A New Chesterfield Book

I regularly receive emails from people who ask if there will be another John the Carpenter book. My response has been probably not after The Holywell Dead a couple of years ago.

But never say never…

Today I signed a contract for The Anchoress of Chesterfield. It’s set in 1370, and even though John had sworn he wouldn’t work for a coroner again, the circumstances lead to him investigating the death of an anchoress just outside Calow.

No more details for now. I don’t know when it’ll be published, other than to say it’ll be someone in 2020 or (gulp) early 2021.

So now you know.

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The Character Of Leeds

Last Saturday I was invited to give a talk to  the Family History Section of the Yorkshire Archaeological & Historical Society on Leeds as a character. Something to set me thinking about this place I love and how to define and describe it. I made plenty of notes, and soon very away from them.

But this is a more condensed and controlled version…

A couple of reviewers suggested that if you cut me open, the words Leeds would run through me like Blackpool through a stick of rock. I’m not suggesting anyone does that, of course, but I think it does sum up to an extent how I feel about the damned, bloody place.

Leeds is a character in my novels. A shifting one, from 1730 to 1957, as the town’s grown and grown, swallowing up more ground than anyone could have imagined.

Celia Fiennes (1698), Daniel Defoe (1720), Thomas Gent (1733), Richard Pococke (1750) and others throughout the 18th century praised Leeds for its buildings and its market.

That Leeds has a lovely aspect. Take a look at the prospects drawn from Cavalier Hill or across the river, and we’re genteel and beautiful. It wasn’t, of course; you simply didn’t see the poor.

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Yet it’s the results of the industrial revolution that have defined Leeds, where we really start to take on our character and identity. Forged it, if you like. Bean Ing, Temple Mill, the Round foundry. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the most Yorkshire of sayings is ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass.’

In 1828 a German nobleman, described “a transparent cloud of smoke was diffused over the whole space…a hundred hot fires shot upwards into the sky and as many towering chimneys poured forth columns of black smoke” over Leeds.

10 years later, Barclay Fox noted “a vast dingy canopy formed by the impure exhalation of a hundred furnaces. It sits on the town like an everlasting incubus, shutting out the light of heaven and the breath of summer. I pity the poor denizens. London is a joke to it. Our inn was consistent with its locality; one doesn’t look for a clean floor in a colliery or a decent hotel in Leeds.”

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And just this year a WHO report noted that people in Leeds endure worse levels of air pollution than many parts of the country, including London.

Engels, Dickens, and many others saw the dirt and human misery in Leeds. It was hardly a secret.

1842 Report of Robert Baker, town surgeon, after the cholera epidemic. In Boot and Shoe Yard, the commissioners removed 75 cartloads of manure from the yard. Human excrement. The houses here were reputed to pay the best annual interest of any cottage property in the borough.

Yet there are plenty of beautiful architectural examples of Victorian wealth and civic buildings. The Town Hall, the Corn Exchange, the Pearl Assurance building and many more. Leeds is a dichotomy.

We might not have cartloads of manure sitting in the ginnels any more. Maybe we don’t have the pea-souper fogs and our shirt collars aren’t black by the time we get home from work, but Leeds is a dirty as it was 150 years ago.  We have a different kind of pollution. Most of the industries have long gone. We build very little now. But we transport, often ourselves, to get to a job that sells things or moves it, or is involved in digital business. But the bad air has the same effect. The hangover of the dirty old town won’t disperse. The difference is that the powers that be have put their eggs in tow baskets – digital and retail.

There is continuity, though. So many of the old poor neighbourhoods remain the new poor neighbourhoods, the donut of despair that surrounds the city centre. Some don’t really exist any more, of course. We don’t have the Leylands and Sheepscar is all warehouses now. But you walk on those streets and you can hear the faint echoes of the people who made their lives there, in English, or the Irish accent of the Bank, or the Yiddish outside the corner shop on Copenhagen Street.

Buildings create a place, but it’s the people who give it character.

While we remember the great and the good, the Thoresbys, the Gotts, the Marshalls and Murrays, it’s the ones without memorials or their names in the history books who really made Leeds. They worked the machines and the looms, they built those grand places on Park Row. People like that are where I find my character of Leeds.

