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Interview for the American University in Amman

A student at the American University in Amman asked if she could interview me as part of her course work. Of course I said yes – young women in the Middle East need all the help they can get (Etihad Airways emailed its customers in the run-up to International Women’s Day. The email had a lovely picture of a spa in which women could be pampered – no doubt while their menfolk got on with the serious business of running the world. I don’t think they’d quite grasped the purpose of International Women’s Day). Anyway, here’s the interview.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I’m a man, old enough to have been born during the Second World War, and British. As a child, all I wanted to do was travel and I’ve lived and worked on every continent except Antarctica. I put those things first because they have had a profound effect on who I turned out to be. My family gave me a respect for education. Most of them were coal miners and I was showered with books as soon as they realised I liked to read. The message was clear: work hard at school, learn as much as you can and you’ll never have to go down a mine. The one thing no miner wanted was for his son to go down the pit. I knew I was going to be a writer from the age of ten, when I stood on stage at my primary school and read a story I had written to the assembled pupils and their parents.

What books have you written?
The first book I published was 30 years ago: Managing The High Tech Salesforce. It’s out of print now. The books I have out at present are:

Historical Fiction
A Just and Upright Man, the first in the five-book James Blakiston series set in northeast England during the 1760s

Contemporary Fiction
Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper
Sharon Wright: Butterfly

Non-Fiction
The International Sales Handbook

What are your ambitions for your writing career?
My writing will go in whatever direction it goes in. What I hope is that I will continue to write books that people want to read. But – let’s be frank – I’d like to see my books made into films.

Who or what is your inspiration?
There are so many. Writers build on those who have gone before and my influences include Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Julian Barnes, Hemingway and so many more. Cormac McCarthy taught me the value of a moral frame of reference and Elmore Leonard taught me to write simply. From TS Eliot and WH Auden, though of course they were poets and not novelists, I learned what value rhythm can add.

Have you ever used real life experiences in your book?
Yes. But please don’t ask what they were because I won’t tell you.

How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
12 in total, and I wish I hadn’t written some of them. My favourite is Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper because it says what I wanted to say about the importance of taking responsibility for yourself.

Give us an insight into your main character of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. What does he do that is so special?
Billy McErlane is born into an appalling family in the northeast of England – in fact, to an appalling mother because he never knows who his father is. Surrounded by temptation, he falls and in fact spends time in jail, but he knows there’s a better life out there and he works to win it for himself. I suppose you’d call it a coming of age novel. Billy has an IQ of 147, but it is his gift for photography (and the help of other people) that allows him to remake his life.

How did you come up with the title?
Oh, that was easy. When Billy is born his mother registers his name as Zappa McErlane which causes him all sorts of trouble as a child – his peers at school make up rhymes like “Zappa’s on the Crapper” and “Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper”. When he’s ten years old he changes his name to Billy.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Yes, and I’ve already touched on it, but it’s summed up best in an extract from the book. An American priest, the Reverend Humphrey Catalan, is talking to Billy about his past:

There was a cultural thing here. I’d been born with a few serious handicaps and, yes, I’d overcome them but there was still part of me that was ready to accept them as a crutch and what the Reverend Catalan wanted me to know was that that was not the American way. ‘Other people were dealt shittier hands than you, son, and some of them did okay. Come to that, a lot of people got much better cards than you did and some of them are in jail, or bankrupt, or dead. Or maybe a combination of those things. When you come right down to it, it isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it. And what about that maths teacher? What about Regus? He believed you when he didn’t have to. What about those teachers who gave up their time for you and didn’t charge a cent for it? Where do you get off holding grudges?’

It isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it. That’s the message of the book.

What genre of books do you like to read? Do you limit yourself to only the genre that you write yourself?
I read most things. Genres that I don’t and won’t read include erotica, books about vampires and the paranormal. Other than that I read anything that looks good – though I do have a weakness for detective fiction, as long as it deals with personalities and motivations and not with police procedures.

Who are your target readers?
Human beings. Yes, I know, that’s an easy out – but I want to get into a reader’s heart and I don’t care who s/he is.

What compels you to write?
I wish I knew; I’d do my best to get rid of it. I have to write. I can’t not write. And that’s been true since I was a young boy. I still spend a lot of my time travelling and I usually wake up at about four in the morning and start writing. Life would be easier without this compulsion, but what can you do?

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Getting inside the head of female characters is tough for me. When I wrote Sharon Wright: Butterfly I had to work very hard to understand what motivated her. I think that’s normal – I hear about women writers who write authentic male characters and male writers who do the reverse to perfection, but when I read what they write I find that I don’t agree.

Are you currently working on something new?
Poor Law, the second in the James Blakiston historical series, is due out in August and I’m working on the final revision right now. I’m 50,000 words into another novel – I’m superstitious about saying too much about it till it’s ready to go. And there’s a book called When the Darkness Comes which has occupied me on and off for five years; I simply don’t know when I’ll be satisfied with it.

Do you read much? And if so, who are your favourite authors?
I read in the evenings – two novels a week on average. I have a large number of writers whose work I love; right now anything by Charles Cumming, Julian Barnes, JJ Marsh or Margaret Atwood will get my undivided attention. I just read Unravelling Oliver by a new Irish writer, Liz Nugent, and it may turn out to be the best book I read this year. If you haven’t already discovered it I recommend it without reservation.

What is your favourite motivational phrase or quote?
P J O’Rourke: “The only inalienable human right is the right to do as you damn well please. And the only inalienable human obligation is to damn well take the consequences.”

Where can you see yourself in 5 years time?
Oh, Lord. There have been so many changes in my life I just can’t answer that. But, wherever it is, I’d like to be among friends. And I’d like to be smiling. I’ve told my family that I want my gravestone to read, “He had a lot of laughs”.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write. Write. Write. Follow your own star. Never give up.

Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from your most recent book?
I know this is disgraceful, but I only watch television if there’s rugby on, and I only watch movies made by either the Coen Brothers or Woody Allen. So I just don’t know – I don’t see enough actors, male or female, to have a view.

