Reading 1959: Starving artists and haunted boarding schools

Mademoiselle B... and The Unspeakable Skipton

In search of obscurities from 1959, I decided to look through book review columns from that year in the newspaper archives.

It was The Times that threw up The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson and Mademoiselle B… by Nancy Pearson.

The former has gone into my top ten discoveries from this year. Pitched as a satire, it’s actually dreadfully sad, telling the story of a lonely, poverty-stricken English writer living in Bruges, pushing away anyone who might care for him.

A pompous, pretentious snob, Daniel Skipton regards himself as a Great Writer, having had limited success with a literary novel a decade or so earlier. He writes around 240 words a day of his new novel, filling the rest of his time with scrounging, petty con artistry and a little pimping.

The atmosphere is close to Highsmith’s Ripley novels or perhaps Simenon – oily canals, brown cafes, drab brothels and decaying aristocratic houses.

Though not a crime novel, it might be considered a story of suspense.

The book covers a few weeks during which a party of English tourists is in town. They’re drawn together because he hopes to exploit them, taking them to live sex shows and restaurants, while they find him amusing. Meanwhile, a wild card is in play – an Italian count who might or might not be what he seems.

I spent the last 50 pages fretting over whether Skipton’s rather pathetic Big Score would come together – as his guts growl and health fails, will he be able to afford to eat, or be sent back to scavenging in bins?

He’s not likeable, that’s the point, except that, as the book wears on, a grudging respect forms: he really is committed to being an artist and his constant hustling is in service of that ideal.

And the stream of spite is preemptive and defensive – he hates himself more than anyone else could possibly hate him.

And it turns out it’s still in print, so not obscure at all – I’m just ignorant.

What does it tell us about 1959? In some ways, it feels as if it could have been written in the 1930s, except that objects, attitudes and acts which might have been kept off stage two decades earlier are proudly out on display.

* * *

Mademoiselle B… is less brilliant but still deserves to be better known. Or at least know at all – Goodreads doesn’t even list it, as far as I can see.

It’s a short book, barely a novel, that seems to have been sold as a titillating tale of forbidden lesbian love.

In fact, it’s a gentle, melancholy story of a schoolgirl’s fascination with a young teacher who is either mad, or haunted, or a little of both.

The setting, a boarding school in France, is depicted in perfect detail, from the rotten stink of the canteen to the sinister presence of ever watchful, elderly surveillants. There is always discordant, hesitant piano music somewhere in the far distance.

Boredom and seclusion breed tension and send everyone slightly insane, turning petty disagreements into soap opera and crushes into great passions. When the narrator leaves the school to convalesce on the coast, and has the company of other young people in less Gothic surroundings, she all but forgets Mademoiselle B.

What I didn’t expect, but enjoyed enormously, was the supernatural element which gave a flavour of the Tanzschule from Argento’s Suspiria or one of those ‘women running away from a mansion at night’ paperbacks.

The girls all believe the school is haunted by its past residents, whose portraits hang on the walls, and Mademoiselle B seems especially sensitive to this idea. She feels their hands holding hers in the dark, they whisper her name, and one particular attentive ghost comes to her room at night.

At the great end-of-term ball with which the book climaxes, it’s strongly hinted that she might be right, as mysterious, uncanny masked figures mingle with pupils in fancy dress

Its relevance to 1959? The faint Hammer Horror vibe, perhaps? It’s certainly an interesting book to read alongside A Separate Peaceanother tale of gay love (no it isn’t, or is it?) in a boarding school environment published in the same year.

He’s a creep, he’s a weirdo

A figure in an alleyway.

In writing The Grave Digger’s Boy, I didn’t want to take a detective character off the peg and so created Ben Hodge – a loner, but not in a cool way; and, frankly, a bit odd.

Having grown up with Inspector Morse, on TV and in print, and later graduating to Scandinavian crime writing, from the earliest books I wrote (unpublished) I’ve tried to avoid the obvious tropes.

I just didn’t feel there was room for another middle-aged police officer struggling with personal relationships, drinking too much, driving a vintage car and obsessing over one genre of music or another.

And then, of course, there’s Monkfish:

My first attempts to break free of cliche didn’t really work.

I tried writing detectives who were professional, didn’t drink to excess and had functional families. An interesting exercise in realism but a recipe for boredom: Detective Inspector Graham Beige.

Next, I thought about what a 35-year-old detective might actually do in their spare time in the 21st century and came up with a character who sat in the dark playing video games.

Do you know what? This almost worked. But… It’s not very sexy, is it? (Sorry, gamers.)

