Black Valley

January 29, 2014

llanthony prioryMeanwhile, I’ve just delivered the next novel in the series.  It’s entitled Black Valley, and will be published in August. It’s also set in Wales, this time in Monmouthshire, and concerns the theft of a painting and ensuing skulduggery.My research involved taking a look at the world of contemporary art, so I visited a few exhibitons and galleries  in the UK and Europe, and read some guides to the scene, including Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton, and The Twelve Million Dollar Stuffed Shark by Don Thompson. Thornton’s book paints a vivid portrait of who’s who in the art world, and how it functions; Thompson’s explores the crazed economics of it all, and is equally fascinating.

My novel concerns identity.  It centres around an artist who adopts a persona that will intrigue the art world, becoming entangled in a web of crime in the process;  and a protagonist (Jessica Mayhew, my shrink detective) who is newly single and whose curiosity – as ever – leads her into danger. It’s mostly set in Wales, with much of the action taking place around the atmospheric Llantony Priory in Monmouthshire, near where artist Eric Gill once set up his infamous commune. Domestic drama, gothic elements, scary action scenes, and  psychotherapeutic musings (this time about the psychology of twins), very much as in the last book…

charlotte-williams-the-house-on-the-cliffThe US edition of my novel has been published by HarperCollins. It’s had a good reception there.  Here’s a review: ‘ This solid domestic suspense debut, nicely seasoned with gothic elements, should please Gone Girl fans and those who crave a real page-turner. Williams’s 40-something psychotherapist makes a particularly vulnerable protagonist. While Jessica might be the worst therapist ever at keeping her personal agenda out of the session, readers will admire how Williams has created such believable characters and how she weaves effectively psychological theories throughout.’ (Library Journal).

Actually, I had to alter the narrative of the book slightly to meet the demands of the American market. The American term for crime novel or thriller, as far as I can gather, is ‘mystery’. And the American reader likes a mystery to be a proper mystery i.e. the reveal must come out of the blue. So for this edition, I had to make the ending more of a complete surprise, and add a few more red herrings. Possibly an improvement, possibly not, depending on how mysterious you like your mysteries to be.

On Garth Hill

April 28, 2013

iron mine garth
This week I went up to Garth Hill just outside Cardiff to look at the site of an abandoned iron mine, where I’m setting the final part of my new crime novel. It proved just as atmospheric as I’d hoped. Turning off the main road towards Gwaelod y Garth, the former mining village that sits on a hilltop above the city, there’s a gravel path that leads through the woods to a huge quarry. The sides of the quarry have been blasted off in such a way that peregrine falcons now nest there. Walking through the surrounding trees – at this time of year, full of wood anemones and wild garlic – you can see down into some flooded caverns that form part of a warren of tunnels dug through the hill. From the nineteenth century, a million tons of iron was mined here, and you can still see remains of a tramway that carried the ore to the ironworks. Since then, parts of the tunnels have been flooded, the minerals giving them a strange blue hue, like lagoons. There are also yellow pools, deriving their colour from the ochre that was also extracted here, and used for paint.

Lower down the hill, we found the entrance to one of the tunnels. The heavy iron gates were not locked, so we went in a little way. Inside, it was very eerie, the sound of dripping water echoing around, and shafts of light coming in from holes in the ground above. Horseshoe bats live here, apparently, and blind cave spiders. I noticed that the wooden planks forming the walls were still in immaculate condition, not rotted at all.

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This is not a scenic landscape, but it has its own beauty, and curiously, is home to a great deal of animal and plant life – partly because there are very few tourists tramping about the woods. For instance, among these ancient beech woodlands are rare species of coral root orchids and red helleborines. There are also a lot of moles, who seem inspired by the human history of tunnelling here…

Later in the week, I went to see a short film by John Evans, a bird watcher and poet who’d trailed a goshawk for two years, up in rural parts of the valleys. It was quite unlike the usual wildlife film, giving a truly visceral sense of how this fierce, secretive bird lives its life. For example, many small birds live close to the goshawk because it kills larger birds that prey on them (it doesn’t bother with the little ones) – so in this sense, it truly is ‘king’ of the forest. Also, the goshawk’s harsh cry is used in all sorts of films to evoke the loneliness of a rural spot – even when it’s the kind of landscape that a goshawk would never live in. (In that way, its call has become a familiar trope, but one that most of us don’t know the origin of.) Like Garth Hill, the rural parts of the valleys are largely ignored, even though they teem with wildlife, because we don’t ‘read’ them as countryside … just as wilderness.

