All those Westerns, people sometimes comment, after browsing through my web site for the first time – the ones you wrote in the 70s & 80s – churning them out the way you must have done – what are they like? Which partly means, unsaid, are they any good?
I can’t – or won’t – answer the second, unasked, question – everyone to their own taste, after all – other than to say they had their readers at the time and, for a smaller, perhaps more selective number, thanks to Piccadilly Publishing, they still do.
But what are they like … ?
It’s easiest perhaps to answer that in relation to the 10 book Hart the Regulator series, the only one not co-written with either Laurence James or Angus Wells. Co-written in this context meaning that after fairly brief but enjoyable discussions, remembering old movies and listening to the likes of John Stewart and Guy Clark, we went off and wrote alternate books in whatever series we were currently working on. Generally, more than one series at a time.
The Hart books tend to begin with a detailed description of landscape, vast and wide, cinematic- an establishing shot – the camera, as it were, pulled back before focussing down, offering a sense of place into which the central character rides and, hopefully, the reader is drawn. This is the opening to the sixth novel, ‘Ride the Wide Country’.
The endings, the final page or pages, are most likely to move in close, the action bloody and abrupt, the mood closer to that of film noir – a kind of emptiness, a sickness almost, that the central character must carry with him from book to book, from one episode to another. These are the closing paragraphs of ‘Ride the Wide Country.’
My friend and fellow writer, Angus Wells, died sixteen years ago on the 11th April. He would have been 79.
I first met Angus through Laurence James, with whom I’d shared a student house in New Cross, S .E. London when we were students at Goldsmiths College. While I went into teaching, Laurence began a career that revolved around books and writing: initially a book seller, he moved into publishing, becoming a commissioning editor at New English Library, where he built up a notable list of science fiction and fantasy titles, before opiting to stay home and write – a highly successful decision, with more than a hundred and fifty mostly paperback titles to his credit before ill health forced him to retire.
It was Laurence who, aware that I was becoming restless with my role as teacher, talked me into trying my hand as a paperback writer, and who, several years later, persuaded Angus to follow the same course – although not, thankfully, before he had commissioned me to write for Sphere Books the first of four crime novels featuring Scott Mitchell – the toughest private eye – and the best. Simpler times.
It was clear from my first meetings with Angus that we shared a number of things in common – the most prominent being a love of western movies, ranging from early John Ford to Sam Peckinpah, as well as the European ‘classics;, and of music with an American country feel by the likes of Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and John Stewart. We worked together on several series of paperback westerns – two of which, Peacemaker and Gringos, are now in the process of being reissued as e-books by Piccadilly Publishing.
When we were both living in London, Angus and I frequented the original Mean Fiddler in Harlesden, seeing, amongst others, Van Morrison, Maria Muldaur, John Hiatt and the aforementioned Jerry Jeff; a habit that, after we found ourselves in Nottingham, would continue at the sadly departed Old Vic – on one memorable occasion finding ourselves just about the only two males in the packed audience for visiting Americans Tret Fure and Chris Williamson, who were clearly bemused but not unpleased to hear us singing along heartedly to the chorus of Tret’s “Tight Black Jeans”.
When the market for westerns faded, Angus had considerable success in the worlds of epic fantasy – notably the Raven series, which he co-wrote with Rob Holdstock and his own Books of the Kingdoms. When this market, too, began to fade, his writing lost direction and, accordingly, he lost confidence, and, although we would meet for the occasional meal or to see a movie at the Broadway Cinema, he become something of a recluse. On the occasion of his death I was pleased to dedicate a seat to him in the cinema’s main auditorium – adjacent to that of a certain Charlie Resnick. There they are – Screen One, C5 & C6.
Over the last month or so, a small flurry of people (more than two, less that five) have asked about the influences, if any, of my early reading – that’s somewhere between Alison Uttley’s Hare Joins the Home Guard and the cadet edition of The Cruel Sea – on my early writing. Always supposing there to have been some early writing, essays on the pessimism of Thomas Hardy and humour in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers aside.
Well, yes, there were all those westerns, of course, their inspiration – aside from various volumes of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Annual – coming from the cinema – everything from Saturday Morning Pictures to a John Ford Season at the National Film Theatre. And there is a brief series of four crime novels featuring Scott Mitchell, the toughest private eye – and the best – originally published by Sphere Books between 1976 and 77, and republished in print and as Ebooks by Mysterious Press/Open Road Media in 2016.