In recent years, I worked on multiple versions of multiple novels about an uptight careerist struggling to make connections with his colleagues partly because he doesn’t drink.

This was better, and I still hold out hope for pulling this together in a meaningful way, but in writing a cold character unsure of his identity, I ended up with one lacking personality.

In recent years, there’s been a trend for distinguishing otherwise generic detective characters by giving them mental health conditions: uncontrollable rage, multiple personality disorder, psychotic delusions, autism, obsessive compulsive disorder…

I played with this a little, too: one detective was maintaining an imaginary dialogue with a dead colleague via voicemail; another was haunted by a manifestation of the persona he’d inhabited while undercover – a sort of partner who existed only in his head.

Again, these were interesting ideas, but didn’t quite cohere as I hoped.

In Ben, it feels as if it all came together.

That’s partly because I started with a character in a moment and let the story grow from there.

At points in constructing the plot of The Grave Digger’s Boy, I would find Ben pulling to do things I didn’t want him to do, that didn’t work for the story as I’d envisioned it.

But I couldn’t stop him, could I? The character had an internal power source of its own and would go where it wanted to go.

So, Ben behaves compulsively, inappropriately and badly at times. He’s awkward, emotionally stunted and not terribly likeable, at least on the surface.

What should happen, what I gather from reviews is happening, is that Ben grows on people. Or, at least, they come to understand him, even if they wouldn’t particularly want him to be their new flatmate.

And he does ‘grow’, as the cliche goes. His adolescent fascination with Esther Garrett, and the way it manifests, is a reflection of immaturity – of a childhood disrupted and interrupted.

Lots of young men are a bit like Ben when we’re young – I certainly was, which of course helped me write him. But we learn through life, university, work and relationships how to function.

Ben is a person who lacked those opportunities, or failed to seize them, and so is only half there when the novel begins. At the end, he’s whole, for better or worse.

You can buy the book via Amazon UK or Amazon US. If you’ve already read it, please rate it and/or leave a review either there or at Goodreads.

Publication day reflections

The Grave Digger's Boy

I’ve been waiting a long time for this and now it’s here, it feels… weird. Good. But weird.

It’s one thing to daydream about being a writer but quite another to know that people are actually downloading something you’ve written and reading it.

I’m as nervous about family reading it as I am about strangers. I feel exposed altogether.

I’ve done everything I can. I had the idea. I wrote the book. I rewrote the book. I rewrote the book. I rewrote the book.

It’s as good as I can make it, and I’m proud of it.

But will readers like it?

The reviews so far are good, which is encouraging.

(If you have time to leave an honest rating and/or review, by the way, that would be great.)

But there’s a lot riding on it, for me at least: if this book is successful, however you choose to measure that, it increases the likelihood that I’ll get to write another, which I so badly want to do.

I’ve got the next idea in mind – something set in post-war Bristol – and have started plotting and researching.

Anyway, publication day. Here it is. There the book goes, out of my control, no longer mine to own.

The Grave Digger’s Boy is available via Amazon in the UK and US and is best enjoyed as an eBook, though a paperback is also available.

Agatha Christie and Dario Argento: playing fair in crime fiction

Profondo Rosso.

Heads-up: this post doesn’t contain spoilers, I don’t think, but does discuss the mechanics of structure and plot.

Although The Grave Digger’s Boy is a wintry psychological thriller very much in the contemporary style there is one very old-fashioned thing about it: it plays fair with the reader, as per the rules established by the mystery writers of the golden age.

I’ve mentioned Hillary Waugh before. He’s best known as the author of what is arguably the first police procedural novel, Last Seen Wearing, published in 1952, but also wrote a manual of crime writing that was my bible as a teenager.

In Mysteries and Mystery Writing he discusses at length the conventions that emerged in the 1920s through the works of writers such as Agatha Christie and S.S. Van Dine, as recorded by Ronald Knox in 1929.

Here’s an edited version of the list:

  • The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  • All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  • Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  • No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  • No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  • The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  • The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  • The ‘sidekick’ of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  • Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

They were in some ways a reaction against earlier writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, in his Sherlock Holmes stories, frequently sprang surprises on readers, resorted to imaginary poisons, or the intervention of previously unmentioned animals.

If Agatha Christie had written, say, ‘The Speckled Band’, she would have felt obliged to mention at the outset of the story that Grimesby Roylott kept snakes, which Conan Doyle did not.

