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.
As I noted in my previous post, in his Country Noir novel, Give Us a Kiss, Daniel Woodrell gives us a protagonist – Doyle Redmond – who is a published but, in his own eyes, barely successful novelist. When, at one point in the story, Redmond is forced to move home, he takes his library with him – the contents, it’s reasonable to assume, not that distant from Woodrell’s own.
My move-in was swift. I had only the blue pillowcase of my travelling clothes and one box of book in the Volvo trunk. I immediately displayed the books on the kitchen counter, as these books I never left behind and made any crap hold I landed in home to me. There were a couple of Elizabeth Bowen novels, a quartet by Lewis Wallant, one volume of Pierce Egan’s Boxing, The Williamsburg Trilogy by Daniel Fuchs, Carson McCuller’s oeuvre, a stack of Twain, a batch of Erskine Caldwell’s thin li’l wonders, some Liam O’Flaherty and John McGahern and Grace Caley and Faulkner, all of Chandler, and a copy of Jim Harrison’s A Good Day To Die. Also, a jumbo volume of Robinson Jeffers poetry, and various guidebooks to flora and fauna. Dictionary and thesaurus, of course, and my boot-camp yearbook from Platoon 3039, which would have been my junior year in high school. Plus, copies of my own output.
In about seven minutes I had relocated and settled in cozy.!
For some years – a period that, for me, encompassed the first ten Resnick novels – Lonely Hearts to Last Rites – Daniel Woodrell and I shared the same publisher in the States, the redoubtable Marian Wood at Henry Holt & Company. Address: 115 West 18th St., New York 10011 – I remember it well.
Whereas Marian would have worked closely with Dan from the first draft manuscript on, with Resnick she would have bought US and Canadian rights to books that already existed in published form. For many publishers that might mean little more than commissioning a new jacket, scouting out some blurbs that would mean something to American consumers, and maybe – just maybe – sending a junior through the manuscript with the task of Americanising those ‘difficult’ British terms which might defeat US readers – ‘elevator’ for ‘lift’ and ‘sidewalk’ instead of ‘pavement’. Not so Marian. She was as eager to get to grips with the text as would have been the case were she the primary editor, and, more importantly, she was keen to make suggestions as to how the series and its central characters might best be developed, pointing out weaknesses that should and could be avoided. When, in Easy Meat, for instance, I ventured to set Resnick up in a relationship with a teacher named Hannah Campbell, Marian argued quite fiercely that I should make her a far stronger character than she first appeared to be, more conscious of the feminist issues of the time.
Most importantly, she championed my books, just as she did Dan’s, in the face of sales figures that would have had Holt’s accountants sadly shaking their heads. We were her authors, her boys, and she believed in us, which didn’t mean she was above putting us in our place if she thought it was deserved; the only reason I can get away with publishing the pair of you, she pointed out on more than one occasion, is because I also publish Sue Grafton.
I first met Dan Woodrell in St. Louis, probably the largest city close to the Ozarks, the vast rural area of Missouri where he had been born and continued to live. Both with new books out – Dan’s Give Us a Kiss (the one that gave birth to the term Country Noir) and my 8th Resnick, Easy Meat – we were due to appear at Big Sleep Books, then under the management of Helen Simpson. I assumed that, in the normal way of things, I would read an extract from my novel before chatting amiably to would-be customers and, finally, signing as many copies as I could lay my hands on – the usual malarkey – and I’d imagined Dan would do the same. But no. Dan doesn’t read, Helen said. He just doesn’t. Ever. He’s shy. Which would have left me showcasing, while Dan sat quietly in the corner, nursing a beer. It didn’t seem right. Okay, I said, tell him if he won’t read then I won’t either. [Clearly, to anyone who knows me, a barefaced lie: given an audience in excess of one I’ll read till someone finally puts out all the lights and jiggles the keys.] To Helen’s surprise, however, Dan agreed. Perhaps he was being polite to a fellow author visiting from across the Atlantic. And, of course, he read brilliantly, bringing out every nuance of the language, every ounce of humour, every frisson of sexuality, and left me thanking the heavens I’d read first!
