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A New Southsea Gothic Story – First Draft

Below is the first draft of the opening to a story provisionally entitled “The Snow Witch” I am writing.  Will let youknow how it goes!

The Snow Witch

The musician blows in one winter night, as the weather is at its most severe. That is why no-one sees her arrive.

She is a violinist with a distinctly exotic look. Beneath a shawl like an Eastern European gipsy, she walks in heavy furlined boots through the snow, the ermine edging of her skirt tumbling over the drifts like little winter creatures at play. Her face is a delta of narrowed chin and wideset eyes above a fine, straight nose and emotionless mouth – a line that forever promises to turn upwards but does so only rarely. The hair that pokes from beneath her white fur hat is long and straight – and dark as the winter night. Tall and lissom, she holds a violin in her right hand, and where she walks she leaves a trail of thawing snow behind her, as if she is so used to the cold that she keeps a fire stoked in her soul as its natural counterpoint.

The following day, she sets up outside an empty shop on Palmerston Road – and as people hurry by, huddled against the bitter air, she lets out from that tropical wood a stream of long, sinewy, sensual notes that flutter upwards into the winter light. She plays bewildering melodies with dips and turns and something quite alien and Eastern in them, melodies that make one or two of the locals wonder if she might perhaps be a refugee from a country with a deep, sorry history – an extreme terrain with snowclad mountains and hot dusty plains.

There is something in that music. When people hear it, it even seems that for a moment the sunshine breaks out from behind a snow cloud, and the trees shake off their white dusting in the sudden gust of warm wind that swirls around them. It is as if the sound holes in her violin are windows onto another island in another sea far warmer than that around Portsea – hot air rushing through.

As she plays, a child skips by to the noise, and an elderly lady recalling something in that melody of childhood, takes a slide on the ice with a deftness that speaks of childish delight long before the osteoporotic danger of broken hips and cracked bones and blueing bumps ever filled her mind.

At home later that day, the old lady will smile to her empty room, and with a kind of youngster’s joy in her heart, declare the house “open” – inviting neighbours and their children to come and play, and baking a cake to take it to her neighbours.

During that unusually cold winter in which the snow is piled up on the shore, and beachbound snowmen stand in pebbledashed ranks on the shingle beach like a frozen amphibious invasion force, it seems the thaw has started.

Still the musician plays – sending up into the air little notes from the chestnut box of her violin, and turning the notes, it seems, into a blizzard of sunshine.

It is a fluke of the weather that when she stops in the darkening afternoon, as the shadows gather, that the snow starts to fall again, piling up higher on that whiteness, and making a scrunch scrunch beneath her feet. Then she is gone, her fingers icy cold, her fiddle a block of icy granite in her hand.  She will start again the next day.

*

Nobody knows where the violinist goes to at nights. True, over the following evenings she appears in pubs, stepping in with her trademark graceful presence and inner calm, causing locals to stop a moment and drink her in. A fine line to her jaw and large dark eyes, she is framed with a border of hair as ebony as the neck of her violin, her light brown skin a kind of caramel to savour. But afterwards? Nobody knows.

In The Barleymow on Great Southsea Street, that funny 1930s utility pub with its high windows, a local asks her “if she plays that thing” and once again she raises it to her chin and begins to send magic into the air.

In The King Street Tavern, she joins the Irish Session and weaves in a sumptuous series of harmonies to the Irish jigs and reels.  A chorus of tweets flutters through the twittersphere pulling pale hordes of Uni students in, until the landlord is prompted to speak closely with her, urging her with his boyish smile to come back again.

In the RMA Tavern at the far end of the long beach that fronts the island of Portsea onto the south sea she meets Riley. Riley of the dark eyes, who looks her up and down, drinking in her skin and her notes, and feeling a sense of hunger in his body, a yearning to possess her that burns like a fire inside. When she leaves in the black night he follows her out, tracing her melted steps in the fresh snow – until they seem to vanish, suddenly into nothing – ending at a roadside and not appearing on the other side. He stands swaying on his feet, a lot drunk and a little angry and promises himself that he will have her. Yes. He will have her. He thinks it again, saying out loud to the snow in the air with a kind of frustrated ferocity. I will have her!

Then he turns, and heads back to the pub, where his guitar is waiting for him, next to a pint. As he walks, he notices the icy white powder tingling his nose as it settles on it, and remembers the little twist of cocaine in his pocket. It reminds him to pay a visit to the toilets. A little snort his solace at losing his quarry in the snow.

Southsea – A Fake Spring Day In Midwinter

Well, today was something a little special. Heading out through the streets of Southsea down to the front, I was suddenly struck by the brightness of the day.  Amazing uplift of spirits, and big happiness floating in the air. I don’t know if it’s just because we’ve come out of three weeks of rain and general dampness, but everything seemed clear and bright, today.The

Walking along the common and seeing the dogs running after balls, the kids playing on their bikes, families out together and the wide, wide sky above us all, I felt suddenly like a kid again.

