This ad for Maybelline shows the archetype for 1930s make-up.
Make-up in the 1930s was gradually moving away from the secretive, rather apologetic attitudes of the 1920s and earlier which kept make-up containers such as compacts small and discreet, in much the same way as women’s smoking accoutrements. Partly this new acceptance was to do with the trend for more a feminine look after the androgynous 20s, but it was also due to the burgeoning movie industry and the new passion for celebrity role models, and the aspiration to adopt Hollywood styles and trends as part of everyday life, even for those on low incomes. You might see a certain dress or hat in a film, and a week later your friend, sister, mother or yourself could have copied it at home to create your own variation to wear on your half-day out or the next time you went to the cinema.
Yes, that is 1930s mascara, to be applied with a kind of toothbrush thing. It looks like boot polish. And who knows, maybe it was. But it got a girl noticed.
The cosmetics companies lost no time in showing the everyday woman how to use their products to achieve the same looks, or an approximation of them, as the big screen icons such as Myrna Loy, Barabara Stanwyck, and Carole Lombard, whose glamour was so appealing to women – and of course to men, which was a big part of the thrill.
In 1937, Myrna Loy was featured by Photoplay magazine in a kind of cross-over promotion with Max Factor, sporting her face with a clever ad for her latest film Parnell, in which she appeared with Hollywood megastar Clark Gable, whilst her photograph lent authority and appeared to endorse the products being promoted, no doubt sending her fans out in droves to buy the make-up ‘used by Myrna’.
The typical look was for pale foundation, with pink ‘roses’ on the cheeks. Eyebrows were very arched, and plucked extremely thinly, or even completely removed then pencilled-in in a much higher bow than nature intended. The eyes were emphasised with deep colour–blues, greens and mauves were popular–on the lids and highlighter or shimmer on the under-brow area. Lips were painted in a range of tones, mainly deep pinks, reds and oranges.
A range of lovely, very appealing products from the Coty range, and featuring the Lalique powder puff design.
It’s a surprisingly colourful palette, and the products were manufactured by many of the big brand names we still know today such as Revlon, Max Factor, Coty, Almay, and Maybelline, not forgetting our own dear Boots No. 7 which first appeared in 1935! Helena Rubenstein created the first waterproof mascara in 1939. Cream eye-shadows, lip ‘glosses’, and ‘pancake’ make-up also appeared in the 1930s. It was an exciting time to be a girl! Make-up like face creams and powders were mostly sold in glass or china pots, or for cheaper brands, or the lighter products such as eye-shadows and lip-sticks, in sturdy, decorated cardboard boxes or in tin or plastic.
Here’s an extract from the sales pitch for Max Factor: ‘Choose your colour harmony shade in Max Factor’s Face Powder and see how naturally the colour enlivens the beauty of your skin.’ It sounds so similar to the kind of advertising copy we read or hear today, doesn’t it?
Sales were booming. The new advances in chemicals and manufacturing processes helped to pave the way for a wider use of make-up, especially among younger women who worked in factories and had their own money. Prices came down and demand went up. Glamourdaze.com quotes the Daily Mail as asserting that ‘In 1931, 1,500 lipsticks were being sold to women for every 1 being sold in 1921.’ How true that is I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were fairly accurate. Affordability, economics, a decade of peace, industrial progress, and women having jobs, their own money and more autonomy all must have combined to create the perfect climate for a boom in make-up alongside other new consumer goods such as clothing, accessories, household appliances and even cars.
The Coty compact with design by Lalique.
In the image above, you can see a lovely vintage Coty powder compact. The design was by Lalique, the famous glass guy. I sold one of these on eBay for a nice little sum a few years ago! Coty started in 1904 and Lalique set up his first glass ware and design business in 1921. This gorgeous powder puff motif is still highly collectable, though affordable, and is still in the very small size compact that was normal for the 1920s – a little over two inches in diameter. A tiny thing of great beauty. You can find them quite easily on the Internet, sometimes still with a little powder inside, and usually with an applicator or sponge. But beware, there are replicas about. They are easy to spot, being much larger–the kind of size we usually see now of about three and a half inches or more–plus shallower, and the design is more precise and detailed.
So make-up, then as now, really did depend on who you wanted to be, and just as in the fashion world, the designers followed trends very closely, with lower priced brands following after the big leagues, and with everyone keeping an eye on their favourite celebs.
PARNELL, US poster art with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, 1937
Since I’ve ‘discovered’ Pinterest, I’ve also reaffirmed my love of the idea of the capsule wardrobe. I don’t know why I love these so much, maybe it’s just that my own clothing collection is rather hit-and-miss and I often find it hard to know what to put on. Whatever the reason, I love those graphics that show you 16 or 20 items of clothing with accessories, then show you how to combine and rearrange them to create 30 or 40 outfits. I note they are often in neutral colours especially beige, which is a colour I rarely wear, and I’m guessing that the neutral palette makes it easier to put together ‘a look’.
As I work from home and have no colleagues, apart from Mabel and Malcolm, that is, I usually schlep about in scruffy tops and aged comfy jeans. I’m a bit ashamed to admit my own shortcomings, because I not only enjoy the history of costume and fashion, but when I created my 1930s mystery series, the Dottie Manderson mysteries, I decided to make my main character a mannequin in a fashion warehouse, just so I could indulge my love of clothes. I regularly mention clothing and fabrics in the stories, which some readers–especially gentlemen–Stuart Aken, I’m looking at you–have found a bit trying, to say the least. Soz, guys.
All this got me to thinking, ‘What would Dottie wear?’ Being a 1930s mystery series featuring well-to-do families in between-the-wars England, there are a lot of visits and house parties. So what would a young woman need to take with her for, say, a weekend in the country in Summer? I’m leaving out tweeds, because a) I abhor shooting and hunting and so, consequently, does Dottie, and b) no woman looks good in tweeds. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Where’s the glamour in a tweed coat and skirt? Answer: there is none.
Here we go. Oh, and by the way, I’m taking the role of Dottie’s maid Janet for this trip, so I will do the packing.
Firstly, I will be packing nightwear in the form of a negligee and matching wrap. Dottie is 20ish so there’s no way this girl will be wearing a massive up-to-the-neck-down-to-the-floor cotton nightgown, she’s not 90! The negligee will be ankle-length, and made of something soft and sheer like artificial silk or crepe-de-chine, probably in soft blues or pinks, with lace edging in cream of a deeper cream/coffee colour and narrow ribbon in a matching colour to fasten. Women’s underwear came in the form of long bloomers, to the knee or just above the knee, in either a loose and light sheer fabric with lace trim, or in close-fitting, machine-knitted cotton. There were also teddies and camisoles, worn with a sense of modern naughtiness by the younger women and viewed with maternal concern by the older. Petticoats with supporting lace or embroidered cupped bodices. Bras as we know them today were still waiting in the future, but the complete lack of support of the well-named ‘flapper’ style of the twenties was no longer fashionable. Pantyhose was still to come, so stockings were worn with a suspender (garter) belt and no doubt thrilled men then as they do now. Stockings for day-wear would be sturdier than their evening-wear counterparts. I must remember to pack some silly little slippers just to keep Dottie’s feet warm in the bedroom, and the hallway to the bathroom and back.
