When The Music Plays In Chesterfield

All too often I’m amazed at the things that have happened because I started writing historical crime novels. Things I could never have anticipated or imagined. I’ve helped with an exhibition, The Vote Before The Vote, that showcased the 19th century Leeds woman who worked towards a proper franchise. I was commissioned to write a play about Dark Briggate Blues’ Dan Markham by Leeds Jazz Fest, and ended up with something that included a live jazz quintet and sold out two performances. I’ve become the writer-in-residence for Abbey House Museum in Leeds.

But Saturday was perhaps the most surreal experience of them all. I was in Chesterfield for the matinee performance of The Crooked Spire, the murder-mystery music that had been made from my novel set in the town in 1360.

Full disclosure. I’m not a fan of musicals, so I approached this with a degree of trepidation.

But it was outstanding. A very professional production, with full credit to all the backstage people who helped make it that way, A superb band that was always spot-on. Wonderful direction and production, a great set and costumes.

Of course, it’s the actors that we see and hear. They were great. The audience loved it. So did I. I knew it wouldn’t quite be my book on the stage, and it wasn’t. It would have felt wrong if it had been. This told its story beautifully. Some of the songs were quite transcendent and deserve a life beyond the five performances of the run. I hope they have that chance.

After the show, I took part in a Q&A with the director, musical arranger, set/costume designer, script writer, and producer, and felt embarrassed when many of the initial questions were for me. After all, the others were the ones responsible for what they’d just seen. But at the end, when people came up and brought out copies of the book or their programmes for me to sign (one man had his autograph book, his “memory book” as he called it), I was moved. Dumbfounded.

The Crooked Spire had gone beyond anything I’d envision when it was published nine years ago. It’s grown far beyond me.

I’m told that the performances were recorded and something will be available online soon. I’ll let you know.

Strange things happen when you write, and some of them are wonderful.

The Crooked Spire, Coming Next Week

The music made from my book, The Crooked Spire, set in Chesterfield in 1360 is set to open next week, and very aptly, it will be in Chesterfield.

You’ll probably have come across me rabbiting on about it, but yes, it’s a murder-mystery musical. Unlikely, I know, but from the little I’ve seen, it works.

Last month, some of the cast went out in town and performed some of the songs and tunes. Yes, they are in costume.

Rehearsals are underway, as you’d hope. Here are some of those actors and behjind the scenes people talking about the show.

Finally, for those who’ve never had chance to visit Chesterfield, one of the cast takes you up in the tower and gives you a glimpse up into the spire. Remember, it’s only held on by its own weight.

I’ll be there for the Saturday matinee – I’m eager to see it – and I’ll be taking part in a Q&A afterwards. You should probably come along.

Quick! To The Library

A plea for libraries. And, yes, for me.

You love to read; I doubt you’d be here otherwise. Quite possibly public libraries were the backbone of your childhood and adolescence. A place that introduced you to a range of authors. Somewhere you could choose books and take them home for a few weeks without having to pay a penny. Older, they’re useful for reference, and still for hours of entertainment in what you choose.

Libraries, be they municipal, Carnegie, community hubs, whatever, are an invaluable part of our society. That’s true wherever you live, no matter which town, city, whatever country. We need libraries. Yet everywhere, their budgets are cut, branches have had to close. It’s not the fault of local government. Their budgets are squeezed and they need to focus on the most vital service. I understand that.

But libraries offer a vital service, too. The open up worlds. As books become more expensive, they’re harder for many on limited incomes to afford. The libraries offer them galaxies for the imagination.

Support your libraries, please. If they’re not used, then in time they will close. Future generations needs them. We need them right now.

That is heartfelt. I’ve benefitted from libraries all my life. I discovered a number of favourite writers through them that I might never have found otherwise.

And that leads into the second part, which is less altruistic. I have a new book coming out at the end of December called The Blood Covenant. I really, completely believe in it. Its springboard is the exploitation and abuse of children in the factory system of the 1820s. That was a commonplace. The difference is that two children die from it.

I want people to know that happened, and I like fighting back against those who made it possible. I’d like people to read this book.

Of course, I’d love it if you all bought copies. However, hardbacks cost money. You could request that your library buys a copy – my publisher, Severn House, is what’s known as a library publisher, after all; that’s their prime market. Borrow it from them instead.

If they put one on the shelves, it’s not only you who can read it, but any others who decide to borrow it (actually, through the Public Lending Right, authors make a few pennies every time one of their books is borrowed, which is great). It’s out there, it’s available. The days when libraries could order everything have gone, but if you ask, there’s a much better chance they’ll spend their money. You’re doing a public service.

Yes, you’re helping me, and I would truly appreciate that. I know I’m being self. But you’ll be using the libraries and that helps to keep them open. That way, we’re all winners.

Thank you. Please do request the book for your local library. And others that you want to read.

