The never-ending panel

I was going to dip in and out. Not miss Barry Hutchison. Nor Catriona McPherson. But in the end, there I was, taking in every minute of the four hours of crime writers coming and going. Possibly attending less diligently when slurping the soup Daughter so kindly carried to my desk, but continuing all the same.

So one advantage of Bloody Scotland going online was that you can have a couple of dozen authors from anywhere in the world pop into your Sunday panel to chat to their friends for a bit, before going off, leaving their chair to someone else.

To start, Lin Anderson looked after the first hour, discussing pets with Stuart MacBride, moving on to stovies (apparently everyone in Scotland knows what they are, but I am only hazy about them, except that I don’t want any on my plate) and from there seamlessly to vodka, with the help of Hania Allen, and how one can speak fluent Polish after drinking some.

Then, James Oswald with the hair. It was long, but mostly because he is antisocial, and not so much lockdown. The question there was how to tell his calves apart. (Coos, not lower legs.) Easy with Daphne, otherwise hairy ears make for problems. Andrew James Greig, former Bloody Scotland crew, added rotary dryers, and I’m not sure if you can kill with those or not. He didn’t recognise Hugh McIlvanney when they met – ‘which one of you is …?’ It’s not what you say to big names.

James – with the coos – spoke about the Bloody Scotland family. He was joined by Neil Broadfoot, who murders in Stirling, and who almost left when Lin handed over to Morgan Cry, aka Gordon Brown, non-PM. Some people plot, others don’t. Let’s leave it at that. But it can be so boring knowing what is about to happen that the writer might not want to go on.

The incoming authors kept coming, ringing the doorbell and being visible on screen to the world. Just not to the hosts. Might need to work on that. Sara Sheridan spoke of 1950s fashions, and appearing inappropriately dressed on her husband’s Zoom meetings, because it’s how she writes books.

Finally it was time for Barry, who was addressed as Barry despite being there as JD Kirk. I think he wins the book count. 140, of which most are children’s books, but the adult crime has grown by around 40 books in four years. He explained his quantity over quality theory, and spending 06.30 to 11.30 writing, before doing admin and then playing with the children.

His school librarian had lured him into the library with piles of The Beano until he entered voluntarily, with offers like ‘come with me to the monster section’. When the library failed to have ninja books, he was told to write one himself, which he did, aged nine, and it was duly entered into the library catalogue.

Mary Paulson-Ellis, who likes paperwork, and is a top LGBTQ writer according to Val McDermid, was next, along with Caro Ramsay who knows everyone hates her, but ‘that’s fine’. SJI [Susi] Holliday was accused of having jinxed Covid into being. (This was the soup episode, so I didn’t note everything down.)

Doug Johnstone was back, even after all that singing on Saturday, and the host changed into Craig Robertson. He had done no prep so told the group to talk as much as possible. Both parts of Ambrose Parry were present, and we learned that Chris Brookmyre is now letting wife Marisa ‘do a bit more’ in their shared writing. She sounded so useful that Susi said she wanted a Marisa as well.

Where Doug goes for walks to get ideas, Susi gets them in the car, where she can’t jot them down. Ambrose Parry enjoyed getting ideas after Covid-walks on the local golf course. Caro’s dog knows more than she does. They all said to trust your instincts.

Jackie Baldwin might have upped the body count in Portobello, having moved crime from Dumfries, and Susi pedestrianised somewhere that badly needed it. Chloroform belongs in Edinburgh, just so you know. Radio’s Theresa Talbot arrived with wine glass in hand and explained that with no traffic to talk about on the radio, she was now a garden expert.

Jackie is used to being in prison, due to being a criminal lawyer (which I hope is more innocent than it sounds). Theresa is a Glaswegian by heart, and when she sent her detective to Loch Lomond to please the fans, she couldn’t think of anything for her to do, so she returned to the city again.

