Category Archives: History

Girl on a Plane

Not long into Girl on a Plane I felt really nervous and wondered why I was reading about a plane hijacking. It was so very realistic. Then I wondered what time of year it was (senior moment) and decided that it was after the summer holidays and I’d not be flying anywhere anytime soon. No, I thought, I’m flying tomorrow. No, the day after tomorrow. Oops. So my timing was bad for reading this tremendously exciting book.

Miriam Moss, Girl on a Plane

Miriam Moss knows her stuff, because she was a passenger on one of those planes in September 1970 which were hijacked and flown to a desert airstrip in Jordan. She was only 15, just like her character Anna, who was flying back to boarding school in England.

Her BOAC plane was the fourth plane in a few days to be hijacked by the PFLP, and the hijackers demanded that Leila Khaled be freed by Prime Minister Ted Heath after she was jailed for an earlier incident.

If the names BOAC and Leila Khaled bring back memories, you will probably enjoy the period feel of this novel. I’m virtually the same age as Miriam/Anna so remember most of this surprisingly well. What I appreciate is that Miriam has got it right, which isn’t always the case with ‘history.’ She knows what clothes a girl would have worn, she remembers the food people ate, what flying was like, how much people smoked and how acceptable it was.

This book made me feel as though I was there. I’m glad I wasn’t, but am grateful Miriam is ready to share, because it’s a new part of recent history, most likely completely unknown to the intended readers of this book. It’s also surprisingly low key, considering we’re talking terrorism, and it’s all the better for it.

For those of us who were around in 1970 it’s not the ‘what will happen?’ that is of interest. We already know. It’s ‘what was it like?’ which is almost impossible to imagine for anyone not actually there. Even the invited press failed to grasp what it was like, despite looking at it.

Maybe don’t read this just before* getting on a plane, but do read Girl on a Plane. It’s a great thriller, as well as a trip down memory lane.

Miriam Moss

*I noted with amusement that it was one of the recommended books in the airport bookshop… And as you will have realised, I wasn’t hijacked. This time.

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’?

Mr Sparks

‘Well, I didn’t see this coming!’ I thought I knew where Danny Weston was going with his new novel, Mr Sparks. Set in 1919, it’s the story about 12-year-old almost orphaned Owen. He lives with his ghastly aunt at her hotel in Llandudno, when one day a strange man arrives, with even stranger luggage.

It talks. The man is, of course, a ventriloquist. Or is he? As Owen gets closer it appears that the dummy, pardon, Mr Sparks, speaks and thinks on its own. But that’s not possible. Is it?

(I’d say Mr Sparks is as real as, erm, Danny Weston. And we all know him, don’t we?)

Danny Weston, Mr Sparks

Soon this little horror story has Owen and Mr Sparks in a closer relationship than the boy had imagined possible. Who is in control?

It’s not as scary as I had been afraid. It’s more creepy. And then it didn’t go in quite the direction I’d imagined. And then it looked fairly promising, all set for a happy-ish ending, and then, well, maybe it didn’t. I know how it ends. As long as that Danny Weston doesn’t do anything I don’t want him to do!

You hear me?

I should probably disclose that Danny has been kind enough to dedicate Mr Sparks to me (and someone else, whom I shall ignore for the moment), which is, well, nice. It was clever of him to let Owen live in Llandudno, that pearl of seaside resorts. Although we might have to have a little chat about the pier at some point.

But that’s not why I say this is a good book. Actually, I haven’t said that yet.

It’s a good book! Even without the dedication. Creepily good, even.

Nordic grey – The Origin Story of Nordic Noir

I have a certain bias, but I felt that the Translation studies research seminar at the University of Edinburgh yesterday afternoon was pretty good, and really interesting. Even for me, with some prior knowledge as well as interest in the subject of Nordic Noir.

Nordic Grey with Ian Giles

The talk by Ian Giles, aka as Son, was part of a series of seminars in the next few months, and it was merely a happy coincidence that they kicked off on what was International Translation Day.

The Resident IT Consultant and I both went. We were pleasantly surprised to find Helen Grant there too, but shouldn’t have been, as she’s both a linguist and proficient translator, when she’s not simply killing people. I introduced her to Peter Graves, making rather a hash of it. Translator Kari Dickson was also in the audience, as were other Scandinavian studies people and aspiring translators. And I was surrounded by a whole lot of Chinese whispers. Literally.

Nordic Noir didn’t begin with something on television five years ago. It’s been coming a long time, and Ian is on its trail, trying to determine where and when we first met ‘dark storylines and bleak urban settings.’ It’s more than Sarah Lund’s jumpers or Lisbeth Salander’s hacking skills.