There will be a day outfit in the form of a day dress or suit/costume. If we are travelling light, I think we might manage with one or two, but if we have a whole car to fill, we might take three or four outfits just for a two-day trip. The style for the 1930s was fairly straight but more feminine and less plain than the very straight, quite masculine styles of the 20s. Picture a dress with a very slight flair, an A-line skirt, or perhaps quite close-fitting to the knees then flaring out, gently for a day dress and more dramatically for an evening dress when the wearer might want to dance and feel the fabric swirl out about her. The length would reach to the mid-calf for day-wear with ankle-length or floor-length for evening. Shoes had quite high heels, say three inches or so, and were often buckle-fastening or laced. With the exception of tennis shoes and gumboots, shoes would have been made of leather.
Styles were plain in execution, but with a lot of embellishment such as bows or jabottes at the neck, functional or decorative buttons on pockets, sleeves and bodices. There were variations in lapel size and shape, from deep and wide, to small and standing up straight, from squared off, to drooping downward. Belts, cuffs, shoulder tabs and waistband tabs were very ‘in’. The zip was still a few years away from general fashion use, so buttons, hooks-and-eyes, and buckles were used far more than we do today. For day-wear necklines were quite high. Fabrics would be mainly cotton, linen or wool, although man-made fibres that laundered easily such as crepe-de-chine and artificial silk for blouses or light summer dresses were popular. And of course, no lady would go out without a little clutch purse, gloves, and a hat, even in summer.
Hat boxes could accommodate two or three hats depending on size and shape, so Dottie doesn’t need to worry about wearing the same hat all weekend! I’d suggest a neat little beret for going out in the day time, or perhaps a felt cloche hat with a rakish feather, some beading or ribbons, or if the weather is very warm and sunny, I think she’ll need a wide-brimmed straw hat to keep the sun off her face.
Then obviously she will be changing for dinner, so a long evening gown is a definite must. And a girl can’t wear the same frock two evenings in a row, so perhaps I’ll take two gowns. White was a popular colour for an evening dress for a young woman, although shades of red, brown and green were also worn. Older ladies tended to favour black too, though this was not usually seen on young women due to its funereal connotation. Gowns would be flaring, long, and low-cut, or with cut-out sections in the bodice, and were made from taffeta, satin, or silk mixes: silk-satin, silk-organdie, silk-crepe. The shoulders were often bare, or the gown might be more or less backless, and rather daring. No wonder the gentlemen flocked to light a lady’s cigarette. Smoking was gaining popularity amongst the young and it was more socially acceptable for women to smoke in public. Shoes for evening wear would be strappy and often silver or gold in colour, and perfect for dancing in, but affording little protection from a partner with two left feet. In case the apologetic gentleman should ask a young lady to step out on the veranda to look at the stars, a lady would also require a wrap, and I’m sorry to say these were very often animal fur, although silks, brocades, velvets and fine wools were also worn.
I think we have everything we need for a summertime weekend in the country. As a maid, of course, I will require only my uniform, a plain dress, sensible shoes and an overcoat. My main fashion pleasure will be confined to taking care of the precious garments of my mistress. I could never hope to own such things.
Of course, I don’t wear the anorak all the time. It’s for special occasions.
At the end of last year, I made a little foray into the world of Golden Age mystery writers, looking briefly at the work of several well-known exponents of the genre, and in more depth at Agatha Christie, her life and her work.
This week I want to tell you a little bit about my favourite detective story writer, Patricia Wentworth, known mainly for her mysteries, but who also wrote romances.
Patricia Wentworth was her pen name. She was born as Dora Amy Elles in 1878 in India, and was educated at Blackheath School for Girls, now Blackheath High School, London.
She married quite young and had her first daughter. Her husband had two sons from a former relationship, one (or possibly both) of whom died in WWI. Her husband died in 1906, when she was still only in her late twenties. Wentworth moved to Camberley, Surrey, England, where she would live until her death in 1961. Wentworth met her second husband and married in 1920, and had another daughter. It was in Camberley Wentworth wrote most of her novels, with her second husband George writing down what she dictated.
Today she is mostly remembered for her 32 murder mysteries featuring private inquiry agent Miss Maud Silver, a former governess, keen observer of human nature and quoter of Tennyson and the Bible. But there are more than 40 other books which don’t feature detective Miss Silver, mostly mysteries, but there are some historical romances, and some poetry and stories for children.
For many years, I found it very difficult to obtain Wentworth’s books. But with the recent rise of small print runs and small presses, and the resurgence in interest in Golden Age and traditional mysteries, her work is enjoying a new popularity and reaching new audiences. Hodder have reissued the majority of the Miss Silver books over the last ten years, with Open Road Media and Dean Street Press publishing virtually all of the other books between them. Readers are often frustrated to find that the books have different titles in the UK and the USA, so please check carefully that you’re not buying the same book twice under different titles. There is an excellent bibliography on the Patricia Wentworth page in Wikipedia, along with publication dates.
Her work has often dismissed as being ‘old-fashioned’, ‘middle-class’, ‘tame’ and dated, but nevertheless I would say these books should not be so easily set aside.
To begin with, some of these books first appeared more than a hundred years ago, and are still popular. A Marriage Under The Terror won the Andrew Melrose prize in 1910, which earned her the handsome reward of two hundred and fifty guineas, quite a sum in those days. There was much speculation about her use of a pseudonym, claiming that it was impossible to keep her real identity a secret.
So we need to see them within their own era. I would agree with critics that some of the novels are not as strong, or as innovative, as others, that several plot devices reoccur (notably the indoor, uncovered well), and that from time to time, ‘the butler did it’. They are strongly romantic, which for me is a good thing, so they don’t fit comfortably into traditional generic categories, but again that is something that current trends are more flexible about. I know some readers find them too sweet, too and that there is not enough guts and gore—but hey, they’re cosies, get used to it.
The strengths of the books lies in the portrayal of the era, and in the way many of the characters are forced to find their way through unfamiliar and difficult circumstances. They are not all wealthy, they are not all high-born, artistic, celebrities or otherwise fortunate. The mysteries are pleasing, often very clever, and the reader can detect along with the protagonist. The writing is intelligent, clear, and lacking in long flowery descriptions, which I personally detest.
I recommend them for students of creative writing who want to improve their dialogue and character writing skills, their plotting skills or anyone who wants to write novels set in the recent past, or for readers who love a traditional mystery without body parts being lopped off, or strong language, or who prefers romance without sex scenes, or who likes something with a strong sense of morality and a satisfying mystery.
If you want to give them a go, below are a couple of my favourite titles:
It’s nearly here! The fourth book in my 1930s Dottie Manderson mysteries is about to be released. I’m still clutching it possessively and cooing over it, but I promise, I absolutely will deliver it to be published on the 17th December for Amazon Kindle and 3rd January 2019 for other formats, including paperback, Nook, Kobo, iPad and more. It is now available for pre-order, if you would like to do so.
