It’s 6.30 and I’m relaxing in my Heliopolis hotel room after a day showing Egypt’s largest road contractor how to make better, longer lasting bridge joints for less money. Relaxing in this case means reading the second book in the Beatrice Stubbs Boxed Set, which is turning out to be every bit as good as the first, while wondering which of the Fairmont restaurants I should grace for dinner. I am so glad to have discovered JJ Marsh; she’s taken her place at my writers’ top table. But I just came across this:
Beatrice allowed herself a small celebration. Exotic fruit, miso soup or a salmon bagel may well do wonders for the mind but on certain occasions nothing in the world can beat a bacon sandwich.
Yes. YES! No question about it. A bacon sandwich – yum, yum, pig’s bum. But wait – what’s this?
Large streaky rashers curling and spitting away in the pan. Two thick white slices warming in the toaster, a bottle of HP and the papers waiting on the table.
Thick white slices? No. No, woman, no. What are you thinking of? Two slices of Poilâne rye – the only thing. (If you really must, you can substitute Poilâne sourdough, in which case yes you will need to toast it, but ordinary white bread? Never!) (You don’t need to go to Paris for the bread; if you’re in Britain, Frenchclick.co.uk will deliver it right to your door). No butter. Spread one slice with mustard if that’s all you have (English – none of your foreign muck) but Bim’s Kitchen African Baobab Pepper Jam is better and then slather both slices with home made mayo. Sprinkle a small amount of celery salt on one side, lay the fried bacon (if you grill bacon you can bugger off right now) on one side, lay on top of it slices of ripe tomato you have already scattered with salt and black pepper, press the other slice on top, cut in half and eat.
That is a bacon sandwich. A bacon sandwich fit for the incomparable Beatrice Stubbs.
I pah on your white bread.
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Before sending a book to be typeset, if you know what’s good for you, you give it to a proof-reader to find all the things wrong with it – the repetitions, incongruities, inconsistencies and plain incorrect style. Before it goes to the proof-reader though, sensible writers use either a developmental editor or (and this amounts to the same thing) reliable beta readers. I had two developmental editors on Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper and the book as finally published was a lot better than it might have been without them. Always, though, there are going to be some changes that you make at a developmental editor’s behest that you regret. One of my editors told me to remove almost everything that might seem to be a reflection of my own views. In some cases I have no regrets but I miss one or two things that are not in the final book. I’ve decided, therefore, to publish these outtakes as “offcuts”. This is the first. My editor persuaded me that the book was better off without it. I’d be interested to know whether you think she was right.
Here’s the passage that did not get into the published version:
Melanie bought a digital camera of her own. She already had a computer and now she loaded Photoshop onto it. She must have spent a few hundred quid, all told, although she got the educational rate for the software which is a lot cheaper than ordinary punters have to pay.
I was shocked when I found out what sort of pictures she wanted me to take.
Shocked and excited.
You just can’t tell about people, can you? I was talking to a guy, an Artistic Director on a magazine I’ve done work for who went through the Sixties, he was one of the ones they mean when they say, “If you can remember it you weren’t there” but he remembered it and I’d say he was there all right. Probably didn’t do the drugs some people did, which is how he kept hold of his memories. Anyway, he and I were having a coffee, talking through what I’d already shot and what he wanted out of me that day and I was listening fairly closely because by that time I was billing a few grand for a day’s shooting which is top dollar, believe me, big money for anyone and I never got so blasé I’d think that sort of money was nothing. And there was a girl passing on the pavement outside with the most beautiful long legs you ever saw and she was wearing a really short skirt, a micro-mini you could call it, to show them off. And Zak, the Artistic Director (I found out when he signed a contract that his name was George, but there you go), Zak was in reminiscent mood. He talked about mini skirts and what made them possible, how until the beginning of the sixties women wore suspender belts and they couldn’t wear really short skirts because there had to be room to cover the suspenders but then Pretty Polly Holdups came in, stockings that didn’t need suspenders because they kept themselves up but you still had the patch of bare leg at the top which was lovely to get your hand on, apparently, but then came tights and now a skirt could be as short as the girl or woman wanted it to be. And he said older people, those who were already adults before the Sixties started, if they saw a girl in a mini skirt they thought she was immoral, which is how they saw it then if an unmarried girl had sex, and they assumed anyone dressed like that would go to bed with anyone who asked her. But Zak said it wasn’t the skirts, they had nothing to do with it, it was the Pill, that’s what made the difference, and if you wanted to know whether a particular girl would or wouldn’t it was no good eyeing the length of her skirt, you had to ask her, which you might do with or without using actual words. ‘But it wasn’t the length of the skirt. That was a red herring. She might have a mini or she might have one trailing on the ground like her grandmother would have worn and it told you nothing. Except maybe whether she thought her legs were attractive. Mini or no mini, she’d either fuck you or she wouldn’t. ‘
We both agreed, though, that miniskirts were a Good Thing.
