February 2009


I have trouble deciding whether I side with LP Hartley “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” or the alternative version (whose author I can’t recall, but might be Douglas Adams) “The past really is a foreign country; they do things exactly the same there.” When I was last on Jersey, I picked up a great little book, Wish you were here by John le Dain. I’d recommend anyone to get a copy of this or something similar. It’s full of picture postcards over the last century; reading through it, and them, the pictures make me tend towards the Hartley view, but the messages on the back? Douglas might just have got it right.

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Postcards, especially used and franked ones, can be dated to within a short space of time, so give the writer of historical fiction a nice source of what the world looked like. Yes, the views chosen tend to the picturesque, but they’re real, not a painted ideal landscape. I found it fascinating how little had altered, despite the bashing Jersey got in the war. There’s a picture of St Brelade’s Bay in 1909 – both the rocks and the little jetty look just as they were when I was collecting crabs and shrimps there with my daughter two years back. Details have altered, but so many places are instantly recognisable from one hundred years ago. Writing in the first half of the twentieth century or very late nineteenth? This sort of book would be a magnificent way of picturing your setting accurately.

Many postcards have pictures of folk going about their daily business – people shopping, horse drawn cabs waiting to pick up fares. These aren’t posed portraits, they’re commonplace men and women dressed in the everyday style and so possibly more likely to reflect ordinary life than a painting. There’s a crowded beach, for example, in what seems Edwardian times from the fashions. Little girls and boys are bathing, while their mothers stand not more than a few feet from the water’s edge, fully dressed – long skirts, hats, the works. In another picture, a family descend a dodgy looking ladder to a beach. We have the same, three-piece suited, ‘hats and boots respectability’ about the clothes, but the faces and poses of the two teenage lads who’ve scooted on ahead appear wonderfully modern.

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The gems are in the messages, though – not words carefully crafted for public consumption but chatty, personal communication. People, of course, have changed very little inside – they have the same needs and desires they had when Ug and Og were living in a cave, watching the hairy rhinoceroses in lieu of TV. So we have this saucy miss from 1904: “Weather lovely – plenty of ‘Francais’ but do not want any of them. Nearly all fellows in the house.” I bet she was having a great time. So was the guy who wrote (undated) that there were “Some fine Janes here”.

Perhaps best of all, from 1958: “Having a very nice time here with bags of talent but most of it’s sixteen or sixty…Having a good old session every night & what with that and swimming every day I feel just about clapped out.” Nothing changes, eh? Except prices, of course. 1935: “Cigarettes 20 for 4d*, beer 4d pint, in fact we just LIVE.”

* that’s 2p, perhaps 3 cents.

I like the humour: 1934: “…and are at present sat in the rocks almost like an armchair only without the cushions.” And the snippets which put wartime hardship into perspective: 1946 “Milk is not rationed & wherever you go you see people buying glasses of milk just as you do ice cream. In the hotel at lunch times it is strange to see grown up people all ordering glasses of mil with their lunch.” Bet if you put that in a story no-one would believe you.

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Something which struck me was the constant references to the weather – quite natural on a holiday postcard – but interesting when you consider weather patterns. We’ve had some rainy summers recently, so the doom and gloom merchants have come out in force to say “It was never like this when we were young – summers were summers then” or to link the allegedly unseasonable weather to global warming. Oh yeah?

August 1911 – “We were caught in a fearful thunderstorm…this morning it is very showery.
1922 – no month – “I shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t stop raining all the holiday.”
August 1934 – “rain every day so far”.
July 1938 – “…very cold and wet…We can’t even get English newspapers while the weather is so bad.”
August 1953 – “Had a fairly rough crossing and the sun seems to have deserted us.”

I hasten to add that there were plenty of cards saying how hot and sunny it was, but you get the point. People have short memories and look at the past through rose tinted glasses; if you want to really know what went on, go to the contemporary sources.

“There is an island in the sun…”

Well, it’s not quite the Indies – West or East – but Jersey certainly is a special place. We’ve holidayed there regularly (going again this year) and I’ve never seen an island which could pack so much variety into so few square miles; beaches, castles, restaurants, shops, history ancient and modern. When I started working on what was to become the Cambridge Fellows Mystery series, I was determined that Drs Stewart and Coppersmith would get to visit the island, and they’re doing just that in the second book, Lessons in Desire, available now in e-book from Linden Bay Romance.

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Excerpt:
Jonty sat down on a rock to get on with removing his shoes and socks.

“What are you doing?”

“Going paddling, Orlando.” The holiday air had affected them both, so using Christian names now seemed acceptable, even outside their suite. Stewart suddenly looked up at the awkward figure which towered over him. “Oh, Orlando. You’d never been in The Bishop’s Cope, you’d never been punting, please, please don’t tell me that you have never paddled.”

“I have actually paddled on a number of occasions, when I was taken to see my grandmother at Margate.” Orlando attempted to look a man at once dignified and completely au fait with the delights of the seaside.

Jonty assumed a particularly sly look. “When exactly was the last time you indulged in this wild activity?”

Coppersmith mumbled, “When I was seven.”