Ghosts

This is what happens when you raise the ghosts. When you let the past out of its box.

A few weeks ago I was looking through some old photos and picked up one of my first wife. It had been taken on our first wedding anniversary, on the trip to the US her parents gave us as a belated birthday present. She had glasses that turned dark in the sunshine, so it was impossible to see her eyes in the bright Ohio May light. But the dark hair framed her face and she was beaming at the camera. Young, happy, carefree.

            That was a long time ago. Eight years and we divorced. I moved to the West Coast, then back to England. She stayed where she was. I don’t even remember how it happened, but we became friends online. Exchanging messages. And then, last year, from out of the blue I received a message from the daughter of her second marriage. The first time she’d contacted me. My ex was in hospital, she wrote, and not expected to last the night.

            It was a brain bleed. She was gone. It rocked me. We were the same age – hers a June birthday, mine July. Not old, not by today’s standards.

            Then I glanced at the photo and woke the ghost.

It appeared first when I opened my e-mail a couple of mornings later. No subject header, an address I didn’t know. Probably spam, I thought. But I was curious and opened it anyway.

Do you remember when we went to that village where the Brontës lived? It was winter, it must have been. The main street was very steep. I have a memory that we went up on to that moorland and it began to snow. In my mind, that snow was so heavy we almost couldn’t see? Did that happen or did I imagine it? I’m trying to recall, but it’s lost.

            It had happened just as she said. A white-out for a couple of minutes that made us terrified we’d end up lost. It passed, we came down, and laughed about it later.

            But who else apart from her knew that detail? It scared me. If this was some kind of joke, it was twisted. It couldn’t be her. That was impossible. She’d been dead for nine months.

            I read the words over and over. At first I refused to believe it all. Then the horror arrived. I wanted to trace the email, but I didn’t know how. I’m no techie.

            After a day of opening the email endless times until I could have recited each word with my eyes closed, I decided to reply. It was stupid, but there had been a real sense of longing. Of someone lost.

            Yes, it all happened. All that snow coming down. I was up there in the summer a couple of years ago. Sun, blue skies, grass and flowers. It looked absolutely different.

WHO ARE YOU?

            The reply was there the next morning: I don’t understand. What do you mean? It’s me. I’m trying to remember. The farther back I go, the hazier it becomes. It’s like trying to see through gauze. I was hoping you could help me. It’s hard sometimes. I can’t keep my mind clear. That house we bought here. Was it that bad? When I think about it, it seems like a wreck. Did we really have three dogs?

            Here? Did she really think she was still in Ohio? That…no…it couldn’t be. But everything was so earnest. This wasn’t someone having a joke or taunting me. It was real.

            Yes, we had three dogs – Rag, Muffin and Lindy. Yes, the house was pretty bad. But cheap. You do know you’re read, don’t you?

            A reply within an hour. Dead? I can’t be dead. I’m right here. I know I’m right here. I have to be…

            I’m sorry, I told her, but you’re dead. Your daughter messaged me to tell me. It happened suddenly. You remember your husband and daughter, don’t you?

            A whole day passed before her reply.

            I see them all the time. I’m there with them. It’s the past that seems dim, that’s all Everything recent is clear. I can’t be dead, they’re with me. When did I die?

            It was last August, I wrote. By now I was convinced it was real, that it was her. If not, I’d somehow gone mad. But the rest of my life carried on normally. Everything expect the emails. I hadn’t told anyone about them. Who’d have believed me, anyway?

            Did I want to believe it? I did. We lose the past soon enough as it is. This was one way of holding on. But I couldn’t understand why she was visiting me.

            What about your husband and your daughter? Anything we shared was a long time ago.

            Yes, she replied. I just want to know about the past. It’s like trying to see through a fog.

            It carried on for a week, several emails every day. From the header, she looked to be on East Coast time.

            It all scared me. I didn’t understand it, although a part of me enjoyed the whole idea. It wasn’t quite romantic, but full of mystery.

            It kept me awake at night. Soon it was filling my thoughts. That wasn’t good. And it wasn’t helping here. She was asking questions again that I’d already answered.

            Finally I saw down at the computer: I know you feel you need this. Perhaps part of you does. But there are people close to you who love you deeply. They’re grieving for you. Maybe it’s time to leave this and be with them. They need to know you’re there.

            Then answer was waiting the next morning. You’re right. Thank you. For everything. For those old memories.

            No need to reply. I went to make some tea. By the time I returned, the whole thread of mails had gone from the computer, as if they’d never really existed.

            That night I dreamed. The usual mix of images. I was in my current car, but I was in Ohio, parking on a track I’d never driven along, that didn’t exist. But I knew it was close to her parents’ house. I went inside. No need to knock. She was there, and the place was filled with the smell of cooking.

            She was there, looking just the way she had in the first photo she ever sent me. Smiling. She came over and placed her hand on my shoulders. A touch so light I had to look to be sure it was there. Her breath smelt of wildflowers.

