Sherma Batson 1957 – 2017

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My friend Sherma Batson died suddenly on Sunday, 8th January, at the age of 59.

Active for all of her adult life in the community life and local politics of Stevenage, the town where she lived from an early age, Sherma served as Borough Councillor for 12 years  and was awarded an MBE for her services to the community in 2008, being appointed a Deputy Lieutenant for Hertfordshire the following year. In 2014/15, she became the town’s first black, female mayor.

I first got to know Sherma when she was a student in one of my English classes in Stevenage in the 1970s, self-confident and aware and, when she deemed it necessary, outspoken. A younger version of the powerhouse she was to become. I remember her dragging me on to the dance floor at a school disco, waving away any faint protests with the assertion that Stevie Wonder was too good to be allowed to go to waste.

We became friends and met regularly if infrequently over the years – when I asked her advice about my characterisation of a black policewoman in a novel I was writing, she informed me in no uncertain terms of my failings – and I could only stand back and admire from a distance the drive and single-mindedness she brought to those issues of equality, health and diversity that were, to her, so important.

It was a real pleasure and an honour to have known her and to have been counted among her friends. It is no platitude to say that she will deeply missed – by her husband, Howard, and her daughter, Ahisha – and by the many people who worked alongside her and came to know her.

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Bits of a Writer’s Life …

On Friday evening, April 22nd, I was at the Poetry Society’s Poetry Café in Covent Garden as one of the guest readers in this month’s Fourth Friday, a long running evening of poetry and music organised by Dix Schofield and the indefatigable Hylda Sims. I’ve read there before and it’s always been enjoyable, but for some reason – the range and quality of the readers from the floor, perhaps? – this seemed an especially rewarding evening. The other guest reader, Danielle Hope, whom I knew from the days when I published her work in Slow Dancer magazine, was sharp and funny, and Liz Simcock – now back solo after several years of working with a small band – was in fine form.

4th Friday

My daughter, Molly Ernestine, had come along and we took the opportunity to air what has become our poetry party piece, a shared reading of the poem, “Hollywood Canteen”, which I wrote some good few years back when my older daughter, Leanne, was living and working as a dancer in Paris – the central section of the poem, the section Molly read, and which Leanne herself used to read – being more or less a transcription of Leanne’s words on the occasion in question, when we’d just come away from watching Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams.

Here’s the poem …

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN

It seems too much of a cliché
almost, to tell it, but there,
up on the counter
of the Hollywood Canteen,
there among the images
of Marilyn, James Dean,
she pushes back her plate,
lights her cigarette
and right over the juke box
she says, nineteen:

I hate films that end like that,
stuck out on the porch
in the middle of nowhere
watching the sun go down –
as though it could ever happen,
Jesus! It’s like your parents
bringing you up to believe
it’s possible to tell the truth
out there, when one minute
after they let you out into the world,
you can see everyone else is lying.
I mean, you just try being nice out there,
just try it! You won’t last five minutes
and I’ll tell you this, I haven’t met
a single person since I was sixteen
who wasn’t a bitch underneath
and I haven’t got the strength
to stand up to them, not on my own,
and that’s what I am.
And happiness, that’s a laugh
and one thing I am sure of,
it isn’t sitting out on a dumb porch
in the middle of Iowa, staring
into some technicolour sunset.

She turned her head aside
and closed her eyes
and when she did that
she was as beautiful
as I had ever seen her.

What do you think, she said,
the pancakes with the maple syrup?
You think we should have the ice cream
as well? Maybe the chocolate sauce?

Seeing my face, she smiled.

The following day Molly and I took the train up to Stevenage for an afternoon event at the library, as part of Hertfordshire Libraries Litfest 16. Aside from a  few occasions when Notts County were the visitors to the Stevenage F.C. ground on Woodhall Way, this was, I think, the first time I’d been back in the town since I spent several years teaching in the English department of Stevenage Girls’ School in early 1970s.

The plan was to give an overview of how I managed to kick start a writing career and then keep it on track from its starting point in 1975, when my first book – Avenging Angel, written at the kitchen table at my flat on Webb Rise during my last year of teaching – was published; then, after some Q&A, to concentrate on the Resnick books, in particular Darkness, Darkness, and the challenges  in adapting that novel for the stage, which is one of projects I’m currently working on.

