Literally or Figuratively…

“What’s it on this time?” asked youngest daughter, with as much disinterest as you could fit into a short sentence.

“Necrophilia,” I answered, brightly.

“You’re kidding?”

“No, why?”

“Who, apart from Jeremy Daimler, would want to read that?” she said, disinterest flipping smoothly to disgust.

Dahmer

I was about to point out that it would be a challenge, as Jeffrey Dahmer was dead and a ‘Like’ from him would open up all kinds of new and interesting horizons but on seeing her expression I maintained maternal silence.

“You should be writing stuff people want to read,” she replied, tartly.

“Such as?” I ventured, cautiously.

“People-,” she said using the sort of ex cathedra tones associated with the monarchy and BBC, “-Like to read about lifestyle issues.”

“Kitchens? Cars?” I suggested.

She scowled. “Make-up, health and relationships.”

“That’s what’s ‘in’?” I asked, waving air quotes.

“Nothing’s ‘in’ mum,” she snorted, waving the air quotes back.

Apparently, ‘in’ is no longer used by anyone under the age of fifty. Preferable phrases include ‘hot’, ‘trending’ and ‘Kardashians’. (I am still not sure whether the last is a noun or a verb.)

1960

Perhaps it’s not just the subject matter I choose that’s dating me but the language I’m selecting. I put this to wise daughter. She sighed deeply. “You can’t just start literally dropping in phrases you’ve picked up from the Urban Dictionary. You have to use your own voice when you write, or no-one’s going to believe you.” (A small digression here on the usage of the word ‘literally’, as applied by my elder daughter. She is always, ‘literally dying’, as opposed to ‘figuratively dying’. It is a constant source of irritation, not just because it’s appalling grammar but it’s used as way of emphasising that commonplace events such as exhaustion, intoxication and personal liquidity are experienced with greater intensity by her than those around her.)

Intrigued at the possibility of increasing my readership, I grilled both daughters on what sort of topics would entertain, captivate and broaden the horizons of my audience. “Apart from necrophilia?” sneered the youngest. This sent both daughters off into a cackle session reminiscent of a ‘Dastardly and Muttley’ cartoon.

dastardly

“Yes,” I replied, flatly.

“Well, you could try something that appeals to your age group.”

“Oh yes,” I replied, knowing full well where we were going.

“Hmm,” Youngest daughter placed a finger on her lips, in an effort to prove she was about to proffer heartfelt and honest thoughts. I knew better.

“How about make-up for the over fifties?”

So far, so good. “Yes, maybe,” I considered.

“You know, like how you have to buy your brushes from the home decorating aisle in B&Q,” shrieked the elder.

B&Q2

It had started.

“Like how instead of using concealer, you can adapt polyfiller to those…hard to fill in lines?” splurted the youngest.

Both idiots were now incapable of steady breathing and were clutching their sides, as their pithy humour reduced them to hysterics.

“Or…”

I waited.

“Or maybe how you balance your reading glasses in that special way, so you can actually see the eye you’re working on.”

glasses

They were howling. No good was going to come from listening to further insults. I picked up my coffee, notebook and pride and headed for my office.

“I know, I know,” choked the eldest. “How about where to buy those special mom jeans. You know the ones that flare out…” She couldn’t speak. I felt obliged to assist. “Round the ankle?” I offered, curtly.

“No! Round the ass!” I left both creatures to their cauldron and retreated to the safety of my office.

cauldron

Next week…Necrophilia.

A Giggle At the Funeral…

Having nearly choked to death on a wholewheat bagel after reading the banners presented to incoming female students by the Old Dominion frat pack of Sigma Nu, I was somewhat bemused to learn that the said idiots had been expelled from, not only their house but the University too.

frat bannerI presented the photograph to my two daughters, both of whom at either ends of their University careers, just in case I was too senile to recognise sexual intimidation any more.