Give Us a Kiss is told in the first person, its central character, Doyle Redmond, is Ozark born and bred, a writer who – like so many of us at times – feels his work is both undersold and misunderstood. Dan getting some of his frustrations out into the open. Here’s a couple of examples …
I always get called a crime writer, though to me they are slice-of-life dramas. They remind me of my family and friends, actually. I hate to think I’ve led a “genre” life, but that seems to be the category I’m boxed in.
… and …
I sat up, crossed my legs beneath me. “When I’m dead they’ll say I was ‘passionate and ruggedly self-reliant,'” I claimed.
“Oh, Doyle.” Lizbeth’s lips had that puffy, tenderer look lips get from deep kissing someone new. “They’re not going to talk about you when you’re dead.”
That sealed the end. That comment. This was the sorest spot she could gouge at, my life’s work to this point being four published novels nobody much had read, let alone bought or reviewed prominently. This sore spot of mine had yet to quit oozing since the last book had been met with a great, vicious silence, and for her to stick me there meant it was over for sure.
Some time after our meeting in St. Louis, Dan and his wife, the novelist, Katie Estill, moved, temporarily, to San Francisco, which is where my partner, Sarah, and I got to hang out with them a little. One of the reasons Dan had been attracted to San Francisco was its associations with Dashiell Hammett, a writer he greatly admired; Hammett had lived there in the 1920s, and it was there, in a top floor apartment on Post Street, that he had written the bulk of The Maltese Falcon. So, in honour to both Hammett and his private eye, Sam Spade, we went to John’s Grill, which has long traded on its association with The Maltese Falcon, and ordered the over-priced but tasty lamb chops, as briefly featured in in the novel …
He went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a touch cheery face came into the Grill and to his table.
“All set, Mr Spade. She’s full of gass and rearing to go.”
We also went to Burritt Street, where Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, was lured to his death by his seemingly innocent client, Brigid O”Shaughnessy, and not shot and killed, as she had claimed, by one Floyd Thursby.
Spade said” “Miles hadn’t many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years’ experience as a detective to be caught like that by a man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance. He was a dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasn’t quite that dumb …
He ran his tongue over the inside of his lips and smiled affectionately at the girl. He said: “But he’d’ve gone up there with you, angel, if he was sure nobody else was up there. You were his client, so he would have had no reason for not dropping the shadow on your say-so, and if you caught up with him and asked him to go up there he’d’ve gone. He was just dumb enough for that. He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear – and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with the gun you had got from Thursby that evening.”
Finally, before leaving the subject of Daniel Woodrell, it’s worth noting that of his nine novels, three have been turned into films: not a bad ratio. Woe to Live On was filmed by Ang Lee in 1999 under the title, Ride With the Devil; Debra Granik made Winter’s Bone in 2010; and Tomato Red was filmed by Juanita Wilson in 2017. Of the three, it seems to me that Winter’s Bone is the most successful. In part this may be due to the fact that it was largely filmed in the Ozarks, where the novel is set, and Dan, I believe, helped both with the locations and in persuading some of the locals to take part. Without losing on the finer points of atmosphere and characterisation, Granik never allows the pace of the narrative to slacken, and she secures a compelling performance from Jennifer Lawrence in her ‘breakthrough’ role.
There it is, amongst the Top Ten films directed by Stephen Frears as chosen by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, there alongside such excellence as The Grifters, Dirty Pretty Things and My Beautiful Launderette, in at No. 10, Gumshoe, Frear’s first feature, working from a script by Neville Smith and starring Albert Finney as a Liverpudlian bingo caller who fantasises about being a private eye.
Neville won a Writers’ Guild Award for his screenplay, which he then – after some persuasion from his publisher, his agent and, quite possibly, his bank manager – turned into a novel. First published by Fontana Books in 1971 to tie-in with the film’s release, it was allowed to drift out of print, and joyfully picked up by Slow Dancer Press when we had a crack at publishing crime fiction alongside poetry in the late 1990s.
