Wednesday, 4 September 2019

A BIRD IN THE HAND or a bird in a book

a bird in a book


When I'm writing my DI Sony Russell crime stories I try hard to establish place by describing the surroundings. Because much of what happens occurs in the countryside, birds are a very good way of fixing the setting. In this extract from BLOOD ON THE TIDE, the distinctive cry of curlews and oystercatchers help to establish the maritime setting.

Boats of differing sizes and colours stood about the yard, some resting upturned on blocks of wood or trestles, others sitting on the stony ground shrouded in green canvas. Lengths of timber leant against the boatshed, coils of rope and piles of chain cluttered the ground, creating hazards for the unwary. A thin haze hung over the estuary, obscuring the horizon. Unseen oystercatchers called as they searched for food and the mournful cry of a curlew came from some distance away.

In BLOOD ON THE SHRINE, I wanted to capture the quiet that a thick coating of snow brings to the landscape. 

THE LANDSCAPE looked picture perfect. The fields were covered with a pristine coating of white, sparkling in the winter sun. It was so deep that the fences and hedges that formed the boundaries were reduced to amorphous mounds. Trees, skeletal in form, were festooned with shimmering coatings of snow, an occasional bird landing on a branch sending a cascade of flakes spiralling to the ground. In the distance a plume of smoke rose lazily from a chimney but there was no sign of anything moving. Sheep and cows were either under cover or huddled in field margins, waiting for the farmer to bring fodder.

                                 Robin                                                                Great Tit

Away from the coast there is a completely different selection of birds. In BLOOD ON THE SHRINE I tried to portray a quiet woodland, the one I remember from my days camping as a Boy Scout.

Although cool, it was a calm evening. The rain had held off. The only sound was the wind, soughing in the trees and the song of birds. Russell could identify some: robin, great tit, wren and a couple of others he wasn’t sure about. Then there was the distant sound of a whistle and within a few minutes, a locomotive came into sight, pulling a pair of work worn carriages which rattled and clattered slowly over the crossing as the train climbed the slight gradient and disappeared out of view, round the bend.

Black-headed gull

Back at the coast black headed-gulls join the other birds in an extract from BLOOD ON THE STRAND.

The sun had come out from behind the clouds. It was going to be a warm day. Seabirds could be heard along the river: the rising, bubbling note of a curlew; the insistent piping of oystercatchers overlaid with the raucous bickering of black-headed gulls. In the distance a halliard clattered rhythmically against a mast. 

All three books are available in paperback or Kindle. Details on the right of the blog.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

TAKE COURAGE - or a better beer!

or a better beer!

As my crime stories are set in the 1950s, much of the action takes place in pubs. In those day, drink-driving was hardly frowned upon and even policemen were known to imbibe on or off-duty.

Some beers were just about acceptable - Courage bitter for instance, but others, despite being widely drunk, were frowned upon by beer connoisseurs. Watney's Red Barrel, introduced in 1931, was an export keg beer that could travel long distances as it was filtered and pasteurised, probably represented the nadir of bitter drinking. 

Style and Winch was one of the older breweries. It was registered in March 1899 as merger between A F Style & Co with Edward Winch & Sons Ltd and had a total of 356 public houses. Another thing which helps to establish the period is to describe the vessels that were used for drinking the beer and these were often pewter tankards.

Here is an extract from BLOOD ON THE TIDE, describing the Shipwrights Arms the pub at Compass Point (Rye Harbour).