Alan Parks sticks to the 1970s, which neatly avoids mobile phones and CCTV. Alex Gray had just been on a trip to Ballachulish, because she simply couldn’t cope with not going places. Alan’s fan emails are from bus enthusiasts who know more than he does. And that man in the pub he made up? He’s still alive, you know.

Our last host, Abir Mukherjee arrived from the Green Room, to discover Theresa discussing a question from an event on ‘how hard it had been to find a husband at her age’. Alan had once been coerced into an impromptu lecture in Sweden, where after much hard work, the first question was whether he owns a kilt.

When asked for their weirdest way of killing people, they only had stabbings, poisoned sandwiches, strangulation by harp wire and stabbing someone in the eye with a pencil, to offer. And, erm, elephants. Ben McPherson joined us from Oslo with many thoughts on how hard it can be to fit in, in a nice country, when you don’t really belong. (I know.) But at least his doorbell moment worked.

In Norway they have huts, and warm(-ish) beaches. Abir was 25 when he discovered you could go to the beach and not wear a jacket (in Goa). Both Alex and Alan prefer living in the Hufflepuff that is Scotland. Lisa Gray has experience of writing about a place she doesn’t belong to, and Ben discussed the feeling of living somewhere but not speaking the language, when disaster strikes.

Nicola White, originally from Dublin, writes about that city, as it was in the 1980s when she left. Many of us only know somewhere from a long time ago. The last two panellists, Catriona McPherson and Alex Knight (aka Mason Cross and Gavin…) joined the conversation. I stared at Alex’s familiar face, until I finally placed him as Luke in Gilmore Girls. (Not really, but same face.) If you’re going for a pen name, it’s worth picking one that people everywhere can pronounce, like when Alex went to Starbucks as Mason and turned into Basin.

The most important thing to becoming a novelist is to finish writing what you want to write. Reward yourself with a visit to the toilet after writing some words. Alex believes in a daily 500 words, which he feels is manageable.

To finish, the talk turned to reviews, and you should obviously never read the online ones. Unless three stars for fitting perfectly under that wonky table leg will make you happy.

Crime at the Coo

‘One of those daft ideas that somehow works’, but which Craig Robertson still suggested might be better accompanied by a drink. I had a decaf latte which probably had little influence either way.

It wasn’t quite a ‘you needed to have been there’ event about an event, but it might have helped. The short summary is that Val McDermid sings a lot better than many of the others, so don’t give up the day job, Craig Robertson has a good relationship with his local pub landlady Mandy, who only offered to kill him if he ever wanted to change venue, and I really would find Crime at the Coo a sort of Hell on Earth event, and it’s just as well I never try to buy tickets in the first few seconds, because I’d never get in. Glastonbury would be easier. But I’m glad I’ve heard what it’s like.

By the way, the pub is open. Just not to Bloody Scotland. But if you’re ordinary you can drink at the Coo. My admiration for the audience member who was brave enough to ask what a coo is. I’d have suffered in silence.

Those songs… I’ve never properly heard Maxwell’s Silver Hammer before. Or did they change the lyrics?

I suspect that they showed us just about every crime writer getting up there, singing and playing away, and by ‘up there’ I seem to mean the bit of wall next to the toilets. We got none of the Slice Girls, however, despite them being Craig’s favourites.

Instead there was the hottest moment of all, the sexy sea shanty, sung a capella in German. I didn’t catch her name. Oh, I did. Just looked her up. Simone Buchholz.

I understand we were given the ‘cleaned up highlights’ with the possible exception of allowing Chris Brookmyre to reveal some of his sweariness. And speaking of him, he has quite a nice singing voice, as revealed when he did a number from home, with Christopher Brookmyre and one half of Ambrose Parry (I suspect the upper half, since you ask).

Doug Johnstone appeared several times, both as a blast from the past as well as from his home, where at least he will have been spared being heckled by Martina Cole. Covid has some uses.

I particularly enjoyed the three ladies singing a revolutionary song in Catalan; Johana Gustawsson, Jacky Collins and Teresa Solana. And ‘psycho killer’ Stuart Neville, with no fewer than ten guitars in his room. He’s reasonably good on mouth organ, too.