Was this early spring? A hint of what’s to come in the next few months, like the season’s trailer: coming soon, in a sky near you…

 The Naval War Memorial on the Common cast a shadow on the grass, and I stood at its end with a childish playfulness, imagining: On a certain day at a certain time, this shadow marks the site of a buried mystery. A kiddy joy surging up inside me. Victorian white villas, the hovercraft  gliding up the beach, and suddenly a series of vistas: the Gothic fantasy of the City Museum’s turrets, the Lipstick, the Spinnaker, the old Clarence Hotel now a student building.

Then there were the details.  Starlings waiting in the little gondolas of the Balloon Wheel in the Fun Fayre to swoop on the chip shop, shadows  of pedestrians walking across a bridge at Spur Redoubt climbing out of the  sea where the bright white light was reflected on a seawall.

Then, there were flags above the Square Tower, the view of  Tower House from The Round Tower – and finally, a cup of tea with the ladies at The Slipway Cafe down at Point.

This was a magic day today.  Everything felt new. Thanks to this little bit of Pompey. You’ve raised my spirits on a winter’s day!

Matt Wingett In Interview With The English Sisters

So, today I had an interview with Violetta and Jutka Zuggo, aka the English Sisters – a pair of charming women who use their hypnosis and NLP skills to teach English, and are passionate hypno-babes.

It was great fun, with the pair of them asking me about the hypnotic content of the book, and with me not quite answering them, every time… But very nearly.  The book, by the way is Turn The Tides Gently, and you can find it here:  http://amzn.to/YouCanTurnTheTide

Funny moment too, when she told me she’d read something of mine, and I couldn’t remember what it was at all. Well, I’ve written a lot, after all.

Overall, great fun.  Enjoy!

100 Years of Elegance Goes Up In Smoke

More than a century of Portsmouth history came to an end as Savoy Court, originally called Pier Mansions, was gutted in a giant blaze on Southsea seafront today.

Built as private apartments at the start of the 20th century, Savoy Court was a magnificent relic from a previous era. Designed with an Edwardian architect’s eye for line, order and proportion, it was a beautiful structure.

Savoy Court before its more boisterous neighbour The Savoy Building arrived
Savoy Court before its more boisterous neighbour The Savoy Building arrived

Originally named after South Parade Pier which it stood opposite, Pier Mansions was constructed in 1905 beside Southsea Coastguard Station. At the time it housed retired naval officers and genteel women who enjoyed magnificent views across the Solent.

In 1929, the Savoy Cafe and Ballroom was built on the former site of the Coastguard Station next to Pier Mansions. From then on, the fates of the two buildings would be intertwined.

While Pier Mansions retained private apartments with shops below, The Savoy Cafe, with its Funlands amusement arcade was a place for people to enjoy traditional English seaside delights.
Holidaymakers revelled on the beach, by the pier, and in and around the Savoy Cafe and the other shops along the front. It wasn’t only the English summer they were enjoying, but the benign influence of well-placed, attractive and useful architecture.

In the war years, the buildings survived the bombing while the Savoy Cafe played a vital part in the war effort.

Converted to a Merchant and Royal Naval hostel by the British Sailors’ Society, 50,000 sailors used its services every month, while 17,000 a month attended the morale-boosting entertainment it provided. Then, as the tide of the war turned, the Cafe’s role changed. For six weeks after D-Day the Savoy Cafe sent out a continuous service of mobile canteens to feed the men waiting to cross the Channel and liberate Europe.

After the war, in 1946 Billy Butlin bought The Savoy Cafe and promised a new lease of life. Somewhere around 1953, Pier Mansions was added to the complex, and together the buildings became known as The Savoy Buildings.

It was run by a wily manager, George Turner, who had an unfailing nose for business.

The night the Savoy Ballroom hosted a dance for 800 Russian sailors was a great example of his entrepreneurship. The posters and tickets for the event were printed in Russian, and Turner arranged for ‘600 girl escorts’ to go along. The event was a massive success. Throughout the 1950s, the ballroom was the venue for big bands. Chris Barber, Ted Heath and numerous others played there.

By 1960 The Savoy Buildings was ready for a revamp. The Evening News reported that 13 chandeliers ‘of the highest quality’ were flown in from the continent to adorn the newly named Crystal Suite. Mirrors in the Suite appeared to produce a never-ending trail of light ‘stretching off into infinity’.

This refurbishment saw the start of a new era. As fashions changed Turner began to hire rock ‘n’ roll bands. Gene Vincent played the Savoy, supported by Sounds Incorporated. This was clearly the way to go and in 1963 Turner hired a group called The Beatles who played for £50 performing on the musicians’ dais in front of a mural of a mermaid. The Rolling Stones, Freddie and the Dreamers, The Tremeloes, The Who and other legends followed. They were never paid more than £85 a night.

The Savoy Court, 10th August 2011
The Savoy Court, 10th August 2011, a victim of neglect by its owners and vandalism.

In the 1970s, the Savoy Buildings took on a new role. By now essentially one complex with flats above the Savoy Court end, the night clubs below thumped long into the night. Alongside Nero’s nightclub, which opened in 1971, the old Crystal Suite was converted into Joanna’s in 1973, where many a sailor worked up a hangover into the early hours.

Nero’s was renamed twice, firstly to Fifth Avenue and then to Time and Envy. Whatever the name, it was always lively.