Pre-publication, I tracked Stephen Frears down to W8 and talked him into writing an introduction and Neville himself supplied a Coda. All it needed then was a strong and snappy design for the cover, which, as was usual, Jamie Keenan supplied, using a photograph by Trevor Ray Hart.
And this is how it begins …
He looked like the kind of guy your mother would like to marry your sister. If you had a mother. If you had a sister.
He wore a three-button Italian suit, a Billy Eckstine-style flex-roll, buttondown collar, a slim-jim tie. Neat, flat-cut hair topped the lot off. The perfect brother-in-law, circa 1957. He leaned back with his feet on the desk, bored out of his mind, looking at me sitting opposite in my vintage Grenfell trench coat (Hawkes of Savile Row, W1. By Appointment); I wasn’t bored.
Stephen Frears and Neville Smith first met in 1968 when they were both working for Yorkshire TV. In his Coda, Neville describes it thus …
I was acting in an episode of Parkin’s Patch for Yorkshire Television in Leeds. The director was Michael Apted. Sitting in the canteen, in a powder blue suit, and dripping with gold, was Les Dawson, fidgeting while his wife fetched him a cup of tea. Apted and I took the table next to him, hoping to overhear a few quips.
We were joined by an unshaven chap. He wore tennis shoes, baggy corduroys, a green sloppy joe, and a black jacket, all of which had seen better days. He had a mass of black hair and, like Apted, was handsome.
Very soon he and Apted were drawling away in their posh Oxford accents. It was like listening to Trevor Bailey nattering away between overs. Then Apted said, apropos of nothing at all, it seemed to me, “Was it Nietzsche or Wittgenstein who said that the limits of language are the limits of the world?” The unshaven chap said, “No. It was Fatty Arbuckle.” I laughed, and that is how I got to know Stephen Frears.
It was then, or a little later, as he says in his Introduction, that Frears said to Neville, “Why don’t you write a thriller?”
He … gave me the opening pages of what would turn out to be Gumshoe. I don’t think it then had a title. And I found I’d stumbled on a writer with the grace of Jackie Milburn and the wit of S. J. Perelman.
I had thought he was writing a thriller. In fact he was constructing a self-portrait; a record of what it was like to have been a teenager in the English provinces in the Fifties. “I want to write The Maltese Falcon; I want to record Blue Suede Shoes.” He could describe a life unlike my own yet one I would like to have lived. His world was warm, funny, observant, generous, ironic, scrupulous, complex.
… I’ve never lost my love or admiration for Neville, who is in some ways, I think, the best writer I’ve ever come across. This book – the book of the film – I’ve never read. I couldn’t bear it if I found a job he hadn’t thought of when he wrote the film.
My father served joined the London Auxiliary Fire Service just before or not long after the declaration of war in September, 1939 and served until a little after the war’s end in 1945. For most of that time, he was stationed at Chester Road fire station, opposite Highgate Cemetery in north London. You can see him clearly below, third from the left.
The AFS was a reserve firefighting force set up as part of the Air Raid Precautions Act in 1937 and with the outbreak of war all 23,000 of its firemen and women joined the 2,700 regulars of the London Fire Brigade to form the London Fire Service. For a long time I’d wanted to find a way of writing about what it must have been like for him, during the years of the Blitz especially, 1940-41. Trying to get him to talk about it in any detail proved nigh on impossible. Oh, he’d talk about the companionship, easily enough, the camaraderie, but the danger, the experience of climbing a swaying ladder towards the top of a blazing building … He’d shrug his shoulders, light another John Player’s and see if there wasn’t another cup of tea in the pot.
So, over the years, I picked up books on the subject – personal accounts, histories – and it was reading one of those that I first came across fire service messengers – boys in their teens, too young to be called up, who, when the phone lines were down, which was often, carried messages by bike from headquarters in different parts of London to officers in the field. Well, I thought, there has to be a story there, and when my French publisher asked for a book for young adult readers as a follow-up to my earlier Nick’s Blues, there was my chance. The story of a young cycle messenger and his fireman father during the worst of the London Blitz. Blue Watch.