Here follows an extract from the introduction written for these new editions, providing, in part, an answer to those questions about early influences …
Growing up in England in the immediate postwar years and into the 1950s was, in some respects, a drab experience. Conformity ruled. It was an atmosphere of “be polite and know your place.” To a restless teenager, anything American seemed automatically exciting. Movies, music—everything. We didn’t even know enough to tell the real thing from the fake.
The first hard-boiled crime novels I read were written by an Englishman pretending to be American: Stephen Daniel Frances, using the pseudonym Hank Janson, which was also the name of his hero. With titles like Smart Girls Don’t Talk and Sweetheart, Here’s Your Grave, the Janson books, dolled up in suitably tantalizing covers, made their way, hand to hand, around the school playground, falling open at any passage that, to our young minds, seemed sexy and daring. This was a Catholic boys’ grammar school, after all, and any reference to parts of the body below the waist, other than foot or knee, was thought to merit, if not excommunication, at least three Our Fathers and a dozen Hail Marys.
From those heady beginnings, I moved on, via the public library, to another English writer, Peter Cheyney, and books like Dames Don’t Care and Dangerous Curves—which, whether featuring FBI agent Lemmy Caution or British private eye Slim Callaghan, were written in the same borrowed faux American pulp style. But it was Cheyney who prepared me for the real deal.
I can’t remember exactly when I read my first Raymond Chandler, but it would have been in my late teens, still at the same school. Immediately, almost instinctively, I knew it was something special. Starting with The Big Sleep—we’d seen the movie with Bogart and Bacall—I read them all, found time to regret the fact there were no more, then started again. My friends did the same. When we weren’t kicking a ball around, listening to jazz, or hopelessly chasing girls, we’d do our best to come up with first lines for the Philip Marlowe sequel we would someday write. The only one I can remember now is “He was thirty-five and needed a shave.”
I would have to do better. The Scott Mitchell series was my attempt to do exactly that.
The hot summer of ’76, the one everyone remembers; the summer, in the short life of my fictional private eye, Scott Mitchell, between Amphetamines and Pearls and The Geranium Kiss; the summer I drove my green Citroen 2CV down to the south west, to Totleigh Barton, a sixteenth century manor house close to the village of Sheepwash and the River Torridge that was the Arvon Foundation’s first residential writing centre; a week in which to get to know one’s fellow students, share the cooking, lean on the tutors for advice and swop pulp fiction for poetry.
I arrived before most students on the first day and combing the house for the best of the shared bedrooms still available, I came across one in which the occupant, having claimed his space, had set out the small library of books he’d brought with him in a neat line. I can’t remember now what they were, but one quick glance was enough to suggest their owner might be an interesting person with whom to share.
Alan Brooks turned out to be an American temporarily living in London, a rural conservationist and a fine poet, someone who has remained a good and close friend. It was with Alan that the idea for Slow Dancer magazine was formed; Alan, after his return to Downest Maine, who became the magazine’s US Editor through its thirty issues.
The covers of the first few – designed by Nadia Stern – will give an idea of the range of poets we were publishing in these early years.
Just as it’s easy to look back on that meeting with Alan Brooks as being of singular importance in that part of my life concerned with the writing and publishing of poetry, so I can point to my attendance in 1993 and again in 1995 at the Community of Writers poetry programme at Olympic Valley – Squaw Valley as it was then called – in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada, as being of great significance on both counts. In terms of my writing, through example and through suggestion and discussion, I was encouraged to vary the style in which I’d been writing, experiment a little, enjoy the feel of language, rhythm, find subjects in the natural world. In the afternoons we would listen to the staff poets such as Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Brenda Hillman reading and talking about their poetry, and it was Robert Hass’s work which affected me most strongly. I can still remember the first occasion on which I heard him read – poems which moved seamlessly between the abstract and the deeply personal, which incorporated philosophical ideas alongside close observations of the natural world, while taking in references to the films of Kurosawa and the blues of Mississippi John Hurt. All of this without missing a beat or losing for a moment the listener’s attention.