When I look at the city, I see it in layers that build one up the other. Zara at the top of Kirkgate? Take away that building and what was there before and before and you reach the White Swan Inn and the gaol where Richard Nottingham – a real person, not just my creation – was constable. The strange thing is that while virtually every building would be alien to him, his feet would readily find their way around a number of the streets between the Headrow and the river. That layout hasn’t changed a bit. But it might be the only thing that’s remained the same.

In many ways, our history began, not with the founding of Briggate or a settlement growing up around the church on Kirkgate, but with the opening of Bean Ing Mill. That’s when people began pouring in. We’re children of the industrial revolution. Whatever history we had remade itself in the machine age. It’s probably one reason why Leeds has very few folk tales. There’s Jenny White’s Hole, but even that seems 19th century, and the Town Hall lions – the same. About the only old one isn’t even a tale, more a little joke that John Harrison, the merchant and benefactor, loved cats so much that when he had his house built on Briggate, at the corner of what’s not Duncan Street, he had holes cut in all the interior doors so the cats could move around freely.

That said, there is one small story, not a folk tale, that someone typifies Leeds to me. In 1812, with corn prices high, there was a riot during the market in on Briggate to protest the prices ordinary folk had to pay in order to eat. It was led by a figure named Lady Ludd – the Luddites or machine breakers were feared working-class figures back then.

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Now, Lady Ludd might well have been a man in a frock and boots and rouge. Or it might actually have been a woman. The rumours still persist that it was either radical bookseller James Mann or his wife Alice. It doesn’t matter either way, although I do like the idea of a man in bad drag leading a rioting mob. It does my heart good.

We were bolshie long before the word was invented. Leeds was a hotbed of radicalism – pretty much from the start of industrialisation. The Northern Star was published here, we were important in the history of Chartism. From the 10-hour act to the later part of the century when Isabella Ford and Tom Maguire worked with unions to get better pay and eight-hour days, Leeds people have stood up for their rights.

We love a good riot, even over dripping. When Mosley brought his fascists to town, 30,000 Leeds people went out to Holbeck Moor to let him know he wasn’t welcome. We stand up and be counted and we’ll make fun of and humiliate those who get above themselves. Humour has long been a British weapon, but round here we’ve refined it into a deadly one.

I’m lucky. The factor that my writing covers more than 200 years in Leeds gives me the chance to look at it in different eras. Of course, you could ask why I set most of my books in Leeds. To me, the answer is simple. I grew up here, I moved back here. I know the streets, I’ve walked them, I know how they feel under the soles of my shoes. I know how all the pieces fit together. I understand the people, I don’t have to imagine their voices, I can hear them in my ear.

An Author’s Distraction

I write. It’s largely how I define myself, it’s what I love to do. My chance to be published arrived when I was 54, and since then I’ve grabbed it with both hands. And until three years ago, I was generally as happy as Larry.

Since then, however, I’ve gone up and down. It’s politics, and I know I’m far from the only one. But I’m lucky, I do have something to take me away from the world and its problems for a while.

My allotment.

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Maybe it sounds silly that a piece of ground 10 metres by 7.5 could bring me so much joy, could lighten the load so much, but it does. I’ve had the allotment for four years now. It came with raspberries, blackberries, redcurrants, rhubarb, and strawberries. It was overgrown and neglected. It needed plenty of work. It was utterly on a whim that I call in a put my name down for one. I didn’t really garden, and flowers had never greatly interested me. But after about twelve months I received a call – was I still interested.

Yes. The romance might not last, but I’d give it a shot.

That first year was mostly about that. I enjoyed the fruit, apart from the currants, which I dug out, and I had chance to clear a little ground a plant a few things. Since then I’ve been watching, listening, reading, learning and experimenting.

The winter days when I can dig in compost and manure and wonderful, as if the year is beginning to wake and I can stretch my muscles after a few months of doing nothing. It’s not nothing, of course – garlic and some onions have gone in during the autumn – but it feels like it.