I returned last week from the Laugharne Weekend Festival which I attend every year. This year, there was a marquee for book readings and a food fair in the castle grounds, as well as the usual indoor events in the village hall, the congregational church, the boathouse, and the rugby club. The only trouble was, on the Thursday before everything kicked off, it was freezing cold and trying to snow. However, the following day, as if by magic, the clouds parted and we had glorious spring weather. The crowds seemed ecstatically happy, and there was a general air of elation at being outside in the sunshine at last, after such a long winter. Also because the line-up of artists was great – so much to see and hear.

I was involved in a couple of events, the first on Friday night, a tribute to Nick Drake by Joe Boyd, his former producer. It was fascinating, and I was honoured to take part, singing a song by Nick’s mother, Molly Drake, at the piano. In the marquee on Sunday I also did my own event, reading from The House on the Cliff, and talking to Peter Finch, whose new book Edging the Estuary, is out soon. And I did make a point of going to see veteran crime writer John Harvey, and Alasdair Roberts playing in the church on the Sunday night – a wonderful end to the festival. Not to mention, of course, Laugharne’s Got Talent in the rugby club, where the Lone Wolf and Dragonslayer – a music-hall family combo from the Isle of Sheppey – were seeing out the night in suitably raucous style.
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Afterwards we stayed on in Laugharne for a few days in a place overlooking the estuary where Dylan Thomas had his boathouse. It was completely mesmerising watching the tide going out for miles every day and rushing back in during the evening. I tried to paint it, but the strange thing was, however much you kept your eye on the sand, you couldn’t see the point when it turned to water. I became completely fixated on this, and spend an inordinate amount of time staring at it. I started thinking about how someone running across the quicksand would be dragged in to it, and how such a huge expanse of nothing would always remain so – no one could built on it, or indeed do anything with it. Permanent limbo. I began to feel more and more passive, as if I was being sucked out with the tide every day, and drawn back in at night. Very enjoyable, but rather strange.
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During the time I was there, I also nipped up to the congregational church, and spent a few hours at the piano. The church, with its wooden pews, is large, light, and spacious, and has the most extraordinary acoustic, a natural amplification that almost overloads if you sing too loud. That too was quite odd, as I was trying to write a song about the tidal experience. I recorded it on my mobile but haven’t played it back yet. Not sure if I want to hear it again.

After all this I began to feel light-headed and was quite glad to get back to my prosaic life in Cardiff, and start tapping on the computer again.

Molly Drake

March 24, 2013

Molly Drake small-1I’ve been listening to songs by Molly Drake this week, in preparation for the Laugharne Weekend literary festival. There’s going to be an event about Nick Drake with his producer Joe Boyd and a few singers, including Robyn Hitchock, Katell Keineg, and myself, are going to perform some songs, as a kind of illustration to the talk. When I was asked to do it, I immediately thought of Molly Drake, since I’ve been very fascinated by a new collection of her work, out on Alimentation records. Molly was Nick’s mother, and a very talented singer, songwriter and pianist who played for friends and family, rather than in public. Her songs are fresh, melodic, and musically sophisticated. They seem quite light in tone but actually there’s an undertow of melancholy in all of them. They take me back to my childhood, in that her style reminds me very much of my mother’s singing, which was fashionable in the forties and fifties but was swept away by rock and roll.

In the early fifties, my mother Susan Stutchbury (as she was then) was a student at Cambridge where she met Julian Slade, the composer of the musical Salad Days. They became friends, and she went on to star as the leading lady in his first production, Bang Goes the Meringue! Later on, when she married and had children, she stopped appearing on stage but continued to sing constantly around the house. The same was true of her great friend, Angela Haswell, my godmother, who also had a beautiful voice. These women, who by the way were the first generation of women to graduate from the university with proper degrees (before that, if you were a female, they just gave you a piece of paper saying ‘well done’), were remarkably talented in many ways, but in those days, once you married, you gave up any kind of serious work or public life.

On top of that, during the sixties and seventies, my generation became very dismissive of that kind of music. I always felt quite embarrassed about liking it, and kept pretty quiet about it, since at the time masculine rock was all the rage. So it’s very poignant now to return to that era and realise how stupid that attitude was, and how difficult it must have been for our parents – accustomed as they were to a diet of tuneful, romantic, and often gently witty songs – to listen to us all singing three-chord tunes in fake American accents, strumming away earnestly on guitars. Fortunately things have changed, but it still makes me feel sad to think of all the lovely songs like Molly’s that have been sitting on the shelf for years, and are only now just beginning to be dusted off again…

No Man’s Land

March 17, 2013

2013-03-17 14.19.53Today I went down to the Gwent Levels, a post-industrial landscape of muddy ditches and dykes running alongside the Bristol Channel,overlooked by chimneys of Newport and the massive steelworks at Tremofra. Not exactly picture postcard country, but nevertheless fascinating. This is a non-gentrifiable area of scruffy smallholdings, scrapyards, cheaply built houses, and untidy fields that seems curiously Dickensian, or perhaps outside time altogether. Small ponies graze by the roads; cows amble along the levee by the sea; old men wander on the beach with buckets, looking for shellfish. At one roundabout, we passed a car going the wrong way, full of children, with a pony on a lead trotting alongside it. We walked for about a mile by the sea, then came to this old lighthouse, which happened to have a Dr Who tardis on the balcony. You can just see it in the picture above. It’s not the first time I’ve seen the tardis – a couple of years ago, it appeared in the park opposite where I live. It’s one of the curiosities of Cardiff and its environs that it pops up from time to time when least expected.

