A Mystery Solved

It’s always wonderful to have a nagging mystery solved, isn’t it? Especially one that you didn’t even know existed until the start of the year. Let me explain…

Quite a few months ago, a Google search my on paternal grandfather’s name brought up a brief newspaper story from 1943. He’d been arrested for stealing from the mill where he was an assistant manager.

Frustratingly, though, there was nothing to indicate what had happened after that. I emailed West Yorkshire Archives, but lockdown meant they didn’t have access to the records.

Finally, though, they were able to discover the disposition of his case, and it was a much lighter sentence that I’d expected.

After his arrest in October, he was committed and bailed from Bradford City Court. He was charged with stealing 99 pounds of cloth, 46 cleaning clothes and other articles belonging to his employer, Allied Industrial Services. At a guess, 99 pounds was the figure used to stop if being a much higher crime – they might not have had enough proof.

On December 31, my grandfather was up before the magistrate, Frank Beverly, and pleaded guilty. That, too, might have been arranged beforehand, in exchange for a lenient sentence.

He was bound over on his own recognisance, fined £5, had to be of good behaviour, and could be called back to real sentencing anytime in the next two years if he caused any problem – what we’d call a suspended sentence. Additionally, he was ordered to pay £10 costs.

With that, he disappeared off the legal landscape, and died in 1963. He would have lost a job that paid an extremely good salary for the time, and with a criminal record it would probably have been hard to find another.

It wasn’t the first time he’d done it – he evidently had a relative by marriage store some cloth he’d taken in her cellar. Her payment was enough of it to make several garments – this was a time when clothing and fabric were heavily rationed.

And that, really, makes the very light sentence a surprise. He was obviously involved in the black market, yet there was no rush to make an example of him. Why? I’ll never know.

Of course, this was a man of questionable judgement. Supposedly, in 1921 he won a mill in Dublin in a card game and moved his family over there from Leeds. That year was the height of the Irish-English conflict, when feelings ran high over there in the wake of the violence by the Black and Tans. The Nicksons were back in Leeds inside a year. What happened to the mill? I don’t know.

That’s the conclusion of that story, one I’d never heard a whisper about before spotting that clipping. See, the Internet can be a great tool.

Meanwhile, how would you like me to supply your Christmas books? Well, five of them, anyway. Simply go to last week’s blog, right here, answer the question and you’re in with a chance. But November 30 is the closing date…

Win Your Christmas Presents

Well, some of them…

As you may know, the third Simon Westow book, To The Dark, comes out in about six weeks, blinking into the light in that strange limbo time between Christmas and New Year.

It should have arrived at the end of September, but Covid has upended everything. Honestly, I’m grateful that’s it’s being published at all.

It a dark, hard book, set in Leeds in the late winter of 1823, and much of it happens around Cynder Island, a part of Leeds that no longer exists by that name – it’s right around Sovereign Street these days. Back then it was on the edge of the river. People lived and worked there, and the old Flay Crow Mill was already falling down.

It’s a book of murder and deceit. Of violence had revenge.

It’s hardcore.

It’s Leeds.

To prime the pump for publication and take care of some of your Christmas present, I’m going to give away a set of five books. Yes, that’s five. The first two Simon Westow novels, The Hanging Psalm and The Hocus Girl (“outstandsing…historical mysteries don’t get much better than this” – Publishers Weekly), The Tin God from the Tom Harper series, The Broken Token, which kicked off the Richard Nottingham sagas and was my first published novel. To round it out, The Anchoress of Chesterfield, the most recent John the Carpenter novel.

How can you win, you ask? Simple, comment under the blog post with the name of the mill where part of To The Dark takes place; it’s mentioned above. I’ll select a winner on November 30. Sadly, postage costs man UK only. Sorry.

Good luck, and if you’re on NetGalley, please request To The Dark. And I’d be grateful if you left a review.

Win Your Christmas Presents

As you may know, the third Simon Westow book, To The Dark, comes out in about six weeks, blinking into the light in that strange limbo time between Christmas and New Year.

It should have arrived at the end of September, but Covid has upended everything. Honestly, I’m grateful that’s it’s being published at all.

