A Christmas of Crime

I’m not usually a crime reader. In fact, I’ve had two books written by mistresses of the genre sitting on my shelves for years waiting for me to read them. They were mistakes from the days when I belonged to one of those book clubs which sent you the choice of the month if you were not quick enough to tell them not to. I’m useless at admin – ask my accountant – so they arrived and I stuck them on my “to read when I’m desperate” pile. Truth be told, I’ve long felt there was enough crime going on in the real world without fictional tales adding to the body count. But those of you who are kind enough to follow my blog will have noticed the summer brought me an annoying, nagging, idea which refused to go away. And so I started writing Fallen.

Set in my home county of Norfolk (I’m an exile, who has pangs of homesickness), it features a former journalist who has fallen from grace, (not me) married to a school teacher (not my husband) who finds a dead body (apparently fallen from nowhere) on Holkham beach (that’s never happened to me and I hope it never does). Urged on by a few friends who were kind enough to let me know they were enjoying the instalments, I’ve kept adding to it, though I have only a vague idea where it’s going.

In the run-up to Christmas and nursing an almighty cold (call it ‘flu it you like) I found myself looking for something unchallenging to read in bed. Bed is where most of my reading is done. It’s been a habit as long as I can remember. Because I was a sleepless and tiresome child, as soon as I was old enough my parents left me books and a nightlight to read by – sleeping draughts, cajoling and other efforts having failed. The last thing you want, if you’re reading in the hope you’ll get back to sleep, is a book that gives you nightmares.

I started my crime-quest with a return to Fingersmith. A crime story if you like, it’s more an historical literary novel in my eyes, but it did win the CWA Ellis Peters Dagger for historical crime fiction. Which reminds me, I had a bit of a soft spot for Ellis Peters in the Eighties, but then I was brought up in the shadow of an abbey in a Norfolk market town and could always imagine the monks going about their daily business whenever I passed it or saw its twin towers across the valley.

Thinking I could put my enforced period of inaction to good use I proceeded (not in a westerly direction – I haven’t taken up police speak as well as crime fiction) on to Ruth Rendell’s Chief Inspector Wexford novel, The Babes in the Wood, and then Fox Evil, Minette Walters. Both were un-gory enough for my tastes and just as I was wondering what to move on to next, my husband presented me with Philippa Gregory’s The Red Queen and Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson for Christmas. I last read Kate Atkinson around 10 years ago – I’d loved Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but didn’t get Emotionally Weird. Perhaps I was emotionally weird at the time, I had three small children to look after by then and so I didn’t bother reading anything more of hers. More recently, I’d seen that she’d mixed her literary writing abilities in with crime fiction, but I doubt I would have bought Started Early, Took My Dog, for myself, even though I love the title. I wish those editors or agents who change long book titles because they think something punchy and brief works better would think again. I bought Everything is Illuminated based on its title, not its content – other favourites include The God of Small Things; The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam; Astonishing Splashes of Colour; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

I received many lovely Christmas presents. An antique jewellery box, a chicken-shaped stapler, a wine bottle holder that counterbalances itself – don’t ask me how – it just does. But I think my favourite present this year was Started Early, Took My Dog. Perhaps it just hit the right spot at the right time. My only gripe is – how can I possibly go back to writing Fallen now? Honestly, I am trying, but Kate does it so much better.

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.

The privilege of having a Gran like Baa-Lamb

Art imitated life yesterday when The Archers bade a fond farewell to Phil Archer. I was, in the meantime, attending my Gran’s funeral service. Not many people get into their forties and still have a grandparent around, so I count myself lucky to have had her company for so long. Since her death I have been trying to remember all the fun that we shared rather than mourning her loss. Grandparents have a privileged and uncomplicated relationship with their grandchildren, which is why I get annoyed when I hear of divorcing parents who cut their children off from one or other set of grandparents to maximise the wound they inflict on their ex. Though I know there are lots of grandparents who offer regular childcare, on the whole, grandparents don’t have to be responsible for their grandchildren’s upbringing, they don’t have the daily stress of balancing homelife and work, discipline and reward, household management and homework. Not that they don’t take grand-parenting seriously, but they can share innocent yet illicit pleasures, like eating pudding before main course or playing with water pistols and getting soaked when it’s really not that warm outside. They put a different perspective on the world, not necessarily better, just different – and start an understanding in their grandchildren that old and young, black and white, rich and poor don’t have to see things from the same point of view, just co-exist with jumbled-up harmony and respect.

Since Gran and my Dad were both young parents, she was a very young grandmother, and great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother, taking great pleasure in each new generation that was brought into the family, though she was rather horrified to be called “Grandma” and asked to be known as Barbara. My father refused to allow this, however, and the compromise name Gran-Lamb was coined, though we derived no end of pleasure in calling her Baa-bara Lamb, which she loved too.

Gran lived in Kenya when I was born, so my earliest memories of her were of her visit when I was about six. I’d recently learned to ride a bicycle, but found it impossible to stop without falling off, so I travelled around and around a circular route yelling for help every time I passed my parents’ house. My parents were used to my Matilda-like false alarms and ignored me, so it was Gran who ran after me and brought me to a halt by grabbing the back of the saddle. I daresay I wasn’t that grateful for her help since I fell off and hurt myself anyway. And I shouldn’t have been that surprised that despite her great age (she was about 50) she could still run after me, as she’d been Suffolk sprint champion in her youth. Dad remembers being a small boy and trying to evade punishment by climbing out of his bedroom window and running away – only to be caught by his fleet-footed mother. He also remembers her laughing in the face of the rather pompous vicar who arrived on her doorstep to complain that his choir boys (including Dad) had knocked his hat off  his head with Harvest Festival apples.

