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.
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.
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