Adherence to these rules encouraged the development of ingenious tricks amounting to a literary version of the misdirection techniques used in magic – putting clues in plain view but in such a way that the reader’s eyes don’t settle on them, announcing a clue here while letting of a flash-bang there, and so on.

After a while, though, readers got wise.

If there were any cakes with almond around, you knew cyanide would be involved.

If anybody’s face got ‘obliterated’, you knew the victim wasn’t who everyone supposed it to be.

Solutions became tortuous, playing fair by the letter of the law, but going against the spirit, especially in so-called ‘locked room’ mysteries, so that readers once again began to feel short-changed.

The rules, which were never really rules, remember, were eventually overturned by hardboiled crime writers such as Raymond Chandler. They were more concerned with mood and character than games or puzzles. Here’s what Chandler wrote in his essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’:

I suppose the principal dilemma of the traditional or classic or straight deductive or logic and deduction novel of detection is that for any approach to perfection it demands a combination of qualities not found in the same mind. The coolheaded constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace, and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing board. The scientific sleuth has a nice new shiny laboratory, but I’m sorry I can’t remember the face. The fellow who can write you a vivid and colourful prose simply will not be bothered with the coolie labour of breaking down unbreakable alibis.

As a teenager, I was a Chandler obsessive, and came to dismiss Christie.

Growing older and wiser, though, I’ve come to appreciate her artistry and to be less impressed by the dazzle of Chandler’s prose.

Dame Agatha was a brilliant technician and the best of her books have the lightness of P.G. Wodehouse laid over a cast iron structure.

And others have since shown that fair play certainly needn’t mean a lack of atmosphere or art.

Dario Argento, the Italian filmmaker most famous for the bloody and stylish supernatural thriller Suspiria, started out making gialli – a type of crime movie which typically features black-gloved killers picking off victims one after the other in gruesome ways.

Despite sharing some DNA with slasher films such as Halloween or Friday the 13th, the best giallo also draw on Agatha Christie and other classic mystery writers.

Argento’s Profondo Rosso, or Deep Red, is simultaneously the most beautiful and unnerving of all the giallo and the fairest crime story ever put on film. I certainly had it in mind while working on The Grave Digger’s Boy. (I can’t say more without spoiling both my book and Argento’s film, which I highly recommend.)

My novel isn’t an Agatha Christie – nobody gets stabbed with a knife made of ice in the library of a country house; there’s no rounding up of suspects in the drawing room at the end – but I do think a reader who is really paying attention will be able to work out ‘whodunnit’.

Good luck!

You can pre-order The Grave Digger’s Boy for 99p right now. It’s out on Monday 19 August.

Estates, graveyards, flats and fields

A foggy housing estate.

I’ve tried writing all sorts of novels in various settings but somehow, mysteriously, always find the characters drifting back to housing estates, council graveyards, rented flats, rundown pubs and fields on the edge of town.

There’s an obvious reason for this: it’s the world I live in and have always lived in. It’s the world most of us live in.

Bins in the yard. Litter in the hedgerows. Brambles and bus stops.

Terraced houses.

In fact, I have a suspicion that if you could climb into my brain and wander about, you’d find a landscape that resembles the outskirts of a fading town – all traffic-calming measures, ditches and fly-tipping.

In other novels I’ve written (unpublished, as yet) these settings have crept up on me. The stories somehow always leading police officers away from the nice end of town to the terraces and industrial parks where I feel at home.

Canalside.

I used to worry that people would find this boring and un-glamorous but, growing more confident in my instincts, I’ve come to think it only enhances the horror of the crimes I’m writing about.

After all, these are the places where murders really happen, where murderers really live and work – next door to you, me and Auntie Pat.

I want people to respond the way I do when I watch Car Share or This Country only with added unease.

When I describe suburban houses that are a little worse for wear I hope people will think, oh, I’ve been here.

If I describe the broken windows of an unremarkable Gothic chapel in an overgrown cemetery, I want the reader to picture a place they know.

We’ve all stopped to buy something at the One-Stop Shop on the new estate on the edge of town. We’ve all been to a christening in a post-war church on a new estate. We’ve all seen sitting rooms full of laundry, toys and half-finished cups of tea.

Like the details I’ve borrowed from true crime, these help sell the fiction.

Roadside.

The Grave Digger’s Boy takes place in London, Exeter and Okehampton, with a brief excursion to Birmingham, but even so there’s a touch of Subtopia in the treatment: dual carriageways, waiting rooms, scraps of woodland, new-builds and laybys that could be almost anywhere.