The trail might begin (or do I mean end?) with Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, via Peter Høeg to Sjöwall and Wahlöö. But that list is not complete without mentioning the murder of Olof Palme or Kerstin Ekman’s Blackwater. And apparently some critic recently accused the new Martin Beck on television of imitating itself.

Here there was a slight sidetrack to a Turkish writer, translated twice in the last twelve years, long after his death, and only because his compatriot, Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk said he liked him. Knut Hamsun had something similar happen to him.

Because yes, the trail goes a long way back. Before Sjöwall and Wahlöö we had Maria Lang and Stieg Trenter, for instance. Earlier still, Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doktor Glas would have qualified, as would Norwegian Mauritz Hansen. And maybe even Carl Jonas Love Almqvist and Zacharias Topelius.

And when it comes to the crunch, Peter Høeg’s Miss Milla’s Feeling For Snow is not a true progenitor of Nordic Noir. It seems to be, but isn’t. People would have read the book no matter what. Hindsight tells us Peter Høeg doesn’t belong to the origin story.

Anyway, there are many more books translated into English than there used to be. The 3% of translated books has recently become more like 4 or even 5%. Swedish books come sixth if you look at language of origin, but make that Scandinavian books and they end up in third place, and if you count all the Nordic languages, they are the second most translated.

Nordic Grey with Ian Giles

So, it’s not all jumpers, and Scotland has just claimed to have more words for snow than the cold Nordic countries. The latest idea for selling books on the international market is to translate the whole book into English, rather than a few sample chapters, making it possible to offer an almost finished product, as well as facilitating sales to countries where they don’t have a steady supply of translators from Scandinavian languages.

As I said, I found this interesting. And Ian’s a tolerable speaker, too. The right amount of jokes, and a good selection of slides and videos to show what he’s on about. The beard, however, was rather a surprise.


In mid-September a Swedish book fan was ordered by Stirling Sheriff Court to leave her favourite author alone, and to go back to Sweden the next day. And no, that wasn’t me.

The author in question is Stirling historian Neil Oliver, who has been bombarded with letters and photos and CDs by this woman over the last year. Her stalking continued when she turned up at a book signing Neil was doing at Waterstones in Glasgow this month, trying to hand him an envelope.

I understand that this must have been upsetting for Neil. I’m wary of people knowing where I live, so for his address* to have become known to her will have made him feel unsafe.

But, the man appears on television regularly. It’s easy to ‘fall’ for a charismatic television presenter at the best of times. As an author he’s a bit of a public figure. At a bookshop signing he is doing a public event.

It’s tricky. I understand her fervour, and I get his fear. I don’t know what the solution is.

But I can sort of see myself in her place. It can be hard not to admire too much.

(*The full name and address of the poor fan has been made public, with the help of the Stirling Observer. This is something that wouldn’t happen in Sweden.)

Btw, I love you all!!!!!!

Hell and High Water

This is Carnegie medalist Tanya Landman’s new book, out next week, and it does what it says on the cover. There is a hell, and there is high water. There is plenty of other exciting stuff as well. It’s very clear why she was awarded such a prestigious award.

Tanya Landman, Hell and High Water

Set in Devon – albeit a Devon Tanya has altered to suit her needs – in the mid eighteenth century, it’s the story about Caleb, who is black, and his father Joseph, who is white. They walk from town to town with their Punch and Judy puppets, just managing to earn a living. One day disaster strikes and Joseph is accused of stealing, and is swiftly sent off to the colonies, leaving his teenage son alone.

Caleb finds his way to a hitherto unknown aunt, who lives in a fishing village with her young daughter and an older stepdaughter, Letty. They are poor, and they live in constant fear of being turned out of their simple home by the cruel landlord.

Tanya is not someone who writes about dark tragedy, only to let it end all sunny and happy. Here you want the bad things that happen to be turned around and for Caleb’s life to be all right. But the bad things don’t un-happen just because we want them to, and more bad things will join them.

Things are not right, but with Letty’s help Caleb tries to prove his father has been wronged and that someone is breaking the law. First there is hell, and later there is high water, and still things don’t change for the better.

But you have to believe that something positive will happen. This is a seriously riveting story, that will have you reading until you get to the end. You just have to find out if anything good at all will come of this.

A kind of Bernard, but one level down

One day I will know not to say to people I’ve just met that I’m pleased they are so old. I mean it in the most positive way, but realised – belatedly – that it might not sound too good.

Two weeks ago I knew nothing about Lindsey Davis, and when her publicist mentioned her to me, I visualised a twenty-something with long blonde hair. (It’s something about the name, that sounds so blonde and so young.) Hence my relief on discovering Lindsey is 66 and wears black socks. Like Jeremy Corbyn. (Her words, not mine.) She was ‘terribly sorry, but it’s just the way things are.’

