I am not someone who likes to get up people’s noses. Left to myself, I’d prefer not to upset anyone. Sadly, that isn’t possible. The title of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper comes from a passage in the book – this passage (from the beginning of Chapter 8): I chose the name Billy when I was eleven. It was 1999, I’d had eleven years of answering to the one my stupid mother gave me and I wasn’t going to do it any more. You can imagine the stuff I got. “Zappa’s on the crapper.” “Zappa’s mam’s a slapper.” You can probably make your own up and I’m telling you, I’ll have heard it. Zappa McErlane. I ask you. People home in on stupid names. People in authority. Every time I changed class or we got a new teacher I could see her eye going down the register and she’d be thinking, “Oh, yes. Zappa. He’ll be the one. I’ll have trouble with him.” And if they think they will, they do.
That’s how the book got its title – but a woman told me she wouldn’t read a book with the word “slapper” in the title, and nor would a lot of other women. Well, I hope you can see from the passage above that my use of the word was not meant to be demeaning to women. What’s more, everyone connected with the book so far – three editors and an agent – has been female and not one of them has been upset by the word. And, while I don’t seek to offend, I like the title and I’m not going to change it.
It isn’t only the title, though. You can read the whole of Chapter one here, but this is how it begins:
All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers. I wouldn’t have thought, being honest, that that merited a showdown with her brothers.
I tried to explain. She’s a bit on the chubby side, Kathleen, which I like. Not a grotesque fatty; just a bit of a plumper. Real fatties, I don’t care for. I’ve got a pic I took of a thumper sitting on one chair when three would not have been too many. I took it from behind, which is the only way you could really bring yourself to look at her. Great blue denim bulges hanging down on each side. You’d wonder how anyone could let herself get like that. Jessica made me leave that one out of the exhibition. ‘It’s an interesting eye you have, Billy,’ she said, ‘but it wouldn’t please everyone.’
I said, ‘That’s not what the instructor told us in Young Offenders. He said you should nurture your own unique vision.’
Jessica’s eye twitched. She didn’t like being argued with, and she had this ambivalence towards my time inside—it was what made me a celeb but she said it was her job to publicise it and not mine. Which is all very well, but if I hadn’t been in Young Offenders I’d never have got into taking pics. They’d run this course on digital photography (and how stupid is that? To do digital photography you need a digital camera and how did anyone think a Young Offender was going to get one of those once he was back on the street?) and I’d signed up to deal with the tension of not knowing whether I’d get out. I’d loved it.
No, with Kathleen I’d pictured her sitting on a bed in nothing but a pair of those knickers Marks & Sparks had in their adverts when they were going after the smart young people who wouldn’t be seen dead in Marks, you might as well ask them to shop in Milletts. Everyone remembers those knickers. Every man, anyway. Lot of lezzies, too, I should think. The ones coming a couple of inches down the leg and cut square. Nice patterns, interesting colours and a dark edge to waist and leg. And the models they used hadn’t exactly been short-changed in the upper body department.
Lovely. Kathleen would be sitting on the bed in these and nothing else, one leg pointing straight out in front and the other drawn up under her, arms crossed at the elbow and hands clasped so that you saw nothing more revealing than a bit of flesh squeezed each side of the arms. And she’d be looking straight at the camera and smiling. That’s one of the things I liked about Kathleen—that she was always smiling. That and not being skinny. She had a lovely smile, Kathleen.
Jessica said I had a fantastic eye for a pic, “a real intuitive grasp for composition,” which was exactly what the instructor at Young Offenders had said. And that’s all it was.
But I’d said it out loud and some mischief-making twat had told Kathleen’s brothers and they were offended. Or pretended they were.
So there you are. I’ve probably outraged fat people, thin people, lesbians and who knows who else? Maybe people who don’t smile. But it can’t be helped. It seems to me that a willingness – in fact, an active desire – to be offended has become part of our culture; people go looking for things to complain about. And what I had to decide was: am I going to write what I want to write in the way I want to write it? Or should I tailor my writing to make sure I don’t offend anyone? I think there’s only one answer to that question. It will probably lead to a lot of one and two star reviews from people who want to take revenge for what they see as a slight, but I have to let Billy tell his story his way.
‘A very enjoyable read. The plot is superb and the writing is lively.’ Male reader, aged 43
‘The criminal element of the book, mostly set in Newcastle, is very well described. I liked how the character developed and the ending was satisfying. Billy is a wonderful character to follow, from his life as a kid to life in prison. Often, it’s rather shocking but the author keeps the reader with him till the bitter end. Fantastic cover too.’ Female reader, aged 28
‘Very, very different to A Just and Upright Man. I loved every page of this novel. The pacing is perfect and the message the book sends out is strong and relevant. Although it should be a sad book, it wasn’t; there was a lot of hope in there too. A big publisher needs to sign up this author soon.’ Female reader, aged 47
‘It’s always fun to find a book by an author who knows his readers and what they want.’ Male reader, aged 24
Writing Style 10/10
Of the 32 readers:
31 would read another book by this author.
28 thought the cover was good or excellent.
20 felt the best part was the writing style.
‘A powerful, unrelenting page-turner. Highly recommended.’ The Wishing Shelf Awards
A Just and Upright Man is the first in the five book James Blakiston series of romance and crime novels set in northeast England in the 1760s. The second book in the series, Poor Law, should be published by September 2015; in the meantime I’m recording the audiobook of A Just and Upright Man and you can hear an extract by clicking on the link above.
If you’d like to be informed when the audiobook is completed and available for purchase, email me on email@example.com.
Preparing A Just and Upright Man for publication as an audiobook – an audiobook in which I, the author, am also the narrator – has brought me closer to the people behind the text than I’ve ever been. Sometimes I empathise; but sometimes they make me laugh. Take this passage, which is part of what I dictated today:
Blakiston stood in the dark looking out of his window onto the silent, deserted road outside and thinking about the day. The dreadful sight and smell of Reuben Cooper’s burnt body. The strange interview with Martin Wale. Claverley’s account of so many children, all to be investigated if the death turned out not to be the work of malign fate. A man wandering the roads, who might be Irish or might not, and might be a killer or might not, but who at any rate must be found and questioned. The looming shadow of enclosures. A drunken farmer and an idle one, both to lose their livelihoods if he had anything to do with it.
And, underlying all, the painful recollections that never quite went away, of the woman he had expected to marry and the hurt of his loss. He would never allow himself to love again. Of that he was certain.
So, James, you’ll never love again? