Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Torn From Today's Headlines

A story ripped from today’s headlines. That’s the tag line they use sometimes for a novel that’s especially topical.

But what happens when you unknowingly write a novel that, it turns out, could have been ripped from the current headlines? You’re faced with a dilemma, that’s what.

Next February the fifth Richard Nottingham novel, entitled At the Dying of the Year, will be published. It’s set in late 1733 but there are strong parallels to events that have happened very recently in 2012 – events that occurred after I’d completed the book, I hasten to add. I’m not going to offer any details or even say what events – you’ll have to wait and see, but I will give one hint, that, in the wake of a greater outrage, an allegation was made about the late politician Peter Morrison (I refuse to call anyone Sir or Lord). Enough said. If you want to know more then Google is your friend and follow the trail.

Writing a novel is one thing. It’s a work of the imagination, and the events aren’t even the emotional centre of the novel; they’re the trigger for everything else. But realising that reality goes further than fiction is disturbing. And with the dawning of that fact comes an epiphany: I’d rather keep quiet about the connection than exploit it. I know, I’m writing this blog which is almost a signpost, but no one will remember it come February. Let the fiction stand on its own. Better than that piggyback on what has been hell for some people.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Leeds - An Occupied City

In the Civil War, Leeds was an occupied city. It changed hands several times in the fighting, finally being taken by Parliament forces in 1644 and a garrison station there under the leadership of Major (or Major-General) Carter.

The Scots troops who’d helped finally take the city did cause some destruction, with houses burnt, and in the wake Leeds was a depressed place, the wool trade that was its lifeblood in tatters for a few years. It would come back, of course, but not all would thrive. Several wealthy merchants who’d aided the Royalist cause received heavy fines, including John Harrison, one of the city’s great benefactors who gave Leeds St. John’s Church, the original grammar school (located more or less where the Grand Theatre stands today) and the Market Cross (which was at the top of Briggate by the Headrow).

To top it all off, early in 1645 there was an outbreak of plague that lasted most of the year, with the poor areas of Vicar Lane and the Calls the worst hit. The first victim was a little girl named Alice Musgrave.

As a novelist, not a historian, I’m not going to go into all the facts. Instead I offer an excerpt from a work-in-progress set in Leeds at the time that – I hope – sets the scene of despair and desperation.

He rode across the bridge and into Leeds, his uniform covered in dust and mud, the shine worn off his long boots. The sword at his waist tapped gently against the horse’s flanks as the animal moved.

He looked around at the place as the animal trotted. Several houses had been burned, with only a few, fragile blackened timbers remaining, lakes of dark water and slush where floors had once been. One of them must have been a fine place once, a rich man’s mansion, proud and bold. Now it would give shelter to no one.

The troopers on the street saluted him, but he only spotted a few local folk, scuttling quickly and quietly about their business, trying to remain unnoticed. The town seemed hushed, dead, as if a pall had descended and wouldn’t lift. It was hard to believe this had once been a bustling place, starting to grow fat on the wool trade. Since then it had been fought over, taken, lost, recaptured, and each time its fortunes had fallen a little further. Now it looked as though they’d reached their lowest ebb.

The biggest building stood right the middle of the street, cart tracks in the muddy road on either side. He dismounted, gave the reins to a soldier and entered. A clerk looked at him, then snapped upright in his chair.

“I’m Captain Eyre,” he said. “Here to report to Major Carter.”

That had been a week before, at the end of February 1645. He’d been seconded from Hull to serve as adjutant with the garrison of Parliament troops here. They’d stormed Leeds for the final time the year before, led by the Scotsmen who’d had their vengeance for the resistance in the burning and hangings, the looting and rape.

At least they were long since gone, praise God, sent back north of the border in disgrace. The commandant was trying to bring order here, to return Leeds to what it had once been.

The captain looked out of the mullioned windows and along Briggate. It was Tuesday morning, so the twice-weekly cloth market would be held on the bridge. The weavers would display their cloth on the parapets and the merchants would go around, deciding what to buy.

He’d been there on Saturday, dismayed by the poor turnout. No more than ten clothiers and just a handful of merchants, the deals that conducted in whispers. Orders were low, he’d been told, with men preferring to take their trade to Bradford and Wakefield, anywhere that hadn’t been torn apart by battle.

He’d walked the streets and seen the looks on the faces. Whether rich or poor, they all carried fear in their eyes. The world they understood had vanished. Instead of the Corporation there was martial law, the commandant issuing edicts and enforcing them with troops who patrolled or stood guard on the corners, the dull light glinting off their pikes. Men had to be off the street by nine, women had to dress with due modesty. Sunday worship could only be at St. John’s, and there could be no trade on the Sabbath. Whether it wanted to be or not, Leeds was becoming a city of God.