It’s been a bumpy journey, but phew… almost there, and I’m already planning the next book in the series and the next non-series book to publish. I’m not sure I can equal the output of many modern authors who put out six or more books a year, but even if I only publish two books this year or next, I shall feel pretty smug, let me tell you. Because as Aldous Huxley said, ‘A bad book is as much of a labour to write as a good one, it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.’ A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘I’m thinking of writing a book,’ or ‘I feel I have a book in me,’ and my response is the same: go ahead and write it!
Here, if you haven’t already seen it, is the first chapter of The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish: a Dottie Manderson mystery book 4. It is rather long, I’m afraid, but I hope you like it.
Chapter One: Hamfield, just outside Nottingham, June 1919.
The war was over. That was the main thing. That was all that mattered. Not the lives lost. Nor the devastation. Not the hostile, resentful power struggle throughout Europe. Not even the victory. In the end, all that mattered was that the long years of anguish and despair had come to an end.
Up and down the country, people celebrated the fact that life could now go back to normal. Whatever that was. Women left their war-jobs in the factories in their tens of thousands, and went home to cook, clean and have babies. Men lay aside their rifles and bayonets and took up their hammers and saws once more. They hammered their swords into ploughshares, figuratively if not literally, and tried to forget what they had seen.
Across the nation, there were street parties, tea parties, balls, lunches, drinks evenings, galas and dances to celebrate the return of the heroes and the return of everyday life as it had been years earlier.
No one mentioned the dead.
The Member for Hamfield and West Nottingham, the Honourable Norman Maynard, with his charming wife Augustine, hosted one such event at their elegant home in the leafy suburb of Hamfield.
It was a glorious evening. The weather for the first week of an English June was perfect: warm and sunny, with a cloudless blue sky and the merest hint of a breeze ruffling its fingers through the early roses, bringing their fragrance lightly into the house.
The ballroom, a recent and somewhat garish addition when viewed from the outside, inside flowed neatly on from the other reception rooms. By the simple expedient of moving the furniture and flinging wide the folding doors that separated the rooms, the whole of the downstairs was transformed into a vast space where guests could mingle, and roam drink in hand, from the dancefloor to the buffet and back again.
In one corner of the ballroom, on a small, purpose-built raised platform, the little orchestra played a series of popular dance tunes, and couples, young and old, circled the floor just as they had done five years earlier. All around them, people gathered in little groups, laughing and talking. Cocktails of all kinds were knocked back in massive quantities.
And obviously, no one mentioned the dead.
The war, Richard Dawlish reflected as he sipped his champagne cocktail with great reluctance, might never have happened.
No one mentioned the dead, but he could still see them: their clutching, decaying flesh protruding from muddy dips and hollows, and at night the rats would come out of their hiding places and nibble the naked vulnerable limbs. Richard didn’t even need to close his eyes. The images were always before him. He carried them with him wherever he went, whatever he did, in his head, in his dreams, his mind, his eyes. He began to think they would never leave him. Even when he was an old man, he would still see those corpses, like so many strange species growing in a wasteland of mire.
Turning, he looked out through the open doors at the long lawn surrounded by blossoming borders. Was this what those millions had died for? A perfect flat green lawn? He took another drink. He couldn’t think of anything else to do, so like the others, he just took another drink.
Behind him in the ballroom, someone tapped a spoon against a glass to get everyone’s attention. The chattering stopped, the laughter faded, and everyone turned to face the Honourable Norman Maynard positioned at the front of the stage. He embarked upon a rambling, largely predictable second-hand speech, culminating in, ‘So let us raise our glasses in a toast as we welcome back our heroes, and thank them for their part in keeping England’s green and pleasant land free of tyranny and destruction.’
There were loud shouts of ‘Hear, hear’, and ‘Just so’, and everyone repeated some jumbled form of the toast and drank. Maynard then said, ‘And another toast to celebrate the fine achievements of some very special young men in the field of combat, and who are here with us this evening. Please join me on the stage: Captain Algy Compton!’ There was a loud and raucous cheer. Maynard continued, ‘Next, I’m very proud to be able to honour my son, Group Captain Michael Maynard.’ There was a further, louder chorus of cheers and catcalls, then someone at the back shouted, ‘Thinks he can bloody fly, so he does!’ There was general laughter, though some of the ladies tutted at the language. Norman Maynard, smiling proudly, responded with, ‘Aye, well, from what I hear, he can fly!’
‘Showed the bloody Boche a thing or two, let me tell you!’ came another voice from the back. Again, everyone laughed, and Maynard said, his good humour slipping slightly, ‘Indeed. But let’s keep it polite, gentlemen, remember the ladies.’ He looked down at his bit of paper. ‘Er, next on the list, is some young scallywag by the name of Second Lieutenant Gervase Parfitt. A second lieutenant at only twenty years of age! That’s a sterling achievement, Gerry, my dear boy!’ A lanky youth nodded, and received with blushes the back-slaps and cheers of those around him as he made his way forward.
The audience, less bored now and enjoying the fun, turned back to Maynard, whose glass was being topped up by a servant. ‘And we mustn’t forget Gervase’s little brother Reggie, better known as Sergeant Reginald Parfitt,’ Maynard paused to drink his toast, then went on, ‘Then there’s yet another of these overachieving Parfitt brothers, this time it’s none other than Artie, a Lieutenant in His Majesty’s navy, which as we all know, is just some strange, salt-water name for a Captain! Lieutenant Arthur Parfitt, ladies and gentlemen. Then last, but by no means least, my nephew Algy’s comrade-in-arms, Lieutenant Richard Dawlish. Richard, my dear fellow, do step up with the others for the photograph. Let’s have some applause for this excellent display of British—er, and colonial, of course—manhood.’
Richard had smiled dutifully and raised his glass for each toast. He had wondered if he would be mentioned and was a little surprised that he was. As a ripple of polite applause went around the room, he made his way forward, embarrassed but smiling. Maynard shook his hand, then the six young men stood together whilst the photographer arrived to capture the moment for posterity. The photographer had some difficulty getting the right light reading and focus, no doubt due to the dozens of dazzling artificial lights in the ballroom coupled with the bright sunlight coming in from outside.
‘Your black face is mucking up his lens, Dickie,’ Reggie laughed. He swayed, clearly fairly tipsy. The others joined in with the joking and laughter. Richard smiled politely and said nothing.
‘Everybody stand perfectly still, please,’ called the photographer.
‘Don’t call him Dickie, he doesn’t like it,’ Gervase said.
‘Oops I forgot! So sorry, Rich-ard,’ Reggie said, slapping Richard’s shoulder. Reggie pronounced the name with the emphasis on the second syllable, in an attempt at mimicking Richard’s strong Jamaican accent. Again everyone laughed, and Richard looked at his feet.
‘Hold still gentlemen, and—smile!’
It seemed to take the photographer forever to get everything how he wanted it and take the wretched photo, but at last they were free to go back to the dancing and drinking.
Richard felt a hand on his arm, and looked round to see Miranda Maynard, smilingly standing on tiptoes to plant a kiss on his cheek. She kept her arm through his, a show of solidarity it seemed. She, the darling of the ball, and he the outsider with the black skin, united against the rest of them.