While Molly ran through the slides before we started, there was just time for me to completely, and embarrassingly, fail to recognise one of my former fell0w teachers, as well as a former next-door neighbour and three former pupils, two from my A level English class, one of whom had passed, and one failed – even at this remove I felt responsible, though it hadn’t stopped her from becoming a teacher herself in due course.

A slight hiccup in the technical department at the beginning – the computer froze and slides we’d checked previously refused to appear – gave me the opportunity to begin the session with an unplanned reading of my Chet Baker poem, which I was pleased to do as it allowed me to dedicate it to one of the long-time stalwarts of the British jazz scene, sadly no longer playing, bassist Pete Blannin, who was with his wife in the audience. I remember seeing Pete with the great Humphrey Lyttelton Band in the early 1960s, as well as with groups led by the likes of Tubby Hayes and Tony Kinsey. It’s a bonus for me that he likes crime fiction.

IT problem solved, things moved along smoothly; there was a good, attentive crowd – I’d guess around 50 – and no shortage of interesting, even challenging questions. My good friend, Sherma Batson – another former pupil, now county councillor and recently Mayor of Stevenage – taking me to task for killing off one of my running characters, Lynn Kellogg, thus giving away the plot of Cold in Hand in a single swoop. But never mind. Friends still.

Just before the end, Molly left her spot at the desk, where she’d been working the laptop, top join me in a reading of one of the scenes from the Darkness, Darkness play script – its first public airing. As I pointed out, despite working in various other forms, I had never, up to the present, written anything for the theatre, my only experience in that area having been putting on plays when I was still teaching, something that gave me a great deal of pleasure at the time, not least for the large numbers of students it was possible involve, and still gave pleasure in retrospect. At Stevenage, I remember with particular fondness a version of Alice in Wonderland, with a soundtrack ranging from Bach and Vivaldi to Miles Davis and Jefferson Airplane, and Split, a play about a teenage girl with schizophrenia that was built up almost entirely from improvisation. Those were the days!

That I could even begin to venture into such areas was almost entirely due to my great friend, the late Tom Wild, a wonderful and talented man who died far too young; seeing the work that Tom did with secondary modern children in Yorkshire, often using improvisation as a way into Brecht and Shakespeare was an inspiration for me and, I’m sure, for the pupils involved – I doubt if they will ever f0rget it.

Here, finally, is a little Stevenage Girls’ School memorabilia [no flash programmes in those days!]

Alice 1

4th Friday 1

Split 1

Split 2

 

All the News that’s Fit …

Following up on my previous post outlining the next few events I’m set to take part in, here’s a really nice piece from The Comet which touches on the Resnick series as a whole and Darkness, Darkness in particular, and which, being a local paper, concentrates upon the years I spent teaching English & Drama in Stevenage.

What you see below is quite small print, so please click on the link above for easier reading. And if you’re considering joining me for tea & cake this coming Saturday afternoon, the details are below The Comet feature.

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The Year Ahead

Belated Happy New Year! Here’s what it has in store for me so far …

EVENTS

Thursday, 21st January. 8.00 – 11.00pm
WORDS & JAZZ
Vortex Jazz Club / Vortex Downstairs
11 Gillett Square, London, N16 8AZ
This is a lively and well-attended Poetry & Jazz event, hosted each month by Nicki Heinen. I shall be reading along with three other poets: Richard Scott, Ann Macaulay & Will Roychowdhuri, & music will come from Rachael Cohen (sax) with Mark Lewandowski (bass).
Details & Info: http://www.vortexjazz.co.uk/event/words-jazz/

Thursday, 25th February, evening.
PIGHOG POETRY
Redroaster Coffee House, St. James Street, Brighton BN2 1RE.
Another regular and lively Poetry venue where I shall be reading with Chrissy Williams and poets from the floor.
Details & Info: www.facebook.com/Pighog

Saturday, 19th March. 10.30am – 12.30pm
BROMLEY HOUSE LIBRARY
Angel Row, Nottingham, NG1 6HL
As part of the Library’s 200th Anniversary Celebrations, crime author and Nottingham native Daniel Pembrey will be interviewing me about my writing, the Resnick books and their Nottingham connections, notably Darkness, Darkness (2014) the final book in the Resnick series.
Details & Info: enquiries@bromleyhouse.org

Saturday, 2nd April
DEAL2NOIR
The Landmark Centre, 129 High Street, Deal, CT14 6BB
I shall be one of a number of writers taking part in this one day festival of crime writing near the Kent Coast, organised by Susan Moody.
Details & Info: https://dealnoir.wordpress.com