Though I can’t claim to have done it consciously, this all echoes the sense of drift and loneliness that defines the protagonist, Ben Hodge. He doesn’t belong anywhere but that’s fine because everywhere is nowhere.

How rural bus rides inspired The Grave Digger’s Boy

Fogged up windows on a bus.

My novel, The Grave Digger’s Boy, starts on a country bus and comes back to that setting multiple times. In fact, the book was largely inspired by two separate experiences on buses.

The first took place outside in Devon where I heard a stranger telling fairy tales of violence on the upper deck.

It was outside Okehampton on a country road in the rain. The chassis was shaking and wet branches kept booming against the steamed-up windows.

The young man was wearing grey tracksuit bottoms. He gripped a plain black holdall in one hand and a tiny mobile phone in the other, which was pressed against his ear.

His voice was loud – he wanted the other passengers to hear the news, that he’d just got out of prison, that he’d nearly killed somebody in a fight, that he never paid for bus tickets because the drivers were too scared to make him, that he was nearly home and ready to get drunk, stoned, laid.

Prison, he announced, was a piece of piss. It wasn’t his first time, he said, and he didn’t expect it to be his last.

I didn’t make eye contact or, I hope, show any sign that I could perceive his existence. I looked into the fog on the glass or at my hands and occasionally into the middle distance.

It wasn’t just me – nobody on the bus seemed to be aware of him which only made it all the more obvious that everybody was. He was a black hole.

That got me thinking about how people, and maybe especially British people, react in these situations. We’ll let people do outrageous things in public spaces because the alternative is too dreadful to consider: social awkwardness and the sapping of time and energy, with the risk of actual violence itself way down the list.

He’ll get off soon, we think, or I will – just a few more stops. But between stops, you’re trapped – locked in a box with a terrifying stranger.

What could a man like that get away with? I wondered. What would he need to do before anybody would stand up to him or push back?

And that’s where my character Aaron Greenslade came from.

A parked bus.

I lived in Penzance for six years and didn’t run a car which meant I spent a lot of time on the so-called loser cruiser, rushing up the coast road to Helston, or winding around the lanes of Penwith.

It was on one of these expeditions that I saw a boy perched on the seat behind the driver’s cabin, reading a comic. The driver was evidently his father and talked to him, quietly and caring, before the bus set off and at stops along the way.

I guessed that the drivers’ rota and a custody agreement were incompatible – that every now and then, this child had to spend a day riding up and down in his dad’s bus, perhaps eating lunch in a depot canteen.

Something about it struck me as utterly melancholy – who, when they are eight or nine years old, wants to spend hours driving up and down in a fogged-up bus looking at the same industrial estates, hedgerows and bus stations?

Here was my protagonist, Ben Hodge.

* * *

How a writer’s brain works – or how my writing brain works, anyway – is to perceive entire stories in moments, or extrapolate entire lives from a few details.

Even more useful, though, is the capacity to store incidents and faces and then, later, crash them together like atoms in a reactor to create bigger, better, more complex stories.

That, for me, is what a novel is.

Bristol Without Cars

BRISTOL WITHOUT CARS.

Bristol Without Cars (#BristolWithoutCars) is, I suppose, what you’d call a Project.

The idea is to capture images of the city without any motor vehicles in shot – not parked, not moving, and it’s been brewing for months, ever since I saw this Tweet:

It resonated because it made me realise how often I’d been frustrated at cars blocking my view of a landscape or a beautiful building when I went to take a picture.

Is anything less romantic than a 2015 Honda Jazz occupying a quarter of the scene?

Here are some embryonic attempts to capture urban scenes in a similar light, snapped with either my FujiFilm X100F, or just the camera on my phone, in the early part of 2019.

An empty road with billboard.
Wormwood Scrubs, London, April.
A shop on a side street.
St Andrews, Bristol, May.
Houses and main road.
Eastville, Bristol, in June.
Totterdown in June
Bath Road, Bristol, in June.
Empty roads in Birmingham
Empty roads in central Birmingham in early July.

That Tweet also stimulated my militant pedestrian tendency. Why should we put up with all that scrap metal littering the streets, blocking pavements and penning us in?

When I was a kid, there used to be an advert which warned against crossing between parked cars. These days, there’s no other option – almost every street is lined with them, bumper to bumper.

And on more than one occasion recently, cars have mounted the pavement to overtake or perform some other manoeuvre, leaving me no option but to leap out of the way making noises like a frightened chicken.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to click your fingers and make them go away?

Well, that’s what taking these photos feels like.

Industrial wasteland.
Netham Road, Wednesday, 21:15.
A pub.
St George’s Road, Sunday, 15:34.