Do you start with an idea and see where it leads you or do you plot out the complete book before you start?
The currently fashionable division is between planners and pantsters and I’m a pantster (I fly by the seat of my pants). I never know where the story is going till half of it is written. I’ve had some surprises, I can tell you.

How long does it take you to write a novel? Do you work for a set period each day?
Eighteen months. Yes – 4.00 a.m. till 12.00 a.m. if I’m at home; 4.00 a.m. till 7.00 a.m. if I’m on the road.

Most writers have some other thing they’re passionate about, what’s yours?
History. I’m fascinated by the way people lived, and how life was for them.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Not a sausage. The book went through five revisions and that’s enough.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Sometimes my heart ached for poor Billy and what he went through. And I wasn’t alone. An American reader emailed me to say, “You bastard, how could you do that? Hadn’t the poor kid suffered enough?” All through the last third of the book I was thinking about the reader and what I was thinking was, “You think you know where this is going. Don’t you? You think this is a standard boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back story. Don’t you? Boy, do you have a surprise coming”.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
That only a complete damn fool would be a writer :-). But I also honed my understanding of point of view, how to say what you want to say – and how to do it in the minimum possible number of words.

Offcuts (5)

Zappa's Mam's a Slapper Cover for Web

This is one of those passages (see Offcuts and Offcuts (2) (3) and (4)) that didn’t make it into the finished, published book but that I think had some value – or, at least, some interest. This one was originally part of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper and dates from the time when Billy was beginning to establish himself as a photographer.

One of the tabloids was doing an exposé of the escort business and they hired me to do the pics. The reporter was also freelance (I was a beginner in those days. Were they looking for deniability? I don’t know. Seems unlikely, but who can fathom an editor’s mind?) and she and I went round together. Some of the places and girls she found on the Net, or advertising in Yellow Pages, and some were more hidden. These were the high class call girls, mostly, and when I asked how she found them she said her SO was a crime reporter and he’d asked his friends in the Police for phone numbers. I had to ask what an SO was, I thought it must be some rank or office title in journalism I hadn’t found out about yet, but it turned out to mean Significant Other. ‘My Chap,’ she said. ‘The man who gets to remove my drawers.’
When I knew her better I discovered she’d been leading me down the path of misinformation and the person who got to remove her drawers was not a man but a woman but she hadn’t wanted to hold her hand up to that until she knew where I might stand on the matter. Apparently when she’d come out to her parents it hadn’t gone well and now she was cautious. She went by Teddy (the reporter, not the drawers-remover) and she insisted she’d adopted it when Edwina Currie said she’d had an affair with John Major and she knew she couldn’t allow herself to be known by the same name as a woman who would shag such a grey nonentity, but I don’t know. It’s smoke and mirrors all the time, the journalism business. You can’t believe a word anyone tells you.
My job was to take the pics but I listened to the interviews. Obviously.
An astounding number of women sex workers, as Teddy insisted on calling them though the red-top rewrote every one of those references with a less flattering term, had their own website. Someone must have specialised in producing websites for female escorts and I bet they made a mint. (If you don’t believe me, google “escorts” and the name of your county or local town. You’ll be amazed). (I’m also reminded of one of the first dirty jokes I ever heard. I must have been about nine at the time and I didn’t really understand it. “Did you hear about Polo the Prostitute? She made a mint with her hole.” Yes. Well. I did say I’d been nine).
There was a certain sameness about these websites. A lot of the girls had been to “a very good school” and then graduated from Cambridge. I’ve no idea why Cambridge was so popular a part of the fantasy. As opposed to Oxford, for example. They claimed interests like horse riding and theatre and dining out and said that although they had a good sense of humour and were witty and good conversationalists, they were even better listeners. The typical charge for a date was between fifty and seventy-five pounds.
Teddy eyed the clothes one of these girls had on. Carla, her name was supposed to be. ‘You don’t buy those on fifty quid a date,’ she said.
Carla laughed. ‘No. For these you need the extras.’
‘Extras?’
More laughter, which they both joined in. There was a woman’s thing going on and I was excluded. ‘They know what they want but they can be hopeless at asking for it. They pick me up and we go to dinner and they bore me to death but I keep smiling. You can see them thinking, “Am I going to get my end away?”‘
Teddy said, ‘Does no-one have the gumption to ask outright?’
‘Oh, sure. But those are usually the ones who’ve taken you to a club and kept you rocking with laughter all night. Then they take you back to their hotel and when you get there the guy kisses you on the throat and says “How much?” and you tell him. Simple. But with most, you struggle. I’ve done a menu to make it simpler.’
Teddy said, ‘A menu?’ and Carla handed her a pink card with fancy lettering on it. Twenty-six point Bickley Script Bold on 180 gramme paper, if you want to get technical. It had a list of services Carla was prepared to supply, and how much she charged for each.
Teddy went down the list. She didn’t know what some of the things were and I was ludicrously pleased that I did. Marcie and I had done most of them together.
When we left, Carla took the menu back. She said she didn’t want it falling into the wrong hands. She was a lot quicker on the uptake about Teddy than I’d been. At the door, she said, ‘There’s always a demand for a bit of voyeurism? Girl on girl action?’ Teddy said that was awfully kind but no thank you and Carla said Teddy knew where she was if she changed her mind. To me, she said, ‘You know where I am, too.’ I smiled and she said, ‘Don’t just grin at me. Remember. You don’t pay a professional girl for sex. You pay her to go home and leave you alone afterwards. Which is a little different from marriage.’

