Crime Writer Colin Dexter’s Guilty Secret

I’ve been checking through my archives and came across an interview I did with crime writer Colin Dexter. I’ve posted it on my other blog as I wrote it under my former name. Click here to view… Colin Dexter’s Guilty Secret

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My vote counts for nothing – is this 1910 or 2010?

WSPU poster, by Hilda Dallas 1909

I’m not a particularly open political animal. Through a habit cultivated as a newspaper journalist, I deliberately leave my political colours un-nailed to any publicly visible mast. It doesn’t help your efforts to be an impartial observer if you’re known to be an active Labour, Tory, Lib-Dem or even Green supporter. That’s not to say I don’t have political preferences, I’m an intelligent woman interested in current affairs. I have children, I pay taxes, I want to know the country is in safe hands, economically, morally and politically, so of course I have views. But these are known only to my husband, a few close friends and the ballot box. Since learning as a teenager that my right to vote was hard fought-for by suffragettes and suffragists and cost women their lives, I’ve wanted to stand up and be counted. Wherever I’ve lived, Tory stronghold, Labour heartland, I’ve voted.

So, all that said, I’m feeling particularly annoyed that by a quirk of peculiarly-drawn boundary lines I live in the Buckingham constituency of the current House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow. The fact that I’ve only been to Buckingham twice, and I actually live half-way between David Lidington’s seat and Boris Johnson’s former seat, now occupied by John Howell, makes very little difference to any preference I might care to exercise. The land around here is as blue as the grass is green. My single vote is a drop in an ocean – whether it’s for or against the Tory tidal wave engulfs it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to exercise my democratic rights on election day. I like to think that as well as being counted my ballot paper is examined and the party I choose knows where my loyalties lie regardless of whether or not their candidate is returned.

Real choice, however, is something not offered to the electorate of the Speaker’s constituency. Traditionally, thanks to an age-old courtesy, the three main parties don’t contest the Speaker’s seat. This year, though, the ballot paper will have insults and injury to choose from besides my non-choice sitting MP. The UK Independence Party, the British National Party and a couple of independents are planning to stand against John Bercow. As the off-white product of very mixed British, European, Middle-Eastern and Asian heritage, born in Norwich and brought up in Norfolk, (apart from an overseas spell when my father was in the forces) I consider myself British – latterly, since devolution, English-ish. If I’d won anything while representing my country in a sporting event I would have been proud, I’d have blubbed loudly. I DO blub loudly, if ever that rare thing, a British athlete who wins, stands a-top a podium watching the Union flag being hoisted and listening to our rather un-nationalistic National Anthem being played. But I dream and digress.

What does this mean for me as a voter then? Well, I’m not about to reveal my political preferences here, but as you might guess, I’m not going to waste my vote on the xenophobic BNP or the ranting Nigel (I stab people in the front) Farage either, though I reckon I’m as British (I can trace that part of my line here back to the 12th century) as any latter-day ancestor of the Romans, Vikings or Saxons (for which read Italians, Scandinavians and Germans), who settled on this island centuries ago. I consider anyone less white and less recently settled in the same light, no matter where they’ve come from.

I’m resigned to thinking that for as long as John Bercow (who, as it happens, is a very diligent MP with a strong attendance record and cross-party support) is Speaker, my vote counts for nothing unless proportional representation comes into being or the Speaker’s constituency is automatically re-represented by another MP as soon as his appointment is made. I  feel dis-empowered and disenfranchised. I might as well be living in 1910 as 2010.

An interview with Roma Tearne

Oxford-based artist, film-maker and writer Roma Tearne lives and works in the centre of the city. She tells Sandra Kessell about painting, writing and the literary festival on her doorstep.

Roma Tearne

Beyond Oxford’s towers, spires, quads and high-ceilinged Dons’ houses lie the less grand cottages and terraces of the artisans, craftsmen and artists who, over centuries, made or provided the everyday things needed to keep the world of academia ticking over, allowing academics to study and philosophise, teach and theorise without having to get too involved in day-to-day living.