The Shipwrights Arms was a modest building, with stone walls, tiny recessed windows and a pantiled roof. It sat right at the end of the quay, next to the station, hunkered down against the weather. It had withstood any number of gales and powerful storms and had survived, battered but unbowed. Inside was a small, low-ceilinged room, the once white paintwork now the colour of nicotine, stained dark from years of coal fires and the smoke of a lifetime of tobacco pipes. The woodwork was an even deeper colour, with a tar-like quality. Indeed, tar may well have been used as a ready substitute for paint. The room served as the solitary bar and a door marked PRIVATE led to Alf’s compact accommodation. The landlord was far from being the archetypal mine host. Rangy and thin, he barely spoke more than a sentence at a time, always wore a suit and tie and had bookshelves crammed with classics in his living room. He stood, impassive, in front of a brace of barrels of ale sitting on a rack behind the wooden counter. There was a foxed mirror on the wall above a shelf, reflecting a line of brown bottles. Below the barrels, shelves held clean, upturned glasses; pints and halves. The floor was bare floorboards, with a dusting of sawdust and sand and apart from a couple of stools, the only other seating was comprised of three chairs that had seen better days, arranged around a battered tin-topped table, next to the unlit fire.
The morning sun slanted through the small windows, dust motes dancing in the rays. An old clock ticked on the wall, and apart from the occasional squeak as Alf polished glasses, all was tranquil.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

KILROY WAS HERE - wot no sugar

KILROY WAS HERE - wot no sugar

While writing my current book, BLOOD ON THE CARDS, I researched wartime graffiti. I wanted to describe the interior of a WW2 pillbox where the body of a fortune teller is found. I decided to use this one. Not sure if it actually existed but it amused me to think it might have.


This would have been quite common at the time. 

But one that was seen all over during that period was KILROY. The figure was initially known in the United Kingdom as MR CHAD and would appear with the slogan "Wot, no sugar" or a similar phrase bemoaning shortages and rationing.He often appeared with a single curling hair that resembled a question mark and with crosses in his eyes.The phrase "Wot, no —?" pre-dates "Chad" and was widely used separately from the doodle. Chad was used by the RAF and civilians; he was known in the Army as Private Snoops, and in the Navy he was called The Watcher.

Even older was FOO who predates Kilroy by about 25 years.

Monday, 12 August 2019

ALEISTER CROWLEY & the esoteric Tarot

The esoteric Tarot

Aleister Crowley was an English occultistceremonial magician, poet, painter, novelist, and mountaineer. A prolific writer, he founded the religion of Thelema and published widely over the course of his life.

So begins Chapter 6 of BLOOD ON THE CARDS, the fourth book in the DI Sonny Russell crime series I am currently writing. The story revolves around the death of a fortune teller at a funfair on the Salts at Nottery Quay (a thinly veiled Rye, in East Sussex.)

As Tarot cards play a large part I needed research into their origin and meanings. Back when I as a callow youth I became very intrigued by this branch of divination and even started telling peoples fortunes, using them. I probably wasn't very good but found it fascinating.

As a result of my recent research, I discovered that Aleister Crowley had designed, with paintings by Lady Frieda Harris, a beautiful deck called the Thoth Tarot. I also discovered that he spent his last years in a nursing home/lodging house on The Ridge in Hastings. 

This was in the 1970s and what was left of the building subsequently became the Robert de Mortain pub. Sadly this is no more. Although I understand that it was never a great pub, the building of The Conquerors March, just up the road, sounded its death knell. (It really annoys me that this corporate chain place, not dissimilar to a Beefeater, lacks an apostrophe!)

The pub was demolished and houses have now been rapidly thrashed up on the site and it amuses me to think that the ghost of Aleister Crowley, once called the most evil man in Britain, may haunt these charmless boxes!

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

VARDO - Romani Wagon

Romani Wagon

Travelling showmen spent most of their lives on the road but instead of pitching tent wherever they went, they had horse-drawn wagons where they cooked, ate, and slept. Later, around the middle of the 19th century, these caravans were adopted as living quarters by the Romani people, commonly called the Gypsies. These people originated from northwestern India, a country their forefathers left some 1,500 years ago and settled in different parts of the world, but mostly in Europe and Mid-West Asia.
The Romanis call their wagons vardo, originating from the Ossetic word “vurdon” for cart. They are smaller than the larger transport wagons the circus troupes used, and thus required fewer horses to pull. They are often highly decorated, intricately carved, and brightly painted. Some are even gilded.
The Gypsies took great pride in their homes on wheels, but as the vardo evolved and grew more ornate, they became more a showpiece than practical sleeping quarters. Indeed, few Gypsies actually slept in them, preferring instead to sleep in tents or beneath the wagon itself. They also lacked sentiment in times of need, having no hesitation in selling them for something else. Yet, when the owner died it was the custom to burn all his belongings, including the vardo, for the Romanis believed that a dead person’s possessions should not be sold. Money and jewellery, however, was left to the family.
Vardos proliferated in the late 19th and early 20th century. This period is often affectionately called “the wagon time” by Romanichal travellers. 
Vardos are categorized into six main styles—Brush wagon, Reading, Ledge, Bow Top, Open lot, and Burton. The general design evolved over time and were named after the home's owners, for their traditional style (Ledge), for the town of its construction (Reading), or for the name of the builder.