This week, I also drove across country to mid Wales, in freezing rain. Despite the cold, there were signs of spring everywhere: clumps of snowdrops by streams, banks of daffodils, wobbly lambs feeding from their mothers, their tails wagging furiously. I watched a field full of them running about in a bunch, playing together, getting up to mischief, like children in a school yard. It made me feel quite guilty about the lamb shoulder we ate last night (delicious). Still, I suppose there wouldn’t be any lambs if we didn’t eat them. If that makes sense.

On the road

March 10, 2013

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Yesterday I went down to Three Cliffs Bay in the Gower, one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen ever, anywhere. There are three pointed cliffs that rise up on the headland, and there’s a ‘door’ through to the sea, casting a triangular reflection in the water below it. The sand is pale and fine, and the waves white and foamy. Really magical. You have to walk about a mile to get there, past a ruined castle on top of a hill, so it seems very remote once you do.

Aside from beachwalking, I did a short tour of bookshops in the area to promote my new book. As everyone knows, it’s a very challenging time for all bookshops at the moment, especially independent ones. I hadn’t realised just how much hard work goes into getting our books on the shelves for the public to buy – booksellers, reps, and others. These are people who are passionate about books, and prepared to do everything they can to keep our bookshops on the high street. On the way down to Cover to Cover bookshop in Mumbles, where I did an event with the crime writer M. R. Hall, we passed the huge Amazon warehouse in Swansea. The sheer size of it, in comparison to the small bookshop, told its own story. I completely understand why people buy online, but it would be tragic if we let our high street bookshops disappear completely.

Speaking of which, here’s a photo my good friend Anthony Reynolds took of my book on display in Waterstones with the shop’s review beside it. Much appreciated.

waterstones review

 

mandy rice davies

My play with Mandy Rice Davies, Well He Would, Wouldn’t He, is broadcast tomorrow, Saturday, at 2.30pm on Radio 4. It’s about her part in the Profumo scandal, which helped bring down Macmillan’s Tory government fifty years ago. Mandy was eighteen at the time, and her friend Christine Keeler only a couple of years older. As you probably know, Christine had an affair with John Profumo, the Minister for War, and was also said to have slept with Eugene Ivanov, an attache at the Russian embassy. This being the height of the cold war, the press had a field day when they found out. Profumo resigned in disgrace. In retaliation, the establishment hounded Stephen Ward, a society osteopath and libertine, charging him with keeping a brothel. (Stephen had introduced Christine to Profumo). The trial attracted massive media attention, and was an appalling miscarriage of justice. The ferocious sexism of the remarks made by the judge and the prosecutor during the trial are beyond belief – this was 1963, not Victorian Britain! (Mervyn Griffith Jones, the prosecutor, was the same barrister who announced in the Lady Chatterley trial that ‘you wouldn’t let your wife or your servants read this book’.) During the trial, Ward was so viciously bullied that he committed suicide before the jury could give their verdict.

Mandy, along with Christine and others, was pretty much forced to give evidence at the Ward trial (she’d been imprisoned in Holloway on a trumped-up charge beforehand). When she took the stand, she was questioned about her sex life, which was rather ‘steamy’ at the time (as she puts it), and which she seemed quite unabashed about. During the questioning, Griffith Jones told her that Lord Astor, one of Ward’s friends, had denied ever meeting her, let alone sleeping with her. She famously retorted, ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he’. The remark went down in history not just because it was so surprising – this confident, glamorous eighteen-year-old refusing to be intimidated by the powers that be – but because it marked a turning point in Britain after the war, where ordinary people were no longer prepared to take orders from an arrogant, hypocritical, and out-of-touch establishment.