It a dark, hard book, set in Leeds in the late winter of 1823, and much of it happens around Cynder Island, a part of Leeds that no longer exists by that name – it’s right around Sovereign Street these days. Back then it was on the edge of the river. People lived and worked there, and the old Flay Crow Mill was already falling down.

It’s a book of murder and deceit. Of violence had revenge.

It’s hardcore.

It’s Leeds.

To prime the pump for publication and take care of some of your Christmas present, I’m going to give away a set of five books. Yes, that’s five. The first two Simon Westow novels, The Hanging Psalm and The Hocus Girl (“outstandsing…historical mysteries don’t get much better than this” – Publishers Weekly), The Tin God from the Tom Harper series, and The Broken Token, which kicked off the Richard Nottingham sagas and was my first published novel. To round it out, The Anchoress of Chesterfield, the most recent John the Carpenter novel.

How can you win, you ask? Simple, comment under the blog post with the name of the mill where part of To The Dark takes place; it’s mentioned above. I’ll select a winner on November 30. Sadly, postage costs mean UK only. Sorry. Leave your email with your entry andf I’ll contact the winner.

Good luck, and if you’re on NetGalley, please request To The Dark. And if you read it, I’d be grateful for a reivew.

The Reality Of Old Leeds

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” – LP Hartley

Novelists writing books that take place in the present day have to set the scene, of course, and create the sense of place. But the world they describe is one that’s essentially familiar, whether it’s in Britain, the US, or even Mongolia. Dickens’s readers understood the world he was describing, even if part of it feel alien to us (Even books written a little less than 20 years ago can feel like historical fiction. I’ve been reading Ian’s Rankin’s The Falls, published 2001, and the mentions of Teletext and WAP phones push it into another era)

.The historical novelist, however, has to take the past and make it alive and real to modern minds. We rely on research, we have to, but so much depends on our own imaginations. After all, an historical novel is only really successful if you feel you’ve been there yourself. That you’ve walked the streets, smell the stink and sweetness of history and met the people.

Yet research can only take you so far, especially if you’re dealing with the poor. All too often, their stories aren’t documented, especially before the middle of the 19th century. So many are nothing more than a name in a parish register – maybe a guinea grave, and that’s if they were lucky – with the memories vanished to nothing. Yet they had their lives and loves, their joys and sorrow.

I can only speak for myself, but giving voices to some of them is one of the things I try to do in my books. Yes, I try to tell a story to engage, but I attempt to put the reader on the streets of Leeds, along it’s people whether it’s around the turn of the 20th century, the 1730s, or the 1820s, which is when the book I’m currently writing (the fourth Simon Westow novel) is set. There are some lovely pictures, watercolours, that show Leeds in a flattering, romantic light, with gracious houses and wide avenues, a place more desirable and cleaner than the best addresses in London or Paris. For me, that comes with not just a grain of salt, but a ton of the stuff.

In the 1820s Leeds was dashing headlong into the industrial age. It was smoky – there’s ample testament to that – and filthy. Workers were pouring in to the town to take the jobs in factories and mills. What housing existed for them was shoddy at best, and however quickly speculators built, there wasn’t enough. No sewage, no running water for most. Middens, standpipes and buckets. Privies that had to be empties by hand, all the waste carted off to the market gardens outside town. For those with money, the only mod cons were servants to do the dirty work.

Not the stuff of high romance, is it?

For the poor, life was often very short. High infant mortality, and even if you did grow up, you probably wouldn’t be alive too long. From an early age you were worked to the bone, six days a week, and all for a pittance. No chance to go into shops and buy new clothes; you wouldn’t be able to afford them. Second-, third- fifth-hand was good enough. The wages went on rent and food and heat.

That’s the world I want to lead my readers into. No, it’s not a picturesque place to visit at all. The poor aren’t always good. They are thieves and killers, the same as in every part of society. They just don’t have the protection of money or connections.

I do my best to make all that real. So does every historical novelist, and historical crime novels are also historical fiction. There’s no point in painting dishonest portraits. The days when writers only had aristocratic characters are long gone, thankfully. Only a tiny percentage of people have ever had money and privilege.