The mess that is a writer’s mind

A Just and Upright Man cover R J Lynch updated June 2014

Where does stuff come from? I mean, the stuff we write. I’ve written elsewhere about my puzzlement when I saw the first line of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper; what raised the question this time was a memory from sixty years ago that came back when I met by chance someone I hadn’t seen for almost that long.
In A Just and Upright Man, I wrote this passage:

It was simply the most modern and comfortable house Kate had ever been in. She knew Mistress Wortley to be a widow, and in Kate’s experience widows were always in want of money. There was no sign of that here.
Though the hovels of the poor – hovels like the one Kate lived in – had no floor coverings at all, she was familiar with the floor cloths better off people had. Sheets of canvas drenched in linseed oil and pigment, they gave some pattern and colour but, most of all, they kept the feet clear of the cold stone flags or beaten earth that constituted the floor of most houses. Here, though, were no floor cloths. This floor was smooth surfaced terracotta tiles, swept clean by one of the three servants who looked after this one woman’s every need; and on the tiles lay rugs of woven wool in intricate and brightly coloured designs. Kate stared in wonder.
‘I see you are looking at my rugs, Katherine. You are perhaps wondering why they are not on the wall, as you might have seen in, let us say, the Rectory?’
Kate nodded, though in truth she had never been further into the Rectory than the scullery, and the only hangings there were copper pots and pans.
‘This is the latest fashion, Katherine. Everyone in London is doing it. Hangings are coming off walls and going onto floors. And, see: the blue and yellow wallpaper. I had it delivered by James Wheeley in London. They sent their own men all this way to hang it, for I could not trust the local workmen. It is the newest thing. Would you really cover such a bright and beautiful paper in wall hangings?’
Kate was almost lost for words at such elegance. ‘No, miss.’
‘The people of Ryton do not know what beauty can exist in our world. Beauty is to be found only in Mayfair. And, of course, Paris, Rome, Venice.’
‘Lady Isabella goes every summer to Harrogate. We pray in church for her safe return.’
‘Yes, I can see that a provincial soul might warm to Harrogate. For me, Bath is not entirely without its compensations. And now, tell me. Why do you want to learn to read and write?’

All right, the main object of that scene was the same as the main object of all scenes – to move the story forward. There was something else though; I wanted to show that on the one hand we had Mistress Wortley, a widow of means with a high opinion of her own worldly sophistication and on the other was Kate whose idea of the unattainable would be a visit to Harrogate, 50 miles to the south and a day’s ride in the stagecoaches of the time. (Lady Isabella, by the way, is the rector’s wife). A little later, Mistress Wortley uses the word “provincial” again:

Kate’s reading was progressing well, and the time for her sixth lesson was here.
‘You are glum, child,’ said Mistress Wortley. ‘What troubles you?’
‘The Overseers of the Poor came to see me,’ said Kate. ‘They wanted to know why I was learning to read when we are receiving money from the parish because my father is ill. They say this must be my last lesson, and I must be put to work.’
‘They say that, do they? And you? Do you want this to be your last lesson?’
‘No, Miss. I mean Mistress Wortley. But…’
‘Then it shall not be. You may leave the Overseers of the Poor to me. I shall send them about their business. Now take the old vellum sheet you will find on the table and cover it in the first four letters of the alphabet while I work at my sewing.’
Kate could not prevent herself from looking up from her exercise to watch the widow’s fine work with the needle. ‘That is beautiful cloth, Mistress Wortley. What is it you are making?’
‘A frock for my sister’s son. She has not had my good fortune in avoiding the more sordid aspects of matrimony, and she has three children already after only five years of marriage. The boy is three and I promised to make something for him to wear on Sundays when better weather arrives. But attend to your own work and not to mine. You will not form letters a lady would be proud of unless you pay attention to what you are doing.’
Kate bent her head to the vellum.
‘You are right about the stuff, though,’ said Mistress Wortley. ‘This is the finest cotton, from Galilee. The French have the Levant trade to themselves. They bribe the merchants in Egypt, and it is the Egyptians who buy and sell the cotton from the Holy Land. The most tiresome thing about being at war was having to buy cotton from the Americas and the Indies. Such coarse stuff.’
Kate smiled. She revered Mistress Wortley as a woman of great kindness and she loved hearing her talk about Society, fashion and the world beyond Ryton, but Kate was a girl of common sense and she knew that, sometimes, Mistress Wortley spoke the most complete tripe. Kate loved to tease. But how would her benefactress respond to being teased? Casually, she said, ‘Lady Isabella has fine cotton petticoats. I believe the cloth comes from Manchester, though I do not rightly know where Manchester is. But Rosina told our mam…’
‘Katherine!’
‘Mistress Wortley, I am sorry. Rosina told my mother…’
‘Katherine!’
‘Rosina told Mother that the cotton was from the Indies. Though I don’t rightly know where the Indies are, either.’
‘They are far from here,’ said Mistress Wortley, folding her sewing and putting it aside. ‘And I can see that colonial cotton spun by some Manchester jade as she sings to keep her six starving children quiet might be very fitting for ladies who holiday in Harrogate. One would not wish to see such provincials challenged by anything of excessive quality. Show me the vellum. You are doing well, Kate. I shall not let the Overseers of the Poor come between you and your wish to read. Take this book in your hand. Now. Let us see what you can make of the first sentence.’

Kate “doesn’t rightly know where the Indies are” and it’s clear that Mistress Wortley is no better informed, but she isn’t going to admit it. She is very conscious of the way Kate looks up to her for her broader knowledge of the world. And that brings me back to the question: where does this come from?
In 1954 I was in my first year at grammar school. I went into a shop to buy a chocolate bar (it would have been about three pence at the time, and by that I mean old pence which were worth less than half of the present coin, and you’d need about thirty of those to buy the same piece of confectionery). The mother of one of my schoolfriends from the year before (he had not passed the 11+ and was therefore not with me at grammar school) was explaining to the two women behind the counter (one of whom was my mother) that the behaviour of Italian men – their whistling after women and groping of female behinds – was something that anyone who had been to Italy would expect and think nothing of. “If it becomes too much, you simply give them an earful in Italian and they back away immediately. Mamma’s boys, the lot of them.”
My mother said nothing but I knew from the look on her face that she was not impressed. I hadn’t thought of that incident until the meeting I described at the beginning of this post, for the man I met after a gap of almost 60 years was the son of the woman in the shop who could tell Italian men off in their own tongue. The scene came back to me and I said, ‘What had your mother been doing in Italy?’
‘Italy? I don’t think she was ever there.’
‘But she spoke Italian.’
‘Is this the beginning of dementia? Or are you confusing my mother with someone else? She didn’t speak a word of anything but English. She might say “Pardon my French” when she swore, but that was about the extent of it.
I laughed it off and turned the conversation to other things but I had the answer to my question. Mistress Wortley got her snobbery from Terry Malin’s mother. A writer’s mind is a fermenting hodgepodge of memories (some of which are false), quotations, sudden insights, old fights and old friendships, and things we may have read so many years ago that we have forgotten them. If we are lucky, they come together to form the soil in which something new can grow.