The mornings were spent in small workshop sessions headed by those same poets, during which we would read and discuss the poems we had somehow found space and time to write the previous day. Every day. Poems that you left outside the door to be collected in the early hours and photocopied in time for the morning seminar. I doubt I’ve been much happier.
The Community of Writers has recently published Why to These Rocks, an anthology of poems written over a period of 50 years by staff and participant poets and edited by Lisa Alvarez, in which I’m proud to have a short poem – just five lines – Out of Silence – which I think, short as it is, captures something of the essence of the time I spent so happily far from home.
Out of Silence
How the light diffuses round house corners; redwood walls, the breaking colour of packed earth, ochre in the mouth.
The red woodpecker testily chiselling sap from a small ash the only sound in the valley.
Each one hour episode is broadcast at 10.00am, repeated at 15.00, and available later on BBC Sounds. Produced by David Hunter, it features Tom Georgeson as DI Charlie Resnick, Sean Baker, Paul Bazely and Kate Eaton as his fellow coppers, and John Simm as the young hospital doctor, Tim Fletcher.
A quick reflection glimpsed in the glass door before him and Fletcher turned his head in time for the downward sweep of the blade, illuminated in a fast curve of orange light.
*All five BBC radio dramatisations – Wasted Years, Cutting Edge, Slow Burn, Cheryl & Bird of Paradise – are available as an audio download from Penguin. 507 minutes total.
* I’m delighted to report that the first edition of Aslant [Shoestring Press, 2019] featuring my poems alongside my daughter Molly’s photographs, has now sold out and a reprint is imminent.
“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.” Robin Thomas : The High Window Press
Copies will be available from all the usual sources, but I’d ask you to consider ordering from your local independent bookshop, in my case Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town https://owlbookshop.co.uk (close enough for me to nip in and sign or add a dedication if that’s your fancy). Alternatively and not exactly local, I’d recommend the excellent Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham. https://fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk
* More generally I’m pleased to report that although, my blog and the occasional Monday morning Twitter poem aside, I might have retired, such is not the case with my agent nor my publishers. Audio rights to the Frank Elder books have recently been sold to Denmark and Norway and Donmay Publishing continue to bring out beautifully designed hardback editions of the Resnick novels in Taiwan. Almost everything in the backlist seems to be available one way or another, as ebooks or in print, including a bunch of westerns from Piccadilly Publishing and some very early crime fiction from The Mysterious Press/Open Road.
* And finally, let me put in a plea for what will almost certainly be my last piece of full-length fiction, Blue Watch [Troika, 2019]. Set in London during the Blitz and dedicated to the memory of my father, who served in the Auxiliary Fire Service throughout WW2, it was mainly intended for younger teenage readers, but I’ve heard from a growing number of adults who’ve enjoyed it and you might, too. Independent booksellers as above.
It was one of those nights when it seemed as if the whole of London was on fire.
During the years since Payot Rivages published the first Resnick novel – Coeurs Solitaires – Lonely Hearts – in France, I’ve been fortunate in both the depth and breadth of reviews that have appeared there, both in print and on radio. With the publication of Le Corps et l’ame – Body & Soul – in early January, I’ve been well served again. What follows are extracts from three reviews, rendered into English through a shaky combination of Google Translate and my ancient schoolboy French [Advanced level, Failed].
TELERAMA Christine Ferniiot
Thriller writer John Harvey says goodbye to his heroes …
In 2014, in Darkness, Darkness, British writer John Harvey decided to abandon his famous hero, Chief Inspector Charles Resnick. He did not kill him off, preferring to watch his figure blend into the landscape; leaving him on a bench, a cup of coffee in hand, outside Nottingham Town Hall, daydreaming of a recording by Thelonious Monk – an ending suited to his image: melancholy, poetic and discreet. At that time, John Harvey explained that he wanted to devote himself, in a personal capacity, to poetry and jazz. We believed this to be the case, but luckily writers can change their minds. Here he is again, with Le Corps et l’Ame, a new thriller, one last lap in the company of Frank Elder, a retired police officer. This time, the book does sound like a farewell from this major author who began his career in 1976 under several pseudonyms, writing detective novels and westerns.