Meeting the multi-talented Roma Tearne in one of these quirky little houses, close to the canal, seems very fitting in the 21st century. She could epitomise the modern Oxford resident – cultured, intelligent, artistic and, for good measure in a city that has one of the  highest proportions of residents born outside the UK, Sri Lankan by birth.

The first thing you notice about Roma is her tiny stature. She’s diminutive – and I find myself looking for her when she answers the door to her family home in Jericho, my gaze travelling swiftly downwards to meet her huge eyes.

It’s at this house that she writes her novels, having initially made her name as an artist and film-maker. In fact, she’s been so bound up with her writing over the last few years, that she stopped renting a studio because she simply didn’t have time to use it. Not that she’s stopped drawing or collecting the materials for her installations. She customises Moleskine notebooks, stuffing them with observations, sketches, photographs and tiny, neat handwriting that curls around corners creating a visual feast of its own. After hitting the mark with her first three books, Mosquito, Bone China and Brixton Beach, and with a fourth, The Swimmer, due to be published in May, Roma is getting the urge to paint once more and looking at ways of incorporating a studio into her study.

Dressed in black, with a black and single red bead strung around her neck, Roma leads me into her house, which is packed with books, paintings, installations, porcelain, colour, mirrors and splashes of light. There’s a penchant for Venetian red and in a cabinet lined with postcards, letters, old photographs – Roma’s junk-shop objets trouvés. She’s a compulsive rummager, she confesses. Her desk is surrounded by bookshelves, photos of her children, printers’ letters, tiny blue glass bottles and other collectibles. It’s like a magpie’s nest, lined and cosy – but there’s a reason for this, I find. Roma lost all her family photos, baby albums and notebooks in a house move and has been seeking solace in documenting other people’s history ever since.

Not that Roma can find a word to summarise her professional occupations. She’s neither pure writer nor pure artist, novelist nor narrator, though that hasn’t stopped her being recognised and acclaimed as all of the above. She admits she’s seriously self-critical, which in part dates back to her early university experiences. Reading English she submitted an essay about Charles Dickens and was accused of plagiarism by a discouraging and unenlightened tutor, who doubted her ability to produce such quality work and told her he would send her down if she transgressed again.

“I was an 18-year-old immigrant girl who came from London and who had struggled to integrate. Instead of fighting him, I just left. I was writing a novel at the time, I stopped,” says Roma.

It had been English that had brought her parents, who had lived with disapproval for their mixed Singhalese-Tamil marriage in Sri Lanka, to England. Her mother had been a journalist, her father a poet. On learning that English was to be banned in Sri Lanka they packed a few belongings, boarded a boat and headed to the UK, bringing 10-year-old Roma to what they thought of as a promised land. The family’s hopes were invested in English in a way few English people’s ever are.

“My parents were passionate about the language. It was assumed I would read English and I’d always said I would be a writer,” says Roma.

After her university experience she dropped out of her studies but her future was still bound up with the language. She married an English professor and had three children. She trained as a painter, later completing her MA at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, where she was encouraged to explore other sides of her creativity. Her work was chosen for the Royal Academy summer exhibition and she became a Leverhulme artist-in-residence for the Ashmolean Museum. It was here that her writing came to the fore once more. She started writing short stories about the staff for the staff newsletter.

“The staff found it amusing. I had a little romance going and the staff concerned were very chuffed about it,” she remembers. The staff started asking when the next episode would be published and encouraged her to write write a book. Until then no-one had ever read her work.

“I’d written short stories that I’d just chucked. I didn’t know if I was any good,” she says. “I had a lot of artistic friends, I didn’t know any writers, coming into it late.”

In 2006 she was awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council fellowship to work at Oxford Brookes University and the following year her first novel, Mosquito, was published and shortlisted for the Costa award for debut novel. Since then she has a produced a book a year and has been a regular fixture at the Oxford Literary Festival, suddenly finding herself on the platform, rather than in the audience. Now a Creative Writing Fellow at Brookes, this year she will be talking about her forthcoming novel at this year’s festival.