All the merchants and aldermen who’d supported the king were being assessed. They’d have their day in court, make their cases and receive fines. A few had already left, like lawyer Benson, with nothing left to his name after his house was torched to its bones.

Officially the Captain was adjutant to the garrison, but his true job was gathering intelligence, to learn of any Royalist plots and stop them. By itself that would be difficult enough in a place where he knew no one and all the citizens distrusted the soldiers, but he also had to uphold the laws. Already he’d ordered a whore whipped through the streets for plying her trade and a baker in the stocks after he sold adulterated bread.

This could be a good place, he decided. Trade could be rebuilt, normality return, the sound of laughter heard in the air again. With time and God’s good grace.

He turned at the knock on the door.

“Come in,” he said, hearing the familiar limp of Wilson, the pikeman who was his clerk. The soldier had been injured at York, a musket ball breaking the bone in his thigh, but he could write and do his sums, more valuable at a desk than on any battlefield. He was better doing this than begging on a corner somewhere.

The man had his hands pushed together in front of him, his face full of terror.

“What is it?” Eyre asked.

“There’s plague, sir, down on Vicar Lane. A little girl.”

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana

Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana

Gillian G. Gaar

It’s probably not surprising that some of the best books about Nirvana have come from writers in Seattle. Charles R. Cross’s book on Kurt Cobain was largely definitive, and even Dave Thompson’s quick biography of Cobain, released within a month of the suicide, was well-researched and written. However, probably no-one’s written more about then band than Gillian Gaar (in the interests of full disclosure, she and I both used to write for Seattle publication The Rocket, as did Thompson, and it was owned by Cross).

It’s a book that’s full of detail and minutae, not a primer for anyone wanting to know the band’s career arc. She takes the tack – quite rightly – that the early years are the most interesting, and the interviews and research she’s undertaken to put everything together is impressive to the point of being terrifying. This isn’t a job, it’s just as much a labour of love, and she’s such a good, clear writer, that everything is laid out like a road for the reader. There’s plenty of depth about the Chad Channing years, as the band was getting into gear, and the comparisons of different versions of songs comes with the real knowledge of the music journalist and the devotion of a fan.

Every show the band played is documented, as is every recording session, radio session, festival, TV appearance. All through the focus is on the music and how, if not always why, it turned out the way it did. For most fans, Nevermind was the album that brought them to the band. By then Gaar was already a longtime fan, seeing them through the Sub Pop years, and she’s someone who sees the first album, Bleach, as seminal. In many ways she’s right. The ripples didn’t spread as wide as they did later, but it was a vital recording that signalled a shift in music, coming as it did in the same period that Mudhoney, Soundgarden and others to herald what became called grunge. But, as Gaar shows, Nirvana stood apart, and, as she shows further, did so throughout their existence and even into their strange afterlife.

Friday, 28 September 2012

The Audiobook Released into the Wild

Today sees the release of my first audiobook, The Broken Token, done through the excellent people at Creative Content and spoken by the veteran actor Steven Pacey, who’s done similar work for authors like Susan Hill and Joanne Harris, both of whom are in my pantheon of greats, so I feel in esteemed company.

I received my copy last week, eight CDs of it. I’ll admit, I was full of trepidation when I put it in the CD player. At appearances I’ve read sections from the book numerous times. I know the language, the flow, the Leeds feel of it all. Above all, in my head I had the voices of the characters.

What I heard wasn’t those same voices; of course, it couldn’t be. As a wise woman told me, it’s an interpretation. But it’s an excellent one. His Amos Worthy seethes with menace, every bit as good as I could have hoped. Listening to it I’ve learned a great deal, most particularly that a book from someone else’s point of view will be different, but it can be just as good, if not even better, as those people come at it objectively.

So I’ve moved from trepidation to outright joy. More than that, to gratitude to the team and to Steven for putting so much into it, and finding things I’d never imagined. Go on, have a listen to an excerpt. You can do it here. I’ll guarantee that you won’t be disappointed. The audiobook has been released into the wild. May it soar high.

Monday, 24 September 2012

An Open Letter From A Pleb

Dear Dave – you don’t mind if I call you Dave, do you, only that friendly diminutive of your name was what you wanted when you were leader of the opposition and courting every possible voter with your brand of compassionate Conservatism,

Well, you’ve got a bit of a problem with this Chief Whip of yours, don’t you? You have to show him some loyalty and accept his story, but in doing so you’re effectively saying the police lied, which is like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. To my count, the letter released tonight is the third attempt to ‘draw a line’ under the matter. But really, you can only do that when things add up. And they really don’t in this case, do they?