Writer, translator and journalist, Seba Pezzani, had translated Nick’s Blues into Italian and since I knew he had read Blue Watch I asked him to let me know his thoughts. Here is his response …
I have had the honour of translating three novels by John Harvey, including Nick’s Blues, a riveting story of an adolescent who struggles with the memory of a long dead father. So, when I found out that his new young adult novel Blue Watch had been published, I purchased it immediately. Now, I fancy myself to be a writer, with one novel and four non-fiction books in print, as well as hundreds of articles published in a couple of Italian national newspapers, but, to my mind, John Harvey is THE writer and with Blue Watch he nails it once again.
Harvey’s narrative style flows easily, the mark of a true master. His young hero, Jack, the son of a Fire Brigade officer, finds himself answering a higher calling when his country is under siege by the forces of evil, the German bombers. In a credible, burning London, Jack will come to understand the power of loyalty and belonging and will discover the natural pull of life called love along the way. Set at one of London’s most difficult times in history, this novel is a page turner, a book that can be read by adolescents and adults alike. I dare anybody who tries reading it to refrain from shedding the odd tear or summoning up a smile and not feel for Jack and his mission.
John Harvey makes the difficult task of writing so simple that I feel like banging my head against the edge of my desk because not in a million years will I be able to match his ease. If you are a fan of Harvey’s, you cannot miss this book. If you are not, it will be a good starting point and from there you will go back and start reading all of his previous novels. But, whatever the case, read it. If will be worth the few quid it costs. Mind you, though, you may get hooked and there will be plenty more spending to come.
My friend and Italian translator, Seba Pezzani, whom I first met when I was invited to take part in dal Mississippi al Po, the festival of blues and (crime) writing which he organised annually in Piacenza, Northern Italy, asked me if, for an article he’s writing, I would contribute a short piece about the current Coronavirus situation, in addition to recommending a book to read in these anxious times.
Here’s the former, written in response to last night’s clapping in support of the NHS workers …
At first it was a dull, persistent clanking we were slow to recognise, someone in the street outside striking the base of a saucepan with a metal spoon. Inside the house, we stopped what we were doing and checked the time: sure enough, eight o’clock, and the front door opened to hear, haphazardly at first, then more and more in unison, people at their windows, on their balconies, clapping, clapping – older folk, younger, children – and from more distant houses and busier streets, bells ringing, car horns hooting, all coming together in a raucous, joyous cacophony of sound, of noise, of celebration at still being alive and giving thanks to those who were working full out to make that possible. And, as the sounds finally faltered and faded, I thought about those people trapped, as we are, in lockdown in other countries – Italy, Spain – where this nightly ceremony started – realising, in a way, how this has brought us together, while recognising that applause aside, there’s little most of us can do safe this: hope, wait, perhaps pray; wash our hands.
And here, without apology for drawing attention to this book and this writer again, is my recommendation …
One of the books I go back to from time to time, when I’m wanting to read something that rings true; that, in simple, hard-wrought language, is a believable and moving expression of the straightforward but surprising goodness of ordinary people, holding out a hand to those in extreme need, is “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf, the story of two elderly unmarried brothers, small-scale farmers, who, against all the odds, take in and care for a young woman, pregnant and homeless, and not so very long ago a child herself.