“There’s an awful lot going on in Oxford,” she says, adding that the festival is good for students as well as visitors. At the end of April, Roma is taking up a week’s residency at Blackwell’s book and poster shops, where she will be investigating the life of a bookshop, its staff, customers and other visitors. Drawing inspiration from paragraphs in books chosen from different departments around the Blackwell’s shops in Broad Street, Roma will produce written and visual work. It’s hard to pigeon-hole or pin down her work, let alone give her a title that sums up her occupations, despite the extensive number of words at her fingertips. What there can be no doubt about is her next creations will be welcomed by her growing army of fans and her talk attended by an eager following.

Roma Tearne will be talking at Christ Church on Tuesday, March 23, at 12noon. Her residency at Blackwell’s runs from Monday, April 26 to Saturday, May 1. Her novel The Swimmer is published by Harper Collins on May 3.

*This article appears in the March 2010 edition of Cotswold Life magazine.

Reasons to be cheerful – Oxford Literary Festival is coming up

DJ Taylor and Rachel Hore count Oxford among their favourite literary festivals
The line-up includes Anthony Horowitz
John le Carré's lecture is a must for Bodley's Librarian Sarah Thomas

There’s a glittering line-up at this year’s Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, with comedians, politicians, broadcasters and academics taking the stage alongside ghost writers, novelists, biographers and thriller writers. The eight-day extravaganza celebrates all things literary and is based in Christ Church and Corpus Christi College, as well as The Sheldonian Theatre. The event has become a favourite with seasoned festival-goers as anyone staying at the colleges gets to rub shoulders with authors, playwrights and other speakers.

Critic, journalist and author DJ Taylor, a 2003 Man Booker Prize judge and winner of the 2003 Whitbread Biography Prize for “Orwell: A Life,” has been a regular speaker at the festival over the years and has watched it evolve. Some festivals have been spoiled by the cult of celebrity taking precedence over the literary aspect of the gathering, he says, remembering a festival where former US President Bill Clinton was paid thousands of pounds to attend while the writers turned up for free, much to their irritation.

David and his wife, the novelist Rachel Hore, who last year gave a talk together, and their three sons, rank Oxford among their favourite festivals.

“The children enjoy it because there’s so much variety,” says Rachel. “Last year they went to the poetry reading competition and loved taking part in a quiz on the Sunday evening in the ‘Hogwarts’ dining hall upstairs in Christ Church. The ambience is part of the festival’s success – swanning around Christ Church has got to beat the marquees of the Edinburgh Literature Festival!”

David and Rachel both studied at the University of Oxford, although they didn’t meet until several years after they had graduated and David doesn’t have the fondest memories of his student days in the city. Rachel says she likes the friendliness and democratic feel of the Oxford Literary Festival.

“I hope visitors feel this as well as the participants,” she says. “I enjoy browsing in the book tent and not knowing who you might bump into next.”

David appreciates the dedication of those who attend, recalling one year a heavy snowfall threatened to limit the numbers attending his talk “Bright Young People,” based on his book exploring the lives of the 1920s glitterati, many of whom were at Oxford.

“I was sure there would be nobody there but the place was absolutely packed out. I was really touched by this,” says David. Another memorable event, last year, involved Richard Blair, Orwell’s adopted son, talking publicly for the first time about his father.

“We did a kind of tete-a-tete and 400 people turned up. It was a fantastic event,” says David.

This year, as part of The Orwell Prize series of events, DJ Taylor and Evelyn Waugh’s biographer Paula Byrne are comparing the lives and works of Orwell and Waugh, who were both born in 1903. The event takes place at Christ Church on Saturday March 26, at 8pm.

Rachel says she and David attend other people’s talks, besides supporting each others.

“Anything by Philip Pullman appeals to me,” says Rachel.

Philip Pullman himself plans to see all the science events he can manage.

Philip Pullman

“One of the great strengths of the Oxford Literary Festival is that it can draw on the talents of many brilliant thinkers right on the doorstep, and a week at the festival must be equivalent to a good basic education in any one of a dozen disciplines,” says the teacher turned author, who is also one of the festival’s patrons. “As science is a big interest of mine, I shall be pursuing that this year.”

Bodley’s Librarian, Dr Sarah Thomas – who is in charge one of the world’s oldest, largest and best collection of books, held by the Bodleian Library – is thrilled to have such an interesting festival on her doorstep, though the quality of the sessions makes it hard to choose which to attend.