I remember seeing a woman built like a brick outbuilding putting on an impromptu stripshow for the boys on the dance floor, before bouncers helped her back into the tiny piece of cloth around her body that passed for a bra.

By the early 21st Century, times had changed again. After a decision by the council to move night clubs to the city centre, suddenly the Savoy Buildings were left without a purpose. By 2007, they were abandoned.

A Simple Act Of Kindness Can Change The World

I’ve just got back from a walk in my home town of Portsmouth – and I’ve learned how one person really can change the whole world.

I was walking past a little brick-built church on Old Portsmouth’s High Street, called the John Pounds Church, when I suddenly remembered reading that there was something special about it – a little museum dedicated to Mr John Pounds himself.  So, on that sunny winter afternoon with some time to spare, I decided to take a look at exactly what that museum comprised.

At the back, in a neat courtyard, a small wooden hut is built on to the side of the church.  It is a modest little museum.  If you look in through the barn door you will see a mannikin of a cobbler looking over the shoulder of a boy reading from a bible, while around him are other figures of little children in Victorian clothing, ragged and poor, sitting and reading from a book or scribbling on slates.

John Pounds's House
The Original Cobbler's Shop Where John Pounds Lived And Worked

It is the image of a makeshift Victorian schoolhouse, which John Pounds’s house and cobbler’s shop became.  Pounds had only two rooms in his house: one downstairs and one above.  And in the room downstairs, he taught the poor to read.

Pounds himself was self taught.  In 1778 at the age of 12 years old, he was indentured into the dockyard in Portsea.  And at the age of 15, just a few days after his father died, the teenaged Pounds fell into a dry dock and was crippled for life.

He was carried out of the dockyard, and that, as far as his employers were concerned, was the end of their responsibility for him.  He stayed with relatives in Portsmouth, and over the coming months he slowly recuperated.  Illiterate but with an enquiring mind, in that period of recovery he taught himself to read.  Then, as his vitality returned, he trained as a cobbler and set up his little shop on the main thoroughfare between the fortified town of Portsea and the High Street in Old Portsmouth.

The poverty in that part of Portsmouth at the turn of the 19th Century was smothering.  A report from several decades later describes, for example, a tiny close called Messum’s Court that butted up against the garrison town’s fortifications and was approached via a two foot wide tunnel called Squeeze Gut Alley.  Here 116 people lived below sea level in a damp, dismal courtyard supplied with water from a single standpipe that ran for just 10 minutes a day, and with one privy between them.  An open dunghill stood in the middle of the courtyard, through which also ran an open drain.  The denizens of this court, some of whom lived in cellars, dug their own wells outside their front doors, down which their small children were in constant danger of falling, while the water drawn up was often contaminated by seepage from the open sewers and cess pools nearby.  Children growing up in this poverty with no hope of an education were condemned by default to a future of yet more grinding poverty, and of crime.

Children were criminalised easily back then.  Again, a few decades later, by the mid-1800s, it is recorded that the offences of hopscotch, flying kites or playing marbles were, among many other offences, punishable by hard labour and a mandatory whipping.  But since those children were turned out on to the streets by their parents who didn’t want them at home, what else were they to do except loiter and get into trouble with the law or be recruited into criminal gangs?

It was in this milieu that Pounds took to teaching children to read and write in his cobbler’s shop.  To draw the kids in, he kept injured birds that he was nursing back to health in little cages hung from the ceiling, and little pets.  With his stooped walk that was a result of his dockyard fall, he would go out on winter days with hot jacket potatoes in his coat pockets (it is said that he had sewn in extra pockets to hold more of them) and hand them out to the children who were shivering among the timber stacked near Spice Island, or huddling in little crannies by the sea, out of the wind.  “There are plenty more where that one came from,” he would tell them, and the children would follow him to his shop.

Inside, it was cramped, but it was warm, and the kids learned to read under Pounds’s tutelage.  Often, 40 children at a time would be squeezed into the tiny little shed where he worked.  It is thought that in his lifetime he taught hundreds of children to read and write in that little room.

John Pounds At Work
John Pounds At Work

The fact was, there was no money in this for him at all.  If he got an inkling that your parents were able to pay for schooling, then you would be replaced with someone more needy.  As John Pounds put it: “I wants they as nobody cares for.  They’s they for me.”

When Pounds died at the age of 72, after dedicating a lifetime to teaching children to read, his cobbler’s shop had only a few items inside.  There were the tools of his trade, and a handful of personal effects.  He had lived and died in poverty, but had given hundreds the opportunity to work as shopworkers, join the Navy or get some form of employment other than manual labour – and had shown them possibilities other than crime.

Soon after his death in 1839, as people realised what an amazing thing he had done, the Reverend Thomas Guthrie was inspired by his story to set up the “Ragged Schools” movement, which provided free education for the poor across the country.  Portsmouth’s first “Ragged School” was opened just 10 years after Pounds’s death.

By 1852, the movement was so powerful that Parliament set up an inquiry into the condition of “criminal and destitute juveniles in this country and what changes are desirable in their present treatment, in order to supply industrial training and to combine reformation with the due correction of juvenile crime.”