The elder daughter thought it hilarious and the younger gave the sort of withering look that forces testicles to rapidly ascend and spat out the phrase, ‘Assholes’. Neither daughter thought they should be expelled, just ignored. Unless, one pointed out, you fancied the offer. I myself was quite touched to see that ‘Moms’ were included in the ‘rowdy fun’. In fact I think I may have parked outside, popped in and presented the boys with my usual pre-‘rowdy fun’ contract, which generally require a shelf being put up in the bathroom and the lawn mowed. There is, after all, no such thing as a free lunch.

That parents and college authorities have labeled the Fraternity’s banners as acts of ‘sexual predation’ is as far from the truth as it’s likely to get.

responseSexual predators don’t advertise their intentions on bed sheets draped from windows. They hide from view, wait till there is no one but your daughter around and then rape and murder her. What these boys have kindly provided for the young female undergraduates, is the badge of stupidity, which saves girls from having to invest time and emotion in discovering it for themselves.

This issue wouldn’t have raised more than a passing chortle from me usually but for the next couple of years I am going to be an occasional Los Angeles resident. It’s not that people or rude there, or unhelpful. They just don’t laugh at themselves, or find the absurdity in a situation. There is a gulf between individuals who find themselves amusing and assume you do too, and those who understand that 99.99% of every human being and 100% of all dogs that have ever lived, are assholes.

funny-dog-0011This is a scientific fact and our progress through life is marked by our increasing ability to understand, appreciate and share this condition. Please don’t labour under the illusion that I place myself in the latter category entirely. Get onto one of my favourite subjects, such as cruelty to animals and destruction of the environment and I can, in a matter of seconds, strap on a breastplate, grab my trident and ride into battle, every inch the Teutonic avenger.

brunhilde

So, it was with some degree of trepidation that I agreed to accompany my husband to a BBQ, with a group of LA independent filmmakers. I suspected that this was likely to be an event that wouldn’t present either them, or myself, in a particularly good light. We arrived, laden with social lubricant (three bottles of Californian white) and introduced ourselves to the group, who smiled without showing any teeth. My husband threw me one of those special glances, which I generally ignore, that tend to mean ‘Don’t!’. It was then that I realised the evening would be much, much worse than I could possibly have imagined: no one was drinking alcohol. I felt a little panicky and snatched a half litre plastic drinking glass off the table and, having praising my foresight at buying screw-capped Sauvignon, poured myself a good one. Turning to my neighbour, whose left leg was bouncing uncontrollably, I made an attempt at finding common ground. I am good at this, particularly after having downed a bottle of wine, which I was well on the way to. I asked if he had children. He and his partner looked unsure and then said they had dogs, which is in LA apparently, the equivalent. I rallied and showed them pictures on my phone of my kids falling off things, as an opening gambit. They returned the gesture by presenting photographs of their dogs wearing bows, designer jackets and sitting on cushions. This immediately excited the other guests, who all had dogs but none of the ten couples there had any children. I reached for the second bottle, ignoring the hissing sound emanating from my husband.

“Have you any tattoos?” asked the leg twitcher.

“I have ‘Up Yours’ tattoed on my backside,” I replied, cheerily. “Want to see it?”

photo

There was a palpable silence, broken only by the sound of wine hitting tumbler. I was bored, inebriated and becoming a social pariah: a dangerous position for everyone to be in. Just as I was about to start discussing the menopause and prolapses, she arrived: my saviour! In her fifties, wearing silicon implants and the sort of make-up favoured by embalmers, she slammed three bottles of champagne onto the table and plonked herself next to me. “Are we the only ones drinking?” she said, in what we theatrical types describe as a ‘stage whisper’.

“You and me, girlfriend,” I slurred, falling deeply in love with her. This wonderful creature had children, gynecological issues and best of all, as we polished off the champers, a wonderful sense of humour.