While I’m talking about Zak, something else he said that surprised me was that there was far less sex around in the Sixties than people imagine there was and certainly less than there is now. ‘People were still most likely to live in families. There was still shame attached to a girl having a baby when she wasn’t married. Some people had trial marriages, where you lived together for a while before you married to make sure you really were compatible. But they were considered very daring, most people didn’t do it and those who did still intended to get married in the end. And certainly before they had a child. You never hear the words “trial marriage” now. Do you?’
I said it sounded as though people were happier now, but Zak said I was confusing freedom with happiness, a mistake they’d been prone to make at the time. The people I’d grown up with, would I say most of them were happy? And of course when I thought about Chantal and my mother I had to say no. Zak said back then they hadn’t really known what they were doing. He said it was like Pandora’s Box, except that people were so ignorant now, so uneducated, that if you mentioned Pandora’s Box they’d think you were talking about the genitalia of some tart with a posh name. He talked like that a lot, long words like genitalia mixed in with what he called the demotic. And he said opening the box was one thing but shoving everything back in, that was something else again.
‘We thought the family, marriage, chastity, all that stuff was the morality the ruling classes imposed on the people but not on themselves. Because, let’s face it, the nobs didn’t follow the rules. Didn’t then, don’t now. Prince Charles told Diana if he did what she wanted he’d be the first Prince of Wales in history not to have a mistress. And he was right. So if they didn’t, why should we? You know what they say. If work was so wonderful, the rich would have stolen it. Everything was organised to keep power where power had always been and we were going to change that. Starting with sex. We were going to have sexual freedom. Restraint was harmful. Families damaged people. Jealousy destroyed lives, and if everyone was free to sleep with anyone, jealousy would disappear. The sexes would become equal. Contentment would reign. That’s what we thought. We were wrong. Look around you if you want proof. Fathering children and expecting someone else to take responsibility for them is the route to disaster.’ He looked closely at me. ‘It’s none of my business but, if I were guessing, I’d say you know all about that.’
I said, ‘Are you married, Zak?’
‘Certainly am. For the third time. But I’ve been with this one for twenty years.’
‘Would you call yourself happy?’
‘Happier than you, mate. That’s for dead sure. I’ve seen your pictures. I mean, you’re a great photographer, one of the best, don’t get me wrong. But happy? You? I think not.’
You can read more about Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper here.
The Historical Novel Society announced the shortlist for its 2015 Indie Award on Friday, and included in the list is A Just and Upright Man . The winner will be announced and the award presented at the society’s annual conference in Denver, Colorado, in June.
I was stunned when I got the news. Of course you always hope to be recognised, and the book has had some very good reviews, but still it’s a surprise. To know that they started out with so many historical novels and, after they’d whittled them down to just nine, mine was still in there – it feels like a validation of all my hard work.
A Just and Upright Man is the first in the five-book James Blakiston series of historical romance/crime novels set in northeast England in the 1760s (with one set in the American colonies as revolution looms). So much historical fiction is written from the viewpoint of the rich and aristocratic, or at least the well-off. I wanted to write about the lives of the people at the bottom of the heap – the agricultural labourers, shepherds, cotton spinners and miners from whom I (and, in fact, almost everyone) am descended. You think at first that these people are invisible but when you sit for hours, day after day, (as I have) poring over the notebooks and other records kept by vicars and overseers of the poor – and, indeed, the courts – individuals start to emerge from the darkness and speak to you. I wanted to tell how their lives unfolded when enclosure took away their livelihood of the past two or three hundred years and to show that they, no less than the gentry, fell in love, married and had children; that they knew happiness and grief; that they mattered. The reviews I’ve been getting suggest that I’ve succeeded, which is rewarding in itself.
Poor Law, the second book in the series, should be with the proof-reader before the end of this month.
The book is available:
Here for Kindle
Or you can get it here as a paperback (the price includes postage, wherever in the world you may be).