With one exception, the whole thing went downhill from there. We had Oscar and Herr Enger, more Brookmyre, Will Carver singing in French next to his pink boxes, Luca Veste singing Hit me baby one more time (this was worse than you’d think), and they also overran in time, but Craig said not to worry.

The exception, the one person who really stood out to me, was poet Judith Williams. Apparently Craig was too polite and too tipsy to say no when she first asked to perform at the Coo. Thank god he said yes! Here you see her looking a bit worse for lockdown, but what an enjoyable poem! (And you know me, I don’t go for poetry.) Craig allowed her one swearword, well used towards the end.

As they wound up Chris was naughty again, with beeps silencing his worst words, big boss Bob McDevitt taking to the stage at the Albert Halls, singing in the dark, until finally Val walked 500 miles. A worthy ending. And I definitely think the Coo landlady should invest in some merchandise, as suggested by someone in the audience. Coos are cute.

Ian’s choice

I’m guessing the earlier comment about how Ian [Rankin] could choose who he wanted to talk to – when an online festival meant anyone anywhere could be available – resulted in asking Lawrence Block.

No, I didn’t know who Lawrence was, until I saw his photo in the programme and thought, ‘oh, him’. So I recognised him. He seems to be a crime writing’s grand old man, and Ian interviewed him in his New York home. Lawrence was perfectly posed, while Ian was rather blurry.

Although, as I was mostly grilling halloumi for dinner, I wasn’t watching, but listening. To begin with their chat reminded me of some interviews I’ve done, where everything moves like treacle, but it got better.

Much better. I grew quite fond of Lawrence, in fact. He’s a man who no longer has a need to buy green bananas. And he’s hated flying for the last nineteen years, each year worse than the one before. His lockdown has been all right; he doesn’t need to go anywhere.

Ian, on the other hand, has a bus pass, except he’s not been on a bus for ages, and is not likely to start now. He admitted to stealing a character from Lawrence. He also admitted to leaving this character out of one of his books, in order to please a critic, only to realise how wrong that felt.

There’s a difference between American crime writers and Scottish ones, but once they warm up it doesn’t seem to matter.

When my weeks have nine days in them, I will look into reading one of Lawrence’s novels.

The echo of a Saturday afternoon

I arrived halfway through the talk with Ann Cleeves and Peter May, ably chaired by Jenny Brown. It was good to simply hang, letting the conversation flow, seeing the look on Peter’s face when Ann said she doesn’t plot. It seems he plots. Well.

And I know this sounds silly, but I tend to think of these well-known names in crime as doing all right financially. But Ann said that if she wasn’t going to make money from her writing, then she should at least enjoy herself when writing her stories. Sensible woman. I’m hoping more money is coming in by now.

But then I woke up to the fact that I was hearing double, or even triple. I tried the age old switching off and on again. Still I heard voices.

After a fully functioning short reading by an author before the next event (I’m guessing they are letting newer writers be heard as we wait for the next show), it was time for Adrian McKinty, Steve Cavanagh and Simon Mayo to talk High Concept Thrills. And the echo was back.

Looking at people’s live comments, I became sure it wasn’t me. Or them. It just was. I switched off and on a few more times before giving up. Feeling braver, I returned to hear the second half of the event, when I gather the IT people had worked out what to do.

And it was nice to hear the three of them chat, with only my note-taking suffering. Seems I have been wrong about Simon Mayo as a celebrity author (he wrote a children’s book first). Maybe. He sounded nice enough, as did his book. So did Steve Cavanagh, whom I really didn’t know before, but he’s got ‘a few’ books under his belt.

On to Adrian McKinty, and how he’d been wrong writing about Belfast all this time. He was not wrong; the Duffy books are the greatest (as seemed proven by people leaving comments). They just didn’t sell enough to save him from a fate driving Ubers. His new novel The Chain has dealt with that! There might even be a film. There will also be more Duffys.