Her life was so full of joy and sorrow – she’d married young and had two small boys when her first husband died of cancer at the age of 29, four years after returning home from the war. She found love again and when her second husband suggested moving to New Zealand or Kenya, she left my father in the UK, he was by then a boy apprentice in the RAF, sold her possessions, home and the holiday houses she and Frank owned, and followed him out to Africa with my uncle and aunt in tow. A few years later Frank died, leaving her a widow once more. Feisty, she worked in a garage and a girls’ boarding school and only moved back to the UK in the Seventies when Kenya became too volatile for safety. It meant starting all over again, again, but I don’t remember her once complaining, never reminding me of her hardships if I moaned about my imagined difficulties, which I hope I didn’t, in front of her. I only ever heard her mention the raw hand she had been dealt once, when we were being told of the death of a 60-year-old friend of my then in-laws, who gave us a 15-minute lecture on the unfairness and tragedy of his passing. After listening until she could bear it no longer, Gran reminded them she had lost one husband when she was 29 and had two small boys, and a second when she was 47 and had a teenage daughter who doted on her dad. A deafening silence followed.

She was my slightly dotty, eccentric, outspoken Gran, with whom I shared an affinity and recognition of self. My mother’s parents were far more exotic, in fact, having been brought up in India with a mixture of  Persian, Burmese, Portugese, Scottish, Irish and Dutch blood coursing through their veins. But they weren’t fun like Gran, who was about as English as you could imagine, born and brought up in John Constable’s home village of East Bergholt and spending her young life around Flatford, playing in the Suffolk countryside. My maternal grandparents, who’d divorced at a time when it was taboo, warred all their lives and had a very Victorian sense of right and wrong, of rights and being wronged. Gran had a subversive streak (guess where I get mine from) and she was self-willed to boot, perfectly able to stir up trouble and to put people in their place if they annoyed her, but she was also loved by friends and neighbours, even if she exasperated them sometimes with her stubbornness.

When I had children and moved back to Norfolk, Gran and I really got to know each other as we spent the day together after I’d taken her to do a weekly shop at Sainsbury’s. I realised how much like her I was, where I got my inability to sit still; where I got my penchant for rearranging my furniture at irregular intervals; why I was good at fast sports; why I would start 10 jobs at once and only finish five. She taught me it was fun to jump on the bed with my children, that it wasn’t worth ironing pyjamas when it was sunny outside – so many lessons that I’ll never forget and will pass on to my grandchildren, if I’m lucky enough to have any. I moved away from Norfolk and returned and moved away again – leaving her wondering why everyone she loved left her – though she never said that to me. By way of recompense I used to drive to Norfolk to collect her and she’d stay with me for a week at a time, helping at children’s parties and ensuring the fun didn’t stop – though she did tick off one child very soundly when he caused havoc at a sleepover. And because I loved having her here, I made sure she spent every Christmas with me, making a huge fuss when I was told she was too frail to come in 2008 and insisting we would carry her from car to house and upstairs if necessary. By the end of 2009, she really was too ill to make even the smallest journey and I had to accept she was dying. She had been desperate to come to my marriage – she loved my husband and insisted she was well enough to attend. We raised a toast to her during the speeches and deliberately honeymooned in Norfolk so I could give her my bridal bouquet. I didn’t get to see her again before she died, and though we did speak on the phone, she struggled for breath as the mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos decades before and who-knows-where, finally took her from us.

It was so lovely yesterday to hear other people’s stories about her. Her elderly sister-in-law Shirley wrote to say that she and Great-Uncle Geoff never left her alone in their manicured and well-tended garden when she’d visited because she had a habit of digging up plants she disliked and throwing them behind a shed or wall where they wouldn’t be noticed until it was too late to reinstate and resurrect them; Dad’s cousin remembered “Auntie Barb” and how he had loved visiting her as a small child and how she’d inspired him as an adult to move to Africa; and how she had taken him for a spin in her new Triumph when she’d returned to the UK – travelling the wrong way down the A12 and declaring in her defence that they had changed the roads since she’d been there last. She never did re-pass her English driving test after her temporary one expired.

Gran as a young woman

One of my fondest memories is of her coming down to breakfast on Christmas morning and being given an impromptu six-child standing salute. She thought it was a hoot – they did too, collapsing in fits of giggles. Another is of taking her ten-pin bowling – she whopped us all. The headmaster at the school where she had worked when she moved to England recalled how special she was and wrote to say she’d been well-loved by staff and boys – everyone had a story to tell and remembered the twinkle in her eye and the mischievous grin that would play on her lips when she knew she was being naughty. Her nieces, nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren turned out to pay their last respects; friends of my parents attended too – she’d been a part of their lives as well. She was the last of her six siblings to leave this earth and her passing marks the end of an era for us all.

The fictional Elizabeth Pargeter’s tribute to her father Phil Archer could so very easily have been applied to my Gran. But Gran-Lamb really was a one-off and I’ll miss her enormously.

*[Gt Uncle Geoff told Gt Aunt Shirley on their golden wedding anniversary that he had been a member of the Secret Army during World War II. She asked him why he’d never told her before and he replied: “It was a secret.” What a generation, what a family.]

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