“Blue Watch” my father & the Blitz

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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.

John's Dad AFS

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.

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.

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Me, wearing my dad’s Fire Service Cap

You can read an excerpt from Chapter One here …

Blue Watch is available from Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham
Owl Bookshop, Kentish Town, north London
Waterstones 
Amazon

The Clapping Song … *

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.

Plainsong
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

 

William McIlvanney, 1936-2015

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William McIlvanney

My Italian translator, friend, musician and frequent collaborator, Seba Pezzani, asked if I would contribute to an article he was writing about the Scottish author, William McIlvanney, and I was pleased to agree.

Here’s the link to Seba’s article – useful if you want to brush up your Italian … and below is my little contribution …

The first time I met William McIlvanney was at a crime writing festival in Frontignan in the south of France, a country where we were both published by François Guerif, chef of Rivages Noir. I’d already read much of McIlvanney’s work, of course, the crime novels featuring Glasgow police detective Jack Laidlaw, as well as other titles, including ‘Docherty’ and ‘The Big Man’.

McIlvanney didn’t often attend these kind of events and I think only his long-standing friendship with François had brought him all the way from Scotland. As can often be the case when people are known more from their absence than their presence, rumours about him abounded: he was a heavy drinker, hard to get along with and possessed of a strong if not violent temper. The man I met could hardly have been more different; quite softly spoken, sober, charming even – handsome, certainly. We were staying a little way out of Frontignan and each evening we were there, at Willie’s suggestion – Willie, that was what he insisted I call him- we would stroll along to the café at the end of the street and sit at one of the corner tables outside, talking of this, that and everything else over a glass of single malt. I think it was Abalour.

Ian Rankin has made no secret of the fact that Laidlaw and McIlvanney’s portrait of Glasgow were a strong and direct influence on his character Rebus and his portrayal of Edinburgh. In my case, the influence was less direct, but no less strong. I’d also read – at around the same time, though they’d been published earlier – the Martin Beck novels of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, which, in a not dissimilar way to McIlvanney, used the medium of crime fiction and the figure of the detective as instruments to open up and explore contemporary urban life. Resnick and Nottingham were not so far away.

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From the Po to the Trent (via Mississippi)

So, back from Northern Italy, the land of a million churches, thirty plus degrees of heat and long lazy lunches, many memories to the good (and mosquito bites the size of golf balls to match). Two days spent happily in the company of Norwegian crime writer Kjell Ola Dahl, Danish author Morten Brask and Swedish record producer Haken Olsson together with his wife, Monica, all under the auspices of Seba Pezzani and the dal Mississippi al Po festival of music and literature, held this year in the beautiful surroundings of the Archaeological Park in Travo, the main stage surrounded by green hills on all sides.

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After listening to Kjell, Morten and Haken discuss the influences, good and bad – mostly, it seemed, good – of  American culture on its Scandinavian counterpart, it was my turn to be interviewed about the Resnick series in general and the third novel, Cutting Edge, in particular. Translated by Seba, Cutting Edge is to be published in Italy by Foschi Editore this October, under the title Anestesia LetaleLethal Anaesthesia.

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As yet bereft of its cover, there were copies of the novel available and since these were marked as not for sale, they sold like the proverbial banned cakes. Smart move!

From the left, me, Morten, Kjell, Hakan & Monica
From the left, me, Morten, Kjell, Hakan & Monica

Just a few days to reacclimatise, before heading up to Nottingham for the official launch of These Seven, previewed a week or so back at the Lowdham Book Festival. There will be toasts and speeches, doubtless, at the reception in the grand surroundings of the Council House, and before that, if all goes according to plan, a mass flash mob reading outside. Let’s hope the weather is kind.

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You can read more about These Seven and its connections to Nottingham’s bid to become a Unesco City of Literature in this article from the marvellous Left Lion here 

 

Books & Blues Italian Style

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Several years ago, Seba Pezzani – writer, translator, musician, facilitator – invited me to take part in Dal Mississippi al Po, the festival of American music – largely blues, with a strong country accent – and American or American-influenced fiction, held in and around Piacenza in Northern Italy.

I had a great time, sharing meals around a large communal table, the days punctuated by espressos standing at one or other café counter; the pleasures of hanging out with American author and guitarist James Sallis, whom I already knew a little, and with the Norwegian writer (and sheep farmer) Kjell Ola Dahl, whom I was meeting for the first time and who has since become a good friend.

Excellent, then, to be invited back this July, to preview the publication in Italy this October by Foschi Editore of the third Resnick novel, Cutting Edge, in a translation by Seba himself.  Two days in northern Italy, two days journeying there and back by train.

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