“The festival creates such excitement around authors and books and reading,” says Sarah, who was the first female, first non-British national, to be appointed Bodley’s Librarian in its 400-year history.

“In fact, I am going to have to decide between Lyndall Gordon’s ‘Lives Like Loaded Guns’ talk on Emily Dickinson and Philip Pullman’s discussion of his new book ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ,’ both of which take place on Sunday March 28 at noon. “Emily Dickinson lived a few miles from the town in Massachusetts where I grew up, and she’s a fascinating woman. But now, having lived in Oxford for three years and gotten to know Philip Pullman, I’m also eager to hear him speak on his new work.”

Her other “must see” choices are John le Carré’s talk on March 24 and Hilary Mantel who discusses her 2009 Man Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall on Sunday March 28 at 2pm.

“There’s an incredible array from which to select,” continues Sarah. “Balcor’s Second Nature on the inner lives of animals; David Boyd Haycock’s A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Arts & the Great War, and John Harris on gin tasting. What a range!”

Events to look out for include a discussion between award-winning playwright and author Simon Rae, who wrote a definitive biography of legendary cricketer WG Grace, and the book “Unplayable” and one of the world’s top women cricketers, Charlotte Edwards, who is an ambassador for the Chance to Shine cricket and education foundation; the incomparable Malorie Blackman, quirky Frances Hardinge and Philip Pullman discussing fantasy fiction with children’s books reviewer Nicolette Jones and screenwriter and children’s author Anthony Horowitz interviewed by Paul Blezard. Other top-of-the-list discussions include acclaimed crime writer Ruth Rendell interviewed by David Grylls about Penguin’s The Complete Sherlock Holmes, as well as her own creation Chief Inspector Wexford; eminent scientists Richard Dawkins, Georgina Ferry and Steve Jones talking about science, certainty and the Royal Society with Roger Highfield, editor of The New Scientist and Oxford-based author, film-maker and artist Roma Tearne talking about her latest novel, The Swimmer.

Oxford Literary Festival runs from Saturday, March 20 until Sunday March 28, with events, courses, discussions and dinners taking place in Christ Church College, The Sheldonian and Corpus Christi College. For a full list of timings and to book tickets, visit http://www.oxfordliteraryfestival.com or tel: 01865 276152. Box office: 0870 343 1001 and watch out for more information in the The Sunday Times, and Blackwell’s book shops.

This article first appeared in the March 2010 edition of Cotswold Life magazine.

Author images courtesy Oxford Literary Festival.

Mad Men hits the mark


Me, Mum, Dad and my older brother

Recently, I’ve found myself looking out for Mad Men, the hit television series about a New York advertising agency in the 1960s. Alerted to the show by the likes of India Knight and Liberty London Girl on Twitter, I’ve become an intermittent fan (though I’m useless at remembering when it’s on). I’m fascinated – not only by the storylines, but with the sets and the social mores. This morning, reading an e-mail from my 80-something uncle, the reason suddenly dawned on me. It’s like stepping back into my early childhood. The fabric, the figures, the hairstyles and the shoes are all visible in the snapshots my uncle is archiving for “the cousins.”

Mum and her sisters were gorgeous as well as glamorous – their brother, my father and my uncle as handsome as Don Draper. With their exotic background and innate stylishness they set an impossibly high standard for their offspring to aspire to – although maybe it’s just we live in a different era. We can’t be bothered with the lipstick and heels for a trip to the park, but we’d never match up to their standards anyway. Sitting at my desk, make-up-less and and in jeans, with my hair scraped back off my face, I can’t help feeling a little sorry at the passing of those days. Still, thanks to my uncle* we can be whizzed back in time.

*These pictures remain my uncle’s intellectual property and copyright.

Great curtains!