I believe the book piece may appear as part of Seba’s article for Il Giornarle and the piece about clapping on Globalist.it
* Apologies to Shirley Ellis, whose 1965 version of this Lincoln Chase song, is surely the best
I had reason this morning to track back through several fat files of contracts and found, buckled and torn along the upper edge and beginning to fade, the first of such documents I ever received and duly signed …
An agreement made the eighteenth day of April, one thousand nine hundred and seventy four BETWEEN John Harvey of 233, Webb Rise, Stevenage, Herts (hereinafter called “the Grantor) of the one part and THE NEW ENGLISH LIBRARY LIMITED of Barnard’s Inn in the City of London (hereinafter called “the Publishers”, which expression shall where the context admits include its successors in title) of the other part, WHEREBY IT IS MUTUALLY AGREED concerning the following work entitled:
by Thom Ryder
(hereinafter called “the Work”)
The Grantor HEREBY GRANTS unto the Publishers and unto their successors in title licensees and assigns the right and licence to print publish and sell the Work in soft cover volume form in the English language throughout the world (hereinafter referred to as “the Open Market)
Did somebody mention ‘English language’? The whole thing, all 18 clauses, of which the above is the first, smacks of Dickens and Bleak House. Obfuscation and legal jargon. But, hey, they were buying my book. Thom Ryder, for a brief period of time – 1974, 75 – that was me. Chronicler of the lives and misadventures of a gang of Hell’s Angels, intent on terrifying the Home Counties. They were buying my first ever book, on the basis of an outline and a couple of sample chapters, for an advance of £200, to be paid half of signature of the agreement and half on delivery of an acceptable manuscript, in addition to which I would be paid a 4% royalty on copies sold.
That any of this happened at all was due to my friend and mentor, the late Laurence James, who had himself written a series of pulp novels about Hells Angels under the name of Mick Norman. We’d met when we were students on a teacher training course at Goldsmiths College; I went into teaching, Laurence diverted into book selling, then publishing, finally writing. If it hadn’t been for his help, encouragement and example, I would never have hacked out – I choose the verb advisably – 50,000 words on the subject of motorbikes, blood and mayhem at the kitchen table of my Stevenage flat during what turned out to be my last year of teaching, the last of twelve. If it hadn’t been for him, it’s doubtful that New English Library would have looked on my endeavours so positively; I think he must have promised them that if my efforts fell apart, he would be around to pick up the pieces.
As it happened, they liked what they read enough to offer me a contract to write a sequel – Angel Alone – for which I would be paid the improved advance of £250, with an increased royalty of 5%. Encouragement enough for me to hand in my resignation at the end of the school year and set out on being a full-time writer of pulp fiction. Well, I thought, I can always go back to teaching if this doesn’t work out – and Laurence and I had been talking about an idea for a series of Westerns he thought a publisher he knew might be interested in …
There followed a period – 1976 to 1983 – in which I wrote just short of 50 Westerns: 10 under my own name, the others in partnership with either Laurence James or Angus Wells, writing alternate books in a series under a joint pseudonym. I was learning to write; I was paying the rent: I was having fun.
It’s not often I go back and look at my own work – there’s so much good writing out there just waiting to be read, why would you? – but a positive tweet from writer Nikki Copleston had me pulling a copy of Far Cry from the shelf and thumbing through the pages. Partly set in Cornwall, partly in and around Cambridge, the starting point of the story is the disappearance of a young girl and her best friend when on a camping holiday with her friend’s parents. The girls in the last year of primary school. Eleven.
I can still remember when the basic idea came to me: I was walking along a narrow, winding path on the cliff edge leading away from Cape Cornwall when a sea mist descended suddenly and for several moments I was completely lost. Unable to see where I was going. So easy to step off the path and stumble down towards one of those old mine shafts.
Suppose, I thought … suppose …
Suppose the girl – let’s call her Heather – had gone off with her friend – Kelly, that sounds right – gone off on their own with the usual warnings. ‘Take care now, the pair of you.” “Look where you’re walking.” “And whatever you do, make sure you don’t get lost.”
When they don’t come back after several hours – hours in which Kelly’s parents, increasingly desperate, have gone out searching – Kelly’s father, Alan, calls the police.
I’ve always liked that first sentence – They came in two four-by-fours, slow across the field, wheels sending up small plumes of muddied earth. Something about the matter-of-factness of it, They came – who are they? And the rhythm in slow across the field where the word order throws the emphasis on the word slow – so much more effective, I think, than had I used slowly – and then the way – or is this just my imagination? – the sound of the word plumes seems to rise up in the middle of the last part of the sentence when spoken.