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I could go on about the things I’ve done but let’s face it, unless planting things is a pleasure for you, then you’ll find it boring. Let’s just say I’ve made some big changes in the last 12 months; well, as big as you can on 170 square metres. And this year I feel I’m utilising every scrap of space. It means I have to tread very carefully to avoid killing plants.

What is growing on the plot? I’m glad you asked…

Onions, garlic, kale, radishes, several types of lettuce, salad leaves. Two varieties of peas, mangetout, runner beans, two varieties of climbing beans. Squash, cucumber, carrots, corn, tomato, green and yellow courgettes. Leeks, spring onions, parsnips, spinach. Rhubarb, plum, tree, strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants, blackberries, raspberries, dwarf apple tree. And potatoes. Plenty of potatoes. A bit of lavender and rosemary, too, but I don’t really count those.

When I’m there I’m doing what needs to be done, the physical work that requires thought solely about the task at hand. I never consider checking my phone. It only comes out if I want to know the time. In today’s world, that’s freedom of a sort.

I could talk about mindfulness, that trendy word. But instead I’ll simply says that going there (it’s about five minutes’ walk from home, which was part of the appeal) makes me feel better and happier.

And there’s a hug bonus. All that fruit and veg, with things to ear from May onward. From the look of the strawberries, I’m going to be making plenty of jam this year (I know, there’s no need to say a word…).

It’s not something that would be a slave for everyone. It works for me, and that’s fine. So if you ever wonder what I do when I’m not writing books set in Leeds, now you know.

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What People Are Saying About The Leaden Heart (And Some Thoughts Of My Own)

Last night I was in a library talking to people about The Leaden Heart. I was happy to do it – and not just because it’s one of my favourite libraries, the one I used all through my childhood.

I’m proud of it. It’s out there with my name on it. Months of work and thought went into the writing. I want people to read it.

One gentleman said he thought it was the best of my books, with strong parallel stories and very tight plotting. That last bit, if it’s there, is more good luck that planning. I don’t plot. My characters lead the stories. The most I do is nudge them.

This morning I’ve been thinking about what he said. It chimes with the reviews the book has received. I’m gratified. I honestly believe that with The Tin God, my writing moved up a notch. That’s something every writer wants, to make each book better than the last. We learn, we strive to improve. It’s there too in The Hanging Psalm and now this. And having gone through the publisher’s edit for The Hocus Girl, which appears this autumn, I feel it’s also in that.

But I’m glad others see it. More than people may really know.

Thanks to all who’ve read the book. I’d love it if all of you did, whether it’s buying a hardback or ebook. And if you leave a review, may your soul be blessed.

Meanwhile, a look at some of those reviews might sway you.

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The Very First Leeds Novel

I write about Leeds. That’s not a statement to surprise anyone. But I’m not the only person to do that.

Over the last few days I read a book. Nothing unusual there; I devour books. But this one is a bit of a curiosity. Published in 1929, it’s the very first book set in Leeds (as far as I’m aware). That makes it important. Well, a it’s fictionalised Leeds, which is given the name Fleece. The History of Button Hill, written by Gordon Stowell, is set in Chapeltown – the names of all the areas of Leeds are changed – from the mid-1890s, when people moved into the new houses close to Reginald Terrace, through to the middle 1920s (in fact, Back Reginald Terrace was renamed Button Hill in the 1980s in honour of the book).

I’d heard about it for years and I’d expected it to be pretty poor and overly sentimental. But then I found a copy in the library and decided to give it a chance. I was wrong about it. It was stupid of me to judge without looking. Yes, there’s definitely a sentimental side to it, but it’s tempered, especially towards the end. The book doesn’t shy away from the way World War I and that first day of the Somme affected all of Leeds. It’s good, and absolutely believable. And it doesn’t always keep the stuff upper lips.

The book traces an arc over 30 years, with the main character a baby born just after the book opens. His generation, and their parents, are the focus and how the enthusiasm for an area have become diluted, by money, by events. There’s even a very surprising plot twist at the end of the book – but no spoilers.