It was François Guérif, then editor of Rivages/Noir, who enabled French readers to discover John Harvey in 1993 and to follow him for almost thirty years. “Another British writer, the formidable Robin Cook, spoke to me one day about John Harvey, telling me to read Lonely Hearts, the first investigation by his hero Charles Resnick. I immediately loved this character, full of humanity and compassion, but also the elegant writing of John Harvey, very inspired by the jazz he loves.”
…. Consider the title of this novel in its original edition : it is called “Body and Soul”, like the title of a song by Billie Holiday which dates from 1957. ** One of those jazz tunes imbued with melancholy, blues, both sad and beautiful, oscillating between different emotions, leaving you alone facing the sea (as on the front cover), as if, finally, to better understand life, you sometimes had to let it rock you with nostalgia. .
The intimate, beautiful, poetic, musical writing (with many and magnificent references) won me over. It has a “je ne sais quoi” that is sublime. Suffering is faintly present between the lines: it inhabits the novel but is not painful because of the way Elder carries it, certainly like a burden, but it is not allowed to dominate the story, because it is mentioned with discretion, finesse and intelligence. The style is sober, calm, each word (especially in the dialogue) carries meaning.
The author talks about art, the complex links between models and artists; about the difficulties of family relationships when a person has mental health problems; the role of parents, of friends. The whole book is imbued with a bittersweet vibe that charmed me. Like jazz, it captivates you, captivates you, and stays with you for a long time …
**Billie Holiday first recorded “Body & Soul” in 1940. The 1957 recording, with Ben Webster on tenor saxophone, was one of her last.
LIVRESSE DU NOIR LE CORPS ET L’ÂME – NADIA DI PASQUALE – 5 JANVIER 2021
… A dark novel, full of atmosphere where the contrast between the rural landscapes of Cornwall and the urban settings of London is striking. Family relationships are at the heart of this story, the author explores the father-daughter relationship … A father assailed by doubts, devoured by guilt, plagued by demons from the past; a very touching father who tries to reconnect with his vulnerable daughter, a father ready to do anything to defend and protect her.
A very realistic plot, tightly wound in 300 pages, which advances at its own pace and captivates us from start to finish. The construction is rigorous, we oscillate between the meticulous investigation, the procedures, a few well-placed twists and small touches of decor and atmosphere. The characters occupy a central place; John Harvey has the art of searching their souls and complexes with great depth and a beautiful humanity. His pen is very elegant, the style classic while leaving a lot of room for darkness; the dialogue is sharp and subtle.
And then, an unexpected finale, tinged with a certain sadness. Goodbye! I’m happy to have discovered Frank Elder. An excellent reading moment!
For quite a while now, it’s been my habit to begin the year – my reading year – with either Katherine Mansfield or Virginia Woolf, occasionally both: one of Woolf’s novels, most often To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway; two or three of Mansfield’s short stories – ‘The Garden Party’, say, or ‘Prelude’; ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’ or ‘At the Bay’. This time around, everything else being different, I felt like a change. Though nothing radical. Something from roughly the same period, the early 20th century.
England, My England, a collection of ten short stories by D. H. Lawrence, was first published in 1922; the copy that I have – one of Penguin’s uniform edition with tastefully rural photographs by Harri Peccinootti – I bought at Hatchard’s in Piccadilly in 1974. Still a long way from Oradea, which, if you were uncertain, is a university town in the north west of Romania, close to the Hungarian border. But I urge patience. No sooner had I finished reading the second story – ‘Tickets, Please’, which begins with a bravura description of the journey made by a Midlands tram into the industrial countryside and back again: two jostling, skittering 11-line sentences with a pair of shorter sentences applying the brake in between – than I thought the perfect companion for my reprise of Lawrence would be Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, in which he does everything possible not to follow his alleged purpose of writing about Lawrence and ends up writing about him with perception and a great deal of humour. A quote from Lawrence himself, at the beginning of the book, gives us the idea …
“Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.” D. H. Lawrence, 5 September, 1914
The title page of my copy was signed by Geoff – in green ink – matching the cover – with a sprawling dedication which refers to the “many memories … of our Romanian quest … especially of your drumming.” Drumming? Okay, take a step or so back. Try to explain.