Holiday over, I had something, the beginnings of a story. But not yet the beginning of a novel. Too simple, perhaps? Too straightforward? What if one of the girls is found, but not the other: Kelly, but not Heather. Who, then, is going to be the novel’s central character, who am I likely to be most interested in?Heather’s mother, it has to be, shaken by loss, riven by guilt at having given in to her daughter’s pleas and allowed her to go away with someone else. Ruth, that sounds right, it has to be Ruth.
Ruth – and this is my story developing, doubling – Ruth who, having managed against the odds to build a new life for herself – a second marriage, another child – is brought face to face with the cruel possibility that that daughter, too, might have disappeared. And so it is with Ruth that the novel begins. This is Chapter One.
The scenes I remember liking in the novel, the ones I enjoyed writing – and reading, afterwards – are those when, just for a moment or two, Heather appears to Ruth, as real as if she were still alive. There than gone. Her presence sending a shiver along my spine.
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. Here’s a sample from ‘Christmas Day’:
soon they will shuffle on their coats and shoes and make their way through the quiet streets to early morning mass
It is descriptive, patient and redolent of the slowness of the aged. It has an elegiac quality, both to do with the approaching end of the couple’s lives and the felt out-of-date-ness of church-going. Elsewhere in this poem this mood is enacted in memories of the daughter before she flew the nest, of the mother when she was well, of the lost certainties of life, a time when prayers might mean something. This poem takes its place against other elegiac poems, poems about love, loss, belief, truth and death along with a couple of ekphrastic poems and several finding their origin in jazz.
Another fine poem is ‘Monk at the 5 Spot’. There are two separate threads to this poem: one involving legendary jazz musicians in performance, the other some famous listeners. Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane leap off the page in Harvey’s enactment, their closely observed behaviour culminating in a marvellous image for Monk:
… an angular arpeggio which calls to mind a man stumbling headlong down a flight of stairs, never quite losing his balance
Meanwhile poet Frank O’Hara is at a table with his friends, talking, laughing, drinking, apparently unstoppable. The poem ends with the two threads brought together:
[a] final double handed chord, so sudden, so emphatic, that the crowd, almost as one, catches its breath and even Frank O’Hara is stunned into silence.
The music and O’Hara stop, the poem ends.
To my mind ‘The Curve’, which makes reference to Bridget Riley’s sequence of that name, does exactly what an ekphrastic poem should do – responds rather than describes – you don’t need the painting to enjoy the poem. In this poem Riley’s abstract sequence brings to the narrator’s mind a suburban street evoked as a canyon, an absent daughter ‘dreaming of becoming seventeen’, a train journey in which a painting is briefly returned to and brought in as metaphor:
the light oscillating on the water’s surface patterning across the painter’s canvas
There are memories of the beginning and continuation of love and another strong ending:
then you turn and come back to where I’m waiting small shells like keepsakes tight in the palm of your hand.
It’s a stream of consciousness, just the kind of thing that might go through your mind when you look at abstract art.
There are many good things in these poems: memories as ghosts in ‘Voyage’, the slow build up of the extended metaphor in ‘Bailey’s Mistake (Again)’, the discussion of epitaphs in the eponymous poem, the way Harvey can condense meaning, for example, in ‘The US Botanical Gardens’:
… I break small leaves into the palm of my hand; yarrow, for internal bleeding, foxglove for the muscles of the heart’.
These are real plants to be found in the Botanical Gardens, with a historic symbolic meaning but they stand also directly for the narrator’s own emotional situation (and perhaps for the bodily state of the loved one).
I began with a reference to Harvey’s measured style. Occasionally the close control wavers and the poetry meanders into something prose-like, where too much is said, as in ‘Lester Young’, but this is a minor complaint.
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.