Tuesday, 12th April, 7.30 – 9.00pm
NOTTINGHAM CIVIC SOCIETY
St Barnabas Cathedral Hall, Wellington Circus, Nottingham, NG1
Illustrated talk about my 40 plus years as a professional writer, including the various connections between my work and the city of Nottingham and the surrounding area.
Details & Info: http://www.nottinghamcivicsociety.org.uk

Friday, 22nd April, evening.
FOURTH FRIDAY
The Poetry Café, 22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H PBP
This is a monthly poetry & music event hosted by Hylda Sims. I shall be reading alongside one other poet, yet to be named, and music will be from singer-songwriter Liz Simcock. There are also readings from the floor.
Details & Info: https://fourthfriday.wordpress.com

Saturday, 23rd April, 2.30pm
HERTS LITFEST
Stevenage Library, Southgate, Stevenage, SG1 1HD
To celebrate World Book Day I shall be returning to the town where I taught English and Drama in the early 1970s to give an illustrated talk, My Life as a Jobbing Writer – From Blackboard to Best Seller.
Afternoon Tea for all and a free signed book for the first 25 ticket holders arriving that afternoon.
Details & Info: 01992 555947 http://www.hertsdirect.org/libraries

Friday, 3rd June, Evening
DERBY BOOK FESTIVAL
The Cube, Déda, Chapel Street, Cathedral Quarter, Derby, DE1 3GU
Poetry & Jazz with the band Blue Territory
Details & Info: http://www.derbybookfestival.co.uk

In addition to which, the band and I will be playing three Nottinghamshire Libraries poetry & jazz gigs in October, venues and dates to be confirmed.

POETRY

With poetry in mind, I have two new poems in the new issue of The North
http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/north-menu

and one forthcoming – March? – in the online magazine, London Grip New Poetry
http://londongrip.co.uk/category/poetry/

FICTION

As if to prove that old pulp stories never die, the four Scott Mitchell crime novels I wrote for Sphere Books in the mid-1970s – Amphetamines & Pearls, The Geranium Kiss, Junkyard Angel & Neon Madman – are to be republished in the States with a new introduction, in both paperback and Ebook format, by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press.

Distribution will be through Open Road Media, who have a nice little video on their web site, showing me walking on Hampstead Heath, sitting in the garden, and expounding on the writing of crime fiction from the comfort of my settee.
http://www.openroadmedia.com/contributor/john-harvey/

RADIO

Towards the end of last year, my dramatisations of two Inspector Chen crime novels by Qui Xiaolong – A Loyal Character Dancer & When Red is Black – were broadcast on BBC Radio 4, along with a third – Death of a Red Heroine – adapted by Joy Wilkinson. Three more books have now been commissioned, with Joy this time adapting two and myself the third – A Case of Two Cities – in which the Inspector visits America.

THEATRE

Together with Jack McNamara, Artistic Director of New Perspectives Theatre, I’m working on a dramatisation of Darkness, Darkness, the 12th & final Resnick novel, for Nottingham Playhouse. Details soon!

Whew! …

 

(Return of) The Random Playlist

Here it is again, after absolutely no requests from anyone … [though I’m told, once in a while, the odd individual has been inspired to delve down into his or her collection or go looking for stuff on the internet] … the first dozen tracks to spring out of my iPod set to random shuffle while wandering on the Heath, slightly heat-bedazzled, today Friday 3rd July …

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  • Durango : John Stewart,  from Cannons in the Rain
  • Blues for Alice : Roland Kirk, from We Free Kings
  • I Loves You Porgy : Miles Davis, from Porgy & Bess
  • She : Gram Parsons, from GP
  • Is This What You Wanted : Leonard Cohen, from New Skin for Old Ceremony
  • Central Reservation : Beth Orton, from Central Reservation
  • All of Me : Lester Young, from Lester and Teddy
  • That’s My Home : Humphrey Lyttelton, from Humph Swings Out
  • Cocaine Blues : Rambling Jack Elliott, from South Coast
  • Love Vibration : Josh Rouse, from 1972
  • That Old Feeling : Louis Armstrong, from Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
  • It’s Getting Better : Mama Cass, from The Best of the Mamas & the Papas

One thing about shuffling music around this way, the sometimes neat, more usually incongruous connections it makes between one piece and another, is the memories it can throw up about where you first heard a certain song or album. [A thought that comes all the more readily to me now, I’m sure, because of the exhibition of George Shaw’s paintings I saw yesterday – more of which, I’m sure, in a day or two.]