This was a milestone in the development of something that would change the English speaking world forever.  That something was Universal Free Education in the form of a State Education.

If you are reading this and you are from Britain or one of its old colonies, it is likely that you received your education precisely because of the acts of kindness of a cobbler in Portsmouth, who 200 years ago walked out into the cold with hot jacket potatoes in his pockets, and set in train a course of events that would lead to the liberation from poverty of literally hundreds of millions of people across the globe.  He lived half a mile from where I live, and I could not have written this blog without him.

And you, wherever you are on this planet, would not be reading it.

Borrowing Some Light From Author Graham Hurley

Graham Hurley is a fascinating man.  Lean, with a grey-white widow’s peak, and a slight spike to his hair, he stands before the assembled group in the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth Dockyard, among ancient cannons and other relics of Tudor life – square backgammon sets and soft leather shoes, solid wooden cups and terrifying metal syringes: a modern figure, poised, thoughtful and calm, taking a few seconds to gather his thoughts.

Graham Hurley, International Thriller Writer, and Local Boy
Graham Hurley, International Thriller Writer, and Local Boy

The Mary Rose Museum is not the most obvious place to meet an internationally published author with a string of 27 novels to his name.  And yet there is a logic to it.  Graham has made Portsmouth the subject of many of his books, including the series that has proven a real success over the last ten years.  Those are the novels with, at their centre, the “slightly woolly and not quite solid” Joe Faraday, a Portsmouth Detective Inspector involved in investigating murders and other heinous crimes in the dark criminal underworld of the naval port.  The stories are internationally acclaimed, yet rooted in the island city.  Hurley’s writing straddles two horses.  To me, a dweller in Pompey, his work is that of a local author who describes the railway stations and roads, housing estates and seascapes of my home town.  So, it is strange to think that under the magic filter of his writing, the streets of Britain’s only island city might seem to others a dark, crime-ridden place, exotic, grimy and extreme – or somehow like Detective Inspector Rebus’s Edinburgh, except with frigates and a Pompey accent.

Look at him as an exhibit now, standing among the glass cases of the Mary Rose Museum, beside him a beautifully carved metre-long model of the old Tudor warship, motionlessly plying its way across a circle of yellow formica above a sea of blue carpet.  Take in his angular figure with the prow-like nose and the eyes that seem often focussed in a middle distance, deep-set in his head.  The long delicate line of the jaw and the face that is lined with the experience of his craft, and of the people he has met who have fed his storytelling life.  Note his tight khaki jumper and his jeans slightly loose around the lean waist because, maybe, he has burned up the carbs with his obvious mental energy. And note also the calm and pulled-back manner in his movements.  Unassuming.  If I were to identify an aesthetic to his look it would be this: “Light”.

The talk he is about to deliver, in his measured voice will wash over the audience for an hour and a half.  It will be on the subject I am learning about every day.  It is “the virus in his blood” that he has made a living from, and which pushes him onwards and onwards to new creativity: writing.


…as a child, his greatest gift from his mother was a library ticket for the Clacton-on-Sea library…


With little preamble, he begins, speaking in his soft manner, intimate, pulling us in to listen to the quiet way he describes his early world.  His talk is heartening, warm, inspiring, informative and joyful.  So he tells us how he revelled in a post-War childhood devoid of television, and how those early years echoed with his father’s great love: the Third Programme.  Bach, Brahms and Beethoven were the choices he had for evening entertainment with the family, and in response to those choices he tells us how he drew into the world inside his own mind to form his own entertainment.  How he would disappear with a feigned bad head and head up to his room to read and read and read.

He tells us how, as a child, his greatest gift from his mother was a library ticket for the Clacton-on-Sea library and how that ticket transported him to whole new worlds.  He tells us how one day he took “one step up” in the library and started reading books from that “great tidal wave of writing” that came out of World War II.  Page-turning stories, page-turning documentaries that absolutely pulled him along and taught him what a book should do: hold your reader with every word.  And he tells us how his mother, avid for movies, took him every Tuesday through the snow and the sunshine to the cinema to watch “Reach for the Sky” and “The Cruel Sea” and so many others – many being films of the books he had already absorbed – and which gave him yet more insight into the way a story is made.

These were the formative years of the writer, which were followed by the apprenticeship.  When he was only 13 years old he started his first novel.  In the freezing parlour that was reserved by the family for special days he set up his Olivetti 32 typewriter with carbon copy paper on the bridge table and was faced with his first task of “getting his characters into the room”.  He tells us how that piece of simple choreography was for him an immensely difficult task.  Why?  Because it meant negotiating a door… which entailed considering what that door might be made of, and the colour of it, and how it was painted, and the tribe that sat under it in the rainforest that the wood came from…  At this time Graham’s filtering process was not yet fully developed, but this single revelation told me something else: that he had the writer’s “sideways mind” when young.  That a door wasn’t just a door, but was a portal into possibilities that others miss.  And that too, was a gift that would be immensely useful in his later writing.