Asked about the effect of Covid on their writing, Steve is avoiding Covid like the plague 😮, Simon can’t not mention it, and Adrian just faffed around with no idea of what to write next.

The sound stayed on with only one voice per author.

So hopefully the echo is water under the bridge by now.

More gigs than rehearsals

There was less music than I had hoped for, or expected, but setting that aside, Friday night’s chat between the six members of The Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers was great fun. It’s so strange that a bunch of novelists can just stand up – well, almost – and sing and play and actually entertain an audience with their music, including ending up playing Glastonbury.

An early opportunity was when three of them played at Bouchercon one year; an ‘accidental shambles that worked really well’ (according to Mark Billingham).

Val McDermid is the boss, as well she should be, and the five boys don’t enjoy it when she can’t be there to perform with them. But it’s not only performances that matter, they simply love getting together as a group, each enjoying being with the others.

Craig Robertson was doing the asking, and the starting question was what the first single they bought was. I like Mark! He got I did what I did for Maria, with Tony Christie. Val’s was a Beatles one, Chris Brookmyre liked Skids, Stuart Neville got the ET soundtrack… Yeah. Doug Johnstone, I think, because he wasn’t on screen so it was just a voice admitting to Michael Jackson. Little Luca Veste, as the baby of the group, was grateful for the best decade ever in the 1990s, and he bought an Oasis single (but also likes early Britney…).

But ‘nobody should ever be ashamed of music’ as Stuart put it.

They were all rather mean to poor Chris, who was invited to join them for one song and never left, returning with new guitar playing skills and everything. According to Stuart Chris is so good that he might have been one of Stuart’s pupils! He’s so keen that he once joined them for the second half of an event, because he had his own book event to do first, so couldn’t come sooner.

Early on Doug agreed to be their drummer, because they are hard to find, while guitarists are ten a penny.

Reykjavik without Val had been scary. Some of them would have preferred to turn around and go home again. As Val said, ‘the team is greater than the sum of our parts’.

Their Spiegeltent debut in Edinburgh was fantastic, a free event were the audience clearly expected nothing, but were greatly surprised. (It was packed. I suspect that’s why I wasn’t there.)

And then there was Glastonbury, where the modest Mark asked for too few drinks for them, on what was a very hot day. They were complimented for their crew being the best, except they were their own crew, so… It was ‘a bizarre and educational experience.’ (I’d say so! Stuart even did a Bookwitch thing; arriving supporting himself on a stick, hardly being able to walk, and then feeling just fine afterwards.)

The gang can’t wait to be back together in real life. Val and Doug have done a small thing in a bookshop in Portobello, but that’s all. After all, a group who are clever enough to come up with a song like Paperback Writer can’t be all wrong!

‘One of mum’s fanciful ideas’

Or welcome to Bloody Scotland 2020!

After a worthy introduction by the First Minister herself, this year’s online Bloody Scotland kicked off with four crime writers dishing dirt and trashing reputations and generally having a good time, despite the fact that Lin Anderson, Craig Robertson and Gordon Brown, kept in some sort of check by Abir Mukherjee, were all at home. Each in their own, where we were treated to two sets of book backgrounds, one of posters plus Lin’s sauna, although I suspect that might have been a joke.

Bloody Scotland as ‘one of mum’s fanciful ideas’ was how Lin’s children explained how it came about. ‘A lot of good ideas come out of alcohol’, and as Gordon said, organising a crime festival ‘cannae be that hard’. For this year’s online weekend, Lin had apparently suggested that the whole country could light torches. Gordon had to tell how he ruined the town’s bowling green when he set up the football pitch five years ago. The grass died in a pitch pattern.

They all feel that this new crime festival has many advantages, including the ability for anyone, anywhere to attend; both authors and audience. It was great being able to ask Ian [Rankin] and Val [McDermid] who they most wanted to talk to, when anyone is possible.

The Curly Coo – the pub where shenanigans take place on the Saturday night – is actually Craig’s local pub and it was his ‘daft idea’ to organise an event there. It usually sells out in seconds.