I’ll leave with one last extract from A Just and Upright Man. It comes immediately after the first one I quoted, which ended when Mistress Wortley asked Kate why she wanted to read and write and I think it shows very well the widow’s view of the correctness of the social order as it existed in north-east England in the seventeen sixties. And I know exactly where her ideas of what constitutes correct speech came from – they came from my primary school teachers, more than 200 years later:

‘Miss, I want to better myself. I want to read the bible for myself, instead of hearing only what someone else thinks is important. And I’d like to know what’s going on in the world.’
‘Very well. Estimable wishes, so long as you do not think to rise above your station. But reading and writing are not enough. You must also learn to speak.’
‘Speak, Miss? But, Miss, I speak every day. I am speaking to you now.’
‘That is not speaking. You have much to learn. For now, let us content ourselves with but a few simple rules. You must not say us when you mean me. You must not say our Mam, but my mother. Or, better still, simply Mother. You will not call people Man, whatever sex they may be. And never, ever, shall you address someone as pet. Is that clear? There will be more to learn, when you have mastered this. I shall call you Katherine. You will call me Mistress Wortley, or Ma’am. And now, let us begin.’

 

A new review for Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper

 

Zappa's Mam's a Slapper Cover for WebI did enjoy reading this :-). And I understand her reservations about the blurb.

on April 13, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition
Billy’s voice is incredibly strong and pulls the reader in immediately. Compelling isn’t the right word. Compulsive. I couldn’t stop reading. I enjoyed this book completely and I want more.I think the blurb does the book a disservice. This is a story about Billy’s rough childhood and teen years, how he got to prison and how photography saved him from a life of petty crime. The blurb makes it sound like this is a story about a grown man struggling to care for a small child. Dillon only enters the picture in the last 10% of the book. This is a story all about Billy’s coming of age.

Update 4 May 2015
And here’s another one 🙂
***** Unpredictable and uplifting
John Lynch has certainly found his literary voice in this very realistic delivery of the life story of a disadvantaged soul, Billy McErlane. Billy learns to forgive, let go of the bad things in life, accept with grace the good things and finally reach out to others. ‘Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper’ grasped my attention from the first page to the last, with Billy showing me through his eyes and words his ups and downs. Real, honest and insightful.

A Flyer for Sharon Wright: Butterfly

I’ve been making flyers for the upcoming litfests at the London Book Fair on 17 April 2015 and Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on 23 April 2015. This is the one I’ve made in A5 size for Sharon Wright: Butterfly:A5 flyer both pages

A5’s a bit small for the screen, so here’s the text:

Sharon Wright: Butterfly

By

John Lynch

 No-one gives Sharon a chance. Except Sharon.

In Sharon’s deprived childhood, Buggy was Top Cat – the one everyone went in fear of. Buggy ruled the roost and Buggy’s girlfriend could be the Number One female. So she married him. Of all the mistakes she could have made, that was the biggest. But mistakes don’t have to be final
All Sharon wants is a better life – a husband who takes care of her, the kind of food they have in magazines, and civilized conversation. Is it her fault that she is in the middle of a plot involving two hitmen? Well, yes, actually. It is. But Sharon is a survivor who makes her sure-footed way in a man’s world. And when she woos Jackie Gough she does it the way a female mantis might, knowing that when she is sated she may kill him. Until then she lets him think they are equal partners and will share the money she sets him up to steal. Poor Jackie.

ISBN (Paperback) 978-1-910194-10-2
ISBN (eBook) 978-1-910194-08-9

What John Lynch has to say about Sharon Wright: Butterfly
It takes a long time to write a book. By the time I’d finished Sharon Wright: Butterfly I knew my star character so well we were on snogging terms – except that snogging Sharon would be a risky thing to do. Jackie Gough tries it, and realises too late that the dumb blonde is no more dumb than she is blonde.
My sympathies are with Sharon. She’s born in a rundown place into a family that doesn’t care. Because she’s female, she’s expected to accept that her place will always be second to a man’s. She learns to hide her intelligence, but hiding it is not giving it up. She’s surrounded by South London criminals and assorted lowlife who would kill her without a second thought if they thought she posed a threat. And still she survives.
(Or does she?)

 A word about the cover
When the book was done, I trawled Getty Images till I found a face and when I did it was “Beam me up, Spotty!” There she was! Her! The woman I’d got to know so well in a year of living side by side in the same little room (the one I write in). My Shazza. Then Scarlett Rugers McKenzie, an Australian book designer of genius, took the pic and made exactly the cover I wanted.

You can find more about Sharon Wright: Butterfly here.