Five novels later, he had served his apprenticeship, and headed for university, where he studied English Literature in the vain hope of learning something from the great novelists of the past.  But being an expert in Anglo-Saxon was not the most useful of skills for the novelist – and after returning home to Clacton-On-Sea he had no idea what he was going to do.  The first plan was to go to Paris, find an atelier high up in a garret somewhere and to write.  However, the dream foundered on the fact that he had no money, and his parents were not about to be forthcoming.  And so, after two days of being woken by his mother bearing a cup of tea that she placed at his bedside, on the third day he was instead given a copy of the Daily Telegraph – opened at the “Situations Vacant” column.

And here, the main body of the story begins.  Believing he had little hope of getting the job, he applied to Southern TV to become a scriptwriter, and to his amazement, was taken on.  The world of TV was something that came as a shock to him.  I can see him now: walking from his quiet life in Clacton, and then from the rarefied halls of Cambridge University with its wide lawns and its picturesque punts by the river, into a media world of pretty girls and a whirl of people and “a bar as you went into the studios” and hence a great social life to go with it.  And I can see the realisation dawning on him that he had just entered a world that was almost exactly the opposite of the world he had imagined being as a novelist.  And one that would be indispensible to him later on.

So he became involved in writing and making documentaries, and realised that the skill that he was to learn there – one of genuine nosiness – would stand him amazingly well in learning the stories of the people who would one day populate his novels.  As he puts it himself: “The novelist builds bridges into other people’s lives.”

Around this time, Graham met Neil Slatter, a man who, as a teenager broke his neck in a motorbike crash near Petersfield, Hampshire.  Graham followed Neil around Britain with a film crew, making a documentary about this indomitable man’s drive to build awareness of quadriplegia.  And at the end of making the documentary, when he showed it to Neil, Neil’s response was a simple one: “If you want to know the real truth about my life, then you will need to interview everyone, and do it properly.”  And so Graham used that innate nosiness that he had honed do exactly that, and write a book telling Neil’s real story.

There were things that he uncovered that were certainly not what he had expected or would have wished for, and certainly not what Neil had wanted to know.  Like, for example, the way that Neil’s girlfriend had been having an affair with his best friend for 18 months prior to the accident… all sorts of details that, in a way, put Graham in the God-like position of knowing more about a man’s life than the man himself.

When he handed the manuscript to Neil, he told him he may not like it and he could burn it, if he wished.  In fact, Neil was seriously angry when Graham returned a week later to see him again, but Neil’s number one question was this: “Is it true?”  When Graham said it was, then Neil went on to say: “Then let’s publish it.”

“Lucky Break” was Graham’s first book – and as he relates its birth to the audience in the Mary Rose Museum, I realise that actually, it was my first contact with the man – or at least his work.

Lucky Break - Graham's first book

I joined, Milestone Publications, the local publisher who published his book, as a teaboy and general dog’s body about 3 years after publication, and one of my jobs had been to deliver to Neil, in his Petersfield council house, the remainder copies.  Neil gave me a copy to read, and I dipped into it from time to time with interest.  It was the first “real” book that I had been close to in production terms.  The other volumes Milestone published tended to be local photo books with titles like “Portsmouth Past and Present”, “Portsmouth Then and Now” and the ever-so-catchily titled series: “The Pubs of Portsmouth”, “The Cinemas of Portsmouth”… and so on.

Graham continues his tale, telling us how his television work took him all over the world, producing and making tv shows in all sorts of places.  He was in the team that found the wreck of the Titanic on the seabed, and in the 6 weeks on board that boat trawling around the Arctic Circle with an underwater camera, came up with the idea for a thriller about a nuclear stand-off. It would become a tv show in the height of the cold War called “Rules of Engagement.

But wait a minute..!  Back up there.  Did Graham really say he was in the team that discovered the wreck of the Titanic on the seabed?

Yes, he really did!   And yet he spoke about it as if it was nothing.  Absolutely astonishing.  I reflect on it for a moment, and I suppose this tells me more about the man.  Yes, discovering the Titanic was amazing.  But his focus now is on his writing, and on being a novelist.  Finding the Titanic is something he has done.  But tonight, we are here to find out who he is.

He talks about contacting his agent Carol Blake to land him a contract with Pan to deliver that novel, and waiting by the phone to get a call back.  And then being commissioned to produce a first draft of the novel in just two and a half months.  That’s 150,000 words and 550 pages of blockbuster novel.  And he talks about the crisis it caused in him, always speaking in that quiet manner of his:  “But I can’t do it,” he told his wife, who very matter-of-factly replied: “You have been boring me for 11 years telling me you want to be a novelist.  Well now’s your chance.  So do it.”

And he did.

Graham also talks about the wrangles he had with his publishers in producing his books. He talks about the horror that is artwork, and how it is chosen.  For example, there are reds and blacks and a silhouetted warship and plenty of barbed wire in a cinema-style “letterbox” design on the cover of his novel for “Rules of Engagement”.  The design knocks out female readers before the book is even off the shelf.  For a man who became a writer because it is “the self-confessed refuge of the control freak” it must have been a heck of a blow, putting up with that cover.