Unknown

Maybe, just maybe, there’s hope…

Learning to Drive…

I am on tenterhooks. My youngest daughter is about to take her driving test and much future happiness depends upon a positive outcome. We live in rural Shropshire where public transport is a fleeting, ethereal concept. To desire a bus’ arrival seems to instantly negate its existence.

bus

I suspect that Schrodinger’s black cat in a box was an error in translation. What he really meant, as an explanation for the paradox of quantum mechanics as applied to everyday life, was the easily understood phenomena of a blue Arriva bus approaching from Shrewsbury, that seems to arrive but only in a different universe (the one where my daughter isn’t waiting at the stop sign).

catI am, therefore, obliged to provide that which the council doesn’t: a robust, surprisingly cheap and (generally) uncomplaining taxi service. But a few months ago, as a mark of our faith in her abilities and my desperation, we purchased a small, eco-friendly car, which would be hers when she finally passed. Delighted, she immediately named it Stuart.

“A boy car!” I asked, surprised.

“No,” replied my daughter, darkly. “Stuart’s a girl. She has gender identity issues.”

I said nothing. I merely neutralised any expression that may have crept onto my face and nodded.

The whole ‘learning to drive’ experience has been a bit of an eye-opener. I took my test in 1980 and remember it as a casual, understated experience. I borrowed my boyfriend’s thirty-year-old Hillman van (which came with a starting handle and two bald tyres), drove around with him for a couple of weeks and then took and passed my test.

hillman van

I doubt I’d pass now. I have discovered that I can understand, or at least guess the meaning of approximately 40% of all road signs, a score I consider reasonably encouraging. I can also re-tune the radio and search for chewing gum in the glove compartment, while tackling roundabouts and feeder lanes. This is a skill acquired over many years and the mark of a seasoned driver.

road signs

Not according to my daughter, or the seemingly endless video lessons available on ‘You Tube’, which she watches with religious absorption. These ‘lessons’ generally star a hapless teenage learner driver, maneuvering with geriatric caution through a generic town centre, turning the steering wheel as if opening a safe. Their progress is accompanied by a steady, incomprehensible list of failures and ‘minors’ delivered by smug, Old Testament types, leaving me to wonder how anyone ever passes their driving test.

hands on wheel

But more cogently, how the hell I ever did…

A Stranger in a Strange Land…

I am newly returned from Los Angeles. Return baggage includes five tubes of whitening toothpaste and an entrenched jetlag that has had me heralding the dawn every morning this week. Why toothpaste? Because the US, despite a mulish devotion to rules, regulations and the rectally-restricted application of them, has no problem in allowing the general public access to dangerous and life threatening items, such as guns, easily acquired driving licences and over the counter medications.

no pics2The efficacy of American toothpaste is evident in the confident, pearly smiles of the Californians and the excruciating pain of my third day of using Crest 3D whitening toothpaste. I assumed, naively, that as the paste was readily available in the UK it would contain similar ingredients. I suspect that if I turned the light out, the tube would begin to glow with all the benign enthusiasm of radium. My teeth, considerably brighter now, are exquisitely tuned to speech, air movements and any food either side of room temperature.

radium

Los Angeles is not quite a desert city. Its rainfall statistics and mean temperature place it confidently above the definition but its annual 15-inches of precipitation can’t supply a population of 10 million water guzzling, lawn and pool addicted residents. It is a hot, dry city, whose sprawl covers over 4,000 square miles (this refers to LA county, which includes the city). Forced by a growing population and over 44 million visitors every year, it has to pipe in sufficient water from the Colorado River basin.

