Competition

Not selling anything on Black Friday, but giving away copies of my last two books. Simply tell me how many now in the Tom Harper series (just hit comment). I’ll select the winner on December 3 – plenty of time for Xmas. But UK only, sorry. Please include your email address.

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.

The Anchoress Will Be Coming Soon – And Some Norman-Era Fiction

First of all, apologies. I’ve been quiet for a little while. Physically well, thankfully, but preoccupied with this and that. Writing the new Tom Harper, of course, but I was also asked to take part in another project called Street Stories, which will take place on Quarry Hill in Leeds. It’s the brainchild of Leeds City College and put together by #foundfiction. Small pieces of writing will be displayed as street art around various parts of Quarry Hill, and I’m one of four writers creating work for it. Mine will cover aspects of the area as it was: Quarry Hill flats, of course, but also the 1645 plague cabins, St. Peter’s Well, the death of Tom Maguire and more. It’s something different, every piece is very compressed, and it’s an interesting challenge.

Some of you will be wondering exactly when The Anchoress of Chesterfield is likely to appear, or even if it will appear. The initial publication date of June 1 is now a memory, and another date of the end of June isn’t going to happen. But it’s at the printer, and I’m told that it will be available in paperback and as an ebook from the end of July. Not exact date, I’m afraid, but this appears concrete. Thank you for being patient, but these have been very different times, as well all know.

anchoress comp 2 0993098

I showed you a little of my Civil War period novella, The Cloth Searcher. Before I began work on that, I revisited and picked up the threads and completed another story I began a few years ago, this one set in Norman-era Leeds, called Norman Blood. I’m now going back over it, slowly. Another novella. Here’s how it begins:

Note: Ledes was the name given to modern-day Leeds.

1

1092 AD

He rarely dreamed now. In the beginning the night mare had ridden every time he closed his eyes, slipping through the blackness like a cutthroat and gripping him so close he could smell its graveyard stench. Then, slowly, almost without him knowing, it had faded and become a fearful memory.

But last night it had returned, more powerful for having been away so long. Screaming, growing louder and louder before dropping into a single moment of dead, empty silence.

Then a welter of noise filled the space. Sounds he hadn’t noticed before. Shouting, hooves. The metal rasp of weapons drawn. The crackle as a thatched roof caught fire and the night flamed.

He was hobbling through the darkness, desperate to keep out of sight. But even when he was a mile away and more, he could still hear the soldiers shouting in their foreign tongue; no doubting the meaning and their hatred. Killing, rape, the devils in hell let loose to roam, all the order and the law gone from the earth. Blades hacking at flesh and tearing at souls.

Somewhere, someone must be alive. They must be, or all the world would be blood.

When he woke, he was breathing so hard that his chest hurt, hands clenched tight into fists, the t tears tumbling down his cheeks.

Trembling, Erik had to ease himself out of the bed, careful not to wake Inga, then paced up and down on the earth floor of the house, letting its cold hardness, its realness, into his body, until the demons danced away. Hours later, in full daylight, he could still taste the smoke and death on his tongue, a poison no gulp of ale could take away.

For the dream to come back after all this time…it had to mean something.

 

The villagers always closed their doors as the soldiers passed. It was safer, like a cantrip to keep evil at bay. There were only ten men this time, churning up the mud as they marched rapidly along the road. Beyond the houses and the church, their feet clattered as they crossed the bridge over the beck until the hard beat of marching softened into the distance.

Every week it was the same, a patrol sent out, as if the Normans were fearful that people might flare up and oppose them again. But who was left to fight or forge the weapons? Who had the will? The army had conquered, it had destroyed the land far and wide. The soldiers had used their iron and steel to choke away hope.

The Harrying. That was what they called it.

Death was the word he used. That was the truth of it.

All across Yorkshire, manors had burned. Animals butchered in the fields and left to rot. Not only the stock: people were killed, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, unshriven and unburied. Those still alive fled, praying for safety, begging for deliverance. But God had turned His face away, unhearing, unforgiving. No food, no shelter. No hope. No life. They died beyond counting during the winter, children and parents withered to sacks of bone and heart and flesh until they barely made a meal for the wolves.

But Ledes…Ledes was spared. A miracle, that was what the people here believed. God’s blessing. But he knew that the reality spoke far less of heaven and much more of power. It was a military decision, nothing more than that. A finger stabbed down on a rough-drawn map. Keep this place with the ford over the river. We can station our men there.

Erik brushed the wood shavings from his lap and put the knife back in his belt. He’d whittled the end of the post to a sharp point that would go easily into the ground. Since Sunday, his wife had been reminding him that the gate between their toft and the pasture needed repair.