This is a truly fascinating story about class, money and sexual politics in Britain. While we were writing the play, I kept thinking, so much has changed (for example, in those days, homosexuality was illegal). Yet so much, in terms of gender divisions and social attitudes, remains the same. Mandy is a terrific raconteur, intelligent, witty, and warm. She’s also had an extraordinary career; she was the mistress of Peter Rachman, the ‘slum landlord’ (but that’s a whole other story – as it turns out much of Rachman’s reputation was down to British anti-semitism , since the church and the aristocracy treated their Notting Hill tenants a good deal worse). After the scandal, she toured Europe as a singer, settled in Israel, and became a successful businesswoman with a chain of discotheques, later returning to Britain, writing two novels, and appearing on the West End stage. She now lives in great style in Surrey, has a wonderful collection of artworks, is extremely hospitable, and great company. A true survivor. Much of the play is recounted by her, and she makes a great narrator. So do tune in, either on the day or on i-player, where it will remain for a few days after the broadcast.

No Borders

February 10, 2013

This week I went to the Bristol Museum with my friend Paul to see the No Borders exhibition.  I’d seen it before, at the opening, but with so many people there, it was hard to concentrate.  This time I found it more absorbing.

The most striking images for me were those of Yto Barrada, an artist who had taken photographs of economic migrants sleeping in the parks of Tangier, as part of her project ‘A Life Full of Holes’. These are men waiting to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to work illegally in Europe. Each of them lies alone, head covered, having shed their identities in the hope of remaking their lives.  Very moving, I thought.

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Also memorable were Imran Qureshi’s images of blood, blossoms, and contemporary miniatures.

camouflage pants

The best known piece in the exhibition is probably Ai Wei Wei’s Ton of Tea.  It’s a block of compressed puer tea, a dark purplish brown in colour.  I was surprised how small a ton actually is. I suppose we use the word metaphorically so often one imagines it to be a massive amount. It’s actually not much bigger than a large guitar amp …ton of tea

If anything, there’s too much in this exhibition – covering the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, is a tall order. But it does repay going back, perhaps to focus on each artist one at a time.

Gone Girl

January 28, 2013

GONE GIRL

gone girl

I’m very glad to see that GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn has hit the top of the crime fiction charts.  I read it last year, and thought it was exceptional.  It’s about a yuppie New York couple, Nick and Amy, whose marriage is based on mutual self-regard – they both consider themselves bright, successful, and attractive – and a reassuring story they constantly they tell themselves about how happy they are together.  However, when Nick loses his job, he and Amy move back to his home town in the mid-west to start a bar, an enterprise that’s a miserable failure.  Their finances unravel, and in the process, their lack of emotional connection – indeed, their deep dislike for each other -  is revealed.  Amy vanishes, and via numerous twists and turns, we eventually find out why.

What I found so compelling about this book is that besides creating two entirely believable, unique characters, Flynn also manages to show how they’re the product of a greedy,banal culture that undervalues compassion, loyalty, supportive communities – indeed, everything it takes to build a marriage.  Her individuals are mostly unpleasant (apart from the dowdy, dogged cops) but they never degenerate into ‘types’, because we see all too clearly how they developed into the people they are. Her portrait of the couples’ parents – on both sides –  is chilling, particularly in the way she shows how a certain kind of neglectful over-praising of children leads them to an unwarranted sense of entitlement and high self-esteem  in adult life. So, too, is her description of how a relentless focus on commodities and lifestyle – also characteristic of the eighties – produces a couple who believe that if they look like the perfect match, they must be.  Finally, Flynn’s account of the disintegrating communities of the mid-west, huddled around the outskirts of deserted shopping centres hit by the recession, sent a shiver down my spine.

This is a very bleak book, in many ways.  As such, I thought it was destined to become a cult classic rather than a bestseller.  But it’s extremely encouraging for all of us – writers and readers alike – that it’s done so well, especially with the amount of drivel that’s recently been topping the charts.

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This week, I went to the Pan Macmillan women’s fiction party.  All the authors got to wear corsages (flowers, not basques) .  It was the first time I’ve been given a flower for writing a book, and it was very nice.  (It looks a bit the worse for wear in the photo here, after a few too many proseccos and the journey home on the train.) Anyway, the publisher gave a speech in which he defined women’s fiction as being essentially about ‘relationships’ and ‘redemption’. I started thinking about this with regard to the Flynn book.  It was all about relationships, so that seemed right. As to redemption, I wasn’t so sure.

I thought more about it, and came to the conclusion that a book revealing the truth, however depressing, has a strong redemptive quality. It’s so invigorating, and such a relief from the lies we so often tell ourselves. That’s why some of my favourite novels, like Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (incredibly similar to the Flynn, transported to a different age) and Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark are cathartic.  Nobody gets transformed, nobody gets happy – but the author has taken the trouble to nail exactly how human beings are thwarted in their continuous, and sometimes entirely self-deluded, quest to do so.  In that sense, these stories are redemptive, because they make us take a long, hard look at the society we live in,and think about how it can corrupt our personal relationships, in the most insidious of ways, unless we take care not to let that happen.

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