I started taking this really seriously a couple of weeks ago, going out on hunting expeditions along the M32, and keeping my eyes open on the various routes to and from work.

I wasn’t sure of the rules at first – I knew I didn’t want cars in shot, obviously, but what about people or bicycles?

Sharing my photos on Twitter, I got some instant feedback: shots of completely empty streets were more striking than this…

People in a street.
Queen Charlotte Street, Wednesday, 13:33.

…which looks a bit like the kind of CGI rendering a property developer would plaster across a hoarding.

So I decided, rule two: no humans either, just empty streets.

A city street.
Stokes Croft, Tuesday, 18:05.

Responses to this lifeless world were interesting. On the one hand, there were people who saw it as I intended, as a sort of Utopia – ‘River of Orchids where there was a motorway’. The world as a pedestrian friendly playground.

But others said it looked bleak or post-apocalyptic, which it absolutely does. For all my frustration with them, cars are, it turns out, a symbol of life and humanity.

I like the idea of these photos being a kind of Rorschach, with paradise/hell in the eye of the beholder.

I wonder how responses map to the old idea of introversion and extroversion?

With that in mind, one interesting development is how impatient I’m becoming with other pedestrians. When my frame is almost clear and someone takes so long dawdling out of shot that someone else wanders in, I feel something close to fury.

People walking in and out of shot.
Corn Street, Friday, c.12:55.

I’ve also learned that people often wander back and forth when they’re on the phone, presumably because they’re almost where they need to be but can’t hang up quite yet.

I’ve had a few suggestions for ways to remove cars using digital editing techniques, e.g. taking three photos of the same location and then averaging them to remove anything that’s different from one shot to the next. This would clearly be against the spirit of the thing.

So, there’s rule three: no cars or people to be edited out, although I will allow myself a bit of cropping and straightening.

Suburban street.
Bishop Road and King’s Drive, Sunday, 12:33.

Another convention that has begun to emerge (rule four) is around labelling: for the past week or so, when I share these photos, I’ve been saying where they were taken, on which day of the week, and at what time.

That’s because a couple of people asked if I was going out with my camera at 5 am which made me realise that a photo of, essentially, nothing, needs context – a few words so that others can hear the sound of my magical finger-click.

Hill without cars.
Constitution Hill, Sunday, 15:18.

These photos don’t show the cars that are parked just out frame on either side, or the lorry that passed out of view half a second before I hit the button.

I cannot emphasise this enough: there’s hardly been an easy shot yet.

Fumes on a quiet street.
Feeder Road, Wednesday, 19:14.

Even on quiet backstreets or industrial estates which ought to be quiet, there is always – always – a car idling, turning or speeding through.

But that does help me zero in on what looks most unnerving or impressive. We expect motorways to be busy, for example, so a shot of the M32 in momentary blankness has greater impact and, yes, is actually harder to achieve, but not much harder.

Empty motorway
M32, Friday, 18:40.

There are certain images I’m especially proud of because I know how long they took to achieve. This one was like torture but when it came together I literally punched the air, even though the reflection of a car crept into one of the windows.

Empty city centre street.
Wine Street, Friday, 17:58.

In general, the waiting is pleasant. I stand there with people brushing past me or ducking beneath my lens, feeling the sun or rain on my head, listening to birdsong or the sounds of the suburbs, and enter into something like a trance.

When the viewfinder flashes clear, CLICK, then a moment of absolute joy, as if I’ve actually achieved something.

It can be frustrating, especially when I go out on my lunch break from work and know I can only wait so long for the shot to come good. That haste is why the angle is sometimes off, or a finger slips into shot.

The ideal shot shows a long stretch of road to the horizon but, in practice, those are almost impossible. But perhaps that’s the big game I need to be going for. If I get ten in a year, it might be worth it.

Tricks and techniques

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far, feeling my way.

  • Start by looking for a section of road with no parked cars – everything else is a matter of timing.
  • Junctions are good – it seems counterintuitive but there’s usually no parking.
  • Road markings are fun – they add interest and irony – CAR CLUB.
    Use the camera grid for alignment – minimalism looks better with straight lines.
  • Be patient – the frame will clear, the shot will come, even in the busiest spot.
  • But be realistic – on a busy street, go for a head-on shot of the road and buildings opposite, or a slight angle, rather than the full panoramic sweep. (Unless you have all day.)
  • Frame with your feet – if there’s a car in view, shuffle left, right or backwards until it disappears behind a wall or hedge.