As time went by, writing generated its own rhythm in Graham’s life.  He organized his life to fit it: writing in the winter, between October and May, and getting out in the sunshine throughout the whole of the summer.  It is a wonderful life, the way he tells it, and he genuinely comes across as a truly happy and fortunate man.  I think what I like about Graham most is his modesty.  It is clear he is shrewd, that he observes and that he makes some very smart choices – and yet when he has success, then he is “lucky”.  It reminds me of the old saying: “People say I’m lucky. And what’s funny is, the harder I work, the luckier I get.”  His determination and persistence are a pattern and a model.  He deserves his luck.  He has worked for it.


…the prejudice that you might be quite stupid if you live in any other city than London is a kind of provincialism all its own…


As the evening progresses, it becomes clear that Graham has for many years had a fascination with Portsmouth.  When he talks about the idea of the city declaring UDI in one of his early novels, through different stories set in the city, to finally writing his Faraday novels, Portsmouth always looms.  It’s as if the city is in his blood.

He also talks about the snobbishness and petty-mindedness of the London metropolitan set.  He talks of receiving embarrassed smiles and looks of sympathy when you say that you don’t live in London, and the almost complete incomprehension when you say you live in a city like Portsmouth.  What is hilarious about it is the assumption of superiority of the London set.  Yet the prejudice that you might be quite stupid if you live in any other city than London is a kind of provincialism all its own.

The night deepens, the cold water beneath the building in the Naval dockyard gets colder still, the black night blackens further outside, and we begin to feel a chill setting in in the Museum.  Now, finally, Graham talks of the turn of fate that led Orion to extend an invitation to him to write detective fiction.  And how from that invitation, the character of Faraday was born.  He talks about researching and rubbing shoulders with the police officers of Portsmouth and of Hampshire, with all their paranoia and their suspicion – and how he decided to write a low-key crime novel, rather than the grand gestures of the “serial killer” novels. He talks about being as faithful as he can to the police officer’s life while still making a good story, about the paperwork, and about the way that in any hierarchy, the lower ranks slag off and bitch about the higher ranks.  He talks about and wrote about the reality of policing.  And then he talks about more of that supposed “good luck” that he has, which is most certainly a product of the way that he approaches his writing.

Hence, he tells us how he was contacted by the high ranking police officer Colin Smith and was told that he would be invited to attend the next “decent murder” that they had to investigate, rather than a standard “three dayer”.  All the doors in the force were opened to him from then on – and he began to observe and understand the amazing power and reach of the serious crimes unit.

Ten years and 12 novels later, Graham has finally decided to pull the plug on the stories of Faraday and Portsmouth.  He has moved away from the city, and now lives in East Devon.  But he talks at times of still being able to feel the pulse of the city, of understanding how it works, of knowing the areas of deprivation and toughness in the place.  He talks about this little island as being a microcosm for the larger island of the UK – away from which it stands across a small creek.

He talks about his “luck”, and being “fortunate”.  And I know full well that that is only partly true.  Graham has made his luck with an attitude and a definite sense that there could be no other way to live his life than the way he has done.  He has prioritised and he has succeeded.

It’s a fascinating evening, and as I step into the night and look up at the icy lights in the shape of a Christmas tree hanging from the masts of HMS Warrior, above the black, iron water of the harbour, beneath a frozen December night, I know that there is nowhere quite like this city, and there is plenty more to come from it.  Stories.  Stories.  Stories.

Thank you Graham.  You shed some light on the way you write.  That was helpful.  I will borrow some of your light, if that’s okay.


Graham Hurley’s talk took place at The Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth Naval Dockyard on 9th December 2010.  His latest book, “Borrowed Light” was published on 10th December 2010.

His website is at http://www.grahamhurley.co.uk/


The Birdwoman of Southsea

Walk into a pub in the Banana Republic,  not far from the old Royal Marines Barracks on a Sunday afternoon, and you might be lucky enough to hear a woman singing some jazz numbers, backed by a pianist and a bass player.

She lilts out the numbers with a steady ease, lifting her smooth voice over the drinkers’ pints as they gather for a relaxed pubday afternoon, and weaving for a moment little pockets of joy and sadness, laughter and tragedy from that oh-so malleable raw material: sound.

“No Moon At All” – Helen MacDougall and her Musicians

This singer, with her dark hair and her lean figure I think of as The Southsea Birdwoman.  She has sung in pubs and in clubs around the south of England, and she has played gigs to big audiences down at the Southsea bandstand.  Thousands have basked on the grass by the sea, or danced swing, while her full band has filled the air with jumping rhythms.

But there is far more to the Birdwoman than being a singer.  She is an unusual, massively gifted individual who has the hands of a builder, the muscles of an athlete and the voice of an angel.

Helen MacDougall - The Southsea Birdwoman

Catch her on a summer afternoon down at the beach.  She lives only a four minute walk from the solid shingle incline that shelves down to the sea.  If you time it right, and the wind is in the right direction, you will find her taking wing on the waves – windsurfing over white horses, catching the air in her sail and scooting over the spray.  Her tensed arms and her solid body taking on the elements, allow her for a moment to soar over the pale-green Solent on her single, white wing.

At work, you may find her in the trees, helping kids to find greater confidence by climbing with rope and harness up into the canopy.  Or she may be at work building a bivouac, or showing kids how to light a fire and make artefacts out of wood: little pots from bark, perfectly made, with a lid and a base, as if a little craftshop has sprouted in a glade.