I know nothing about Stowell, and there’s not a great deal about the man himself online. But he obviously knew Chapeltown, from down around Sheepscar all the way past the Bentham Arms (the Mexborough Arms, or Three Hulats as it is now) through Chapel Allerton (Button Top) around the Gledhows (Gledmere) up to Moortown, Roundhay and Oakwood (Moorhay and Oakhill).

For all the insight, it’s very much of its time, with the touches of casual, thruway anti-Semitism that were so widely accepted then, even in a city with a large Jewish population. And it’s relentlessly middle-class – but then, so were the people who lived in Chapeltown back tin those days. It’s a sobering reminder of just how exclusive the suburb was – and wanted to believe it might remain.

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“The prime reason was not the housing of the working class population…For them only too many houses have been provided, street after street of squalid little back-to-back dwellings, with no gardens or yards and little sanitation. The people who were hardest hit were the really nice people, the people with nice ideas and aspirations, who, though not extravagantly rich, had still made a little money for themselves and could afford to send their children to the Grammar school or to the new Modern School. To such as these the new suburb on Button Hill was a godsend.

Builders were turned loose on the estate. It was split into gaping rectangles. Water, gas, and drains were laid. And presently a dozen rows of desirable villa-residences shot up as if by magic, and all the contours of the hill were permanently changed. The old turnpike was cleared away, and the Fleece Tramways Company, extending its track, put on a new service of horse-trams out to the Bentham Arms. Removal vans became a familiar sight up Bathwater Road as the best people in Fleece moved themselves and their furniture to a more worthy setting.

Lord Bentham in his wisdom had decreed that the builders were to restrict themselves to villas of a superior type. Retail shops and licensed premises were barred. From the outset the new suburb could not help but feel itself exclusive and superior. Its modestly imposing homes were manifestly designed with some pretensions to that subtle quality known as “class.”

To call it a garden city suburb would have be an anachronism, but it was the nearest thing to a garden city suburb that the imagination of man had conceived up to that date. It was spacious and leafy. Native trees had been spared wherever possible, and every house possessed its green cutilage, a lawn, and a curly footpath of concrete or imported gravel, to give the illusion of landed proprietorship on a small scale. Moreover, the genuine untouched country was still so near that on summer mornings, as you stood at the bedroom window inserting your tiepin, you could sniff the dew-flavoured hedges and the turned hay, and find it difficult to believe that you were yet within half an hour’s tram-ride of the office……”

When smaller houses are built on the west side of the main road, residents look down on them. The people aren’t quite up to snuff. By within the space of 30 years, Button Hill itself is in the start of a slow decline.

The people themselves are the main focus of the story. What happens to them, where and how they end up – those who don’t die. But behind it all, the character of Button Hill itself remains a constant, even as it’s growing and changing.

The History of Button Hill is an important, and surprisingly readable, Leeds novel that journeys from innocence to experience. It’s vivid, and a moving portrayal of a time, a place, and a generation.

A reminder, if I might, that while my new book, The Leaden Heart,  isn’t set in the desirable suburb of Chapeltown – the focus is on the working-class part of Harehills – it’s out in hardback and ebook and will let you seek what life was like in Leeds in 1899. It’s also a lot easier to find than The History of Button Hill.

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Two Events

I don’t often use the blog to talk about upcoming events, but there are two in the next couple of weeks that are going to be rather special.

My good friend Candace Robb is going to be in England promoting her new book, and we’re doing a couple of evenings together, one in Leeds – where my books are set – and one in York – the setting for her work.

I first came across Candace’s Owen Archer books when I lived in Seattle. They were so convincing that I thought she lived in York, or nearby. I found out just a few years ago that she’s a Seattleite. We were in the same place at the same time and never even knew.

We cover different periods. Hers is the late middle ages, the back end of the 1300s and into 1400. Mine is later. I’m a big fan of her books, I have been since I read the first of them around 20 years ago.

We share the same publisher now, and she’s just put out A Conspiracy Of Wolves, the first Owen Archer book in 10 years. I’ve read it, and it’s excellent.

And my new Tom Harper novel, The Leaden Heart, has very recently been published. Between us, we have a bit to discuss, and the events are a double book launch for us! Buy a copy, get it signed (please)

If you can, I hope you’ll come to the Leeds event (link here) on May 16 in the evening, or the York event, also an evening affair, on the 21st (link here). Both are free, you only need to book a seat.