Exactly why my father opted to join the Auxiliary Fire Service [that’s him, the handsome one, third from the left] was never clear. To me, at least. The National Service (Armed Forces) Act was passed into law in September, 1939, at the outbreak of the war, making all men between the ages of 18 to 41 liable for conscription. [My father would have been 32.] Exemptions could be made for medical reasons or for those engaged in ‘reserved’, or vital, occupations, such as prison warders, police officers, lighthouse keepers – and those serving in the Fire Service. It could be that, while still doing something important for the war effort, he wanted to avoid being sent overseas; I had been born some nine months beforehand and perhaps he didn’t like the idea of leaving my mother and me alone if it could be avoided. He might even have thought the Fire Service less potentially dangerous than the armed forces; there was no one, presumably, to warn him about the terrors of the Blitz.
The perils of responding to nightly bombing raids – in common with most men of his generation – was something he would never discuss. But what did become clear was that in many ways the years my father spent in the Fire Service were the best years of his life – for the camaraderie, the good humour, the excitement and, I dare say, the sharing of danger.
Blue Watch is, in some ways, an exploration of what those experiences, that time, might have been like for him, filtered through the adventures of a fifteen-year old Fire Brigade messenger – father and son. Initially published, in translation, by Editions Syros in France as part of their teenage fiction series, this English edition, published by Troika, and aimed, primarily, but not, I hope, exclusively, at 12-16 year old readers, has been quite considerably rewritten, extended, and, I like to think, improved.
Here’s a taster from the opening chapter …
It was one of those nights when it seemed as if the whole of London was on fire.
What little cloud cover there’d been earlier had cleared and over two hundred enemy bombers had made their way across the Channel by moonlight, with close to a hundred fighters in support. At first it had seemed as if, yet again, their main target would be the docks either side of the Thames, but tonight the devastation spread far and wide.
In the north of the city, three or so miles from the centre, the streets were dark, the air thick with smoke and the smell of burning. Head down, Jack Riley swung his Fire Brigade messenger’s bike hard left and right, avoiding the smouldering debris that lay scattered across the street. His objective was still some way off: a group of warehouses by the canal close to Kings Cross station, where units from B District were fighting to bring a fierce blaze under control.
Like most nights since the Blitz had started, the phone lines were down and the only way of conveying messages securely from the Brigade control rooms to units in the field was by messenger.
On his first day the section leader at Kentish Town fire station, where Jack was based, had gripped his wrist and turned his arm sharply, pointing at the vein clearly visible beneath the skin.
‘See this, Jack? This vein? That’s you. Our lifeline. You and the other messengers, you’re the ones who keep it flowing. Lose that and the whole service fails to function. We die. People die. You understand?’
Jack nodded. ‘Yes, sir.’
People die. The words burned into his brain.
The officer’s grip tightened. ‘You won’t let me down?’
Jack was shaking as he turned away.
That was two months ago. A lifetime, or so it seemed.
As Jack reached the crown of the road, pedalling fast, the loud roar of an explosion shook the air around him, lifting his bike off the ground and hurling him sideways, a flash of light outlining the skeletons of two towering iron gas holders, stark against the sky.
Shaken, he pushed himself up onto his hands and knees.
His regulation issue trousers were torn and there would be bruises, he knew, along with the grazes to his hands – but cuts and bruises were a given, a nuisance to be shrugged off and forgotten, along with the pain – what Jack was most concerned about was the state of his bike.
Fortunately, the damage was slight: the chain had come loose and the front wheel showed some faint sign of buckling, but nothing more. Chain quickly back in place, Jack pushed off and was away, head down into a hail of flying embers.
More than a dozen fire appliances – heavy units and trailer pumps for the most part – were ranged along the cobbled street that ran behind the threatened buildings. Jack lay his bike down and hurried between the maze of hosepipes criss-crossing the ground.
‘Senior fire officer,’ he called to the fireman on the nearest pump. ‘Where’ll I find him?’
The man pointed aloft, towards the turntable ladder that was reaching up towards the heart of the fire.