CA-aqueduct_ace

Unfortunately, demand is rapidly outreaching the potential to supply and a sense of impending desiccation hovers over the city. Ironically, LA is lapped by a 75 mile coastline and it was here that I spent the first week, in an airbnb on Venice beach. My daughter and I arrived late in the evening, in what we believed was the general vicinity of the apartment. The email I had received from the owner Brad, was primarily a list of what not to do. The most critically important thing was not to inform any of the other residents that we were airbnb guests but rather declare ourselves to be his close, long-time friends (from England), who are here to feed the cat and water the cactus (sparingly). Apparently, several of Brad’s neighbours had expressed their lack of enthusiasm for the airbnb scheme and were likely to get ‘upset’. I really needed qualification as to how ‘upset’ they were likely to be and whether this would involve the use of small caliber firearms. Helpfully, Brad attached a series of eight photographs, some with the heading, ‘Do Not Use This Entrance’ and some, of an identical appearance, which bore the heading, ‘Safe Entry’. I duly printed these off, hoping that the two sides to the building would sport both titles in neon. The key to his apartment was going to be secured in a metal box, with a four number entry code on the outside of the building. So, after a day of blue whale watching off Dana Point, a taxi dropped us off at the putative address at around nine pm. With an accommodating flourish our driver bade us farewell, pointed to the key holder and drove off. My daughter stared at the adjacent building. “Why’s it wrapped in PVC?” she said, flatly.

fumigate2-800x600

“Aesthetic reasons,” I answered, using one finger to push in the numbers.

“It says it’s being fumigated. Why?” she asked.

The number, clearly marked on the photograph and memorised by myself wasn’t unlocking anything. “Urm, whose doing it? Pest control or Crime Scene?” I quipped, poking the pad with greater urgency.

“You think someone died in there?” she asked, elbowing me aside. Getting me to read off the numbers she stabbed in the key code. Nothing. “Oh my god, we’re going to die!” she concluded, with laudable teenage optimism.

“Ridiculous. This is an excellent neighbourhood. Stay here!” I said, confidently. “I’m going round the block to check if there’s a back to the building.”

“Really, that’s a genuine thought?” she spat. “You’re going to leave me next to the murder house, while you go off?”

“You’re right. Leave the bags.”

“Over my dead body,” she hissed. “They come too.”

Laboriously piling rucksacks, handbags and emergency winter coats onto our suitcases, we maneuvered ourselves into the alley. What I’d mistakenly thought were the rummaging sounds of small, inoffensive mammals, turned out to be those of an individual who could have blended into the cast of The Walking Dead without raising an eyebrow. He was leaning over the lip of one of the numerous dumpsters, presumably looking for a light supper to sop up some of the enormous quantities of alcohol he’d consumed earlier.

walking dead

“Call Brad,” whispered my daughter. “Then Dad and then the cops.”

I nodded. Cautiously unfolding Brad’s sixteen page epistle, I managed to spot a contact number and dialled. It made a grim whirring sound and then disconnected. The rummaging came to an end and the dumpster wrangler saw us. We all three froze. I dialled my husband and explained, without the use of syntax, how important it was that he arrived quickly. You may be thinking that this reaction to a homeless person was excessive but Los Angeles is home to the most spectacularly intoxicated itinerant individuals I have ever encountered. On our first weekend in Hollywood, we watched in horror as one man, covered in vomit, his genitals exposed, staggered between the moving cars on Hollywood Boulevard. He let out the occasional whoop, presumably at his good fortune in not being reduced to roadkill. With this in mind we retraced our steps and I began to press the buttons to the keybox, with theatrical caution. A door opened across the alley and a voice asked if we were alright. “We’re Brad’s airbnb guests and we’re British,” I stammered, as way of explanation.

“Ok-aay,” responded the voice.

“And the keybox won’t open,” I added.

keybox

“Oh no! Would you like to come and sit inside while you wait for Brad?” he asked, solicitously.

I was about to blurt out that Brad wasn’t coming, when wise daughter reminded me quietly of the murder house. “He’ll be here any minute,” I said confidently.

“Well the offers there,” he replied, kindly.

My phone rang. It was my breathless husband. “Where are you?”

“Here,” I shrieked.

“Where? I’m here!” he said, wildly.

Our daughter snatched the phone. “We are standing next to the key box, about to be murdered!”

“So am I and I’m holding the key,” he said, calmly.