Richard couldn’t help but notice one or two ladies shaking their heads in disapproval. These ladies muttered to their gentlemen escorts and together they all turned away. Richard was neither surprised nor offended. The British almost universally despised him for his skin colour. And not only them. Even the enemy soldiers he’d come across had been surprised to observe a Jamaican among the ranks of the British armed forces that had overwhelmed them. Especially a Jamaican who gave orders. In their eyes, his honoured achievements and Courage Under Fire would never rise above his complexion.
Miranda gazed into his eyes. ‘Take no notice, darling. They don’t know you as I do. They can’t help being fearfully ignorant.’
She kissed his cheek again. Richard felt she was in danger of incurring her parents’ wrath. He was about to tell her he wasn’t upset by the cold shoulders around him or the comments, but she carried on speaking.
‘Algy, Michael and the rest of them are planning a little drinks party in the pavilion. They’ve snaffled a couple of crates, Mike said, and I’m going down to join them now. Algy is bringing Dreary Deirdre, but in spite of that it should be laugh. You could come too, it’ll be good to let our hair down away from this stuffy lot. And you can keep that awful limpet Reggie away from me. What about it?’
It sounded like a good idea to Richard.
‘And you never know,’ Miranda said softly for his ear alone, ‘you and I might finally get some time alone, if you know what I mean.’ She gave him a wicked smile. Yes, he thought, he knew exactly what she meant.
‘I don’t know. They didn’t invite me, they might prefer it if I didn’t come along. I was thinking of getting back to my lodgings.’
She slanted an eyebrow at him. ‘Good idea, I could come with you.’
That wasn’t what he had in mind. He hastily added, ‘On the other hand, why not, we deserve to relax a little.’ Miranda wrapped herself around his arm and giggled.
Ten minutes later they reached the ‘pavilion’, as the Maynards called it, but which to Richard appeared to be a spacious if somewhat dilapidated summerhouse. Two wide, long steps led up to the door, and the group of young men and girls were sprawled all over the steps, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.
‘Hello Dickie-Dick-Dick!’ Arthur Parfitt called and cackled at his own hilariousness. Like his brother Reggie, he was quite obviously very drunk.
‘Don’t call him that, you know he doesn’t like it, Artie.’ Miranda snapped, folding her long skirt neatly about her and taking a seat on the bottom step. She took a drag of her friend’s cigarette, and watching him through the blue swirling smoke, like the starlets she’d seen in her favourite films, she added, ‘It’s not like you to be so queerly bitchy.’
‘That’s because he’s a bitchy little queer!’ Gervase, drunk, said. Everyone, including Richard. Laughed at that.
Artie clapped his hand to his heart as if mortally wounded and subsided theatrically onto the step. ‘Oh Miranda, Gervase mon frère! I’m cut to the core by your marvellous jibes! Though actually, darling, I prefer to be called Artie. It’s better than Arthur any day of the week. Anyway, Dickie knows it’s just a bit of fun, don’t you Dickie-Dick-Dick?’
Richard ignored him, and took a seat on the other side of Miranda. He accepted a bottle from one of the other girls. She must be Margaret, Richard thought. Her errand completed, she turned back to Gervase, who put a possessive arm about her shoulders. Beyond her, Algy and his girlfriend Deirdre were kissing with complete abandon, ignoring the others nearby. Richard hoped things wouldn’t get too out of hand. The fourth girl was Miranda’s little sister Penny, a sweet kid who looked almost as uncomfortably out of place as Richard felt. She was too young to be drinking beer and talking about the kind of things the rest of them were likely to talk about. He’d give it half an hour, walk Penny back to the party, say goodnight to the Maynards, then make his escape.
He sat in the shade of the large and very beautiful copper beech. It was no blue mahoe, and the leaves were far smaller but they were still more or less heart-shaped, like those of the trees from his homeland. He repressed the aching flashes of memory: playing outside his grandfather’s hillside home, of the little village where his family had been schooled for the last three generations. Lois looking into his eyes, the sound of her laughter. Not long now. He’d be home in six weeks, and still be able to enjoy the long Caribbean summer.
There was an aged swing hanging from the lowest branch of the beech, and at intervals one or other of the girls went to sit on it, and the men took it in turns to push them, although really it was a contest to see who could get the girl to fall off, perhaps flashing her underwear at the same time.
Miranda was chatting with the other girls, and Richard drank another beer Algy handed him, then found he had another in his hand, and he drank that too without even really thinking about it. After half an hour or so, Miranda stubbed out her third cigarette, took his hand, removed and set down his fourth bottle of beer, and pulling him to his feet, drew him off into the copse of rhodedendrons and azaleas, amid catcalls and jeers.
They were gone for twenty minutes. When they returned to the group, both of them were sullen and silent. Miranda went to sit with Deirdre, Algy, Margaret and Artie. Richard sat for a moment beside Penny before asking if she wanted to go back to the main party. She jumped up, relieved, and they set off back to the house.
‘How any lady can go home just on one shoe and not notice is beyond me,’ Norman Maynard’s butler remarked. It was early the next morning, and he, the footman and two maids, were surveying the scene of the party with dismay. They had brought boxes into the ballroom to clear away the debris, which consisted of discarded food, drink, crockery, glasses, napkins, items of clothing, cigar and cigarette butts, the lady’s shoe in question, a cigarette case, two pipes and a host of other oddments. The house was a mess, and on inspection it was discovered that the lawn outside was hardly less strewn with rubbish.
George Blake, the footman, was despatched to the pavilion to clear up after the ‘secret’ drinks party enjoyed by some of the young people. He was pleased to go, as it meant he could enjoy a sneaky cigarette and dawdle for a few minutes in the sunshine. He paused to light his cigarette as soon as he rounded the shrubbery which hid him from the house. He stood for a moment, holding the smoke in the back of his throat before raising his head, eyes closed and his face raised to the sun, then slowly releasing the held breath. It was a perfect morning.
But as he neared the pavilion, something odd on the ground caught his eye. As he came up to it, he saw it was the narrow piece of wood that formed the seat of the swing. He picked it up. Coming slowly closer to the pavilion, the hair on the back of his neck prickling with caution, he beheld the body of Richard Dawlish, hanging by a rope from the stout lower branch of the copper beech tree just beyond the building. The man’s tie was hanging loosely down, his hands swinging freely by his sides, the feet together and turning as if by their own volition as the body swayed with the breeze, first to the left, then to the right, then a little left again, his boots still smartly polished. George Blake vomited onto the bottom step of the pavilion, then throwing aside his cigarette and wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he ran back to the house, saying over and over to himself, ‘Oh my God, oh my dear God.’
Under the watchful eye of the local police, Richard’s body was cut down and carried into the house, where it was laid upon a table in a back room. Several of the young men were up and about by this time, and stood about the room, eyeing the proceedings and sharing cigarettes. The Honourable Norman Maynard was consulting quietly with his friend, Edwin Parfitt, the chief inspector sent out from Nottingham. For once, no one felt much like making jokes about Richard’s name.
