2019…It’s Arrived.

Well, here we are, squarely in a new year. That means it’s time to look ahead, especially as I’m putting the final touches to what I hope will become the eighth Tom Harper novel – if the publisher wants to put it out, of course.

New beginnings.

Before any of that, however, the seventh Tom Harper book will be published at the end of March. Called The Leaden Heart, it’s set in 1899 in a Leeds that’s changing and pushing its way towards the 20th century. Here’s a very short extract:

Harper had just finished putting together the duty roster for August when the telephone rang, the line crackling harshly enough to hurt his bad ear.

‘Tom? It’s Billy. Billy Reed.’

Reed had been a good friend once, the sergeant to Harper’s inspector, until they fell out. Then he’d transferred to the fire brigade and been promoted. Two years ago he’d taken a job in Whitby, in charge of police there.

Annabelle and Elizabeth, Reed’s wife, were still close, exchanging regular letters. She ran a tea shop now, close to Whitby Market. Harper and his family had visited the Christmas before last. It had been a pleasant few days, but not the way it had once been. That would never return.

‘How are you?’

‘I’m fine,’ Reed answered quickly. ‘I hate to ask, but I could use a favour.’

‘What’s happened?’

‘My brother died, so I have to come back to Leeds for the funeral. I think you met him once.’

Long ago. Charlie? He thought he vaguely remembered the name. Thin and pale, with mousy hair and a waxed moustache.

‘I’m sorry, Billy.’

‘We were never that close, but…’

Of course. It was family. Harper understood.

‘Do you need somewhere to stay? Is Elizabeth coming with you?’

‘If you don’t mind. He lived in Harehills and the Victoria’s close. It’ll only be for a few days, if that’s all right. Elizabeth is run off her feet at the tea room. Whitby’s full of holidaymakers and the tea room is packed every day. Besides, she never really knew him.’

They had an empty attic room at the pub. It wasn’t much, but the bed was comfortable.

‘Of course. You know you’ll be welcome, as long as you need,’ Harper said. ‘When are you arriving?’

‘This afternoon. The telegram only came an hour ago.’

‘We’ll expect you.’

He lowered the receiver, picked it up again and asked the operator for the Victoria. They’d had a telephone installed at the beginning of the year. Between his rank and Annabelle’s post as Guardian, he hadn’t been able to fight the idea any longer.

She picked up on the third ring, listening as he explained.

‘I’ll air it out for him.’

the leaden heart revised

 

You can pre-order the book already. The cheapest price seems to be here, with free postage in the UK, although the company seems to have mixed reviews. Here is slightly more expensive, but also has free shipping and is highly-rated.

I also seem to be quite busy with events this year, and maybe more to add to that list. I’m not entirely certain how that’s happened, but they’ll all be fun, especially the two with my good friend Candace Robb and editors from the publisher that issues both our books. It all begins next Friday, January 18, with a talk at Kirkstall Abbey – a place with a very deep history of its own – on the Battle of Holbeck Moor, the incident which kicks off The Dead on Leave. My notes are already prepared…

There will be one more book to come this year, out at the end of September. It’s the sequel to The Hanging Psalm, and it’ll be called The Hocus Girl. Here’s a taste…

 

The man uncurled his fist to show the pocket watch. Candlelight reflected and shimmered on the gold.

‘Open it up,’ Simon Westow said.

Inside the cover, an inscription: From Martha to Walter, my loving husband.

‘See?’ the man said. ‘The real thing, that is. Proper gold. Keeps good time and-’

The knife at his throat silenced him.

‘And it was stolen three days ago,’ Simon said. He held the blade steady, stretching the man’s skin without breaking it. ‘Where’s the rest?’ With a gentle touch, he lifted the watch out of the man’s palm and slipped it into his pocket. ‘Well?’

‘Don’t know.’ The man gasped the words. His head was pushed back against the wall, neck exposed. ‘I bought it from Robby Barstow.’

‘When?’ A little more pressure, enough to bring a single drop of warm blood.

‘Last night.’

The man’s eyes were wide, pleading, the whites showing. It was the truth. He was too terrified to lie.

‘Then you’d best tell Robby I’m coming for him.’

‘What-’ His eyes were wide, pleading.

‘-about the watch?’

‘Yes.’ He breathed out the word, trying not to move at all.

‘Consider it a bad investment.’