In my defence the rear of the apartment building did look practically identical to the front of the building, even down to the key boxes. Despite the horror of our arrival, the apartment was lovely, the beach divine and none of the neighbours shot at us… Not even once!

The World is Full of Obvious Things…

On Wednesday 29th July, I shall be giving tips on how to write crime fiction to a small (I am under no illusion) group in Shrewsbury Library. With only a few days to go I am beginning to feel slightly anxious as to a) whether I have any tips to give b) whether the manna I bestow will be in any way helpful, accurate or relevant and c) whether anyone will turn up. This last concern is one shared by a handful of authors, led by myself, who have overheard cleaning staff and passersby being bribed or threatened into sitting quietly during one of my talks. They are generally distinguished by their glazed expressions and speed of exit when I ask for ‘Any questions?’

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I have, over the past year, put together a sort of mental ‘How I do it’ guide, which is modified and expanded for each book I write and talk I give. My ideas, like most ideas are built on the work and experiences of others, in particular the master of the genre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observe.”

  Sherlock Holmes ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’

There is very little on the writing of crime fiction, that can’t be gleaned from the writing of Arthur Conan Doyle and his advice on learning how to observe the commonplace, is a great maxim. So, where to start? I began several years ago by trying to identify and observe the life of an individual wild animal. I suspect that I have conjured in your mind an image of a self-satisfied old tabby, crawling through the Shropshire undergrowth, dressed like Bear Grylls. But disguise is not required, unless, that is, it really floats your boat. Then choose a species of animal that exhibit behaviour you can register on a daily, occasional or yearly basis. Subjects can include, postal workers, cats, house martins and ‘For Sale’ signs in an elected area. I would suggest neighbours but only attempt this when you have perfected the art of insouciance.

BR pipeFor the past year I have studied the behaviour of a carrion crow, which was easily distinguished from the rest by a drooping primary feather. Its territory covered a small patch of land near to a busy roundabout. I tended to be in the vicinity at regular times of the day for school pick-ups and always stuck in traffic, which enabled me to check out whether the crow was around and what he/she was doing. I became rather attached to the animal, as it strutted up and down the roadside, looking for road kill, litter and food scraps from a nearby food trailer. It disappeared last summer, to be instantly replaced by another bird. Although I kept a tag on it through the spring, I didn’t see it with a partner, so I had to surmise that either it was bullied out of the spot by the present incumbent or died.

crow

My observations are not restricted to the birdlife. A large female garden orb web spider has, for the past month, set up her kill zone across one of our smaller upstairs windows. The web catches the light and dust particles during the day but there is no sign of the beautiful creature until after sunset. Why? No birds to reverse the tables. Every evening I watch her, as she sits head down in the center of her web…waiting.

IMG_2577By 5am, she’s long since departed. But why does any of this matter? How does it relate to the 90,000 words that make up the average (I refer only to the numbers, not the quality) thriller? If you can establish, through observation, the usual pattern of behaviour of any simple or complex organism, then any changes or anomalies will lead to suppositions, investigation and then conclusion.

Incident

On the subject of dogs…

Pet1a domestic or tamed animal or bird kept for companionship or pleasure.

 I was strangely touched by an article I read a couple of weeks ago, on the subject of dogs. The fact that dogs have been domesticated and worked by early humans, is a well know fact. Bones dating back 24-27,000 years have been discovered in the Czech Republic and indicate that dogs resembling hefty Siberian huskies (80lb) were buried carefully and with obvious care and ceremony.

Dog burial Although showing the physical signs of having been used to carry and pull weight, each had been arranged in its grave, one having had a mammoth bone placed in its mouth. Their skulls had been drilled open, in an identical gesture to those of the human remains found alongside them. Anthropologists believe that this was in order to remove the brain, thereby freeing the ‘soul’. All of this is supposition of course but what touched me was that some of the dogs that have been found were clearly fed and looked after when their ability to work and protect their human companions was long past. In an age when people rarely made it into their mid- twenties, dogs were being provided for, valued and nurtured.