I'm Currently writing book four of the DI Sonny Russell series of crime novels, BLOOD ON THE CARDS. Much of the action revolves around a fairground in the 1950s, when Vardos were commonplace. Here is an extract from the first draft, describing the main suspect and his ornate caravan.

He stopped in front of an impressive living wagon. It was painted a deep maroon, the panels expertly lined out in gold, standing on pneumatic tyres. At the foot of the short flight of steps stood a polished milk churn. Another dog lay beside it, quiet this time, head on paws, one watchful eye open.
‘Dad!’ the boy yelled. ‘Da-ad!’
The door of the wagon opened and man appeared. His frame was stocky, but muscular; his curly blond hair flopped over his forehead, startling blue eyes flashed beneath. He was wearing a collarless shirt open to reveal a thick matt of hair, with a red spotted scarf, knotted round his throat. His legs were clad in a pair of corduroy trousers, cinched at the waist with a thick leather belt. ‘What?’ he growled. ‘What do you want? D’you know what time it is?’
The boy shook himself free. ‘Sorry Dad. These rozzers wanted to talk to you.’ He dashed off again. They didn’t see him disappear round the corner and run up the steps of the strongman’s van.
Weeks took a step forward. ‘Sorry, sir. Could we have a word with you?’
The man scowled, a look of defiance spoiling his matinee looks. ‘Go on. I’m listening.’
‘Could we come inside? It’s a rather delicate matter.’
‘I suppose so.’ He turned and went back into the van. The two constables looked at each other. Nettie mounted the steps followed by Weeks.
The interior of the wagon was a symphony in mahogany and brass. Everything was polished to a high gleam, reflected in numerous ornate mirrors. They were invited to sit on a plush, fitted settee, opposite an immaculate cast iron range. A cheery blaze flickered behind the glass door.
‘Right then. What can I do for you?’ He stood in front of the fireplace, his muscular arms folded across his chest.

I hope to publish BLOOD ON THE CARDS later this year, but meanwhile, the other books in the series are available in paperback or on Kindle. Details are on the right of the blog. 

Sunday, 28 July 2019



The time has come,' the Walrus said,
      To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
      Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
      And whether pigs have wings.'

This verse from the wonderful nonsensical Lewis Carroll poem, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ has long been a favourite of mine. I started sailing in dinghies when I was 11 years old. My brother had just finished the construction of the first boat he built, a Mirror dinghy. (He has subsequently built several larger craft, including one in which he circumnavigated the world - but that's another story.) He'd met me from Sunday School - I was still wearing my Sunday best - and we'd made our way to Mitchell's boatyard in Poole Harbour, where the dinghy was kept. The boat was launched and I was made to sit on the thwart (seat) amidships and told not to move, only to duck when the boom came across. Thus began my love of boats, the sea and everything connected with them. So, it comes as no surprise that these things feature largely in my crime novels.

The stories are set near the sea and often involve fishermen and boats. In the first two books, BLOOD ON THE TIDE and BLOOD ON THE SHRINE the 'baddies have a boat called MOONSHINE. I'd chosen the name for no other reason than it has connotations of illicit activities. Imagine my surprise when later, after the stories were written, I was mooching around the iconic net sheds at the fishermen's beach in Hastings and saw this, an old photo, framed and displayed on one of the sheds. I had no idea there had actually been a Hastings boat called MOONSHINE. Serendipity or what?!

