Category Archives: Blogs

Recreating a 1960s newsroom

I’m old enough to have worked at a desk with a spike, on which to save your work as proof until no longer needed, although mine was only ever about money. Here Peter Bartram (whose novel Headline Murder the Resident IT Consultant reviewed here yesterday) tells us about those smokey, crazy days in the 1960s, when they could make newspapers despite having no mobile phones or anything.

When I decided to set my Crampton of the Chronicle crime mysteries in the 1960s, I had to travel back in time to recreate the atmosphere of a newspaper’s newsroom of that era.

I first walked into a newsroom as a young reporter in 1966. Newspapers were very different in those days. No computers. No mobile phones. No digital cameras.

The new technology has been essential to keep newspapers alive. But it seems to have made newsrooms less exciting places. I love those old Hollywood newspaper movies – such as The Front Page – where newsrooms pulsate with a kind of chaotic energy.

I wanted to emulate that in Headline Murder, where Colin Crampton works in the Evening Chronicle’s newsroom as the paper’s crime correspondent. So I needed to cast my mind back to those far-off days when I was a reporter.

What were the sights and sounds like? Well, first thing I remember is how 14 of us – all reporters – were crowded into a room sitting at desks grouped mostly in fours. We pounded away at old sit-up-and-beg typewriters. As deadlines approached and everyone was typing together it sounded like a volley of machine guns firing.

We typed on sets on paper, called folios, interleaved with carbon paper, never more than a paragraph or two on each folio – so that if the sub-editors wanted to change the order of the copy they could easily re-order the folios. (No on-screen cut-and-paste in those days.)

On each of our desks there was a big black telephone and a spike on which we’d impale carbons of old stories we’d written. (No Cloud back-ups!). We worked in an atmosphere of constant noise – telephones ringing, shouted conversations, the rattle of typewriters. (Elsewhere silence may be golden, but on a newspaper, it means there’s no news!)

There were a couple of telephone booths at the side of the room into which we retreated if we needed to make a call to a special contact we didn’t want colleagues to overhear. The room was lit by harsh fluorescent lights but most of the time they were shrouded in a fug created by cigarette smoke.

Research is important for writers – and there are many ways to do it. Yet the best research often comes from personal experience. Although not all memories are reliable. Did I really hear the editor cry: ‘Hold the front page’?

Headline Murder

Oh, Brighton, how we miss you! (I suppose we could go back for a visit…) The Resident IT Consultant swiftly read his way through this somewhat nostalgic crime novel by Peter Bartram, set in our former home town. And here he is, review at the ready:

Set in 1960s Brighton, this first crime novel features Brighton Evening Chronicle crime reporter Colin Crampton. It is high summer and Colin is desperate for a decent crime story. But nothing happens: a bicycle stolen from a house in Maldon Road, a minor motor accident at Fiveways – nobody hurt – and a dog lost in Stanmer Park (a King Charles spaniel). Then the owner of a miniature golf course on the seafront goes missing. The owner is linked to an unsolved murder twenty years earlier and Colin senses he may have a story.

Peter Bartram, Headline Murder

Assisted by his Australian girlfriend and the staff of the newspaper’s clippings department, who have to be encouraged with regular deliveries of cream cakes, Colin uncovers a tale of shady developments, municipal bribery and police corruption which ultimately uncovers a double murderer and leads to an exciting cross-Channel chase.

The story is told in the first person, by Colin, in a brisk style that is a little reminiscent of Chandler. It was fun remembering and recognising the locations in which the action was set.

A day in the sun

Rather as with flying, when the Resident IT Consultant and I sit apart, unless we travel on different planes, we have taken to having days out separately too. ScotRail have introduced a club for old people, for which we qualify. Their opening treat was a cheap ticket anywhere in Scotland during September, so we had to hurry while the offer lasted.

The Resident IT Consultant went to Aviemore earlier this week, after a break of more than 40 years, and had a successful day, climbing Cairngorm, coming down again with walkingboot soles flapping in the air, necessitating hitchhiking to the station and then a taxi home. The boots are now in the dustbin where they belong. But it was a nice sunny day and he enjoyed himself. There was a scone involved at some point.

As for me, I returned to Arbroath yesterday, 30 years after the two of us went there – briefly – and didn’t enjoy it. So why I went back is a mystery. I think I was under the impression I’d been wrong that time. That it was only my visit to the baker’s that went wrong. (It’s the only occasion I have ever been aware that my English accent was the wrong accent to have. And I tend to be quite slow on the proverbial uptake.)

But yesterday I suddenly remembered more. I recalled that the reason we went somewhere else afterwards was that we left early, because it wasn’t at all what we’d hoped for. That memory had disappeared with the breadrolls. Walking towards the sea from the railway station I felt like someone in a film or a novel, and not in a good way. There wasn’t a scone in sight.

