Thank You and A Sense of Place

I hope you won’t mind if I begin with a bit of self-congratulation: Publisher’s Weekly has given Free From All Danger a starred review. I’m immensely proud of that for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s impossible to know what any reader will make of what a writer does, so something that positive means a great deal. Secondly, it’s the seventh in the series, arriving four years after the last one. That’s quite a space of time. All the previous six achieved starred reviews, so there’s a giant sigh of relief that they like this one as much. Richard Nottingham is older this time around, a changed man in some ways. I’m just happy people still like him.

Anyway…Christmas and the end of 2017 are just a few days away. I wanted to wish you all a lovely time, and a happy, healthy 2018 – and to thank you for your support. I really do value it.

At this time of year I like looking around Leeds and thinking about my family connections to the place. They crop up quite a bit in my novels. References I know, that I enjoy putting in.

The biggest is probably the Victoria pub from the Tom Harper novels. Annabelle is the landlady, but from the 1920s to the 1940s, it was my great-grandfather who ran the place. My father lived in Cross Green, and as a boy he’d walk over in the summer so he could go upstairs and play the piano for hours on end. Impossible not to celebrate a connection like that.

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In fact, a little of the idea of including the place at all came from a book he wrote, that was never published. His main character was a female servant from Barnsley who came to a pub in Sheepscar as a servant. She ended up running the place and owning three bakeries. His maternal grandparents were from Barnsley, and originally ran a pub in Hunslet before taking over the Victoria. And, in the Harper series, Annabelle runs, then sells, three bakeries. So thank you, Dad. You have me a lot in that.

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Dan Markham’s flat in Chapel Allerton (Dark Briggate Blues) is in the building where my parents made their first home, and where I spent my first year. Curiously, a reader told me once that her daughter was living there now. His office on Albion Place is where my father had his office.

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Lottie Armstrong’s house in The Year of the Gun is the house where I grew up. The present owner graciously showed me around, and it’s very much the same as it was, I’m pleased to say.

It’s four years now since I moved back to Leeds, and honestly, I’ve never felt more connected to a place in my life.

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The New Tom Harper Is Coming, Part II

Just in case you think Annabelle Harper isn’t an important figure in The Iron Water…well, you’d be wrong. But her life has changed a little, as you’ll see. And a new character enters the series…

‘Let’s hope she doesn’t wake us during the night.’ She looked over at the crib next to the bed. Mary was sleeping soundly. Fourteen months old on Wednesday. Mary Grace Harper. Her smile, her hair, her eyes, her laugh… from him and Annabelle.

As soon as the pregnancy was common knowledge, the women around Sheepscar had frowned and clucked and tutted. She was too old to have a bairn. Something would be wrong. A list of the problems that could happen. If he’d believed it he’d have been terrified for her. But that was the way here, always some mutterings under all the care and the smiles. In the end everything had gone smoothly. The labour had been long, but the midwife had done her job and mother and daughter emerged hearty and hale. He could still scarcely believe it when he looked at Mary. She was his, a part of him, named for the girl who’d been his wife’s best friend as she grew up. Dead now but living on this way.

‘Shhh, don’t tempt fate,’ he whispered. Since she’d passed three months and the colic went, their daughter had been a good sleeper. Growing so fast, a hefty weight when he picked her up after arriving back from work. No real illness, touchwood; the worry always remained at the back of his mind.

Annabelle had insisted on feeding the baby herself. No wet nurse; she’d never even considered the idea. ‘Why wouldn’t I give her the breast?’ she asked as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. ‘I have milk, that’s what it there for.’  And that was what she did until she weaned their daughter at nine months.

No nanny either, and no talk of one. They could afford it, but she wasn’t interested. When she went to one of the bakeries she owned, she pushed the child in a baby carriage, wrapped up against the weather.

‘I’ll not have people saying I’m getting above myself,’ she insisted. ‘There’s enough round here work all the hours God sends and still bring up families. If they can do it, so can I.’

He was proud of her. Of both of them. He loved his wife; even now he was still astonished that she’d agreed to marry him. But until Mary was born he hadn’t known how loudly his heart could sing.

Annabelle curled against him. She’d been out this evening at a meeting; the new Independent Labour Party. He couldn’t understand how she found the time for it all. Running the Victoria pub downstairs, keeping an eye on her three bakeries, a baby, and her politics. She’d turned down the chance to become part of the committee of the local Suffrage Society, but she was still very active locally, helping to organize and speaking at meetings. Sometimes she took Mary with her, enjoying the fuss everyone made of the child. This time, though, she’d gone alone and he’d had his little one to himself for two hours, the first time she’d trusted him.

‘The experience will be good for you,’ Annabelle had told him briskly before she left. ‘I showed you what to do, Tom. Just you remember, women have been doing it for thousands of years. I think a man can cope for a little while. Oh,’ she added, ‘after you change her, there’s some lard to use as cream on her bum.’ She gave him a big smile.

He managed, even bathing Mary before reading to her from The Water Babies, watching as her eyes gently closed.