Why are human beings so drawn to the idea of keeping pets? Dogs have been selected and genetically modified for the past 30,000 years and are, therefore, hot wired to respond to people in a (generally) friendly and communicable manner.

wolfWithout this interference, gathering a pet from the wild is an altogether different experience. I have, over the years, provided fingers and rehabilitation to injured wild birds. Broken wings, legs and other hideous malformations have been treated successfully by a good diet, large outdoor aviary and protection from cats and other predators. Several of my crows, referred to uncharitably as the ‘bin birds’ by unsympathetic family members, have lived for many years, hobbling around the garden and dedicating their leisure hours to finding and bullying less able members of the collective (Yes, shit rolls downhill). Most have tamped down but not completely conquered their fear of people and will tolerate my presence, if not being manhandled by me. They are not pets.
I have pet dogs and had a pet raven, whose ‘happiness’ revolved around their physical association with both family and myself. I am trying not to use emotive and anthropomorphic language such as ‘happiness’ when trying to assess another creature’s experience of being alive.

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Perhaps that is why we keep pets, not just to stave off loneliness and provide the stress-buster that is a lovely fur coat and a tolerance of having it stroked; maybe it’s the ‘otherness’ of your pet and knowing that there is something else out there that is processing experience alongside us. Do we not spend $2.5 million annually to run SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Life)? Quite what we will do when we discover that the most sophisticated life form ‘out there’ is no more complex than E. coli, is anyone’s guess. The irony will presumably be lost after our orchestration of the sixth extinction.

e coli

No other species of animal acquires pets. Farmer ants will nurture aphids but this is an economic relationship and no aphid has been found receiving full ant burial rites as such. Koko, a captive female lowland gorilla, who was able to use and manipulate American Sign Language, ‘vocalised’ her desire to own a pet and selected a kitten that she named ‘All Ball’. Her commitment to the creature extended to a period of mourning when the cat was killed. There is a great deal of evidence that some animals are capable of making emotional attachments across species. However, the ability to bond with other species is not the same dynamic as pet and owner, where the owner takes responsibility for the biological needs of the animal and establishes a hierarchy. So, why do we love our pets and grieve at their passing?

Koko

Perhaps…

 They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

Henry Beston

Combs wrapped in tissue paper…

At first, I assumed the rhythmic ‘scratching’ sound emanating from the eaves above my bedroom window was made by either squirrels or rodents of some flavour. Species, although perfectly fine in themselves, not generally recognised by estate agents as providing that ‘unique selling point’ to a house recently placed on the market. But, as a card-carrying eco-warrior, if I have to share my living accommodation with other creatures, so be it!

tree bee

The scratching, which went on for a couple of weeks, occupied the early evening hours through to about midnight but unusually it wasn’t accompanied by the hysterical shrieks and skittering I associate with squirrels. My small Jack Russell, who is outraged by the existence of all other mammal species, was completely disinterested in the noise.

IMG_2441So, if it wasn’t wire-chomping, leptospirosis-spreading rodents, what was it? The ‘scratching’ sound was soon replaced by an ethereal humming. It was the sort of hum I associate with bald, middle-aged men equipped with combs wrapped in tissue paper. What eventually emerged, much to my delight, were hundreds of tree bees, bombus hypnorum, which are a newly arrived species from Europe. So far, they are thought to live alongside our vastly depleted native species, helping to pollinate and save the planet from starvation and extinction.

bee quote

Beloved Mr. B and I have tried, with some success, to create a little wildlife haven in our small garden. It is delightfully easy and encourages a lazy approach, much favoured by myself, to garden management. We have placed behind the annex a huge mound of rotting wood, covered in a piece of roofing felt. Under this pile, there are newts, both common and crested, toads, frogs, mice and beetles.