It was good to see the sea. I crave the sea in this inland area I have moved to. The sunshine was pleasant. There were plenty of benches on which to sit in the sun staring out to sea, which is something I do well. I like a working harbour, and they have one. There is fish everywhere, including the famous Arbroath Smokies.

Don’t misunderstand me; I reckon this is a good place if you belong. The trouble is, I don’t. Just as I didn’t 30 years ago, when all I wanted was bread for our lunch.

So after enough sea and sun, I walked back to my cheap train, on which passengers were able to travel like sardines. But I had my book, and a day is not wasted when there has been sea and sun, as well as plenty of reading, even if fish-style.

Writing someone else’s sequel

I don’t mind in the least. But at the same time I wasn’t eagerly looking forward to the next ‘Stieg Larsson’ novel, even if it means I can have more of Lisbeth Salander. Didn’t exactly feel I’d boycott the book, but nor did I visualise myself reading it.

But then I read the first interview with David Lagercrantz in Swedish magazine Vi. It was a good interview, done by one of my favourite columnists on Vi, Johan Norberg. Johan usually writes about music, which he does well, since he’s a professional musician. He’s also a good friend of David’s. It’s very Swedish, this, but for the last two decades these men have delivered and fetched their children from the same daycare. (Yeah, a lot of children were required.)

Vi interview David Lagercrantz

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Swedish title Det som inte dödar oss [literally What doesn’t kill us]) was conceived and written under the greatest secrecy, like something straight out of a Stieg Larsson novel.

When I first heard David Lagercrantz was writing the book my cynical reaction was ‘of course,’ as in my mind he belongs to a writing dynasty. Turns out he’s part of the nobility, too, which I didn’t know. But from my foreign horizon I had no idea it was David who wrote Zlatan, or any of the other books he’s responsible for. He just wasn’t important enough for me to keep track of.

For obvious reasons Son wondered who the translator of this fourth Millennium novel would be. The name George Goulding elicited more wondering, as he was totally unknown to everyone. Some digging by Son suggests he’s a pal of Christopher MacLehose, with no translating past, apart from the recent Alan Turing book, also by David Lagercrantz.

Anyway, judging by Johan’s article in Vi, David is a nice, and somewhat shy man, who prefers not to leave his home, other than for the previously mentioned school run. He has been subjected to the expected nasty tabloid articles, because in Sweden it doesn’t do to seem to be more than anyone else. (But they can’t all write Larsson novels!)

David’s only comment to Johan’s interview was that he most certainly doesn’t shave using disposable blades. So now you know.

On the perpendicular

Yeah, so I can spell it. I can say it out loud. But I don’t really (I mean really really) know what perpendicular means. In a way I’d rather people didn’t use the word so much, at times when I actually need to know the actual meaning of it. Usually it crops up in vaguely mathematical circumstances, and in ways I don’t understand, so the exact meaning of the word is irrelevant.

It probably has a Swedish translation that I would understand perfectly. But I’m lazy.

Daughter went to Geneva. Did I say that? Where they speak French, which we don’t speak, although that has nothing to do with perpendicular.

Anyway, she told me about her new office. The desk was perpendicular to the window. (Which, on the whole, I thought was nice of it.) I sort of guessed roughly what it meant when she held up her laptop on Skype to show me the room. All the desks lined the window wall, at what I might call right angles to said wall. No slantiness or anything, which is what I would have guessed.

So, the office and its desk positions are really not that important. They stand there and they do the job, and so do the people at them. Perpendicular or not.

But then she went into Geneva city for various important-ish errands. And she appears to have not taken her map of Geneva. Which, it has to be said, would have helped.

When the first errands had been done, she needed to find an estate agent’s office. I texted her the address. Then I texted her the name of the nearest tram stop, after which I tried to explain how walking would be easier, and which direction to head off in. Because I had Google maps. At one point I asked to speak to the Resident IT Consultant (yes, he was there too, equally mapless), as it seemed to me that the south/north aspect of where to go was his area of expertise.

That went well, apart from when I was told they were ‘next to a tram stop and which direction was it now?’

Luckily there were more addresses to be found. I only texted the wrong address once. Not much difference between nos. 10 and 23 to my mind.

But this is where the conversation got harder, for me. Attempting to describe the turns to take from errand four to errand five, Daughter threw perpendicular into the equation. How was I to know if said street was perpendicular to some other street or not? When I didn’t know what it meant. I tried recommending parallel streets instead, because I could see those on the map.

Well, they didn’t get lost. Much. And that was mainly the 10 v 23 issue.

(I have now looked it up. Right angles. 90 degrees. Vinkelrät. I won’t remember for long. I much prefer right angles.)

Another Michael Grant interview

Michael Grant

And by that I mean another interview. Not another Michael Grant. But you knew that.

Michael is always very American, and very professional, about being interviewed. And as I enquired about his wealth – again – he enthused about John Lewis and what a good value wallet he’d bought there!