Outside, he blinked in the light. A coach rumbled past on the Head Row, the driver trying to make good time on his way to Skipton.

Simon would hunt for Barstow later. The watch was the important item; Walter Haigh was desperate to have it returned, a gift from his late wife. He’d promised a fine reward.

That was what a thief-taker did. Find what had been stolen and return it for a fee.

 

2019…maybe it’s going to be a good year for us all.

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104 And Counting

Last week – November 2, to be exact – my father would have been 104. He died in 2001, but as the years pass, I understand how much I owe him and how much, for better or worse, I’m like him.

He was born and raised in Leeds, lived here most of his life. Back in the 1930s he was a musician with his own jazz band, playing dances around town. After World War II, the family story goes, the BBC offered him a job with one of their bands. He turned it down, scared he wasn’t good enough.

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He wrote. He had a short story published in the late ‘40s, based in part of an incident from the war, and he liked spending time with writers and reporters – in the early 1950s he’d occasionally drink with Keith Waterhouse and Barbara Taylor Bradford, then both young reporters in Leeds.

Sunday mornings were his time to write. A fire would be lit in the front room, and after we’d taken the dog to Roundhay Park so it could run for a while, he’d settle down and work in longhand on his novel in that front room, the air warm and inviting by the time he settled there.

I don’t remember what he wrote back then, but I saw some of his later work which drew from his childhood, from family, people he’d known growing up in Cross Green, a grandfather who was the landlord of the Victoria public house at the bottom of Roundhay Road. A woman who started out as a pub servant and later own the place as well as a few bakeries. Anyone who’s read my Tom Harper Victorian series will probably recognise some elements in there. While Annabelle Harper is very much her own self, part of her will always be an homage to my father.

No-one wanted to publish his books. After his business as a manufacturer’s rep for knitwear went broke in the late 1960s, he began selling laundrettes for Frigidaire. After that ended, he took another job to keep food on the table, and a correspondence course in writing for television.

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The first couple of plays he pitched didn’t go anywhere. But he did have two aired in the early 1970s: Audrey Had A Little Lamb and A Wish For Wally’s Mother. Back then there was a market for one-off TV dramas (and if anyone has video of either play, I’d love to see it).

He could have done more. He should have done more. I have a faint recollection that he was offered a job on Coronation Street, but he turned it down?

Why?

I have no idea, but in retrospect it fits the pattern of him turning down the BBC music job. But I’m not the right person to analyse my father.

He always encouraged my writing. He was proud of it, happy once I began making my living as a writer – which was music journalism and quickie unauthorised celebrity biographies. Both my parents were proud of what I did, but as my two focuses had always been music (as a very ordinary musician) and writing, I tended to see my father in myself.

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Maybe I still do. There are things that happen when my first thought is ‘I wish my parents could see this,’ but I suppose I mostly mean my father. Not because I didn’t love my mother; I certainly did. But perhaps because there was an unspoken affinity between us, a similarity.

Bits of him come into my books. Dan Markham’s office on Albion Place in Dark Briggate Blues is the building where my father had his office. The after-hours drinking clubs, the shebeens, were places he’d go occasionally. It was written quite a few years after his death. But perhaps that’s the beauty of writing. Words can be like candles, lit to keep the spirit of someone there. Sometimes those are people who died with memorials, lost in time. Sometimes they can be someone close.

And once in a long while I wonder if I’d be doing this if I hadn’t had his example and his encouragement. I’ll never know the answer to that. It probably doesn’t even matter.

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I am and I did. That’s all that counts.

Why I Write (It Ain’t Pretty)