            A peck on the cheek.

            ‘Thank you,’ she said. The voice I remembered.

            Then I was walk back to the car.

            No more dreams of her since. No more emails.

            Just everyday, ordinary life.

            And the ghost in my head.

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.

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?

Imagining Leeds

The legends and tales and folklore of a place tend to depend on a deep connection with its past. Roots that go deep into the earth to create a sense of history, of being connected to that earth. That sense of place is vitally important. Go to York and history surrounds you. Reach out your hand and you can touch it. Walk along a green lane in the countryside and there’s still a sense of brooding mystery that seems to tumble through the years, the sense that a spirit might suddenly appear in front on you. Visit one of the old battlefields and you can almost hear the clash of weapons and the cries of the wounded and the dying.

Places have power.

Look for that in Leeds and you’ll be sorely disappointed. I say that as someone whose life involves conjuring up Leeds’ history. Our oldest real artefact is the Leeds Cross, and that a composite, the remnants of five Saxon crosses that once stood outside an early version of Leeds Parish Church, but were broken up and tossed into the walls as filler during a rebuilding. Quite deliberately, we vandalised our own history – and sacred history, at that. It was old, so it was no longer relevant.

leeds cross

Yet somehow that’s emblematic of a place that only began to truly flourish with the arrival of industry. The era of machines and power, water and steam and the manufactory and the mill. They stood tall, the modern equivalent of the castle or the cathedral as a symbol of subjugation of the people. And folk did flock here to live in the shadows of them. Yet while the past is very tangible in both cathedral and castle, the legends and supernatural close to hand,  it’s impossible to evoke any ancient magic inside the walls of a mall. It can’t.

Almost old folktales and songs we might have once had were lost. After I’d first published this, someone ,mentioned the apocryphal tale of merchant John Harrison sending Charles I a tankard filled with gold coins when he was being escorted south after being captured by Parliamentary forces. The event is commemorated in stained glass in St. john’s church – the one Harrison built with his own money before the Civil War. And it is a great story, no duobt about it.

But there could never be a Beowulf or Wayland the Smith in Leeds, because our roots to whatever we possessed long ago have long since been cut. Those bards we have – a Bennett, a Waterhouse, a Hoggart – are all recent, and can only touch the surface, because that’s all there is. They have no grand words or ideas, but their language reflects industry; practical and utilitarian. Notably, all three came from working-class beginnings.

With its factories, Leeds was very a society of immigrants. Not necessarily from other countries, although that happened soon enough, but from other regions. Although it has a history of things that are demonstrably older, it’s essentially people who define a town or a city. Their stamp moulds it more than it moulds them, especially when the influx is so quick and so large. In 1800, just after the start of the Industrial Revolution, 30,000 people lives in Leeds. In three decades that number tripled.

So any Leeds we can imagine only goes back a little more than two centuries. Those roots are barely old enough to sink below the surface. We haven’t had time to create many folktales or songs. And those that have come about are of disappointment, of factory workers or grand Victorian buildings (Jenny White’s Hole, for example, or the Town Hall Lions). This is a place built of brick and smoke, on dirt and poverty. We don’t have a mythology.

And most of those factories and mills that were the foundation of industry have been demolished. The buildings proved as ephemeral as the lives of the people who worked there. They and their histories are erased. The history of Leeds is essentially the history of working people. But when their workplaces become rubble and their homes are torn down because they’re slums, where is the past for anyone to touch? There’s very little history for anyone to dream.

Even our parks are human constructs, where man has imposed himself on the countryside. Kirkstall Abbey was once in the middle of nowhere. Now it’s a tamed, picturesque ruin.

k abbey

It’s probably not just a Leeds phenomenon. Very likely it’s true across the north, in all those places that were built on different industries. And there’s a kick to finish it all off. Leeds was essentially created by industry. By pain and sweat, the riches of a few and the labour of so many. But industry has all but gone. And a city of finance and service industries doesn’t offer much in the way in inspiration.

We all need a spine of tales, of folklore, of songs that are us. And there are artists and writers, musicians and makers of theatre who are trying to do that. But these things need to grow from the bottom up, not be imposed upon a place.

At one point there was continuity. Now things are demolished, refashioned and repurposed every couple of generations. You can’t find any tradition in that. And that’s the pity. Humans need tradition. It’s part of belonging.

Yet a few faint tendrils do curl down and survive in our language. A few things that are uniquely Leeds. Ginnel. Loiner.

ginnel

There’s beauty in those and other words like them. It’s a dialect that’s largely dying and TV culture makes language homogenised. But it’s holding on. And those words do conjure up a fading Leeds of the imagination.

Possibly, just as Leeds is post-industrial, it’s also now post-mythology. But people will always need stories, songs and ballads to pass on. They always have. It’s part of being human. We need to create them, then nurture the flame and keep them alive.