Abir asked the others how the pandemic had affected them. He had found that his usual workflow of 15000 words per month dwindled to about 15. Craig found writing easier, if only because he couldn’t pop to the Curly Coo all the time. Gordon got up at five every morning and wrote a new novel, while Lin was so traumatised she couldn’t write at all, and had to stick to jotting down ideas for later.

Two thirds of the way into this event, I got up to go to the kitchen and put dinner on. This has never ever happened to me at the Albert Halls. But the four Bloody Scotland board members were able to follow me there and merely continued their bickering.

There were audience questions, and we learned that Abir once got asked about another authors book, because they were both brown authors. Gordon [also Brown] once had to explain to an irate bookshop customer why he was out signing novels instead of attending to the election. Lin told a fan at an event why she’s so good at sex. Lots of practice, I gather. A fondness for pina coladas is spreading wherever Abir goes, because he treats all crime gatherings like holidays.

Whether that will have to change now, we don’t know, but they believe there will be a Bloody Scotland after the virus. If there is an after the virus. And continuing digitally looks like a real possibility, regardless of viral status.

Abir did well, getting his unruly lot to finish on time, just as the pasta was ready.

Love Frankie

The long awaited ‘gay novel’ by Jacqueline Wilson is finally here. Over the years Jacky has written about almost everything, keeping track of what her fans need stories about in order to help them in their own lives. And, obviously, to entertain them.

Love Frankie features a 14-year-old girl, Frankie, living with her two sisters and their mum, who has MS and is recently divorced from their dad. So just from a normal point of view, there is much to worry about. And then Frankie finds herself falling in love with Sally, the girl who until that very moment has bullied her and been thoroughly unpleasant to her.

Everyone around Frankie warns her that Sally will be up to no good, but she can’t help the way she feels.

As an old and wise witch I found myself agreeing with them. We don’t feel that same sex romance is wrong, but we all felt that Sally was wrong for Frankie.

Nevertheless, we see the ups and downs of their relationship. I kept hoping for another love interest for Frankie, while most of her family seemed to hope for happy ever after with the lovely boy next door. So did he.

It’s well done, with nothing too easy, or too difficult, and with Jacky’s normal school type issues with children and teachers and homework, and at home there are the serious concerns about mum’s MS and having to spend weekends with their dad and his new girlfriend. All of it typical of life today for Jacqueline’s fans. You can tell she knows what she’s writing about, which of course has always been the case. And she’s on your side.

The book’s Böll, Heinrich Böll

Guardian reader Wendy, on the paper’s letters page, pointed me in the direction of Adrian Chiles and his column on bookshelves last week, which I had missed. Because we mostly don’t buy a paper on a Thursday. But that’s what the internet is for, discovering what I missed.

It’s yet another article/post/column on how some of us have too many books, and we don’t mind displaying our groaning shelves to the world via Zoom. Adrian now claims he’s going to get rid of, or actually read, some of his ignored volumes.

Easy for him to say. He’s probably not got a book blog to feed.

But, yeah, it seems his books are not even ones he doesn’t like the look of. And this is true of mine as well. I can comfortably ignore books I really wanted, maybe even bought. In fact, just the other day I was congratulating myself for having a more attractive tbr pile right now, basing it on having bought books, rather than it being only review copies of books soon to be published.

Then there are the books you acquire because someone recommended them, or worse, shamed you into feeling you should read them. That’s where Heinrich Böll comes in. Back in 1972, in my German class at school, one of the boys (we only had three, so they kind of stood out) said he’d had an inkling Böll would get the Nobel Prize, so he’d got a few of the man’s books out from the library to read in preparation.

So, of course, I did the same, only for me it was after the award was made public. But still. I dutifully read quite a few of Böll’s novels, and I’m fairly certain I didn’t enjoy any of them.

I have none of them here. Possibly one or two got left on the shelves belonging to Mother-of-Witch, but again, maybe not. Perhaps I borrowed from the library.