In the spring of 1997, I was one of a group of writers setting out on a British Council sponsored visit to the University of Oradea to take part in a three day seminar, an exchange of work and views with Romanian (and, as it turned out, Moldovan) colleagues. Myself and Geoff Dyer aside, our group included the poet George Szirtes, the short story writer, Helen Simpson, and the academic and critic, Valentine Cunningham, who had recently written a very positive review of one of the Resnick novels for the Times Literary Supplement and, I suspect, was behind my inclusion. It was Cunningham, also, who had the trumpet. Have horn, will travel. In this case, aboard BA2894 from Gatwick to Bucharest and hence by well-appointed coach across country to Oradea. If he had known there would be a band on hand at our welcoming dinner, I don’t know – perhaps he took his trumpet with him everywhere on the off chance – but once he had discovered that George Szirtes could play the piano – admittedly only 12 bar blues in the key of, I think, C – and that way back in the early 60s I had played drums in a ‘trad’ jazz band at Goldsmiths College, he had no hesitation in leading us up onto the stage the moment the band announced the interval. What occurred for the next thirty minutes or so is something of a blur – much as it was at the time. All I know is that I performed my basic function of keeping time, with only the occasional cymbal flourish or snare drum paradiddle, and Valentine played some decidedly tasty trumpet.
Could our visit get any better? It could, and did, and one of the highlights was listening to Geoff Dyer read from Out of Sheer Rage, which had me – at the appropriate moments – helpless with laughter.
Amongst the writers whose work I enjoyed discovering were the Romanian poet, Romulus Bucur, and a young Moldovan poet, Julian Fruntasu, and thanks to some financial help from the British Council, I was able, through Slow Dancer Press, to publish their poetry in Britain for the first time. Typeset, of course, in Romanian Bookman Light.
The following year, together with a different group of writers, including the poet and novelist, John Burnside, I was pleased to return to Oradea with copies of the two pamphlets, present them to the poets, and listen to their inaugural reading. My only small sadness on this occasion, no welcoming band, no trumpet, no last chance behind the drums.
There’s nothing like restriction of movement to get you thinking about how badly – having changed trains in York – you want to be sitting again, upfront on the bus taking the winding road from Scarborough to Whitby; or the never-ending train journey that makes each and every stop between Plymouth and its eventual terminus in Penzance. And January being the month Body & Soul is published in France, I could have expected, in more normal times, to have been whisked across to Paris on Eurostar for lunch with my French agent and publisher, with talk of returning later in the year to take part in Noir sur la Ville in Lamballe or Quais du Polar in Lyon.
But, no. Rien. Instead, there are memories of journeys taken, book tours in Sweden and Italy, the UK and the USA.
For a number of years, when the Resnick novels were being published in the States by Henry Holt, they would fly me over and, after several events in New York, where they are based, send me out on the road. More precisely, and before my highly developed fear of flying, in the air. Most visits were short-lived. Someone would be standing at Arrivals with a copy of my latest book in their hand and I’d be whisked off to sign stock at Barnes & Noble et cetera, before being deposited at the hotel and picked up again later and ferried to whichever bookstore I was appearing at that evening. After which, most often, I’d be driven to the airport early the following morning to catch a plane to the next stop on the schedule. It was tiring, it was fun, and I was getting to see far more of the States than I’d ever visited before.
Ferreting through a poorly organised folder labelled Events, I came across the following, a list of venues visited on a book tour I made in 1994, twenty of them.
Generally speaking, events at dedicated crime and mystery bookstores were more successful than those at larger, general stores, and over a number of years I got to know a number of them – and their owners – well and relish the opportunity to make another visit. The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale would be one of those and The Black Orchid another. At Partners in Crime, in New York City, there was always the possibility of at least one other author being present, Larry Block on one occasion, I remember, and Charlotte Carter on another. Michael Connelly dropped in to the Mystery Annex on an evening when, for some reason, I’d decided to read poetry as well as fiction – the story of which is told in his 2011 novel, The Drop.
Now, here we are when planes and trains are out of reach, buses are risky last resorts and visiting my local bookstore – Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town- to chat to Gary, the manager, and browse the shelves, is no longer a possibility – and a visit to Ross Bradshaw and Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham a fantasy
I greatly enjoyed Randall Wright’s film about the artist, Maggi Hambling, Making Love to Paint, that was shown recently on BBC2. Hambling herself has such a strong and idiosyncratic personality and it was fascinating to hear her talk about the constant preparatory work she does in advance of making the paintings themselves. I knew her turbulent sea paintings from an exhibition at the National Gallery, but little of her portraits – some with a nod in the direction of Bacon, others reminding me of Auerbach – all clearly her, strong and deeply felt.