Still, even if those people couldn’t vote, and wouldn’t be able to for many years, every life was political.

It still is. That much hasn’t changed.

We all do our best to make things real. But…and it’s a huge but…this is fiction. I can’t say with absolutely certainly that this is exactly how it was then. I’m not a historian, I haven’t researched each tiny fact. As far as possible, it’s true. Remember, though, first and foremost I’m telling a story. If you finish the book and believe you’ve been there, that it was real to you, then I’ve succeeded. Especially if you care about the people. Let me try to illustrate with a couple of extracts from To The Dark, which is published December 31 in the UK. You can pre-order it now. Here has the cheapest price (and free postage).

Robbie Flowers stood by the window. The glass was grimy; it had probably never been cleaned in all the years he’d lived here.

            Jane was at his side, staring down at Flay Cross Mill. From up here, she could see there was order to the arrangement of the buildings below. But the years of neglect were even more obvious. Three roofs caved in, a hole in the fourth.

            ‘You didn’t see anything?’ she asked.

            He shook his head. ‘Why would I look down there? I’ve seen it often enough.’

            ‘Maybe you heard a noise.’ She glanced at his face, realizing with surprise that she was looking directly into his eyes. Two years ago he’d been a full head taller than her.

            ‘There’s always noise.’ He pointed. ‘Listen, it’s there. People working on the river. Day and night.’

            In the corner, an old woman moaned and tried to push herself out of the chair. But she was firmly tied in place. Flowers’s mother. Her mind was gone; she saw the past instead of the present. But her legs still worked. Given half a chance, she’d be out and away down the stairs.

            Jane had found her by the Moot Hall once, standing, staring at the building. She’d helped her back here. Flowers worked in one of the warehouses on the river, a clerk checking the daily shipments in and out. He had no one to look after his mother while he was gone. No money to pay for a companion for her. He had no choice but to tie her in the chair to stop her wandering.

            Jane had been waiting outside the door when he returned today.

            ‘I’m sorry,’ Flowers said. He turned away, untying the knots that held his mother in place as he spoke gently in the old woman’s ear. She’d soiled herself; Jane could smell it. She knew the man would clean his mother, then feed her, read to her until the light grew too dim.

For two or three years after it was built, Welling Court had been a good address. Set back from Kirkgate up a small flight of stone steps, it had grown up around a courtyard. But those bright days had ended very quickly. Now it was a last refuge for people who had nothing. There was no sun, no warmth, so little hope in the place. The snow had drifted into the corners of the courtyard, thick and dirty. An air of desolation hung over it all.

            The room he wanted was in the attic. Simon dashed up the stairs, pulling out his knife as he ran. Jane hurried behind him. The door was locked, but the wood hung so loose in the frame it only took a second to prise it open.

            The glass had gone in one of the windows. An old sheet hung in its place, but it couldn’t keep out the pinching cold. A bare wooden floor, thick with splinters. One wall had been turned brown by damp leaching through the plaster. Simon touched it and it crumbled under his fingers.

            They searched hurriedly, all too aware that the constable might be on his way. They needed to be out of sight well before that happened. If anyone found them here, there would be too many awkward questions.

            Two minutes was all they needed. Poole had owned a change of linen and some spare socks. That, along with the greatcoat – pockets empty – and the ancient top hat on a hook behind the door, was all. Except for the notebook and pencil he’d pushed under the bed as if he’d wanted to keep them hidden from sight. Simon scooped them up and thrust them into his coat pocket. A final sweep around the room. Nothing more here; he was certain of it.

More Leeds Songs

The last blog post about Leeds songs generated a fair bit of interest, more than I’d expected for something so niche. And my curiosity was piqued, too. Were there others out there?

A conversation between a couple of people regarding that previous blog post highlight the song Beneath The Dark Arches. It’s a broadside balled, one that was published during the 19th century (mentioning bobbies, for instance, and the Dark Arches themselves, which were built for one of the railways stations here). But a warning to young men looking for women, and which played to the dangerous reputation of the place.

