, Damn! I wish I’d seen that!, the good news is that a nicely abridged and edited version [complete with Spanish sub-titles!] is now available on YouTube, its central focus the Mankel interview.

“Watching Wallander … again and again …

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 – Krister 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.

Kirster Henriksson as Kurt Wallander
Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander

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.

That Old iPad September Shuffle …

Here we go again … a baker’s dozen of goodies shuffled into the air courtesy of my somewhat ancient iPad …

  1. My Creole Belle : Mississippi John Hurt
  2. Boulder to Birmingham : Emmylou Harris
  3. Girlfriend in a Coma : The Smiths
  4. Last to Leave : Arlo Guthrie
  5. People Will Say We’re in Love : Ray Charles & Betty Carter
  6. We Walk the Same Line : Everything But the Girl
  7. Ain’t Misbehavin’ : Louis Armstrong [from Satch Plays Fats]
  8. Gone at Last : Paul Simon w. Phoebe Snow
  9. Cody : John Stewart w. Buffy Ford
  10. Stars Fell on Alabama : Billie Holiday
  11. True Love Travels on a Gravel Road : Elvis Presley
  12. Somebody Been Talkin’ : Homesick James & His Dusters
  13. African Ripples : Fats Waller

And when we’re not shuffling, here’s a batch of CDs currently juggling for space on the stereo …

Teaching begins …

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.

Anniversary Ramble …

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!

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