Remember, you can get your order in for the book here – the cheapest price I’ve found and you’ll be supporting independent bookshops. It’s out July 29.

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The Soul Awakes

Annabelle Harper. A successful woman, with the Victoria public house at the bottom of Roundhay Road and three bakeries, all of them making money. Respected all around Sheepscar, she’s become the empress on the corner, and happily married to Detective Inspector Tom Harper.

And then a political awakening. But simpler to let her tell you herself. Better yet, come down this Saturday and here her tell it to you. You can get tickets here.

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I’m going to tell you a story…

 

I still can’t quite believe it happened, although I know it did. We had a coalman who used to deliver to the pub. He retired and a new one showed up. Cocky little devil. Thought he could fob me off with stuff that wasn’t worth the money. When I told him I wasn’t standing for it, he told me that maybe my husband needed to give me a clout or two. I picked up a shovel and I swear I’d have gone for him if he hadn’t turned and run off. I needed to take a walk to try and calm myself down. I ended up by the outdoor market – couldn’t even remember getting there. I must have looked a sight because this woman came up, a little old dear, and asked if I was all right. “Looks like a man’s got to you,” she said. She put a pamphlet in my hand. Votes for Women. All I did was glance down at the title, couldn’t have been more than a second. Blow me down if she didn’t disappear. Like I’d dreamed her up. But I had the pamphlet. Took it home. A fortnight later and I had the parlour full of books. I wanted to know it all. Those words I read…it was like someone had looked into my head and put everything I’d thought down on paper. It made sense. Me, I’d hardly read a book in my life. Who had the time? Once I was done with school, I was too busy working. Now I was sitting there going through them like the pages were the most important thing in the world. And Tom, bless him, he took it all in his stride. Didn’t even blink when I started going to the suffragist meetings. I was worried what the police might think, an officer’s wife involved in all that. He told me to go ahead, to do what I felt was right. I did. I listened. I liked what they had to say. But most of them, they’d never needed to do a day’s graft. They’d never had to try and feed a family on a mill girl’s wages. Course, it wasn’t long before I was up on my hind legs, saying this or that. Putting me two pen’orth in. That was how I met Miss Ford. She was in charge of it all. She’d worked with the unions, helped with strikes. People respected her. Mind like a razor, sharp as you like, and a heart as big as Yorkshire. She sat me down. Told me I could make a good speaker for the Suffrage Society. I thought she was joking, that it was her way of gently telling me to shut my mouth. But she was serious. I didn’t know which way to look. And she made me think that I did have something to give. Something different. I said yes, then I wished I hadn’t. My mind was whipping backwards and forwards like nobody’s business: I was going to back out. I was going to do it. Then everything I tried to write sounded so false. Be yourself, Tom told me. Who was I? A jumped-up piece of muck from the Bank whose husband had left her a pub. What did I have to tell anyone?  It wasn’t as if I knew any answers. Even when I was up on that podium I wasn’t sure I could go through with it. My teeth were chattering so hard they must have heard it in London. Then someone was saying my name and people were looking at me and it was too late to run away.  

Well, now I know what it must be like to be on the halls. I feel like I should sing a song or something. You don’t know me. No reason you should, really. I run a public house in Sheepscar. Nothing grand but it pays the bills. And I grew up on the Bank, on Leather Street. I know what they say: you grow up on the Bank and you’ll never amount to anything. I’ve heard it all my life. I started out in the mills when I was nine. It’s a hard life, I can tell you that right now. Moved into service a few years later because it paid better and it wasn’t as dangerous. I’m still not above scrubbing a floor if it needs it, or giving something a cleaning. Most of the girls I played with ended up doing the same. Maids or mills. If I ever see them now, the ones who are married have five or six children and husbands who bring in next to nothing every week. They survive, and that’s all they do. It’s down to the pawnbroker with the good clothes of a Tuesday morning so they can last until their men are paid. Redeem everything Friday evening. Do you know what they wish for when they’re walking down the street holding everything of value that they own? That their little ones will have something better. But they won’t. Do you know why not? Because there’s no one to speak up for them. They live, they die. Probably half of the girls I played hopscotch with when I was in pinafores are in the ground now. I’m not saying having the vote would put everything right. I’m not a fool. Men will still run things, same as they always have. There’ll still be more poor people than you can shake a stick at. But at least we’ll have a say. All of us. That’s the women on Leather Street, where I grew up, as much as anyone here. Maybe they need it even more than us. I’ll tell you something else. Every day, every single day, I see women with all the hope gone from their faces. It’s been battered away long before they’re old enough to work. And we need hope. That’s why every woman needs the vote. Every man, too. The only way those men standing for Parliament will ever do anything is if they need our votes to win. Half their promises will still vanish into thin air. Of course they will, they always do. And they still won’t do anything more than they absolutely have to. (Pause) But for the first time they’ll have to listen to us.