IMG_2458I do cut the lawn but leave it high enough to grow clover, dandelions and daisy and leave the perimeter to wild flower, nettle, ‘sticky willy’ and bindweed (sigh). As a result, we have numerous species of birds but sadly no hedgehogs. I provide different qualities and size of birdseed and have learned which species like to eat from the squirrel-proofed feeder and which the ground. What I have also discovered is that squirrels are complete assholes and are just as destructive as reported. We have fourteen resident squirrels, the number having been recently boosted by five babies, which have decimated the leaves on my young horse chestnut and walnut and are currently in the process of ‘ring-barking’ the sycamore.

IMG_2460

Since their arrival, the numbers of songbirds have decreased in rough proportion to that of our bank balance, as I make regular trips to the birdseed store (they’ve dedicated an aisle and family holiday in Marbella in recognition of my generous patronage). There is, unfortunately, only one way to deal with this invasive species and that it to allow my husband and son to cull them. This, they assure me, will necessitate me leaving the house for several hours and the two of them shooting the furry pests from our bedroom window. Am I hesitant because I have to ‘call it’, or because squirrels are cute, entertaining and have fluffy expressive tails? As Mr. B points out, would I feel the same if they were cane toads, or cushiony cotton scales?

Sadly, I suspect I would…

cane toads

Mad, bad and dangerous to know…

Several years ago I caught the tail end of a radio interview with a Bradford policewoman who had worked the Yorkshire Ripper case in the late 1970’s. She recounted her outrage at hearing the entire male contingent of a working men’s club burst into a rendition of ‘There’s only one Yorkshire Ripper’, to the tune of

Guantanamera.Peter Sutcliffe At the time I shared that disgust but there is something strangely comforting in society’s acceptance (I draw the line at celebration) of the mad and bad. As a child growing up in Wolverhampton, shopping trips into town were rarely spared an encounter with the ‘speeding cowboy’. As to the specifics of his madness I was never sure but clearly etched into my memory is the image of him clad in a too small cowboy suit, power walking through the Mander Centre in endless loops. You’d hear the incoherent rant, see the parting of the ways to allow him access and as he passed, his eyes firmly focused on the middle distance, you’d see the anguished expression of a lost and desperate soul. In later years he acquired a ‘ghetto blaster’, which he hefted onto his shoulder and sound tracked his marathon with the hits of Slim Whitman. After finishing university in the mid eighties I moved down south to begin teaching but on one rare revisit I asked a friend what had happened to him. Apparently his mum had died and after ‘accosting’ a female shopper he had been placed in an institution.

Slim Whitman

My teaching career, spanning twenty years, has provided me with many opportunities to rub shoulders with the mad, bad and dangerous to know… You have a sense when a kid is not quite right, either in the head or in their general moral approach to animals, fellow students, teachers and combustibles. One dear soul set fire to the performing arts block during my last year on the job and although meriting a lengthy sojourn in some maximum-security lock down, there was never anything other than his knowing smirk and a great deal of circumstantial evidence to remove him from my mid week lesson, which had to be held in the dining room, while the block was rebuilt.

burning

A more surprising candidate for the fifteen years he received at her Majesty’s pleasure, was altogether less sinister or seemingly psychopathic. He and his pack of three buddies, who spanned the IQ range from less than an average ungulate to Fagan, formed a triptych of cunning. But none were anything more than belligerent or less than sullen, so when our local garage hand ‘Jon’ was shot dead on the forecourt, I was horrified to discover it was one of this pack. The shooter’s defence was that Jon hadn’t responded in an appropriate manner and he hadn’t thought the gun was loaded.

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What I have discovered is that writing about the machinations of psychopaths is considerably more dramatic and satisfying than the sad, tawdry plans of the neurologically and socially challenged, that destroy lives and debilitate communities. My villains concoct grandiose schemes with their soaring imaginations and complex needs that make the intricacies of their crimes a delight to write. The reality is that most crimes are opportunities to satisfy needs that fall short of anything more complex than the need to acquire an extra couple of hundred quid.

Keeping your eye on the beak…Or reading the signs.