Gervase, pale and shocked and looking far too young, said, ‘Never thought he’d be the sort to hang himself. Bit of a quiet one, a loner, perhaps, but suicidal? What do you think, Algy, was he the mental sort?’
‘I wouldn’t have said so.’ Algy’s hand shook as he lit a cigarette. Reggie and Artie were already smoking. Reggie’s hands shook as badly as Algy’s and he said, ‘No one knows what someone will do when they’re a bit queer in the head. Penny said he was saying all sorts to her last night. She was glad to get away from him and back to the party. Drink makes some people more depressed rather than cheering them up. And old Dickie had had an awful lot to drink.’
As the door opened to admit the doctor, Miranda was also there, shocked, her hand to her mouth as she took in the scene. She pushed past the doctor and rushed to Richard’s side, sobbing hysterically, forgetting that she wore only her nightgown and that her negligee was not tied about her. Gervase Parfitt and her brother Michael between them tried to drag her away.
‘Come away, old girl, nothing we can do for the poor fellow now,’ Mike said.
‘You don’t understand!’ she cried, turning to face the lot of them. ‘None of you understand. I loved him! We were going to be married!’
Then she fell down in a dead faint upon the floor.
The newspapers had a field day and speculated about disguises.
As I said last week, literally thousands of people joined the search for Agatha Christie in December 1926 when she disappeared for eleven days. Her car was found, run off the road, at a place called Newlands Corner, in Surrey, in the South of England. Her fur coat was still in the car, and there were some clothes in a suitcase, and some documents, notably an expired driving license. It was assumed–or feared might be a better word–that she had either been kidnapped or murdered–or as her depressed state came to light, had committed suicide.
Indeed, in interviews a few years later, Agatha Christie did admit she had had suicidal thoughts, but it was her Christian belief that suicide was a terrible sin that prevented her from carrying it out. We can see this attitude so often in the news and fiction of that era. When someone kills themselves, they are seen not only as sinful, but as weak, selfish, lacking in moral backbone, and cowardly. So it wasn’t particularly a viable alternative for someone in desperate straits. But to go away, to be completely unknown and anonymous, that was a whole different thing. The prospect of disappearing–even if only for a few days–must have been a tempting one.
Agatha and her daughter Rosalind
But how did she get from Newlands Corner to Harrogate, a distance of 230 miles, having abandoned her car? True, she didn’t check into the hotel for twenty-four hours after leaving home, but I really don’t think could have walked it, no matter how ‘outdoorsy’ she was known to be. She left the house at about 9.45pm on Friday night the 3rd December 1926. The met office reported it as slightly above the average for the time of year, and dry, and about 40f or 4c: which is still pretty chilly. (You can read old met reports here–if like me you revel in that stuff: it’s a fascinating site)
In an interview later, quoted in Surrey Life magazine (Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2008/Words by Alec Kingham) says ‘For 24 hours, I wandered in a dream, then found myself in Harrogate as a well-contented and perfectly happy woman who believed she had just come from South Africa.’ It’s not mentioned here but stated elsewhere, that this newly-invented character was a widow, and I find that interesting: is that why this character was happy? Notably, Agatha was said not to have been wearing her wedding ring, though in view of the wreck of that marriage, perhaps that’s not entirely surprising, though the wronged party often does continue to wear their wedding ring, especially until the divorce is finalised. The breakdown of a long-term relationship is known to trigger a deep sense of bereavement.
Alec Kingham claims that Agatha walked to an inn in Shere (interestingly, this is the same small neighbourhood where Archie had gone to a weekend house-party of a friend, and to be with his mistress) and she stayed there overnight, then went on by train the following day, a tortuous route via local lines to reach Guildford, and from there to London, across London and then on to Harrogate, arriving at the Hydropathic Hotel in the evening.
In my view, she had to have planned it. I’m not talking weeks or months, just a couple of hours is all she would have needed. But I don’t believe this could have all been accomplished off-the-cuff. Is it possible her secretary helped? She was supposed to have been unaware of what had happened, other than the fact that Colonel Christie had left the house for good with his belongings following a final scene, and that Agatha herself went out a little later.
It’s been suggested that the site where she crashed the car had been deliberately set up to resemble a crime scene. And certainly if anyone could have planned and created such an event, she could. Who else would carry an expired driving license on her if not a mystery writer out to set up her own disappearance?
Archie Christie told the police that she had once said that if she wanted to disappear, she knew exactly how she would do it, and she maintained she’d never be found. Perhaps that’s why the newspapers featured her photograph with various disguises such as different hair colour and styles, and with glasses.
Certainly she’d have needed money. She had to travel all the way to Yorkshire, presumably by at least three trains and either underground or bus across London. Even in the 1920s, you’d need hard cash for that. And luggage–no respectable hotel will take a guest with no luggage at all, even if they said at the reception desk, ‘Oh I’m only staying for a day or two, the rest of my stuff is in the car.’ So let’s take it as read she had at least a small holdall or suitcase, with a change of clothes. And some cash.
She knew where she was going, she had everything she needed with her. She had to have planned it. Whether or not she had any help from another person remains a mystery, but this could not have been a spur of the moment occurrence.
1926 was the worst of years for Agatha Christie in spite of her successful career as one of the world’s most famous detective fiction authors. Her sixth novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published that year. Yes it was, and still is, massively successful, but it had its critics and detractors, becoming almost a notorious book, and a difficult one to follow up.
Agatha’s husband Colonel Archibald Christie took himself off, overseas then to London, leaving Agatha to cope with first the illness, then the death of her mother, alone. She had the task of clearing her childhood home, again, without her husband of 12 years’ support. Meanwhile, he had announced he was having an affair with Nancy Neele, the former secretary of a friend, and that he wanted to end his marriage to Agatha and marry Nancy.
After a brief reconciliation in 1926 which Agatha described as ‘a period of sorrow, misery and heartbreak’, on the 3rd of December he packed his bags and left for good, stating that he wanted a divorce. That was the day Agatha disappeared. He went to a friend’s for a weekend house-party, planning to meet Nancy Neele there. She left the house late that evening, and was not seen again for eleven days.
Her car was found abandoned off the road at Newland’s Corner in Surrey. It’s a fairly remote spot, even today, and a beautiful, popular place for walking. Her fur coat and a suitcase containing clothes and an expired driving license were found in the car, prompting fears of kidnapping or worse. It was all over the news, with sensational headlines such as ‘Where is Mrs Christie? Foul Play?’ and my personal favourite, from the Surrey Times: ‘Riddle of Newlands
Corner: Strange Disappearance of Authoress: Hatless and Coatless at 6am’. It’s easy to see how exciting this all was for everyone not actually involved. A mystery author caught up in her very own mystery. She had left home the night before, so the ‘At 6am’ bit was a melodramatic invention. But they came by that because a man claimed to have been stopped by a woman who asked him to start her car for her, and the description answered hers. It’s all a bit tricky to piece together now, as this was supposed to have been at Newland’s Corner, so did she drive off then come back to the same spot? Or did he just want his fifteen minutes of fame? Anyway, she was gone, and it wasn’t until the 14th December that she was found, 230 miles away.