Offcuts (4)

The wine was okay although I think I’ll save the other bottle for a warm summer evening that beckons the diner outside. Today I’m going to the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham to see Arcadia by Tom Stoppard and that’s quite a schlep from here so, as I promised to post today the passage that followed from the one I posted yesterday, I’d better get on with it. To recap, these offcuts are passages that, when I wrote them, I expected to appear in the final, published, novel but which for one reason or another did not last the course.  When we left it yesterday, Ted was being interrogated by a chat show host about the events in Ephesus that resulted in the death at his hands of two Turks. Now, as they say, read on…

They’re waiting for him when he comes back from viewing the mosaics, though how he was supposed to look at mosaics in the dark is beyond him. He doesn’t like what he sees.
Max is sitting on a fallen pillar, his head in his hands. One of the two men stands silently, a gun trained on Max; the other is shouting at him. The woman sits a little apart, looking away towards where the sea is, though she certainly can’t see it.
‘Ridiculous,’ the man is shouting. He’s shouting in French, though it’s clear from the taxi ride that Max speaks Turkish. Later, Ted will wish he’d noticed that. ‘For two of the finest artefacts ever found in this country, you want to pay me twenty thousand francs. Twenty thousand francs! You insult me, you insult my merchandise, you insult my country!’
He makes a show of noticing Ted’s approach. ‘And what about you, Monsieur? Do you have money? Or must we kill both of you? Eh? And keep the heads and the twenty thousand francs?’
The gunman has brought his pistol round to point squarely at Ted’s chest. A terrible mistake.
‘Yes,’ says Ted, opening his leather bag. ‘I have money. Calm down.’ And he reaches into the bag, slips the safety off his gun, brings it out and shoots the man holding the revolver. Straight through the heart. Dead.
Instant turmoil. The man demanding money is backing away, screaming in panic. Screaming in Turkish which, unfortunately, Ted does not understand. Ted’s shooting arm is held straight out. It swings in a graceful arc, coming to rest on the screaming man, who now holds out his arms in supplication. That he is begging for his life is clear.
Maxim is on his feet, holding out both hands towards Ted. ‘Ted. No. You don’t understand. It was just…’
But Ted has pulled the trigger and the screaming man is silenced. In the centre of his forehead is a neat hole. The one in the back of his head is somewhat less immaculate.

‘You’d done the wrong thing?’ says Dolan.
‘By their lights, maybe. Not by mine. You point a gun at me, you’d better know I’ll shoot you if I get the chance.’
‘Which is what you told Max.’
‘Sure is. And Ibrahim, when he identified himself.’
‘How did you get back to the boat?’
‘Same way as we’d come. In the taxi.’
‘Wasn’t the driver scared?’
‘Shaking like a leaf.’

Ted sits in front this time, his gun pressed into the driver’s ribs. It is now completely dark outside and the headlights on the dusty white road pick out no more people than on the way in. Max and the woman are in the back.
‘Why are we taking her?’ asks Ted.
Max is trembling almost as badly as the driver. Feeling good as he is, Ted still doesn’t fail to notice that the woman’s manner suggests anger and contempt more than fear.
‘Because I’m what you came for,’ she says.
‘What?’
Max is trying to shut her up but she’s in no mood to listen to him. ‘You thought it was the heads, maybe? Worthless bits of stone? You thought they brought you all this way for that? It was for me. Imbecile.’
Ted says, ‘And who are they?’
To the woman, the question isn’t worth bothering with. Max simply shakes his head.
‘Suppose,’ says Ted, ‘I leave the pair of you here and sail off without you. How would you deal with that? How would you explain the two bodies back there when the sun comes up tomorrow?’
Max shakes his head. ‘Ibrahim would not let you.’
‘Ibrahim? Ibrahim is with you?’
Max looks very tired. ‘We put him into your boat. You had hired someone else.’
Ted remembers. ‘That’s right. I had.’
‘And he was suddenly unavailable. And Ibrahim came to see you.’
‘You sent him? For what? For this?’
‘Don’t get angry, please, Ted.’
‘Angry? I’m fucking furious. You…’
‘Ted. When you are angry you are even more dangerous than when you are calm. Listen to me, please. The DGSE identified you as a prospect. We saw you as someone we could work with.’
The woman snorts. Ted looks at her. She says, ‘We, the man says. We.’
‘Isabelle,’ Max starts, but she’s in no mood for interruptions.
‘Maxim is not “We,” Monsieur Bailey,’ she says. I am “We.” Ibrahim is “We.” Maxim is a dilettante, an amateur. A jolly war with the Free French and he thinks himself a master spy. Maxim is someone we use to arrange things.’
The taxi is approaching the harbour. ‘So,’ Ted says. ‘Since you are the real thing, tell me what I need to know.’
‘You need to know nothing,’ she spits. ‘You are a bigger fool than Max.’ She speaks in quick Turkish to the driver, who stops the car with a jerk. ‘We will walk from here,’ she says.
As they walk away, Ted turns to look back at the driver. He is mopping his brow, his shoulders heaving. Ted could swear there are tears on his cheeks. Ted points his gun at the front near-side tyre and blows a hole in it. The woman curses him beneath her breath.

Ibrahim’s eyes rest unblinking on Ted as Isabelle speaks to him in rapid Arabic. How old is Ibrahim? Ted has never asked himself the question before. Could be twenty, could be forty. The friendly, slightly obsequious smile Ted is used to is no longer in place, but nor is there any unfriendliness. In the tales of cowboys and Indians Ted read as a child, the braves’ faces were often described as impassive, but impassive would be the wrong word here. Ibrahim isn’t hostile and he isn’t sympathetic. He is merely absorbing information, juggling plans, improvising.
In his melodically accented French, he says to Ted, ‘We had better go now, Monsieur. They will be looking for us in the morning and we should be far from here.’
There is a light in the immigration and customs men’s cabin, but no-one comes out to watch the boat slip quietly out of the bay.
‘They are concerned with people coming into the country,’ Ibrahim says. ‘Not with those who leave. They may pay a heavy price tomorrow.’