One work of Hambling’s I’m very aware of is Scallop, a large stainless steel sculpture in memory of the composer Benjamin Britain, which is installed, controversially, on the beach in Aldeburgh.
I used the sculpture and the setting in a 2009 novel, Far Cry. The central character, Ruth, has suffered the terrible experience of a daughter, Heather, dying in an accident while on holiday in Cornwall; since then she has done all she can to put her own life back on track: she remarries, and, with her new husband, she has another child, Beatrice. In this chapter from the book, Ruth and Beatrice have taken advantage of the good weather and driven to Aldeburgh for a day out by the sea.
They ate their sandwiches in the lee of one of the numerous fishing huts, keeping a wary eye out for the more predatory of the gulls wheeling and gliding above. A light haze was settling over the further reaches of the sea, so that the horizon had all but disappeared and sea and sky were one. ‘Come on,’ Ruth said, stuffing things back down into the rucksack, ‘there’s something I want to show you.’ From a distance, the steel constructions rising up from the shingle at the north end of the beach looked like giant fans and then, as they drew nearer, like angel wings. ‘What are they?’ Beatrice asked. ‘Wait and then you’ll see.’ The nearer they got, the bigger they became, until they stood some twelve feet high at their tallest point and almost as wide. ‘They’re shells,’ Beatrice said. ‘That’s right, scallop shells.’ ‘What on earth are they doing here?’ ‘An artist designed them, Maggi Hambling. A tribute to Benjamin Britten.’ ‘Who?’ ‘He’s a composer. Was. Used to live near here. A lot of his music was about the sea.’ Beatrice shrugged and pressed her hand against the surface of the iron shell. ‘It’s warm.’ She leaned her face against it and closed her eyes. I love you, Ruth thought. So much. I really do. ‘Look,’ Beatrice said, ‘there’s writing round the top. What does it say?’ ‘Read it.’ ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned.’ ‘It’s from an opera,’ Ruth explained. ‘Peter Grimes.’ ‘By that man?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What does it mean?’ ‘What d’you think?’ Beatrice flapped her hands. ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Do you like it, though? The sculpture?’ ‘It’s okay.’ ‘Some people don’t. People who live here. They’ve poured paint over it and everything. They think it should be taken down or moved.’ ‘That’s stupid.’ Beatrice shielded her eyes. ‘Can we go now?’ Half way on their journey back to the car, Beatrice let go of Ruth’s hand and started lagging behind, head down. ‘Come on,’ Ruth said cheerily. ‘Not far now. We’re nearly there.’ By the time Ruth had reached the beginnings of the town, Beatrice was a good fifty metres adrift. She swung the rucksack down from her back and sat on a bench to wait. When Beatrice caught up she stood, swivelling first on one foot and then the other, looking anywhere but into her mother’s eyes. ‘What’s the matter?’ Ruth asked. No reply. ‘You don’t want to tell me?’ A shake of the head. ‘Come and sit here, then. Let’s just rest for a minute before we get back to the car.’ At first it seemed as if Beatrice was going to stay put, but then, grudgingly, she went and sat beside her mother, close but not close enough to be touching, flip-flops trailing on the ground. ‘Voices that will not be drowned,’ she said eventually. ‘That’s her, isn’t it? Heather. That’s why we came here, because of her. It is, isn’t it?’ ‘Not really, no.’ ‘But you’ve been here before? With her?’ ‘Yes,’ Ruth admitted. ‘To look at that – that scallop thing?’ ‘No, that wasn’t here then. But to Aldeburgh, yes. A long time ago.’ Beatrice turned away, back hunched. ‘Beatrice, don’t … ‘ ‘I hate her,’ Beatrice said. ‘I hate her.’ Ruth reached for her and felt her body stiffen, before she turned, sobbing, and pressed herself against Ruth’s chest. ‘It’s all right,’ Ruth said softly, her face resting close against the top of Beatrice’s head, smelling her little girl smell, the warmth of the sun in her hair. ‘It’s all right,’ she lied.
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.