But the John Stewart, released in 1973, I would have first heard at the house of my late friend and co-author, Laurence James whom I mentioned recently, an album – aside from The Phoenix Concerts Live, arguably Stewart’s best – which was rarely off the stereo in the ensuing years. As my older daughter, Leanne, once said of Stewart’s voice, and I paraphrase, it was there as a comforting presence throughout my childhood.

Kirk’s We Free Kings was first released in 1961 and it would have been later that I bought a copy, towards the end of the sixties, and ordered, I’m sure, from the lamented Peter Russell’s Hot Record Store in Plymouth. We were living in Andover at the time, in one of a newly-built row of council houses (you remember those?) on the edge of the town and ours to rent thanks to my new job as Head of English at Harrow Way Secondary Modern. [Kirk I’d been thrilled to see in London, I think at the old Marquee club, an experience that I’ve written about in the poem, “You Did It! You Did It!”, which might well find its way into a blog post soon.]

The Gram Parsons, GP,  was one of the two great albums he made with James Burton on guitar and Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, Return of the Grievous Angel being the other, and I came to it in a slightly bizarre fashion. One of the girls in the school where I was teaching in Stevenage had been to see Gary Glitter at the Locarno the previous evening and in the interval a number of disparate LPs had been given away for free, one of them Return of the Grievous Angel. No fan of country music, she sold it to me for £1.00 next day. I took it home, played it, went up to London that weekend and bought its companion.

Quite a few evenings in the mid-sixties – far too many if my sad A level results are to be believed – were spent at the 100 Cub in Oxford Street, the Humphrey Lyttelton Club as it was in those days. Humph Swings Out was a 10″ LP, one of the first albums I owned, and features the seven piece band I would have listened to – danced to – at the club on many occasions: Bruce Turner on alto, John Picard on trombone, Humph on trumpet, Johnny Parker, piano, Freddy Legon, guitar, Jim Bray, bass and either Eddie Taylor or Stan Greig behind the drums. Little sign here of the more traditional style or repertoire that would have predominated a year or so earlier; this was well into, as we called it back then, the mainstream – based around the ensembles and riffs of the 40s and early 50s, more Kansas City than New Orleans.  “That’s My Home”, the track here, with Humph in clear Armstrong mode, harks back, in fact, more than most.

The most recent track comes from Josh Rouse’s album 1972, which stems, paradoxically, from 2003.
Molly Ernestine and I went to see Rouse earlier this year at Kings Place. He took time to warm up, the sound wasn’t always as clear as it could have been, but the audience were firmly on his side – many of them singing along from the get-go – and by the end Rouse was enjoying himself and we were on our feet with the rest, surrendering, as Brinsley Schwarz would have sung, to the rhythm in earnest. Or in my case,  swayed my arthritic hips as  best I could.

 

My Life as a Jobbing Writer: Beginnings

Somewhere back in 1974, when I was still teaching English & Drama at a secondary school in Stevenage, my friend, the late Laurence James, who, since our days at Goldsmiths College, had forged for himself a successful career as a writer of what we both were happy to call pulp fiction, suggested I might help him out of a bind, and do myself a favour at the same time, by stepping temporarily into his shoes and writing the 50,000 word novel about Hells Angels his publishers were expecting.

Strange, but true.

Laurence had been writing a series of biker books for New English Library under the name of Mick Norman but at that moment in time was too busy with other projects to give NEL another – and, even though I’d never actually written any fiction, he thought I might just be up to the task. I taught English and I read a lot. Surely I could write?

He gave me his Mick Normans to read, explaining they were close to westerns but with bikes instead of horses.[We were to write a good number of westerns together later.] I went out to W H Smith (this is true) and bought a little handbook on Hell’s Angels and their ways. (Oh, and I forgot to mention this, at the time I was the proud owner of a Honda 50.) Laurence helped me put together an outline; read my first few chapters with an editor’s pen in hand, and I was on my way …

The result was a 128 page paperback, Avenging Angel, by one Thom Ryder, published by New English Library in March, 1975.

avenging

 

So how did I get from there to where I am 40 years later, a hundred plus titles under my belt and a proud recipient of a couple of honorary doctorates of my writing. One way to find out, should you be in the vicinity, would be to pop along to Westminster Library on Wednesday next, July 8th, when all – or some – will be revealed.

John Harvey - My life as a jobbing author-page0001