I am no stranger to a bit of forensic investigation (or nosy self promotion, as my husband refers to it). If there’s something to be understood, located or generally ferreted out, I’m snout in, sifting through the evidence to get to the root of the problem.

amoebafeeding3 Even the simplest of one-celled creatures is tuned to ‘recognise’ and ‘respond’ to signals provided by its environment, its food source, its competitors, predators, and potential mates. Sometimes these signals are subtle and sometimes glaring. Our ability to respond to these signs is predicated on our sensitivity to them. Take for example the signals given off by beloved Mr B when he’s about to embark on his annual car change. There are three definitive stages to this process, which will result in the purchasing of yet another useless, unloved and neglected vehicle that will squat in the middle of our drive until I get rid of it.

jeep

Stage one is characterised by love and admiration for the new purchase. It manifests in a reluctance to let any one else drive the new vehicle, outrage at finding litter in any part of the interior and a full tank of diesel. Stage two heralds the beginning of his falling out of love with the vehicle. Anyone is allowed to drive it, including our under-qualified and over-revving older children, ‘Snickers’ wrappers appear in the foot-wells and an orange warning light in the shape of a ‘petrol pump’ flashes ominously on the dashboard. The final stage, which will culminate in the vehicle’s disposal, can take anywhere from several weeks to months, depending on how desperate I am to get the horrible thing off the drive and whether Mr B has been browsing his Auto Trader app.

parrotThere were clear visual warning signals given off by the African Grey parrot that bit me today. Unfortunately, as I was chatting to the owner and not paying much attention I am now sporting a large plaster where a divot of flesh has been removed, at lightning speed I hasten to add, by Clive. He is generally quite happy to have the back of his neck tickled, if approached cautiously and asked. If he’s in the mood he will lower his head, placing it against the bars of his cage and if all is well I am allowed to gently stroke the side of his beak. Today, I was not talking to Clive I was banging on about squirrels decimating my horse chestnut tree to the shop’s/Clive’s owner. Clive placed his foot against the bars and uncharacteristically, I gave it a rub too. He didn’t withdraw his foot but as I moved to tickle his neck, he whipped his head round and gave me a good one. Thankfully, he let go immediately and then shivered, with what emotion I’m not sure. I apologised quietly to Clive and slunk off.

“He bit you then? Well he’s never done that before has he?” observed Clive’s owner chirpily.

“Nope,” I said, nursing the injured finger and my pride.

“He likes you,” he stated, glancing at Clive, who was staring intently into the middle distance.

“I wasn’t paying attention. I was talking to you,” I replied, trying not to sulk.

“Ah,” responded the owner, with the sagacity that comes with having several divots of his own removed over the years. “You don’t want to do that! Keep your eye on him. He doesn’t like it when you take him for granted.”

I nodded. “I shall give Clive my full attention from now on,” I said, with feeling.

laceration; finger; bandage; plea; hand; morning; wound; first aid; knife; treatment; medicine; background; blood; palm

A Raven’s Eye View of CrimeFest 2015- with added hilarity…

Shame we didn’t meet up. Great write up and catch you there in 2016

Raven Crime Reads

bHaving posted an eminently sensible round-up of some of the highlights of CrimeFest 2015 at Crime Fiction Lover  including the terrific interview by Lee Child of Scandinavian crime legend Maj Sjowall, the announcement of a plethora of awards, and some fascinating debut novelists’ panels, I thought it would be fun to share a few of the more light-hearted moments to entertain you. I endeavoured to attend as many panels as possible to bring you some more highlights. Hope you enjoy…

#1. A large percentage of the Icelandic population believe in elves, and in precise statistical terms there are on average 1.5 murders a year. Yes, 1.5…. The elves are invariably convicted.

ONLINE REVIEWS: One panel was asked to bring along to their event, their favourite 1* review posted online. Inevitably “the book arrived late” or “the courier dumped it in my next door neighbour’s garden” featured, but my personal favourite was…

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