If you’re a fan of Michael’s books, rest assured there are more in the pipeline than you can shake a broomstick at.

Read about blue hair and lovely fans and all the rest here.

The #18 profile – Hilary Freeman

Hilary Freeman has been busy. She has a new book out, When I Was Me, and she has a young baby daughter, who very kindly agreed to go for a walk with her Dad so her Mum could answer my questions. I like that in a child; an understanding that occasionally literature has to come first, like maybe 2% of the time. So here’s Hilary, sharing some of her secrets with us:

Hilary Freeman

How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?

None: I’m the luckiest person in the world because my very first novel was published. Piccadilly Press approached me on the strength of my journalism and teen agony aunt work, and asked me to pitch some book ideas. They liked the outline for Loving Danny, asked me to develop it, and commissioned it based on just one chapter. I am incredibly grateful for that break. I’m not sure I’d ever have had the confidence to send anyone my fiction writing, if that hadn’t happened.

Best place for inspiration?

By the sea. I find it hypnotic and calming. It really helps to clear my mind and let me focus.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?

I would consider it, if there was a good reason, and I have been involved in a couple of ghost writing projects. But I do like having my own name on the front of a book, partly as an up-yours to anyone who put me down in the past.

As a journalist, I often masquerade as celebrities when I write first-person articles with them. Once I had to choose a pseudonym for a national newspaper because I had several articles in the same edition. I chose Sue Denim, thinking they’d just laugh and tell me to choose another. But they didn’t get the joke, and printed it. I later learned that when Kylie Minogue checks into hotels, she calls herself Sue Denim!

What would you never write about?

There’s nothing I wouldn’t write about (now there’s a challenge). When I trained to be a journalist I was taught that a good writer is able to write about any subject. You just need to do the research and ask the right questions… Which is how I ended up writing about insurance (yawn) early on in my career. It’s the same with novels. Of course, it helps a lot if you’re interested in the subject matter. I failed my maths O-level and gave up physics at 14, but I tackled quantum physics in When I was Me.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in?

Will you allow me to be sentimental? I’m going to say, my baby daughter Sidonie, who is now just 10 weeks old. If I hadn’t taken myself away on writing retreats to Nice in France, I wouldn’t have met my partner Mickael, who worked in the apart hotel where I stayed, and we wouldn’t have had Sidonie. So in a roundabout way, she’s the result of my writing.

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

That’s a tricky one, because most of my characters go through difficult times or have big flaws, so I wouldn’t really want to be any of them. Rosie from The Celeb Next Door probably has the most fun, so maybe her. And, of course, Naomi in Loving Danny is semi-autobiographical, so I’ve already been her.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing?

I think it would be fantastic. I love film as a medium, and the way I write is probably influenced as much by films as by books. Then, of course, there’s the money and the publicity too, which would attract new readers. To be honest, I can’t really think of a downside. So if anyone is reading this…

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event?

At a school visit in London, a girl asked me: ‘Have you ever met Nicki Minaj?’ (In case you don’t know, she’s a very loud American pop star.) I haven’t.

Do you have any unexpected skills?

I’m not sure what people would expect of me… I’m afraid I have no special talents (that are printable) but I do love a karaoke session. Once I get going, it’s hard to stop me. And I’ve been told that I can, surprisingly, be quite scary (not when singing Karaoke, I hope, but when I’m angry).

The Famous Five or Narnia?

Definitely Narnia. I loved those books when I was a child and there’s actually a little reference to Narnia in my new book, When I was Me. The idea of a magical world at the back of the wardrobe really fired up my imagination. I wasn’t allowed to read Enid Blyton as a kid – the only censorship my parents ever practised. They let me read anything on their vast bookshelves, but not Blyton.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

This is where I’m meant to say someone dark and brooding from a Swedish crime drama, right? I’m afraid my answer is far less cool. I love Abba (remember the karaoke) – all four of them – and actor Alexander Skarsgård is yummy.

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically?

I’m quite a messy person and my books are not arranged in any particular order. They’re shoved wherever they will fit. In fact, the bookshelves are so overfilled that they’re now bowing, and there are piles of books on the floor in several rooms. That’s why I really only buy e-books these days.

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader?

I’d give him a book that appealed to an interest he was passionate about, such as football. In fact, I once contributed a short story to a book called Football Shorts (Walker), which was aimed at encouraging literacy in young boys, and which contains stories by both children’s authors and footballers.

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?

What an impossible choice. They go together like rhubarb and custard, one making the other sweeter and one, sharper. I keep changing my mind but I think it would have to be writing because the urge to express myself in words is like an itch. Although I guess I could speak the words out loud instead. Would that be cheating?

A big thank you to Ms Denim, and if you must sing Mamma Mia non-stop, please do it somewhere else. You’ll wake the baby.