And that was it. I couldn’t believe I’d said it all. Couldn’t believe I’d made that much sense. At least I wasn’t shaking anymore. And to see their faces and hear them clapping, well, it didn’t seem like that could be for me. But Miss Ford must have liked it – she wanted me to start speaking regularly. I had to take a deep breath before I said yes. As soon as I agreed to that, she started talking about having me on the committee. Give them an inch and they want a mile. I said no. All that travelling hither and yon. Not when I had the pub and the bakeries. And…

I was up the duff. Couldn’t be. That’s what I thought at first. After all, I hadn’t caught before. I thought the miscarriage meant I couldn’t. So I wasn’t about to say anything till I was sure. Not tempting fate. And I was older, not one of the young lasses popping them out. Tom, he was over the moon. (Smiles) Once he picked his jaw off the floor, any road. From the way he tried to look after me you’d think no one had ever had a bairn before. You have thought I was the best family china. How do you think you got here, I asked him finally? And your ma, and all those before her. It’s nature. That shut him up and he let me get on with things. There was work to do. I tell you what, nature decided to make hard work of me in the end. It had the last laugh. The best part of twenty-four hours in labour. Sweating and cursing and screaming. I was holding the midwife’s hand so hard I’m surprised I didn’t break her fingers. But it was worth it. Called her Mary, after Mary McLaughlin I grew up with on Leather Street. That’s right, I’m talking about you. Bit over a year now and into everything when she’s awake. Daren’t take your eyes off her for a moment. Talk to her da and you’d think butter wouldn’t melt. He’d learn quick enough if he spent all day with her. She won’t want for anything, I’ve already made sure of that. She’s lucky. I have the brass. Not like most round here, where the hunger never leaves the eyes. But I’m going to make sure she knows what the world is really like outside the door. She needs that. I owe her that. I’ve not forgotten all those years when I was muck. Scratch me hard enough and it’s still under there. I want my Mary to have the things I never did. The vote. Rights. A life that doesn’t have to depend on a fella. The things that matter. Might as well wish for the moon, eh? It’s like having a tiny hammer and chipping away at a big block of stone. You keep doing it and nothing seems to happen. But you keep believing that one day the stone will just fall apart. Maybe I can get in a few blows. Do my bit. Yes, I speak at meetings. Maybe it helps, I don’t know. I sold the bakeries. Miss Ford asked me to be secretary of the Suffrage Society. No going out of Leeds, she promised. Aye, I thought, I can do that. But there weren’t enough hours in the day to do everything, not with this one scampering around. The shops gave me what I needed. But maybe I didn’t need that any more. I’ll never get rid of this place, though. The Victoria, it’s home. Don’t want anywhere else. They’ll have to carry me out of here in a box. Won’t be for a long time yet, not if I have anything to do with it. Too much to do. And here I am, barely started. Up from the muck and still a long way to go. What I’ve learned: you do what you have to do. You get on with it.

You Don’t Know Tom Harper, Do you?

But you will. Well, I hope you will, once Gods of Gold is published (end of August in the UK). Anyone coming in after Richard Nottingham has big shoes to fill. But almost 160 years after Richard, perhaps Inspector Tom Harper is the man to do it.

Although he’s the central character in the new series, he wasn’t the first one to leap out at me fully-formed. That was his fiancée, Annabelle Atkinson, a widow of about 30 who runs the Victoria pub at the bottom of Roundhay Road in Leeds. She’d been in a short story I wrote, Annabelle Atkinson and Mr Grimshaw and she began to haunt me. But she wasn’t yet the Annabelle of the book. There was still a way to go.

And she had more to tell me.

It clicked into place when I realised she ran the Victoria. It’s a pub that really existed until a few years ago, and the building is still standing. The woman who really ran it was a distant relative – at least around 1920. My father, who lived in Hunslet, would spend his summers there, as it had a big garden, and a piano where he could practice to his heart’s content. She also owned a few bakeries in the area and did a little moneylending; a consummate businesswoman, and a strong, independent woman who’d started out as a servant in the pub, married the owner for love, then run the business herself after she died.

I had her. That was a beginning.

After that, I happened to read about the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890. It was a blatant attempt by the Gas Committee of Leeds Council to save money by basically firing workers then hiring fewer of them back at a lower wage and under terms that largely deprived them of their rights, a move that resonates so much with what’s happening everywhere today.

The difference is that the strikers won. The Gas Committee had to capitulate. Hard to imagine that happening these days. Who wouldn’t want to write about a situation like that?

And that was where Tom Harper walked in. He had to be somewhat political, and on the left end of the spectrum. So he’d be a working class lad. And he needed a detective. From there, he simply came together. He’d grown up in the Leylands, just north of the town centre, before it became a Jewish area. He’d lived in a back-to-back house, left school when he was nine to work rolling barrels at Brunswick Brewery. But he wanted to be a policeman. He’d educated himself by borrowing books from the public library and finally, when he was 19, he’d joined Leeds Police. He’d spent six years on the beat, covering the courts and yards between Briggate and Lands Lane. His parents had died, his sisters were happily married, and he lived in lodgings just off Chapeltown Road.

And there was Tom. Of course, he couldn’t do everything alone, but there’s more to come in the book, of course. And he still had to meet Annabelle and the two of them had to become close…you’ll have to read Gods of Gold to discover all that, though.