As it happens, yes. One that I’d forgotten, given a mention in Frank Kidson’s book, Traditional Tunes, about the cock fight on Holbeck Moor (many, many years before the famous Battle of Holbeck Moor in 1936). There are supposedly other versions where it takes place on Hunslet Moor; either way, it’s very much a Leeds song, this one even with a tune.

The third is the real oddity The Virgin Race is about a race at Temple Newsam Green in Leeds. To qualify, the participants had to be female and virgins. The first three finishers over two miles received prizes of silver (spoon, bodkin, thimble). The fourth won nothing at all. The winner, named Nan, also apparently won a race against a man named Luke from Basinghall Street (Bassing-hall) in the middle of town, and “at something else she’ll beat him, too.” No idea as to the song’s origins, and whether any race like that happened. But it makes for a cracking song.

Andd I’ll finish by reminding you that the third in the Simon Westow series, titled To The Dark, will be published in the UK on December 31. It was originally due a week ago, but with the pandemic…anyway, now it will see in 2021. You can pre-order from plenty of places, including the one named for the big river in S. America. But Speedy Hen appears to be the cheapest (and free postage, wink wink).

The Songs Of Leeds

A chance remark of social media about Dick Turpin, that famous highwayman, led me down a ‘Swift Nick’ Nevison rabbit hole (what do you mean, you’ve never heard of him? He did many of the things credited to Turpin: read about him here).

Eventually – by a twisted process – that landed me at Holroyd’s Collection Of Yorkshire Ballads, published in 1892. Given that there are so few folk songs involving Leeds, I wanted to take a look.

It yielded five. To be fair, most of them could have related to so many places. Some are very dark indeed, others tearful, and one – the only one that really looked like it may have been written about Leeds – was light hearted. And they’re not really ballads as we think of them. They’re mostly poems, not written to be sung.

Still, anything like this involving Leeds is so rare that they’re worth a look. It’s niche, I know, but strangely interesting.

Some (like The Leeds Tragedy) are from broadside ballads, rustled up and published as a quick response to a tragedy and sold on the streets for a penny. The pop songs of the day before the music hall really took off.

Some are very much cautionary tales, wildly dnetimental, like this piece about a factory girl, eivdently copied from the Leeds Times.

The Leeds-based Victorian folk song collector, Frank Kidson, bought broadsides and kept them in an album. Some of those are far more Leeds-centric than the pieces in Holroyd (The Leeds Tragedy occurs in both).

I’ve written about the Kidson broadsides before, in more detail. It’s here if you want to take a look.

And for good measure, let’s finish with a tune – decidedly to do with Leeds, that Kidson mentions in Old English Country Dances being played in Leeds as early as 1820. Presented in two versions.

Some Bright News In Dark Times

Even in the brief flurry of sunshine and warmth we’re experiencing in Leeds right now, I know the days are dark. It doesn’t matter where you live. In Seattle, where I spent many years, it’s literally dark and choking with the smoke from the fires up and down the coast and father inland. You’ve probably seen the photos from California and Oregon, where the world looks like part of the apocalypse.

It’s hard not to be downhearted and depressed. I find solace in escaping to my allotment, where nothing else can touch me and I live simply doing the jobs in front of me (this week, stripping the borlotti beans – there are a lot this years, it seems!) and taking down the vice, before preparing that bed for winter. After that, pick blackberries and the rest of the apples. There’s a sense of order, of continuity in it all that makes me happy.

But I do have some more sunshine this week. First to bring you up to speed. The third Simon Westow novel will be published in the UK at the end of December. It’s called To The Dark, and yes, it’s dark indeed. For some reason, it’s not showing up to pre-order on Amazon. However, good independent shops will be glad to take your order, or there’s Speedy Hen, which has the lowest price I’ve seen and free postage. Look here.

What’s it about? I’m glad you asked: The city is in the grip of winter, but the chill deepens for thief-taker Simon Westow and his young assistant, Jane, when the body of Laurence Poole, a petty local thief, emerges from the melting snow by the river at Flay Cross Mill. A coded notebook found in Laurence’s room mentions Charlie Harker, the most notorious fence in Leeds who’s now running for his life, and the mysterious words: To the dark. What was Laurence hiding that caused his death? Simon’s hunt for the truth pits him against some dangerous, powerful enemies who’ll happily kill him in a heartbeat – if they can.