Agatha Christie was found at the Hydropathic Hotel (now called the Old Swan, a lovely-looking place) in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, where she had been staying, registered under the name of Mrs Teresa Neele, purporting to be a widow from South Africa. It was said that she had seen the newspaper reports and had even joined in with the speculation about the fate of the missing author. Staff and guests at the hotel had seen her dancing the Charleston, doing crosswords, reading the newspaper and playing Bridge, apparently unaware of the furore her disappearance had caused.
And it was a furore, too. There were an estimated 500-1000 police officers involved in the search for her, and approximately 15,000 people volunteered to help in the search of the area in Surrey. Bloodhounds, Beagles and German Shepherds sniffed the area, and even her own fox terrier was brought in to try to track her down. Local ponds were dredged or searched by divers, airplanes flew over the area.
In the literary world, her colleagues were keen to help: Arthur Conan Doyle took a glove of Agatha’s to a medium as he feared she was dead, but received no help from the ‘other side’. Dorothy L Sayers searched for clues and generally did her bit as a sleuth to try to get to the bottom of the problem. Rewards were offered and Archie Christie wanted Scotland Yard to be called in.
A couple of people said they made this discovery and rang the police to claim the £100 reward, a member of the hotel staff, a musician in a band playing in the hotel. Whoever did it, the police, and Archie Christie arrived in a media flurry to claim both. Christie and the truth about what happened. Officially, she hit her head and lost her memory. Archie got her to a psychiatrist or two to bear out the story, and then took her home to recover.
The theories abounded. Some said it was a fake, a mere publicity stunt to boost book sales (not that she needed to). Others said the memory loss was genuine, amnesia is not always total. Psychiatrists seemed to be divided in their opinions. Officially, the line was never wavered from: she hit her head when she crashed her car, and she lost consciousness. When she awoke, she thought she was someone else. Still other opinions suggested she had sought revenge on Archie, and wanted to either panic him, or make him realise how much he still loved her, or even, in extremis, to have him arrested for her murder.
But she came home, the marriage was dissolved, somehow life got back to some kind of normality. And the books continued to be written, Including Unfinished Portrait, a book under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott, where a woman attempts suicide, prompting parallels to be drawn with Christie’s own life.
My personal view is, this was a woman at a crisis point in her life. Her mother had died, her husband was leaving her, and a successful career was a daunting and unforeseen prospect for a shy country woman. She was known to have suffered periodically from depression and had by her own admission had thoughts of suicide, though her Christian upbringing precluded that as an option. I think she just had to get away, fix herself, rest, and the amnesia story was the only half-credible way out of the fix. These days celebs and career people dash off to little refuges and retreats to get away from the media. In those days, I’m not sure they did. I just think she felt out of options.
Madeleine Carroll: The 39 Steps (Hitchcock 1938). She was once the highest paid actress in the world and in 1938 earned £250,000.
I’m fascinated by the 1930s. That’s why I write a series of murder mysteries set in the 1930s and featuring Dottie Manderson, a young female amateur detective, as the protagonist. I wanted to show just how different life was for everyone, not just young women, in the 1930s. I’m writing from a British perspective, as that is my own nationality and my research and writing centres around this, but the era presented both challenges and successes for many nations around the world. Let’s go back to Britain in the 1930s. What was life like for the majority of people? It was very much a time of transition. Things were still getting back to normal after the war, as villages and towns slowly rebuilt themselves literally and figuratively. Attitudes were poles apart, with very ‘modern’ liberal ideas sitting at the same dinner table as conventional, very reactionary, right wing beliefs.
To set the scene for this inter-war period: the gaiety and extravagance of the 20s was over. The Great War, as WWI was known, was becoming more distant, and the Second World War was as yet undreamed of. In fact, there was a common consensus regarding the Great War that ‘it could never happen again’. It was ‘great’ in the sense of huge and terrible, not in our modern sense of brilliant and something admirable. Even language has changed since then! It’s no exaggeration to say that millions of lives were changed forever. There were an estimated 40 million casualties, a little less than half of whom died, the rest were injured, many very seriously. 40 million. How could such an incomprehensibly vast sum of people die or be injured in the space of just a few short years? Is it any wonder that people, especially the young, were a little bit crazy, a little bit over-exuberant in the 20s? Yet even in the early 30s, there were already the rumblings and murmurings that would lead to a repeat of that terrible disaster.
While their menfolk went to war, thousands of women left their homes to take on their jobs. For many, working outside the home was a new and liberating experience. But when the war was over, the men came back and they wanted their jobs back. The newly-emancipated women were in many cases reluctant to go home and cook and clean and have babies. They had their own money for the first time, they mixed with other women and learned new skills, often embracing possibilities that had never been available before. How could they give all that up? On both sides of the gender divide, there was social tension over the conflict between a desire to maintain the status quo, and a desire for freedom and equality. This continued to grow throughout the 20s, into the 30s and is still an issue today.
And let’s not forget that millions of men simply never did come back, and their wives, sweethearts, mothers, daughters and sisters had to become their own breadwinners. It’s not very surprising that they also wanted the same advantages as men, in terms of work, pay, sick pay, working conditions, opportunities for advancement and education. Women had won the right to vote in 1918, following many years of campaigning by both men and women. But the right to vote was only for women over 30 who were married. (Or who were voted parliamentary representatives, an almost, but not quite, impossible task) Was it presumed, as was often said, ‘your husband/father will tell you how to vote’? It wasn’t until 1928 that everyone, regardless of gender or marital status, was allowed to vote, and this came down to everyone over 18 in 1967. But in the 1930s there was still the sense of something new, something experimental, and many women either didn’t want the responsibility of political decision-making, or lacked the information they needed to make an informed choice. Women began to move into political life, but still very much, generally speaking, in a supporting role. Nancy Astor was the first British MP to take her seat in Parliament in 1919, with Margaret Bondfield, a Labour politician, becoming a cabinet minister in 1924.
People of colour and of different backgrounds were, in the majority of cases, socially separate from the white Christian majority. Again this continues today, doesn’t it, though it seems incredible to discriminate against someone due to skin colour. Reading the popular literature of the day could lead you to think there were no people of colour in Britain in the 1930s. But there have been vibrant non-white communities living in Britain for over two thousand years. We just didn’t admit it. People of colour were treated with hostility and resentment, and opportunities were often denied them through financial penalties or social stigma and racism. But here too, there were pressing demands for social change, and many welfare and interest group sprang up, working to change attitudes and lives practically and politically, for example, The League of Coloured Peoples and The Negro Welfare Association, to name two. However, there were successful non-white professionals such as lawyers as early as the 1850s, for example, John Thorpe and in the 1860s, Monmohon Ghosh. (More info available from the Society of Black Lawyers) And the Jazz age (1920s and 1930s) was enabling black musicians, artists, entertainers and actors to produce and perform their art, albeit without the same freedom and acceptance of white people.
Next week: Life in the 1930s: Technology and Fashion.