The job was there in his head, but every hour of daylight had been filled. He was the reeve, elected by the others when the manor became property of the monks in York. Each dispute about the size of a villager’s planting strips, who should do what, when they should do it, ended with him.

Erik sighed. Since the spring ploughing and planting began, it had been one task after another. Decide this, measure that, give an order, settle an argument. Finally, last night, the procession of people hammering on the door stopped.

Then the night mare visited. But it had ridden on again, thank God. No one had needed him this morning. And now he finally had time to do something for himself. He hoisted the post on to his shoulder and limped to the end of the garden. When he was young he’d jumped from a tree and broken a bone on his thigh. It was never set properly, leaving him to walk like this.

On the horizon, ravens swooped down on something, then scattered high into the air as a buzzard dived. The first fingers of spring and the ground was beginning to soften after the long winter. Pray for a warm summer and a good harvest.

The scents of life drifted on the air. Off in the distance he could see lambs, newborn and tentative, discovering the astonishment of movement. Every year it was the same, and every year it enchanted him and made his heart soar.

He loved this ville. It was home, it was comfort. He cherished the people here, even when their voices and demand and questions wearied him. Erik had been surprised when they put him forward as reeve, grateful when they voted for him.

In return he took all his responsibilities seriously, sitting and making his judgements at the manor court, tallying harvests, making sure the priest received his tithe and the monks had all they were owed.

He’d been on God’s Earth for almost forty years, as close as he could guess; an old man now, with all the pains and failings of age. But he tried to do his duty by everyone.

And he put them all in front of himself. That was his wife’s complaint. Inga was right. But what could he do? He could hardly turn them away or make them wait. So jobs like this were tucked into odd, quiet hours when the chance arose.

Erik dug into the soil with the tip of his knife and set with post in place. He’d set a rock aside, heavy enough to need two hands. The dull sound of stone on wood, over and over and over, until it was seated straight and secure. Now the gate would close properly; no animals would wander into the garden and eat what his wife grew. Inga would be happy.

The manor had improved since it became the property of the monks. They paid rents every quarter day now instead of giving their labour, and what man wouldn’t work harder for himself than for a lord? But the monks had also taken the best pasture to graze their sheep. The best pasture, of course, and the villagers had to tend them. Less ground for fallow or farming.

His eyes followed the line of low trees that grew along the stream that marked the northern boundary of the manor. The villagers were busy with ploughing and sowing and digging. At least if they were occupied, he’d have some time. And he still needed to plant early seeds in his own strips.

He stretched, an ache of satisfaction in his arms, then turned towards the house. For a moment the clouds parted and the sun shone, the glimpse of colour and brightness welcome against the grey. Erik smiled, then caught a glint of metal from the corner of his eye. Two of the soldiers were running back along the road to their palisade.

Suddenly every sense of pleasure vanished. He was alert, a prickle of fear running down his back.

Let’s Go Back To…1645 In Leeds

There are so many awful things going on in the world right now, but this blog isn’t the place to comment on them. Writing about the past is one way to escape to something different. Not always kind or less brutal.

I’m working on a new Tom Harper book which takes place in 1917 (this is a good place to mention that the ebook of Gods of Gold is still 82p/99c from all retailers for all platforms).

gods of gold cover

I’ve also finished a novella entitled Norman Blood, set in Leeds in 1092 CE. I’ll be self-publishing that this autumn, quite possible combined with this, if it works out. It’s called The Cloth Searcher, and it’s set in Leeds in during the Civil War 1645…just before plague broke out.

Here’s the opening. Please, drop me a line and tell me if you think it’s worth continuing. And please, all of you, stay safe and careful.

 

February 1645

 

With the new year, Leeds began to emerge from the winter. Under the rule of the Roundhead garrison, as kind of normality took hold. Like a patient too long in bed after an illness, the town took tentative, faltering steps. But with each week things improved, the invalid seemed a little more confident, even if its colours still seemed to be greys and blacks and browns.

At least the weather had been mild so far, Adam Wright thought. Granted, it was still February, but there’d been little snow to trouble and freeze them and enough days of chill, pale sunshine to give some hope to the heart.

He walked up Briggate, past the sorry ruin of lawyer Benson’s house. Once it had been a fine building; now the front door flapped on its hinges, all the windows were broken and so many slates missing from the roof that the ground floor was little better than a lake. The revenge of Cromwell’s Scottish soldiers for the man’s support of the King. Benson himself had long since fled Leeds to live who knew where.

It was impossible not to resent the troops stationed in the town, even if the Scots and their violence had been packed off home. Soldiers strutted with muskets and pikestaffs, their officers gave orders and ran the place now. Adam had only managed to avoid having a man billeted with him because he had three young children, and he thanked God for his fortune.