The middle of 2021 will bring Brass Lives, the ninth Tom Harper novel, set in 1913. It features a boy from Quarry Hill in Leeds who went to New York when he was 10 to join his mother. More than a decade on and he’s come back to see his father. Over in America he’s made a reputation as a gangster and a killer. The problem is that death has followed him to Leeds. It’s inspired by Owen ‘Owney’ Madden, whose true story is well worth reading. One of the few in his line of work who retired and lived to a ripe age.

And now….drum roll.

I’ve signed a deal for a fourth Simon Westow, tentatively titled The Blood Covenant, set in 1823. Very likely to appear at the end of 2021 in the UK. And also A Dark Steel Death, the 10th (!) Tom Harper novel, which is set in 1917, and probably out in the middle of 2022 – assuming we’re all alive them.

And no, I won’t tell you more about them. You’ll have to wait.

2022…I’m not even sure I can think that far ahead. But I have to now.

Already Here And Coming In The Next 12 Months.

Just this week, my publisher put up a blog interview with me about what these last 10 years of publishing books has been like. You can read it right here. It touched on a few things, book things, but to my amazement, the decade has stretched beyond that.

There have been a couple of plays, The Empress On The Corner, a one-women play about Annabelle Harper and her life, with scenes performed at various places in Leeds. One was filmed at the Hark To Rover pub in Abbey House Museum.

New Briggate Blues was commissioned by Leeds Jazz Fest in 2018. It featured Dan Markham (Dark Briggate Blues) and revolved around memories of Studio 20 Jazz Club in Leeds. Two characters plus a live jazz quintet, and both performances sold out.

 

The biggest thing, though, came with my involvement in The Vote Before The Vote, an exhibition at Leeds Libraries about the Victorian Leeds women who worked towards suffrage. It coincided with the publication of The Tin God, when Annabelle Harper runs to become a Poor Law Guardian. I wasn’t the historian who did most of the work, but I helped, and I’m hugely proud to be have been part of it – and that Annabelle wrote herself into Leeds history.

Of the books, perhaps the thing that truly blew me away happened in 2011, when Cold Cruel Winter, my second novel, was named one of the 10 best mysteries of the year by Library Journal. I was quite literally speechless for a while.

So what lies ahead? Here’s a taster:

“The end of this year brings the third Simon Westow novel, To The Dark, then a new Tom Harper, Brass Lives, sometime next summer. I’ve just finished writing A Dark Steel Death, the tenth Harper mystery. I couldn’t comment on rumours that I’m making headway in the final Harper book…”

And here’s the cover for TO THE DARK. What do you think?

To The Dark 1

Finally, a bit of micro fiction.

He poured hot water into the bowl, watching the soap bubble. Pushed the masks down with a spoon. Once it cooled he’d rinse them off, wring them out and hang them to dry. This is how we live now, he thought. This is how we stay alive.

We Were Just Kids

I rarely put anything too personal on here, but for once I’m going to be different. I hope you’ll forgive my indulgence. I’m always better at explaining my feelings on paper than anywhere else.

One morning last week I woke to a private message on a friend’s social media account. It came from her daughter, to say that her mother was very ill and not expected to last the night. It was the first thing I saw when I woke up.

It shook me, and that shaking became a shattering when I learned that she’d died in the night. It sent me tumbling into the past.

We started out a pen pals when we were still at school, both 17. She in America, me in Leeds. You don’t need the whole tale. It’s probably enough to say that she ended up here, and we married a few weeks before we turned 20. Young, I know, but it didn’t seem that way to us. It seemed…right.

She loved music; the ad she’d placed for a pen pal was in the British music paper Melody Maker, one squarely aimed at fans of more progressive music. We bonded over Genesis’ Foxtrot. It was the first gift I gave her, carefully wrapped and sent to the US for her 18th birthday.