My aunt and uncle
Aunty Madge and cousin Mel in the park
Aunty Madge and cousin Mel in the park
Mum, Dad and my brother, 1962
Mum and me on my first birthday

James Bulger should never be forgotten

Had he lived, or rather, been allowed to live, James Bulger would be 19, going on 20. I don’t need the internet to know this (though the journalist in me did make me check) because he was born less than a year before my eldest son. Worldwide, many children die before their third birthday – thousands upon thousands in countries where life is held cheap – yet it is the name and face of James Bulger that come to mind and the agony of his mother, Denise, who had been out shopping with him when he was abducted, that I have remembered as my son has passed life’s milestones, recalling that a small boy of around the same age would not be having a first day at school, taking GCSEs and A levels, or going on a first date.

If that all sounds a little melodramatic, then perhaps I should explain how it felt, 17 years ago, to be the mother of a two-year-old boy who hears that a two-year-old boy has gone missing. How I changed the way I brought up my children when I heard that a two-year-old had been murdered by two 10-year-olds. As the chilling details of James Bulger’s abduction and death became public my heart filled with dread. It felt as though the very worst evil had descended on the world. Horrified, saddened, shocked (even though I’d reported on a child killing case in court during my newspaper days), I went to the Mothers’ Day service at my parish church taking my infant daughter and son along to try to make sense of the world. In my heart I felt people who were “good” should somehow stand together against the forces of “evil” – Harry Potter morality, if you like. My Christian upbringing might have been muddled over the years, but the essential tenets still hold true. We should all hold up our wands and throw as much light as we can muster into the sky to disperse the dark clouds gathering above.

After the trial of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson one of the senior officers in the case bore witness to James Bulger’s injuries in a weekend newspaper supplement. I forced myself to read every word – though I can’t bear horror stories or even watch a thriller film – because I felt I must and because I wanted to understand more and condemn less. I’m not sure I found understanding, the article raised so many more questions than it answered, but despite the officer’s conclusions (he condemned more and understood less as a result of what he had had to see), I could only feel Venables and Thompson had been twisted by violence inflicted on them, that they lacked guidance and a moral framework and were incapable of empathy as a result. I didn’t think locking them up and throwing away the key was the answer. I hoped wiser people than me would find a way to rehabilitate them.

As a consequence of James Bulger’s murder, my children were never allowed out of my sight in a public place when they were small. My son had to either wear reins or an elastic handstrap or walk with his hand on the buggy to ensure I knew where he was at all times – my daughter too, when she was old enough to protest she wanted to toddle along. If I had to go to the loo when we were out we all crammed into the same cubicle. When they were a little older and wanted to ride their bikes in our quiet cul-de-sac, I would be outside as well – along with or sharing duty with, the mother next door, who felt the same way. When I started working as a magazine editor, and my eldest son, then aged 10, walked the half-mile from his city-centre school to my office, under strict instructions to follow the same route every day, from the time school finished I would watch the clock until the receptionist announced he had arrived. If he was as little as five minutes late I would be panicking – walking down the street to find him, heart in mouth. I’ve no doubt a whole generation of teenagers grew up in the shadow of James Bulger’s murder without realising it – without reading a word about it or knowing why their freedoms were curtailed. Statistically, your child is no more likely to be abducted now than they were when I was small. There were horrors then too, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderers as they came to be known, were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1966.

I had always hoped, because of their extreme youth at the time of their crime, Venables and Thompson could be straightened out, could find redemption in their new lives and new identities and so I have barely given them any thought – though the recent court case involving the torture of two small boys by two brothers in Edlington brought back those horrific memories. My thoughts have always been with James Bulger and his parents. Then yesterday’s news that Jon Venables was behind bars broke and I found myself unable to feel any hope or pity for him. The Home Secretary and Justice Secretary have remained tight-lipped about which of his terms of release have been breached, but I’m relieved to know that the force of the law has been imposed on someone who doesn’t take his chance to start over, given all the resources that have been spent on him. He has had opportunities to put his past behind him – chances that the parents and family of James Bulger feel bitter about. Though I don’t want to take an interest in the latest news, I feel I must. I feel, somehow, I owe it to that very small boy, who never grew up to play rugby for his school, Facebook his friends, enjoy his first driving lesson or look at universities with his girlfriend. I feel I owe it to his parents, who can never know the comfort and warmth of their 6ft-plus 19-year-old son coming in to say goodnight before going to bed, as mine did last night.