Lindsey used to be a civil servant, rather like Bernard in Yes Minister. Now a bestselling author of historical Roman crime novels, Lindsey could take up sitdown comedy if she ever wants to, with no need to go civil servanting again. And at 66 she has her pension. I do hope her sense of humour will help her forget my bad manners. As I said, I meant well. (And as Lindsey said, ‘no I’m not going to stop [writing]. I don’t think female authors give up, do they? How old was P D James? 93.’)

We had tea, and coffee (which was not so frothy it gave her the moustache she craved), before her Bloody Scotland event. I’m grateful for the opportunity not only of meeting Lindsey, but being able to switch events to go to hers. It was one of the best ever, and I’d happily go again tomorrow. She had started her day by lying down on the carpet in her hotel room, until she remembered that in CSI they always point out how much ‘stuff’ will be lurking in a small square of hotel carpet. But since she was down there, she decided to make use of it.

When she was a civil servant during Thatcher’s reign, Lindsey used to do many strange things, and I especially approve of building toilets in – already – ancient monuments. And that’s with only O-level Maths, and English from Oxford. Lindsey decided to leave the civil service when she had to write draft letters on behalf of someone, and then had to write draft replies back to herself.

Lindsey Davis

To cheer herself up Lindsey wrote a novel, set in her favourite period, the English Civil War. She was runner up in a writing competition, so decided to give writing a go. In the 1980s the Civil War was the wrong period. ‘I chose the Romans because nobody else was doing it, which now seems rather funny. I like to tell myself they wouldn’t be there [in the bookshops] if I hadn’t.’ She had a leaking roof that needed money spending on it, and she’d already done some research on the period, and could ‘bluff well.’

Her Marcus Didius Falco books are in effect the Roman Archers; with her adding family details as the series grew. When writing about the Emperor Domitian, Lindsey discovered she quite likes ‘evil paranoid tyrants,’ reckoning she is one of them.

The new Albia series about Falco’s adopted daughter Flavia Albia is set when Albia has reached adulthood, so she has a certain standing in society, despite being a mere woman. Lindsey also feels that both authors and their characters need maturity and life experience, in order to avoid that young, blonde feeling.

(I kept mentioning the Roman Mysteries, and the fact that the female detective in those books is also a Flavia. Apparently you would be named for the Emperor, which explains the staggering number of Flavias. And then I mentioned the RM a bit more still… Lindsey reckons girls didn’t marry as early as we are made to believe. ‘I’m not convinced that that really happened. I think it was something that was practised in the aristocracy.’)

The most recent Albia book, Deadly Election, wasn’t planned to coincide with the elections either here or in the US. It mainly happened because of some stolen Rugby tickets for the Five Nations in Rome, which Lindsey had thought she could use for some kind of Colosseum background. And anyway, in Rome it was the Emperor who decided, with no elections necessary. (She told me she had always wanted to write about a Roman election, and how in the series this was a good moment. ‘And I found a book on it as well, so it just happened, and then I realised just how exciting it was going to be.)

Lindsey Davis

During the Q&A we discovered that the hall was full of retired civil servants. One man wanted her to come and live next door. I think that was a sensible request. We got an explanation to the background of the turbot gift, which featured an editor burning his hands on a hot tray of recently cooked fish. A very large fish, but no turbot.

Lindsey is a sneaky woman. I like her. She wanted to write a series of seven books, set on the seven hills of Rome. Two editors said no. Instead she’s writing about Albia. Each book is set on one of the hills of Rome. A new hill every book. There will be seven books.

She doesn’t plan much. (Except perhaps for the seven hills thing.) She has a vague idea of who will die and who did it, but wouldn’t want a long synopsis to ‘colour in’ when writing the book. And no need to suggest potential plots to her. ‘I don’t want people to give me ideas. I have plenty of ideas myself!’

At this point someone felt called upon to let us know that Lindsey’s ‘twin’ Jeremy Corbyn had won, so black socks are clearly ‘it.’ She grew up as much on radio drama crime as on books, liking Chandler and Hammett. Lindsey does read, but ‘when I stop work I tend to do something completely different, like gardening.’

No ‘street Latin’ for her in the books, either. ‘I hate books where they break into foreign languages.’  What she’s got is mainly 1940s style wise cracks. Lindsey finished by reading the first page from her next novel in the Albia series. This is a woman who knows what she’s doing.

Lindsey Davis

At the end of the day I discovered I was also wearing black socks. Admittedly, I’m not 66, but it’s a good witchy number. Long live old age.