She loved books, too. She went to college to study library science, but dropped out. In Leeds she worked in a library (Headingley with some stints at Woodhouse, in case you’re curious).

headingley library 1931

Headingley library, back in 1931

In much of our 10 years together, especially living in England, we were just kids. Looking back, we were a pair of sort-of hippies. We had love. We didn’t have much money, but always enough. We never felt poor. There was ample for our needs, which weren’t large back then. Rent, food, books, LPs, the occasional gig. It probably helped that she was good at squirreling away money.

We moved to America, each of us with different reasons to propel us across the Atlantic. That was at the beginning of 1976.

The last time I saw her was in 1984. She stayed in the city where she’d grown up, and a year or so later, I moved to Seattle. A long time after that, I came back to England, ending in Leeds, the place where I’d begun. A nice symmetry there, a mirror to her.

Just a few years ago we became Facebook friends. We started to semi-regularly exchange messages. We talked a little about music, not too much about books. I have no idea if she’d read anything I’d published. She’d been there in the very early days, long before publication. When we were together I was writing each night, sending off completed books and stories and getting nowhere.

It didn’t matter if she read anything of mine or not, really. A few days before her death she’d messaged to say she needed to read a particular book on politics. She still listened to the folk music we’d enjoyed way back when. It was all still a part of her. She still had her passion for things. She remained an Anglophile, she missed the place.

Since her death, I’ve thought more about those old days than ever before. What it was like to be 19 and take off to visit a pen pal in a foreign country. No big preparation, no itinerary, nothing more a airmail letter to say she’d be there the following week. The younger me never appreciated what it took, that’s for damned sure.

I do now.

Until I learned she’d died, I hadn’t realised how intertwined our pasts were; after all, the marriage finished long ago and we went our separate ways. But it never fully ends, does it? And while there are plenty of things in my head, I’m not sure I have the right to feel all these things. The ones really grieving are her husband and daughter and the rest of her family, and my heart goes out to them. A part of me feels I’m impinging on their sorrow. I hope I’m not.

If we knew then what we do now…perhaps it’s as well that we don’t.

We were just kids then, back in the days when it was easy to be hopeful and joyous. Just kids.

I won’t say her name. There’s no need. But…everything we’ve been, all the people who’ve shared our lives have helped to shape us. They’re a part of who we are. We never shake off those bonds, even if we believe we have.

Leeds Past, Leeds Present, Leeds Future

Within the Leeds city centre, the oldest buildings are churches and pubs; somehow, those twin continuities say a lot about how we view our own history, and perhaps the people who lived here.

The burial ground at St Peter’s Church (the Parish Church, or Leeds Minster as it is now) was dug up and the headstones moved for a railway line. The dead shouldn’t stand in the way of progress, after all, and that piece of land was worth more developed into roads and track and buildings that as a home for old bones. For Leeds history.

burial ground

But there are other pieces of our history that have been quietly swept away. The oldest house in Leeds, which stood on Lower Briggate, went in the mid-1950s. For a while in the 1990s the council stood in favour of getting rid of Kirkgate Market.

kirkgate market

The same council that loudly trumpeted the Motorway City of the Seventies idea. A city centre full of cars and pedestrian on elevated walkways.

motorway city

These days that seems crazy. Back when it was mooted, it offered a science fiction future.

Cities evolve. They have to, in order to meet the changing needs of their people and businesses. But looking ahead at the expense of the past isn’t a solution.

We’ve discovered that our parents and grandparents had solutions we were quick to ditch in the name of progress that have proved more sustainable than the things that replaced them. The reusable shopping bag, hanging washing on the line rather than using a tumble dryer…make your own list.

The point is that we’ve become too ready to jettison the past for the latest fad. And while this isn’t my bailiwick, it seems been the case in planning Leeds, too. Abandon manufacturing and jump on the retail bandwagon. Meanwhile, the Sheffield area has redefined what manufacturing can mean and is poised to move ahead on a sound financial footing.

I love Leeds. The city, the team (and yes, we are up!). I want the best for everything here. But the first step in running any city is to make it a good place for all the people who live there. A tricky balancing act, and one I wouldn’t want to have to administer.

Yet…are we asking the right questions about what we want and need in this place?

What do you think?