I’m unashamedly cheating this week–in two ways, as this should have been posted three or four days ago, so it’s really last week’s, and I’m also recycling material… Quite a lot of my friends on Facebook are doing the Book Cover challenge, where you post a picture of the cover of a favourite book, every day for seven days. I rose to the challenge because I love to bang on about the books I love, and I am often stuck for something to say to connect with my loved ones. So I quickly selected my top seven.
That left soooooo many books neglected on my shelves. And if the house was on fire, and computer, family and cats were safe (not in that order, obviously), surely I would have time to save more than seven??? After chatting with a few mad book lovers like myself, we decided to create our top twenty books, as seven just doesn’t seem enough.
And so I decided I would share these with you, the world. It’s just a list of the twenty books I would buy first if the worst happened and I had to replace my library, or the twenty books I would shove into a sizeable shoulder bag if things got serious.
But in no particular order….because you can’t choose between your babies, right?
Danger Point by Patricia Wentworth. Why? a) I love old-school murder mysteries especially romantic ones such as Wentworth used to write. b) This one cost me a fair bit as it’s quite old and gorgeous now, and I love it. c) Unusually, it’s about a heroine in an unhappy marriage. (Spoiler – soz!)
Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde. Nothing to do with sexy goings-on and shenanigans, it’s a clever and hilarious novel about a society that is halting the relentless progress of technology, and has a new take on social divisions. My particular favourite moment is where some of the characters help out at an accident in the street, then give each other feedback on their performance.
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. I really like Umberto Eco’s works, and have quite a few of his books, but this is the one I come back to again and again, even more so than The Name of The Rose. With more historical facts and conspiracies than all of Dan Brown\’s books put together, this is the book for challenging your brain.
Death Comes As The End by Agatha Christie. Again, as a mystery aficionado, it’s no surprise that I would include a book by Agatha Christie, but this one is a mystery with a difference. I was a teenager when I first read this, and there is a little mild romance as well as the mystery in this, but the shining star of this book has to be the historical period. It was the first time I realised that people from ancient history were real people like us, with goals, ambitions, loves and hates. This books made me want to study history.
The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte. This was the first book I read by this author and it remains my favourite. If you enjoy an intellectual challenge, or if you just like mysteries,this is a great read.
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller… by Italo Calvino. I love books that are a bit quirky and unusual, and this one is certainly that. I really enjoyed the premise about a reader whose new book turned out to have the wrong book inside, but also the actual story is a strange, pleasurable little secret just waiting to be discovered. I’ll say no more about that. Just buy it and see.
Red Bones by Ann Cleeves. Ann Cleeves is a great crime writer with an incredible eye for a setting, and a creator of a wide range of characters. This is another story where the events of the past reach forward to wreak havoc in the present. And boy, does this woman put her characters through some stuff.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. A perennial evergreen. For those who dismiss it as early chick-lit, think again. It is subtle, witty and intelligent, and takes the closest look you will ever find at family life. Yes, true it is well-to-do family life. And any woman who could support herself with her writing gets my admiration. This is my favourite book of all time.
One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters. Another historical whodunit, beautifully crafted, intelligent, elegant, and entertaining. I love the very human characters in these books, and although this is the second of the series, I always think of it as the first establishing novel.
Lone Pine Five by Malcolm Saville. This is a children’s detective series written in the middle part of the twentieth century. It was the natural successor to the less absorbing (for me anyway) and less intelligent Famous Five series, and featured a variety of children and young people who were friends, relatives and who stumbled into mysteries and solved them without too much help or intervention from adults. I wrote to Malcolm Saville when I was about 10 or 11 to tell him how much I enjoyed his books, and he kindly wrote back to me. An integral part of my childhood.
Madam Will You Talk by Mary Stewart. Now mainly remembered for her Arthurian series, Mary Stewart wrote a number of ‘romantic suspense’, mysteries with a strong romantic flavour, and this is my favourite of those. Oh for the days when we could all get away with chapter titles that were taken from quotations from literature! I usually just all mine, ‘chapter one’, ‘chapter two’, etc.
Death In Kashmir by M M Kaye. I do so wish M M had written more than six romantic suspense novels before going on to write what I consider to be ‘literary’ fiction. I don’t much like anything too literary, but as you’ve probably guessed, I LOVE romantic suspense!!! (It’s coming back into vogue, you know.) (At least, it had better be.) I love the settings of Stewart’s books, though sadly often portrayed only through the eyes of the colonial population.
A Double Sorrow by Lavinia Greenlaw. I don’t read a massive amount of poetry, I can’t concentrate long enough for that, but I adored this book which I read in two sittings, each time from cover to cover. The language is beautiful and finally I read the story of Troilus and Cressida!!!
The Lewis Man by Peter May. Superlative novel, I loved this. A story with it feet rooted firmly in the past: history and crime, two of my favourite combinations.
Free To Trade by Michael Ridpath. This book was so, so new and sophisticated when it first came out, and seriously took the publishing world by storm, not least because of the massive advance paid to Ridpath. It was followed by a number of other books set in the financial or business world, and I have really enjoyed them all, but this first one was exceptional.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. This is a slow moving, beautiful, wistful monument of a work. It unfolds like a flower, capturing your heart. The movie was great, but the book is better. Exquisite. Tissues required.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Another intellectual challenge, but it really doesn’t matter if you’ve forgotten all the ancient Greek you learned at school (!!!), this murder mystery will keep you guessing. After reading it for the first time, I felt that Tartt had created a whole new ballgame for crime writers. A modern classic, and should be required reading for all aspiring authors.
Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by P G Wodehouse. This book should be available on the NHS. So funny, so clever. I really struggled to choose just one Wodehouse book. If you’ve read any of the Jeeves books (of which this is one) maybe try a Blandings one next? I feel Wodehouse makes the writing of humorous fiction look very very easy, when in fact it is extremely clever. Plus, I loved the title.
The Evil Genius by Wilkie Collins. I only started to read Collins about ten years ago or so, I’m rather ashamed to say, and then only because it was a set text on some course or another. But I quickly came to regard his works as great page-turners, and The Evil Genius is my favourite, with it’s Gothic overtones. Who wouldn’t want to be considered an evil genius???
The Listening Eye by Patricia Wentworth. You didn’t really think I’d only choose one Wentworth book, did you? The title of this one is very clever. Wentworth is really in her prime here with this book, which I first read when in my early teens, or maybe a bit younger. I remember raiding my mother’s books for something to read when I ran out of my usual stuff, and she started me on Patricia Wentworth and then, of course, Agatha Christie, both of which became lifelong favourites both in terms of the individual author, and the genre.
I am so thrilled to welcome Stuart Aken this week who has very kindly agreed to talk about his highly acclaimed and varied work. I’m going to jump straight in because as you will see, Stuart’s got a lot to tell and I didn’t want to cut any of it!
Q1. What kind of books do you write?
It’s tempting to answer this facetiously with ‘Great!’ but I’ll be a little more considered.