There will have been a few other Nobel laureates whose books I’ve read, but not many. I am cured of needing to keep up with boys in classrooms. And let’s face it, I can prune heavily and still have a most respectable looking set of shelves behind me on Zoom.

How to find your voice as a writer

We began by watching the teacher’s two-year-old daughter chatting to a cushion, telling it to sit down. It’s as good a way as any, when you are looking to find your voice.

From time to time I have stared at the lists of Guardian Masterclasses offered by the newspaper. But the time and the distance travelled would never justify the cost of them. Now though, when Covid has forced everything to go online, I grabbed the bull by the horns and signed up for a class. It was the subject, on finding my voice, and the fact that the master was Aditya Chakrabortty, that made up my mind. I thought I could always consider the fee as my contribution to the Guardian’s survival if I didn’t make it on the day.

There were technical hitches to begin with, but they mostly disappeared as we went along. And while at first it felt like quite obvious stuff, it was actually very interesting. I suspect I have already found my voice, in which case it was good to have it confirmed. And my inner cynic also tells me that however charming that voice may be, it won’t pay. I suppose that’s where I felt more could be said. It’s all very well to write a good piece, but right now I doubt anyone will want to pay for anything like that.

But that’s OK. Writing can be fun anyway.

I quite liked being told that one should never try to be someone else. (Whenever I get a bit precious I realise I’m writing absolute rubbish.) However, bits of ‘my voice’ always got edited out when I had my blogs published in the Guardian. Just saying. I could always see where someone else had had a go. Not so much the pruning away, but the words added that I would never use.

I suspect Aditya expected to talk to a younger lot than what he got. Judging by the ‘Zoom’ pictures we could see, most of us were ‘older’. I like that. It’s good to know people have ambition, even when the world might think we’re past it. (When break time came, he told us to go to the toilet and be back in five minutes. Bar one, they all got up…)

Write if you really want to, and if you have something new to say. Not the same old as everyone else. You should know what you know (I complain about this all the time!), and ‘going home’ can be good. Aditya told us about what he saw when he returned as an adult to Edmonton Green where he grew up. He talked about minorities. Etonians are a minority.

‘Be new’ and never mind Twitter.

Read, read, read. Those are the three Rs. Aditya even suggested children’s books to read. I think as a shock to the system for being so different. (I’ll have to have a word with him, before his two-year-old does.)

Listen, smell, be a camera. (I appear to have written down several ideas based on this. Wonder if I’ll ever get round to them?)

Don’t write case studies. It’s what they do on television. Don’t repeat so much, but use more rhyme. Think of the carpentry in getting sentences to stick together. Get used to just writing, however bad. Five minutes on what you did yesterday. Be yourself. Write down what you had for dinner.

Daniel Barenboim. Aditya spent a week with him for an interview, but in reality he had about 90 minutes with the man. The rest was running after him and being fed too much pudding. (This, too, reflects my own experience. Not the Barenboim pudding, exactly, but how you do a lot with quite little.)

Going through the notes, which they emailed us afterwards, saving on the note taking, makes me feel a lot more enthusiastic again.

I’ll see what I can do.

The Bear, the Piano, and Little Bear’s Concert

I read this to Daughter the other evening, when it was time for bed. It went down well. She’s a recent convert to these lovely books by David Litchfield about the piano-playing bear. I’m sure much younger children will also love this last instalment featuring the piano in the woods.

It’s a bit sad. Well, it has to be, so it can get better. I’m sure young readers instinctively understand this.

Bear continues playing the piano in front of audiences, until, well, until he doesn’t, and instead goes home to the forest. But he misses his old life and his friends, and he is sad.

Things improve when he has Little Bear to bring up and teach things. She is a lovely young bear, and when she comes across the piano in amongst the trees, she wants to know what it is. And then she hatches a plan…

It’s lovely. For an older reader like me, it’s easy to predict how it will work out, and probably also for a younger reader. But it is just as satisfying. Very beautiful, as are David’s gorgeous illustrations.