Jonty giggled. “Then you had better ruddy well get your socks off and your trouser bottoms rolled up, because you are coming with me.”

Orlando felt distinctly miffed. He contemplated refusing to do any such thing, but decided to obey orders, stuffing his socks into the toes of his shoes, then tying the laces together in imitation of Stewart. The reason for this strange procedure became obvious when Jonty slung his shoes around his neck, leaving his hands free to continue to pick up stones for skimming or shells for stuffing in his pockets.

As he watched Jonty turning over rocks to search for tiny crustaceans which he then let run over his palms, it struck Orlando more than ever that at heart his friend was just an overgrown boy. An enormous crab was rooted out, a good three inches across the carapace, which Stewart expertly picked up to wave at Coppersmith. “What a whopper, Orlando! Look!” He passed the creature over, grinning as his friend inevitably grabbed it the wrong way, earning a sharp nip on his fingers.

Coppersmith flung the offending animal away, shaking his sore hand and cursing like a sailor.

“Orlando, such language!” Jonty hooted with laughter. “Look, take him across the back, so all your fingers are out of his reach.” He demonstrated the technique, then made his friend do the same.

Gingerly Orlando took up the vicious creature, breaking into a smile of delight when the method worked. “He’s a beauty, Jonty. Not big enough for tea, though.” Laughing, he placed the crab down among the rocks, returning to follow his friend. The tide was ebbing, revealing rock pools full of shrimps which Stewart caught in his hand, then let spring out of his grasp with a giggle. Coppersmith soon learned that game too, proving much more adept at catching the little invertebrates and the darting fishes than his friend. It was like being a child again, except that there hadn’t been that much room for play in his childhood, so there was time to be caught up. Yet again, he could experience a freedom with Stewart that he’d never known before they met. He watched his friend pick up a huge ormer shell, holding it to the light so that they could both admire the mother of pearl glittering in the sunlight.

“Beautiful. Eh, Orlando?”

“Indeed.” Although Coppersmith didn’t mean the shell so much as the man holding it.

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So what are they doing frivolling in such an uncharacteristic way? Well, Orlando’s being dragged kicking and screaming by a very determined Jonty, who wants a break and who has negotiated down from the Rivera or Petra to St Aubin’s Bay. Orlando, naturally, dreads leaving the security of the college and going somewhere he’ll have to break out of his routine and talk to people – possibly women! And they’ll run the risk of people looking at them and knowing what’s going on back in their room. Or not going on, if Orlando has anything to do with it

When a brutal murder occurs at the hotel where they’re staying, the two young men are once more drawn into the investigation. The race to catch the killer gets complicated by the victim’s son, Ainslie, a man who seems to find Coppersmith too attractive to resist making a pass.

Excerpt: “Do love you, you know. Don’t say it enough.”

“You don’t need to say it, not in words.” Orlando briefly caressed Stewart’s fingers. “It’ll be the last dance soon. I’ll take Mrs. Sheringham if she’s up for it, and you ask Mrs. Forbes, that’ll wipe the smiles off the faces of their husbands. And their daughters. Then we’ll be allowed to make our way up to bed.”

“A handsome plan. So to bed, where actions may be given free rein to express what words can scarce dare to hint at.”

“That’s lovely. Is it Shakespeare?”

“No, it’s Stewart, inspired by a theme of Coppersmith. I hear a waltz; duty first.” Jonty made an elaborate salute.

“I hope you don’t intend to do your duty by the young ladies?”

“You know I only ever do my duty by you. If you want, I’m ready to do it tonight.”

Coppersmith was convinced that his heart would have leapt out of his chest had he not his best boiled shirt on to contain it. “Then mark your card for the last dance with me, Jonty. To be performed in our suite.”

The sound of the orchestra still rang in their ears as they opened the door to their rooms. Orlando closed it carefully behind him, then immediately took Stewart in his arms. “I promised you the last dance. We’ll have it here and now.” They began to slowly waltz across the room, Coppersmith leading them expertly between the little tables and the sofa.

“Why must I be the woman? I’m sure your mathematical noddle would be better at reversing the steps.”

“You can lead next time. If your home in Sussex is as spacious as you keep saying it is, there should be ample room for dancing.” Orlando drew his lover close, took in the aroma of his hair, newly washed that afternoon and still smelling of lavender. “If I were a woman, I wouldn’t let anyone else dance with you.”

“If you were a woman, I’d get my mama to tell you that I’d been injured in a certain part of my anatomy in a hunting accident, so couldn’t be interested.” Jonty buried his nose in the folds of his lover’s jacket.

“You are such an idiot at times.” Coppersmith kissed the top of Stewart’s head. “I sometimes wonder if I really do love you, or simply tolerate you in an attempt to keep you from causing chaos amongst the rest of the world.”

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This book has given me the opportunity to take the lads out of Cambridge and so let some radiance into their tale. Elisa Rolle said: “And it’s exactly the feeling I had reading the book, light, in both its meanings”. (Full review here.) It’s also given me a chance to introduce Jonty’s family and explore a bit more of Orlando’s painful past.

Now, do you think I can claim the cost of this year’s holiday as work-related?

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