It would be lovely to see you!

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The Leaden Heart On Ebook (Read An Excerpt)

May Day.

A time to celebrate workers, and the fact that everywhere, The Leaden Heart is now available on ebook. Fair makes you giddy, doesn’t it?

Certainly, the reviews from the last couple of days have made me smile. Kirkus called it possibly my “finest” yet, and then there was this.

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Is that enough to convince you?

Then maybe an extract from the book would persuade you to part with your hard-earned money. I hope so, because one’s included here. Whatever ebook platform you use, go and get it – and thank you!

 

‘Superintendent Harper.’

The voice was a bellow, the sound of someone used to giving orders and being obeyed. He stood at the entrance to the office, Tollman looking helpless behind him.

The man was as big as the noise he made. A hefty paunch held in by an expensively-cut suit and waistcoat, jowls sagging on his cheeks, and a double chin that shook as he spoke. Small, dark eyes that seemed to absorb the light.

‘Councillor May.’ Harper stood, slowly extending a hand to a visitor’s chair in his office. ‘You should have let us know you were coming. What can I do for you?’

‘I’m on the Watch Committee.’ He glared, fire in his eyes. ‘I don’t need an invitation to see how one of the divisions is spending the public’s money.’

‘Of course not. Tea?’

May waved the idea away. He remained standing, a heavy, looming presence in the room, eyes moving slowly around until his gaze settled on the map.

‘What’s that?’

‘Related to a case.’ He wasn’t about to offer a word more than necessary.

The councillor snorted. ‘These murders?’

‘Yes.’

‘Something else you’re wasting time and good brass over. What’s happening about the burglaries? I’ve got people telling me they’re terrified to go out.’

Harper didn’t believe a word. May could conjure outrage from the empty air. He loved nothing better than stirring a crowd by appealing to its prejudices. Nobody named, just a wink, a nod, a hint; he knew how to work them. He despised the police, insisting he was on the Watch Committee to keep them in check.

This was the first time since Harper made superintendent that May had stirred himself into Millgarth. And it wasn’t a friendly visit.

‘We’re working on that. We have some suspects.’

‘Some suspects?’ He shouted out the question. ‘What good is that to honest people who are scared they’ll come home to find all their valuables stolen?’

Harper gritted his teeth and forced himself to smile.

‘As I said, Councillor, we’re making progress.’

‘Not enough.’ He moved around the room as if he owned it, picking up a piece of paper, glancing at it then putting it down again. He seemed to fill all the space, to take all the air. ‘In case you don’t already know, a number of us feel you shouldn’t be in this job.’ A lower voice now, more intimate and threatening. ‘We’ve taken our concerns to the chief constable.’

‘So I’ve heard.’ He wasn’t going to show any trace of fear. He wouldn’t give May that satisfaction.

‘We’re going to keep on with it until he replaces you, Harper.’ The words came out in a hiss.

Harper stared at him. ‘That’s your privilege.’

‘I’ve been on the council for a long time. Plenty of people owe me favours.’ May gave a thin, hard smile. His eyes glittered with hatred. He took a step closer. Harper could smell his breath, whisky and red meat. ‘That’s how politics works. And when you’re ready, you collect them. It’s easy to ruin a career. Just like that.’ The snap of his fingers sounded like a gunshot.

‘I can’t stop you trying.’ The man was goading him. Harper bunched his fists, but he didn’t move. He wasn’t that stupid. Hitting a councillor? Instant dismissal, no appeal.

‘I know you can’t.’ The dark smile returned for a second and vanished again. May loved the sound of his own voice. ‘And I’ll win. Do you know why? Because I have power and you don’t.’

He extended his hand. Without thinking, Harper took it, and May dragged him close. A whisper that fed like poison into his ear. ‘I know men in this city who could make you disappear for five pounds and give me change for the pleasure of the work. Think on that, Harper. Imagine how your Godawful, jumped-up wife and little girl would feel when you never came home.’

A hard squeeze of the hand, a final, bitter look, and May was gone, only the stink of him trailing in the air.

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