Now, I don’t know Andrew Mitchell – let’s call him Andy, shall we, and make it all friendly? – how could I? I didn’t go to public school, I didn’t have generations of MPs in my past, I’m not a rich banker. He may be the nicest chap in the world for all I know, although many accounts seem to doubt it. But one thing he seems unable to do is recall exactly what he did say. At first he didn’t swear, then he did. Now he’s clear on what he said, but he won’t tell us? That seems a wee bit odd to me, Dave. Aren’t we good enough to know? Or could it be that even coming out and saying the word ‘pleb’ is too, too dangerous? Even if he didn't say it the damage has been done. Oops,eh?

I know these are trying times for you lot. You growing more unpopular and even parts of your own party keep threatening to knife you in the back (“Et tu, Brute?” See, you don’t need a posh upbringing to quote Shakespeare). The truth is, you’re just not very good in your choice of people, are you. There’s poor Andy Coulson. All you were doing was giving him a second chance. And let’s not forget Liam Fox, eh? What about Jeremy Hunt? And now old Andy. But you mostly stick by them. Well, it’s the public way, isn’t it, and someone has to show leadership. But I think it’s time to admit your people skills aren’t so hot. Dave.

Of course, you were just a PR flak. Probably you’re not the one who gets to makes the decision on who goes into what spot. You don’t pull the strings, you’re just a marionette who’ll end up making a lot of money after you leave office (maybe you can do better than Tony, eh?). I hate to say it, Dave, but you’re not even my Prime Minister. To me you’re a squatter in Downing Street (aren’t there laws against that now?). You were never elected to the job, you only got in on a technicality. You don’t have a government with a mandate from the people. But if it makes you feel better, go on believing that you do.

But right now you have a real problem. You’re damned whichever way you turn and all you can do is hope it’ll all go away very quickly. It’s never nice having to dump friends, is it? Still, if this doesn’t get swept under the rug (and I believe the rank and file police aren’t happy with you about those policing cuts) you’ll be able to give Ade a nice send off.


A Pleb

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Early Days of Running Water

A chance remark on Twitter left me thinking about the early days of water supply in Leeds. In my second novel set in the city, Cold Cruel Winter, I have a scene set in the pumping station by below Leeds Bridge (as it’s shown in the 1725 Cossens map).

Some houses in Leeds – the wealthier ones, obviously, received running water from the end of the 17th century. Engineers George Sorocold and Henry Gilbert undertook work todrawn water from the river Aire and pump it through a network of pipes to a reservoir on Wade Lane, above St. John’s church. From there pipes were laid to the houses of subscribers (there’s also mention of hydrants for fire engines; how true this is, I’m not sure). However, although they might have had running water, the ways of hot water on tap were still a long way off.

A water wheel, it would seem, was attached to the bridge (the third span, evidently), and, once lead pipe had been laid under the streets, a total of 2.5 kilometres, or a little over a mile, it reach the reservoir or cistern. Historian Ralph Thoresby recalled the pipe being laid under Kirkgate. The process began in 1694, with Sorocold, an engineer who’d work in Derby, among other places, evidently in charge of th4e project; certainly it’s his name that’s most associated with it.

The lead pipes for pushing the water, which was pumped by early steam engines through the system, were of lead, 75mm in diameter, and possibly some were bored trunks from elm trees, which were commonly used for pipes in the early days of water and sewage.

It’s perhaps surprising that the rich folk of Leeds had running water so early, one of the first cities in England to offer this. But it was a subscriber service, and likely not cheap. In a place with a population of between 6-7,000, only a few would have been able to afford it so it might well have been a while before there was a good return on investment. But within 60 years there was a need for a new pumping works, and a century after the system was built, three new cisterns were added, close to where Albion St. stands today – by then Leeds had around 17,000 residents and was, to some degree, fat off the wool trade.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The Launch Party

The last few weeks have been stressful. It’s not just the holiday cover in the part-time job I do, more than doubling my hours and taking away from writing work (novels and unpaid), it’s the preparation for the launch of Come the Fear.

It went off very smoothly in the end, thanks to those who participated and Blackwell’s Leeds who arrived with copies of the book to sell. And great kudos to everyone at Arts@Trinity (the old Holy Trinity Church), who did a great, unruffled job most professionally and provided the perfect venue, a church built in 1727, right in the period of the books. As I reflect there, the real Richard Nottingham – and there was a real one, the Constable of Leeds – would have walked in that place, probably many times. I was in his footsteps, something that truly gave me pause.

But making sure everything was in place, at a distance of 80 miles, could be fraught at times. The phone calls and emails began in the summer, setting the date, letting people know, working with others, like the fabulous Leeds Book Club and Leeds Libraries in order to involve them (and thankfully they wanted to be part of it). It’s been an interesting and rewarding trip.

The night was all I’d hoped it would be, in its own ways quite magical. It took a good 48 hours to recover fully. The book had come out a fortnight before the launch party, but that saw it well and truly christened. But I will say that I’m not planning a launch for the next one (due in February). It’s not even the work involved. The question is – how do I top that?