It was too late to change the name so I hope no one is offended. Here is an extract from BLOOD ON THE SHRINE when the 'baddies' are making their escape.

Salt was doing his best to delay Moonshine’s departure but was struggling to slow it down. ‘Why in such a hurry? The tide’s only just making and there’ll be plenty of water when you get there.’
Dickens continued loosening the ropes. ‘Aye. Just feel it’s best to get under way. Want to take it easy, just to make sure.’
Salt tried one more tack. ‘Might it not be wise to leave it, until you’ve had enough time to check the engine is running all right?’
Dickens paused and listened. ‘Sounds all right to me. I think I’d know if anything was up, don’t you?’ Anxious to start the journey he was beginning to suspect that Salt might be deliberately delaying him. He finished untying the warps, threw the stern line untidily down on to the afterdeck and looped the bowline round the bollard. He jumped down on to the deck, pulled the line in behind him and, with a wave to Salt, began turning the boat. The tide was coming in swiftly and the boat slewed sideways, travelling back up the river, before Dickens got the bow pointing seaward. Even at half throttle Moonshine barely made headway against the current so he gave the engine more revs and she began moving slowly down the estuary, a large bow wave breaking either side of the vessel.
She hadn’t gone more than a couple of hundred yards when Salt heard a car approaching at speed. The Wolseley rocketed over the level crossing - the front bouncing high on its springs - and into the yard, screeching to halt surrounded by a plume of dust. Russell and Beaumont tumbled out and ran to where Salt was standing. ‘Where is she?’
Salt pointed down the channel. ‘There! They’re getting away!’
‘Not if I have anything to do with it! Quick, get Stan. We need to get after them!’ Salt ran to the boatshed while the two policemen climbed down the ladder and into the launch. By the time Stan had joined them, the engine was running and the warps were untied. Moonshine was some distance away and Dickens had obviously opened the throttle fully as she was now creating an even larger bow wave. ‘Can you catch her?’ Russell asked.
‘I’ll give it my best shot,’ Stan said.
‘If Wolfgang’s aboard, I don’t want to lose him again!’

Monday, 15 July 2019

BUDDHA and the art of meditation

and the art of meditation

For 20 years I practiced as a Buddhist. I meditated regularly at home, took part in weekend retreats and attended meditation groups in a Buddhist retreat centre. Here, I led meditation, going through the process of relaxation and emptying the mind; getting rid of 'the chattering monkeys' or at least learning not to concentrate on them. I wouldn't say I became an experienced meditator but the practice and ethos of Buddhism remains with me.

In my second DI Sonny Russell crime novel much of the action takes place at a Buddhist retreat he is attending. In this extract from BLOOD ON THE SHRINE, a very experienced meditator is found dead. 
If you would like to know more, paperback copies of this book as well as kindle are available on Amazon. (All three books in the series are readily available). 

‘Do you think he died of natural causes?’ Russell was in the monks’ compact office in their private quarters. He was speaking to John Crooks, the pathologist back in Collinghurst.
          ‘Difficult to say, without being there. Tell me again how you found the poor unfortunate.’
          ‘He was sitting very still, and had been for some hours apparently. He was cross-legged, in the Lotus position, with his hand folded together in his lap. One of the other monks, seeing that the temperature had dropped, had wrapped a blanket round his shoulders. I think there was a sliver of glass caught in the material and when Karunavadra put the blanket round it went into his jugular. What I don’t understand is why he didn’t feel it and react. Instead he just seems to have bled to death.’
‘Did you say he is, or was, a very experienced meditator?’
‘Yes, as far as I can make out he’d been meditating for many years and had perfected the ability to go into a deep, trance-like state.’
Crooks was quiet for a moment and there was just the sound of crackling on the line. Russell was about to speak again when the pathologist answered. ‘Ah … that could be the reason. It is my understanding that through meditation, some yogis are able to reduce heartrate and pulse to such a low level that the body goes into a sort of hibernation. I would imagine that when they are in this state, they can remain unaffected by external conditions or stimuli.’