And at home, you may find her building her nest: hammering and sawing, making little additions to her home.  The decking she built at the back of the house is a genuine feat of construction, with pillars of wood sunk deep into concrete, and a space where a tree has been given room to grow up through a hole specially cut.  This is a sociable watering hole she has made, a lucky horseshoe of seats for friends to gather in the back garden on a summer’s day.

Indoors, for warmth in the winter, she has built a fireplace.  She poured and set half a ton of concrete to build a suspended constructional hearth herself, and then put in place a cast iron Victorian fireplace.  She has reboarded the downstairs floor, painted and decorated the whole house.  Upstairs, completely unafraid, she took a circular saw to a wall in order to extend a room and build a clothes cupboard from the narrow space where an old boiler tank used to live.  And she plastered over the place where the original door was so that it is now impossible to tell that it was any other way.

Consider her now: singing for all to hear, or flying on her windsurfer, or hopping high up in the trees – or again – building her nest – and now you understand why she is the Birdwoman of Southsea.

he Southsea Birdwoman

Walk into a pub in Eastney, not far from the old Royal Marines Barracks on a Sunday afternoon, and you might be lucky enough to hear a woman singing some jazz numbers, backed by a pianist and a bass player.

She lilts out the numbers with a steady ease, lifting her smooth voice over the drinkers’ pints as they gather for a relaxed pubday afternoon, and weaving for a moment little pockets of joy and sadness, laughter and tragedy from that oh-so malleable raw material: sound.

This singer, with her dark hair and her lean figure I think of as The Southsea Birdwoman. She has sung in pubs and in clubs around the south of England, and she has played gigs to big audiences down at the Southsea bandstand. Thousands have basked on the grass by the sea, or danced swing, while her full band has filled the air with jumping rhythms.

But there is far more to the Birdwoman than being a singer. She is an unusual, massively gifted individual who has the hands of a builder, the muscles of an athlete and the voice of an angel.

Catch her on a summer afternoon down at the beach. She lives only a four minute walk from the solid shingle incline that shelves down to the sea. If you time it right, and the wind is in the right direction, you will find her taking wing on the waves – windsurfing over white horses, catching the air in her sail and scooting over the spray. Her tensed arms and her solid body taking on the elements, allow her for a moment to soar over the pale-green Solent on her single, white wing.

At work, you may find her in the trees, helping kids to find greater confidence by climbing with ropes and harness up into the canopy. Or she may be at work building a bivouac, or showing kids how to light a fire and make artefacts out of wood: little pots from bark, perfectly made, with a lid and a base, as if a little craftshop has sprouted in a glade.

And at home, you may find her building her nest: hammering and sawing, making little additions to her home. The decking she built at the back of the house is a genuine feat of construction, with pillars of wood sunk deep into concrete, and a space where a tree has been given room to grow up through a hole specially cut. This is a sociable watering hole she has made, a ring of seats for friends to gather in the back garden on a summer’s day.

Indoors, for warmth in the winter, she has built a fireplace. She poured and set half a ton of concrete to build a constructional hearth herself, and then put in place a cast iron Victorian fireplace. She has reboarded the downstairs floor, redecorated and painted it all. Upstairs, completely unafraid, she took a circular saw to a wall in order to extend a room and build a clothes cupboard from the narrow space where an old boiler tank used to live. And she plastered over the place where the original door was so that it is now impossible to tell that it was any other way.

To consider her now: singing for all to hear, or flying on her windsurfer, or high up in the trees – or again – building her nest – and now you understood why she is the Birdwoman of Southsea.

She is an amazing character, a kind and good hearted individual – and one, I am pleased, to call my friend.

A Little Boy, Lost In The Moment

A tiny moment of pleasure.  Scene: The Street Outside An Acupuncturist’s Clinic on Palmerston Road, Southsea.  Time: 3 p.m.  The shop is divided into the clinic, and a private living space, and the door to the living area has been left open.

As I walk down the street I hear the sound of a piano being played, and passing an open door, see a little Chinese boy of around 5 years old intensely concentrating on the keys of a piano as he falteringly produces the tune to “Camptown Races”.  I stand by the door and listen as he works his way gradually up the keyboard, changing the key as he proceeds.

A still moment.  The traffic and people pass by outside, and he is totally focussed on his music. He’s not brilliant at what he’s doing, and he makes mistakes.  But he corrects his mistakes, and carries on, teaching his fingers to pick out the notes in a certain order.  I absorb his total concentration, as if it, too, is emanating from the room on to the street.  Sensing him totally absorbed, feeling his way – learning, co-ordinating, learning, persevering.  The sound is not pretty, but enchanting – and it tells a story.

We live in a muddled world, and that makes it fun, too.  That little Chinese boy lives in a Victorian house in Southsea, where the English general public are treated with Chinese medicine, and plays a Black American tune on an old German piano.

I stand and enjoy.

These are the little pleasures of life.

A Provincial Snob

Tonight I have just got back from one of those great moments that happen from time to time in the Banana Republic.