My dislike of the cubby-holing and restrictions of genre has persuaded me to ignore it as a guide to my writing. My books tell stories first and foremost. I’m interested in the human condition, justice/injustice, the abuse of Big Business, and the environment, but I’m also fascinated by our capacity as a species to produce wonderful objects, design complex and intriguing theories to explain our world, to love, to hate, to kill and to create. So, I write stories that include romance, sometimes with erotic content to emphasise the difference between love and lust. I write stories that project into the future to see where we, the human race, may be in years to come. I write stories to explore ideas and the way myth and legend can become driving forces for people’s beliefs.
Because readers generally like to be given some direction when looking for books, I’ll apply the recognised labels to what I’ve written so far. But none of my books fall entirely within the confines of these pigeonholes we call genres.
Breaking Faith is a love story with dark undertones. Essentially it’s a romance, set in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that is the Yorkshire Dales in England.
The Methuselah Strain is set on Earth some hundreds of years hence and follows the exploits of a woman who’s an IT genius on a search for a man who can help her create a child by natural means in a world of hedonistic leisure.
M.E. and Me is a medical memoir of my ten years with ME/CFS and celebrates my recovery from that condition, whilst giving readers information and guidance on how to cope with it.
A Seared Sky: Book 1, Joinings; Book 2, Partings; Book 3, Convergence, is an adult epic fantasy trilogy set in an imagined world. It follows the quest of a party of pilgrims led on a dangerous mission by their religious leader. Told through the viewpoints of three separate couples, it interweaves their tales as they travel in the hope of finding justice and freedom. This is largely an adventure story in the fantasy mode, but avoiding the dragons and sword and sorcery routes.
Blood Red Dust: Generation Mars, Book 1is set on Mars in the year 2074 and follows a group of chosen scientists as they settle on the red planet in an attempt to continue the human race after the Earth has been devastated by climate chaos. They are pursued by a religious extremist group intent on destroying all human life.
Stuart, I’ve read Blood Red Dust and loved it! Looking forward to the next one and I’m hanging on your WIP progress updates each week on Twitter. But moving on…
Q2. What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?
I was brought up in a household without books. My mother and father both read, but they obtained their books from the local library, since they lacked the means to buy them. As a result, I’d read the entire contents of the children’s section by the age of 11. It contained all the children’s English classics as well as some American books for children. I approached the fearsome librarian and asked if I might borrow books from the adult section (available once age 14 was reached). She gave me permission, provided I passed each book in front of her for approval. I’m unsure whether she permitted my first book, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, because she was unaware of its content or because she felt it really was suitable. A book that dealt with the horrors of trench warfare, the expletives of soldiers and their adventures with prostitutes, may not have been the best introduction to adult literature but it educated me in the ways of the world. That we had no TV in the house until I was 14 years old meant I spent a lot of time reading.
As a young adult, I read great quantities of science fiction; Ray Bradbury’s wonderful lyrical style, John Wyndham’s fascinating stories, and the works of Aldiss, Asimov, and so many other great authors. Later, I tackled many of the classics. And I read a lot of contemporary novels: Graham Greene, John Fowles, William Golding and Iris Murdoch were among my early favourites.
Q3. What are you working on at the moment?
Last year, my publisher launched Blood Red Dust, a science fiction novel set on Mars. At present, I’m interrupting the writing of book 2 in the Generation Mars series to complete this interview. But I’ll be back to the writing tomorrow. The book continues the story of those early pioneers, but is set five hundred years into the future. That, in itself, should say something to you about the nature of the book, I hope. I prefer not to discuss the WIP whilst I’m in the process of creation, so I’m afraid that’s as much as I can tell you at present. Even the title is currently not for public consumption!
Q4. What can we look forward to in the future from you?
Once I’ve completed the book referred to above, I’m keen on writing more short stories, and having a serious attempt at some poetry. Short stories, apart from being a pleasure to write, really concentrate the mind and tighten the storytelling faculties. And poetry is a great way to develop concise style and explore metaphor and simile, as well as being an ideal medium for protest against the ills of the world. A marvellous way to indulge the imagination and widen the creative mind. I’ll continue to write my blog posts. And I’ll begin the research and development of book 3 in the Generation Mars series.
Q5. Who are your favourite authors?
I estimate I’ve read some ten thousand books. That’s a lot of words. A great many authors. Most have contributed something to my writing in one way or another, even if it’s a warning about how not to do it! But I suspect I’ve been influenced most heavily by Ray Bradbury, Iris Murdoch, Stephen King, Dorothea Brande and Graham Greene. I’ve enjoyed Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, Tom Sharpe, John Le Carré, Richard Adams, Nicci French, D.H. Lawrence and Howard Spring, among many others.
Q6. What do you do when you’re not reading?
If I’m tired, I watch the idiots’ lantern: it relaxes and is undemanding at the end of the day. But I love walking, and my wife Valerie, and I are fortunate enough to live within the boundaries of an area of Gloucestershire called the Forest of Dean. The woods are extensive and we have to walk only a hundred yards from our front door to enter the steep public footpath that leads into the trees that grow either side of the valley in which we live. I was once a professional photographer and I still indulge for my own pleasure. The garden is a work in progress and we love to get out there and try to tame it in the good weather.
Q7. What is your writing process?
Ah. I’m a pantster. That is, I write without plotting. I know many writers find this approach inexplicable and even a little terrifying. But I’ve tried the plotting route: I wrote 78,000 words of a thriller by hand on lined paper in the days before electronic typewriters became easily available (yes, I’m that old!) I wrote that book to a plot. When I went back to start the editing and read what I’d written, I was so dissatisfied by the result that I chucked the whole thing in the bin. That story still lives in my head. Maybe, one day, I’ll revisit it.
So, writing as a pantster: I develop my cast of characters first. I’m a visual man so I collect pictures from the internet and use these as the physical basis for my characters. I use a table to describe each of them, give them a history, family, background, ambitions, personality traits and any other aspects I feel are needed to get to know them well. At the back of my mind I know what I want to say in the story, and I develop a very lose framework, which I don’t write down. It resides in my head so it can be altered as it develops. But I generally know how the story should end. I set my characters free into the location(s) I’ve chosen or designed and place barriers in the way of their ambitions and then allow them to get on with it. Often, they take unexpected turns and go off in directions I never intended. This means I have to rewrite when I start the first edit. I never read what I’ve written the previous day, but always end a day with a short or an unfinished sentence that acts as a prompt for the next writing session. And I always finish the story before I read any of it back.
When I was younger, I could sit down with no idea in my head and write a short story from start to finish in a day. On one occasion I completed a 10,000 word story this way. These days I’m a little more relaxed, but I generally write around 2,000 words a day when I’m in the creating phase. Editing takes a good deal of time, especially if further research is needed. But I enjoy the whole process: there’s something really satisfying about constructing a sentence from exactly the right words, don’t you think?
Let me thank you Caron, for this opportunity to let readers, and other writers, know a little more about me. I’ve enjoyed our chat and it’s a privilege I appreciate. I hope I haven’t been too wordy. Loving the language, I do sometimes tend to overindulge!
Thank you, Stuart, it’s been a fascinating insight! I am also a pantser, and whenever I’ve tried to use a plotting ‘system’, I lose heart very quickly.