I write because I have no choice in the matter. The words are inside and they need to come out, sometimes in a rapid flow, sometimes like squeezing blood from a stone. I write every single day of the year. I don’t want a break from it; in fact, it feels wrong if I don’t write.
As I grow older, this compulsion, this obsession, grows stronger, and I come to define myself more and more as a writer. I’m one of the lucky ones, since a fair bit of what I finish these days gets published in one way or another, even if it’s no more than one of these blog pieces.
Writing is my gift and my curse. It’s also what I’ve dreamed of doing since I was 11 years old. At school we had to write an essay, to tell a story in three paragraphs. It was an exercise, of course, so show us how to use paragraphs for developing a thought. But after I’d finished my piece, it was as if a switch had clicked in me. That’s how it’s done!
Writing might be an art but it’s also a craft. I wrote plenty of unpublished novels, short stories that perhaps saw print somewhere or other but were mostly rejected. And rightly so, even if I was less certain at the time. The craft part has come from years of music journalism, where there isn’t the luxury of time to go through endless revisions, and you learn to pick the right word or phrase the first time. And good editors who pushed and prodded me.
But I’m not an artist. I’m an entertainer, someone who tries to take people out of their lives for a few hours and make them believe in somewhere else, some other time. There is no magic, perhaps, beyond sleight of hand. When a book is finished, people are back in themselves again. They might enjoy what they’ve read, but only a few books have the power to change people’s lives. I’m not sure I’d even want mine to be among them.
I’m just a person who sits down at the computer in the morning and writes down the movie playing in my head. If I’m lucky it’s because the film rarely breaks or fades to scratches and white noise. I’m still the 11-year-old understanding how this can work. And doing it because I have to.

On Books And Movies.

I’m not much of a movie person. I never have been. Given the choice between a film and a book, I’ll crack the page every time. Of the few movies I really love, only one started out as a book (The Year of Living Dangerously) and the films adds the dimension of sweaty, heady sensuality, plus Linda Grant’s stunning performance.

What prompts this is the fact that I’m re-reading The English Patient. It’s a glorious novel, a worthy winner of the Booker Prize, more than the equal of the rest of Michael Ondaatje’s canon, and I love most of this books. I’ve never seen the film and doubt I ever will. It would become too concrete. I’d hear the voices and see the faces from the movie, rather than the ones the author puts in my head.

There’s real beauty in imagination. It soars, it flies. Movies, at least to me, are too grounded, they have too much gravity to them. They keep me trapped on the screen, I can’t escape. Television does much the same, and is often far more mundane. I prefer things to happen in my head, where I’m an active participant, than to be a consumer.

I’ve been asked more than a few times who I’d like to play the leads if the Richard Nottingham books were filmed for the big or small screen. Apart from the fact that it’s never going to happen, the answer is I simply don’t know. I’m not familiar with actors or actresses. The closest I can come, for the upcoming Gods of Gold, is for Maxine Peake to play Annabelle Atkinson (but that’s not going to happen, either).

Really, no one could match of to those people who populate my mind. Those characters are nebulous. To give them definitive faces and voices would change them forever. Within they freedom of a novel they will be whoever you see them as being.

Musings on Monk

My other job – well, one of them, anyway – is as a music journalist. It’s something I’ve done for the last 20 years and helps me combine my two great passions, music and writing. Over that time, inevitably, my tastes have changed and broadened. From listening mostly to what might generally be termed rock, I’ve moved towards world and folk music, both quite broad churches. But you can add in some classical, mostly sacred choral music, and a smidgen of jazz. Today is a jazz day. More specifically, it’s a Thelonious Monk day. Monk on his own, just letting his mind and fingers wander around tunes.

 

As a pianist he’s unique. All too often his playing sounds on the edge, as if it might fall into complete dissonance. That’s especially true at the start of a tune, when he seems to be feeling his way into a piece, some chords played delicacy, others hammered, with notes and harmonies that shouldn’t fit but somehow do. And he sounds as if he’d be just as happy with a barrelhouse piano as a full-size Steinway grand. Whether on standards or his own compositions, he’s instantly recognisable, always throwing in a surprise, be it a beautiful, lyrical run or a change that offers a lurch, a shift in rhythm. In its own way it’s very meditative music. The meditations are Monk’s. He loses himself in his own vision of the music, and that vision is unlike anyone else’s. To this day, the better part of 60 years since he appeared on the jazz scene, there hasn’t been another like him.

 

He may well have had mental problems and a drug habit, as some have claimed. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter to me. I only know him through his music, and it seems that when he sat at the piano, his particular genius emerged through his fingertips. He played solely for himself. He was lucky in that people liked it, even if many didn’t understand it. With bebop in the ascendant, he happened to be in the right place at the right time. To hear him perform April In Paris, one of those glorious standards, is to see someone open up the petals of a flower and arrange them anew.

 

As a music journalist, to return to his work is a way to cleanse and open the mind again. As a novelist he can be an inspiration. He didn’t attempt to play to the crowds. He didn’t soften things, he didn’t round off the corners just because it would be easier to the ear. He was true to himself. I was to be the writing equivalent of Monk when I grow up. If I ever develop the courage.