In open water, Ted gives the boat more power. He does not need to be told that Istanbul is off the itinerary. The boat moves south, a strong wake trailing behind as they leave Turkish for Greek waters and head for the open Mediterranean. Max is silent. He will not speak another word to Ted during the voyage.
Through the long night, Ted keeps the strap of the leather bag with the gun in it wrapped around his wrist. Ibrahim offers to take over at the helm, but Ted has no interest in sleep. He does not want to be left to swim home. The Arab brews coffee and the two men drink it companionably side by side as the boat cuts through the warm, dark water. Ted offers Ibrahim a cigarette, lights one for himself.
‘You feel betrayed?’ Ibrahim asks.
‘By you?’
‘Of course.’
Ted shrugs.
‘Betrayal is what I do,’ says Ibrahim. ‘I am an Arab, and I work for the country that oppresses my people.’
‘You are a spy?’
‘I do not like that word.’
‘The woman. Isabelle. Why is she so important?’
‘You have heard her story, I think.’
‘Oh, yes, I have heard her story.’
‘It will serve. Our stories become the truth. Until we need new ones.’
‘How can you live like that?’
Ibrahim looks at him and smiles.
‘You think I am the same?’ asks Ted.
‘Do you say you are not?’

It is a few hours later, with the sun rising towards its zenith and the day hot on their faces. Ted asks Ibrahim, ‘Why did they do it like this? Why all the nonsense with the heads? Why not just sail in, pick her up and get out?’
Ibrahim smiles. ‘To complicate. They must complicate. What you suggest is simple and these people do not like simple. They make problems where no problem exists. So they ask, how will you react if they say you come to Turkey to pick up a passenger? You will want to know who she is, and why they want her. No, no, they think. Monsieur Bailey is a criminal, so we give him something a criminal will understand. Theft. The stealing of things that can be sold.’
‘Why did they need me at all? They must have boats of their own.’
‘Something might go wrong. Turkey is a friendly country. You must not be seen to kidnap people from a friendly country. Maxim is a freelance and disposable.’
‘But you’re here.’
‘I am an Arab and therefore also disposable. Also the Turks are proud people. Proud as only a country that has had a great empire and now is nothing can be proud. You are an English. You will understand that, I think.’
‘What will happen to these two now?’
‘Monsieur Maxim, he will be in trouble. This was his plan. Now two Turkish men are dead, and they were ours. They will never use him again. The money they pay him they will cease to pay him. He will be unhappy. He will blame you. You should watch out for him.’
‘And Isabelle?’
‘What did she do? Nothing.’
‘And me?’
Ibrahim smiles. ‘You will be all right, Monsieur. I will see to it.’

Offcuts (3)

Now that I’m in the mood after Offcuts and Offcuts (2), here is another passage that was once part of When the Darkness Comes but is so no longer. I didn’t have a problem with it; it was simply that the book had become so damn long, bits of it had to go and I chose those that could be considered self-contained.

Ted loves sailing, if being driven by a powerful motor can be called sailing. Maxim makes omelettes for lunch; they drink mineral water with them, because Ted has a no alcohol while at sea rule. They spend the evening in Mgarr Harbour on Gozo, where Ibrahim stays on the boat while Ted and Maxim dine ashore on Spagetti ai Frutta di Mare. The Gozo wine is good, though Maxim the Frenchman refuses to say so, the night is peaceful and they breakfast next morning on bread, coffee and sweet cakes.
The second day they dock at Crete; and after a late breakfast and an early lunch on shore they turn north and start picking their way between the islands that dot the whole waterway. As the afternoon sun begins to descend towards the sea, Maxim suggests stopping for the night in Kusadasi.
‘You want to reach Istanbul tomorrow?’ asks Ted.
‘We do not have time to arrive there today. And it is a busy harbour. Not the best place to navigate in the dark. And you have never seen Ephesus, I think.’
‘I won’t now. Ephesus Harbour is dry. The town is miles from the sea.’
Maxim glances at him. ‘I thought you did not know this area.’
‘I can read a chart.’
‘There are taxis.’
Ted shrugs. As far as he’s concerned, they’re here for the pleasure of the trip.

Customs come aboard and make a perfunctory examination. A polite man in an Immigration Officer’s shirt and an old pair of yellow trousers, gathered at the ankles, checks their passports. Then, once again, Ted and Maxim go ashore while Ibrahim stays with the boat.
Ted suspects that Maxim thinks him a fool, but he is not a complete idiot. Before leaving the boat, he takes the gun from its hiding place and slips it into the little leather handbag in which he carries his passport and some of his money. He wraps the strap negligently around his left wrist, carrying it as though it had no importance at all.
The Frenchman, too, carries a bag — in his case, a crocodile document case.

As Maxim said, there are taxis. This one is clearly waiting for them.
They go through some polite business about seating arrangements, but Ted makes sure Max sits up front with the driver, where he can see them both. He slips his hand into his leather bag and sees the driver’s eyes on him in the rear view mirror. Ted makes a show of taking out his passport and examining the sticker the Immigration man has put there. The driver looks away. He says something briefly to Maxim. Maxim, as briefly, replies. The conversation is not in French, and Ted does not understand it.
It isn’t far to Ephesus, but the road is poor and the journey takes half an hour. They see almost no-one on the way.
They park just outside the town and walk in. Ted, manoeuvring to keep himself on the right hand of the other two, sees Maxim smile.
‘Once,’ says Maxim, ‘there were three hundred and fifty thousand people here. How many people in your home town, Ted?’
‘About the same.’
‘And now look at it.’
‘Newcastle?’
‘Ephesus. This is what you get from living at a crossroads. You are lucky, you English, to be stuck out on a bunch of islands no-one wants. Did you know Paul wrote to the Corinthians from here?’
Ted is looking at the Odeon, a ruin of burnt clay with steep terraces and surrounded by clapped out buildings. ‘Looks like Roker Park to me.’
‘They have earthquakes here,’ says Max. ‘Many earthquakes. The Temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. You know what is there now? One pillar. Two, maybe. A few stones scattered. Grass. Scrub. Nothing.’
‘So why are we here?’
‘The Hittites were here. The Greeks were here. The Romans were here. This was the second most important city in the Byzantine Empire. Paul lived here, John lived here. They claim the Virgin Mary lived here, after her Son was put to death.’
‘But why are we here?’
‘Do you know they have camel wrestling in Ephesus? Still, today?’
‘Have we come to watch?’
‘No, no. The wrestling is in winter.’
‘Men wrestle camels?’
‘They would be killed, Ted. No, no, the camels wrestle. Male camels. They make a big show of it. Dress the camels up. Music. A march through the streets. They find a female in heat and parade her in front of two males. Then the males wrestle for the right to mount her.’
‘Ah. It’s more like Newcastle than I thought.’
‘And they spit, and piss backwards. So getting close is not a good idea.’
‘Even more like home. Why are we here, Maxim?’
‘I thought I might take a look at some antiquities while we are in Turkey.’
‘Antiquities.’
‘You can pick up a head, or a carving, for a good price. Sell it in Paris for three, four times what we pay the locals.’
‘Is that legal?’
‘Do you care?’
‘I’d like to know.’
‘It is completely legal, so long as one has a certificate issued by a museum.’
‘Which, of course, we will.’
Max smiled. ‘This is the State Agora.’
‘Not very impressive.’
‘Two thousand years ago, it would have been a bustling courtyard. There were porticoes down two sides like cloisters, with columns supporting terra cotta roofs.’
‘The columns seem to have collapsed.’ Ted waits for Max to mention the three people, two men and a woman, sitting in the gathering dark on broken stone shafts. They give every appearance of waiting for someone.
Max points away from the three. ‘That is the Street of Curetes. It leads to the Fountain of Trajan, which you can still see though it’s dry, and the Temple of Hadrian. Nice friezes. And the street has some lovely mosaics. Why don’t you take a walk down there while I talk to my friends?’
‘You don’t want me with you?’
Max smiles. ‘Don’t miss the mosaics. They’re worth the detour.’