It was wrong for a town to be this way, to be occupied by their own countrymen, to be at the mercy of other Englishmen who were supposed to be their equals.

He had little interest in politics. That was something which happened in London. His only desire for a quiet life and to make his business as a wool merchant prosper. Leeds had been on the cusp of success before all this, order books full, trade growing. But over the last two years, as different sides took and retook the city, everything had fallen apart. The weavers started taking their cloth to Bradford and Wakefield, where things were calmer, and he couldn’t blame them. Only now, in the months since the big battle down on Marston Moor had the area begun to exhale again.

 

At the Moot Hall his boot heels clicked on the hard wood floor and he waited for the military clerk to lift his weary eyes.

‘Adam Wright, the Cloth Searcher, to see Captain Eyre.’

‘Go through,’ the man told him, jabbing a lazy finger along the corridor then pushing his head back down among his papers.

There was another guard in the hallway, this one with keen, assessing eyes, one hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword, his buff uniform scrupulously clean, leatherwork gleaming.

At the door Wright took a deep breath. The summons here had surprised him. He’d searched in his soul and found nothing that could give offence. He attended church each Sunday, paid what was due in taxes and gave deference to those who ordered his world.

He didn’t know why he was here and it scared him. Slowly he raised his hand and knocked on the door. At a sound from within he turned the handle and walked into Captain Eyre’s office. A few years before it had belonged to one of the aldermen, but these days the power in the city lay with Major-General Carter and his staff.

‘Mr Wright,’ the Captain said. To Adam’s surprise the man sounded grateful. ‘Thank you for coming so promptly. I thought you might have been busy.’

He’d been at home when the messenger arrived, entranced by his baby son, now just three months old, while his wife and the serving girl attended to the other two children. He knew he should have been at the warehouse in the yard behind his house, but there was precious little to do there these days.

‘I had the time,’ Adam replied carefully. ‘Your man made it sound important.’ He stared at the soldier, a man of about forty with shrewd eyes, his face lined, grey hair cropped short over his skull, a lean, hardened body inside a neat uniform.

‘How are the cloth markets these days?’ Eyre began.

‘Better than they were,’ Wright answered guardedly, surprised by the question, ‘but there’s still a long way to go for them to be what they were.’

The Captain nodded in understanding.

‘And the quality of the cloth?’

Adam shrugged, unsure of the meaning behind all this.

‘Excellent, on the whole. There are always one of two pieces that aren’t up to standard, and sometimes someone wants to cut corners.’

‘But you find them.’

‘I try,’ he said.

He’d been given the post of Cloth Searcher in 1642, before the conflict began. It paid nothing, meant as a tribute to a merchant’s honesty. It became his responsibility ensure all the cloth coming out of Leeds was the very best quality. To keep the town’s reputation high. But his tenure was only meant to last a year.

Then the war began. King against Parliament. The Corporation was in tatters, and there had been no one to name a replacement. And so, three years later Adam Wright was still the town’s Cloth Searcher He’d never wanted the title, but he couldn’t set aside until a new man was named.

‘How long will it take, do you think?’ Eyre asked.

‘For what?’ he asked.

‘For the weavers to return and sell here the way they used to.’

Wright shook his head sadly. ‘I don’t know. Another year, perhaps? They might never come back.’ The questions seemed pointless. If the man wanted to know about the cloth market he should come to Leeds Bridge on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, cloth for sale displayed on the parapets and the business conducted in quiet whispers.

‘Mr. Wright, do you know Ralph Whitelaw?’

He opened his eyes wide. ‘Of course.’ Whitelaw was one of the city’s leading wool merchants, one of the original burgesses when Leeds had received its charter from King Charles two decades before. More than that, Adam had served his merchant’s apprentice with him. He knew Ralph and all his family. The man was a Royalist, but wise enough to keep his loyalties to himself.

‘One of the patrols was out this morning. You must know the bell pits down past Vicar Lane?’

Wright nodded, confused by the strange, constant twists in the conversation.

‘People used to mine coal in them,’ he said. ‘But no one’s used them in years.’

‘Not quite,’ Eyre corrected him. ‘My sergeant found Whitelaw’s body in one today.’

‘What?’ He started to rise from his seat. ‘Ralph? Are you sure?’

‘I’m certain, Mr. Wright. I saw the corpse myself. I had a number of conversations with him. I’m sorry, Mr Wright.’

Adam ran a hand over his face, feeling the sharp stubble of his cheeks against his palm.

‘But..?’ he began, knowing he didn’t have the words to express all the things in his mind just them ‘But why? That doesn’t make any sense. What would he doing there?’

Eyre look directly at him, his eyes pale and serious.

‘Someone killed him,’ he announced finally. ‘And put his body in one of the bell pits.’