It was a fireworks show over the water, fired from ships lying straight off from the Wharf, and boy it was great stuff. We got to The Point in the rain, and stood for half an hour on the shingle, with the smell of the water and seaweed in our noses, and the shingle scrunching beneath our feet. And despite the rain and the chill, it was neither damp nor cold enough to dull my enthusiasm. You know, I have come to love the Island. I love the Banana Republic and all its foibles. Yes, I get frustrated and annoyed by it, but overall, it’s an honest sort of a city.

The Spinnaker Tower, at night
The signature of the city, in concrete

Waiting for the fireworks, I played on the shingle with Toby, a close friend’s son – cracking open glow sticks and pretending in the October night to be Darth Vader – swinging our light sabres and laughing as we duelled.

Then, as the time grew closer I fell into conversation with a pair of women – one of whom lived in Old Portsmouth. And it was then that I encountered the Provincial Snob.

I guess I should have known her from her aloof air as she stood beneath her brolly, frowning at us playing, rigid in her light blue jacket in the rain.  The Provincial Snob of this type is a very particular beast. Look at her now, with her mousey bobbed hair and the slight curl of the lip, so nearly a sneer. Notice the way that she looks around her with an expression of discontent on her face. But most importantly, listen to what she says.

This Provincial Snob says things like: “Yes, I live here, unfortunately,” and doesn’t have the self knowledge to know that she is creating her own unhappiness. A little moaner, always looking to find something bad to say about the surroundings that are simply not good enough for her, the Provincial Snob will not hear that the place where she lives has anything to recommend it. She is in her twenties and yet sounds like a long decommissioned battleship would talk. Living by the side of the sea, she is a sad old hulk, caught in the backwater and stuck in the mud. What a shame on her.

And of course, the thing that is so stupid about the Snob is that she lives in a lovely, picturesque part of Pompey.  A place where the old buildings were saved after the War.  A place where King Harry watched his ships from the ramparts, where “heroes innumerable” as the brass plaque tells it, sallied forth from the Sally Port, and where the body of General Wolfe was landed in a barrel of brandy after he was killed scaling the Heights of Abraham.

“I didn’t use to like Portsmouth when I was younger,” I told her. “I used to live in the country. But now I’ve moved here, it’s great. The characters are amazing. Some of them are nutters.”

“Yes, well that’s part of the problem, the people,” she says, the light in her eye the optical equivalent of chokedamp.

Aha! So, it would be a better city if it didn’t have people in it… Another part of the Provincial Snob’s mindset is that she doesn’t really know how to be comfortable around people.

And then there is the Tower. As the firework show starts up, the Spinnaker Tower begins to flash with all sorts of different lights. Looking at its pointy shape and the way it stand on two legs, I say: “Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Tower took off!? That would be one heck of a rocket!”

“That would be the best thing that could happen to it,” the Snob sneers back, that cynical look in her eyes, that flush of colour darkening her face more. This is something that she has wound herself up about, that’s for sure. “That shocking waste of money. And I paid for it with my taxes. It’s disgusting. I see it everywhere I go in this city, and it is the ugliest thing I have seen.”

Wow. She is so dark now. “Oh, I really love it,” I tell her. “It’s a great signature building. Like the Blackpool Tower it is instantly recognisable. It put Pompey on the map.”

That put Pompey on the map?! You don’t think that anyone knew that it was here before?”

Oh, such stupidity. “Of course they did. But it now has an icon – a brand. It’s great fun. And people come here to see it, and enjoy it…”

But now the real fireworks start in earnest. A little dinghy is puttering around the harbour, and is firing a barrage of rockets into the sky. Screaming in pinks and whites and gold and blue from a big mortar on the boat. And this is just the prelude.

There it is. An amazing spectacle. Bright colours, explosions, the crackling of fireflowers burning for an instant in the sky, the gold explosion of the fire that bursts and rains. Then the embers hanging like stars in the rainy sky.

The fireworks burst over the Island.

Oh, wonderful city. Oh little Banana Republic that sparkles in the night, and fizzes and whooshes. This is the joy of the winter night, and little 4 year-old Toby sits on his father’s shoulders with his mouth agape. He’s never seen anything like it.

Behind it all, that remarkable Tower, lit up, drawing people to it, like a beacon.

And one Provincial Snob, not knowing that those little everyday decisions that she’s made about what to love and what to hate, she’s got the wrong way round.

Because if you choose to hate a firework, then it lasts for two seconds. But you choose to hate a building, or a town, and overlook what it has to offer… well, then you’re going to have to carry on hating it for a long time. It ain’t going anywhere.  And that little loop of reinforced emotion is going to carry on growing, under the skilled guidance of someone who really knows how to do misery.  Filling up your life with petty and useless distinctions which might well reinforce your sense of who you are but which, in the end make you this: a person less able to enjoy yourself.

Remember that, each time you are tempted to turn your nose up at whatever you choose to belittle; and when you are tempted to judge without first wanting to know and understand.  Remember this too: that knowing how to use your judgement skills to improve and delight in a thing can make you a person who can improve every day – and into a person in whom others can take true, pleasure – for the world expands as your love of it expands.

Why would you choose to do otherwise?