That passage is followed by the one I reproduced in Offcuts (2) but we return to Turkkey here:

‘What do you want to do?’ asks Dolan when my glass has been refilled. ‘Do you want to finish the story? In whatever time you’ve got left? Or are you ready to go? Let that poor girl up? Face the music?’
I steady myself with a swig of champagne. The poor girl can fend for herself. Facing the music is the last thing on my mind.
‘It was all about the woman,’ I say.
‘Woman?’
‘When we reached Ephesus, remember? There were two men and a woman waiting for Max. It was all about the woman. The antiquities were a smokescreen. The idea was that we’d bring back a couple of stone heads. They had the museum certificates all ready for us. I was to believe that the certificates were fakes and the heads were hugely valuable. And they’d persuade me to bring the woman along for the ride home. But, actually, the heads were just heads, bits of stone. It was the woman they wanted to get out.’
‘They?’
‘The DGSE. Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure. The General Directorate for External Security.’
‘French Intelligence?’
‘If intelligence is the word we’re looking for. Never overestimate these guys, Barry. If you want to know how bright a country’s intelligence services are, form a view on the average IQ of their ordinary police force. Chances are, the IQ of the secret guys won’t be more than eighty per cent of that. What you do get, even more than with the police, is every kind of psychosis, every shade of mental infirmity, every possible form of delusion. And all the sociopathic and just plain barmy behaviour that goes with those things. And, above all else, a conviction that only they are in the know, only they have the big picture, and everyone else must help make their loony plans come true.’
‘So who was this woman?’
‘An employee of the DGSE.’
‘A French spy.’
‘If you want to give her that much glamour. She was no Mata Hari, believe me. The rather plump, rather plain French mistress of a Turkish diplomat who must have needed his eyes testing. And his sense of smell. She’d been happily sending back information about Turkey’s plans for whatever it is Turkey makes plans about, and they’d cottoned on to her. The Frogs needed to get her out before she disappeared.’
‘How do you know all this?’
‘I don’t.’
Dolan sighs. ‘As I said before, it’s your time you’re wasting.’
‘Did you ever think of becoming a teacher, Barry?’
‘Why are you doing this? You’re dying, as you keep telling us, and still you fence with me as though you had all the time in the world.’
‘Yes, all right. I know all this because this is what Maxim and Ibrahim told me after I’d shot the two Turks.’
‘You shot the two Turks.’
‘So when I say I don’t know it, what I mean is it was told to me by people whose word was hardly reliable. Intelligence people.’
‘Ibrahim and Max were with French intelligence.’
‘Are you going to repeat everything I say? See, I’ve spent a large part of my life among criminals. And, by and large, criminals didn’t lie to me. They shot at me, they tried to rob me, but they rarely lied to me. They knew what they wanted, they said what it was and they went after it. But then I got involved with people whose job was keeping the world safe for democracy and they never said a true word if they could say a false one.’
‘Tell me why you shot the two Turks.’
‘Well, that’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about.’

There’s more, but it’s dinner time and I am about to open a bottle of rosé vinho verde (how can a wine be pink and green at the same time?) which is something I’ve never tried before — it came in a bin ends surprise case from Vineyards Direct — so I’ll leave this here and post the rest — probably tomorrow — as Offcuts (4).

 

 

Offcuts (2)

Continuing the theme (in Offcuts) of passages that never made the final book, I’ve been working on When the Darkness Comes for a long time now and I really don’t know when I’ll be ready to let it go to print, but this has been in it from the start and beta reader after beta reader has asked me the same questions. Why is this here? What does it add to the story? Where does it get us? And they’re right; this is a perfect example of what editors mean when they tell writers to “kill your darlings”. So — and not without regret — it’s gone. Cut. Rejected. I don’t want it to disappear altogether, though — so here it is:

They’re getting into an elevator. Ted and the dwarf and King Tut. The Lizard stands back, watching them go. But something’s wrong. The building they’re supposed to be going up is next door. This lift is on the front of a tower that stands beside the building. It’s a high tower and a high building, but they’re not connected. How are they going to get across at the top?
There’s worse. The lift is one of those that run up the outside, with glass walls so you can see the people and the traffic grow smaller as you ascend, and the landscape grow wider. Ted hates these. He was in one and when it reached the top he was on his knees, facing inwards, eyes closed. Sobbing. They’d seen it before, apparently. They brought him out in a service lift inside the building. Kept telling him not to feel embarrassed, that it took some people that way. He did, though. Feel embarrassed.
He’s not good at heights.
He doesn’t like crowds, either, and there is a crowd now and it’s pushing forward.
What terrifies Ted, leaving the elevator to one side, what really leaves him wanting to lie on the floor again and scream, is: what happens at the top? If the tower isn’t connected to the building, how will he get from one to the other? And will he have to look down? And will he be able to stop himself?
He won’t make it. He knows that, so he doesn’t want to try. He’s struggling not to get into the elevator, but the crowd is enormous and it’s pushing and bustling and carrying him in there whether he wants to or not. The dwarf has him by the wrist and Tut is bobbing around a few rows back, taking care to keep him in sight.
How can all these people fit into one lift? And who are they? And why is Ted going where they’re going? He doesn’t know them. Doesn’t think he knows them.
And now the lift is climbing, shooting up the outside of the tower at increasing speed. The car is full of people eating and drinking, sitting at nicely linened tables, crisp starched napery, silver bowls, cut glass. Eating and drinking. Attentive waiting staff. Red wine, fizzy water, rare beef. There’s a cigar somewhere. Buzz of conversation. And Ted. He should be at ease in this environment. Man of the world, in his element in pampered luxe. Instead he’s screaming bloody blue murder. And no-one’s looking at him.
How is he going to get across?
Oh, help him, Mother.

They’re there. At the top of the tower. The crowd has strolled out and across, into the building next door. How? How did they cross? How the hell should Ted know? He couldn’t watch. They’re gone. What’s left is people he was at school with, in the Scouts with, played cricket with. How, why, he doesn’t know. And there, in the corner, trying to be invisible but never taking his eyes off Ted, is King Tut. Knowing that he’s really Ras Tafar, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia should reduce the fear of seeing him, but it doesn’t. If anything, it makes it worse. The dwarf stands in the corner by the buttons.
The others are crossing now, all but the dwarf and Tut, who seems to be trying to creep a little closer to Ted, and Ted can’t go with them. They’re calling him, encouraging him, cajoling. ‘Come on, Ted. It’s fine, it’s nothing. Just step over.’
But it isn’t fine and it isn’t nothing. It’s a drop of hundreds of stories, thousands of feet, higher than the London Stock Exchange or the Gherkin, higher than the Empire State, higher than the Twin Towers of the World Trade Building.
And look what happened to them.
‘Come on, Ted.’ And he can’t. Because he knows they’re wrong. They’ve crossed over and for them maybe it really was easy but Ted can’t do it. He can’t. He’s going to have to stay here. He lies on the floor. ‘I’ll stay in here. I’ll go back down.’
‘Come on, Ted.’
‘You can’t go down, Ted. The lift won’t start till you get out.’
‘For God’s sake, Ted, be a man.’And he’s sobbing as though his little heart will break. Help me, Mother. Help me. Don’t leave me stranded here.

And something strange has happened. Because before there was just the tower and the building and nothing between except blue sky and puffy white clouds. And now there’s a platform half way across. It’s got cloud all around it, so he can’t see where it goes, whether it’s standing on the ground or what, but it’s there and it looks solid enough.
It should help, there being a platform half way. But it doesn’t. It makes it all worse.
‘Stand up, Ted. Take a step onto the platform. Then hold out your hands and we’ll haul you across. Safe as houses. Come on, Ted.’
Stand up. The man’s an idiot. Always was, even as a child. He can’t stand up.
‘We’re going to have to go, Ted. We can’t wait for ever. We’re going, Ted.’
So go.
‘Ted! For fuck’s sake, get on your fucking feet and step onto that fucking platform.’

Ted’s the boy. Oh, Ted’s the kiddy, all right. The athlete, hotshot cricketer who can’t stand up for fear of falling. The master of a French whore, killer of villains and police alike who’s too terrified by what he might see to open his eyes.
Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.
Ted is the fellow of infinite jest.
What does my gorge rims at it mean? He probably couldn’t write that line today. God, there’s some dirty bastards around. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?
He hauls himself to his knees.
‘That’s it. That’s it, Ted. Now. Over!

He’s lying face down on the platform. If he’d thought he was scared before, he knew nothing. This is fear. This is cold terror.
He can’t go forward and he can’t go back. The lift has gone, taking the dwarf with it. Or maybe that should be the other way round. The outer door is still open, but all that’s there now is an open shaft, waiting for Ted to fall down it. There’s no-one here but him and Tut, who crossed with him and is now so close he’s almost touching Ted’s spread-out leg.
He daren’t look down. Look down? He daren’t even open his eyes. How are they going to get him out of this? How can they send a rescue crew here? There’s no ladder in the world long enough, he knows that, and he couldn’t go down it anyway. Helicopter? How would they pick him up? Clinging to a net over that drop? I don’t think so, pal.
He can’t go forward and he can’t go back and they can’t pick him off. There’s no way out. It’s just him and Tut and the tower and the clouds and the wind. He hadn’t noticed the wind. It isn’t much, but it’s there. Probably the sound of people drowned it out before. The people have gone.
He and Tut are alone.

Disappointment, but compensation too

A Just and Upright Man cover R J Lynch updated June 2014A Just and Upright Man was shortlisted for the Historical Novel Society’s 2015 Indie Award. I was so pleased when I heard that and I really didn’t expect to go further — didn’t expect to win — because I could see from the shortlist that I was up against some stiff competition. There were some damn good books there by some damn fine writers.

HNSIndieShortlisted2015

And now I know that I haven’t won, and even though that was the result I expected — and even though I know I did really well just to get this far — I’m not going to pretend that there wasn’t just a touch of disappointment there, too. I’m a salesman, and you don’t survive 40+ years in that profession unless you’re competitive. I’d rather win than lose.

Today, though, I was Helen Hollick’s Tuesday Talk Guest and I’m so delighted with the way she’s turned it out that I feel good. You can read it here; it’s more than compensated for the earlier bad news.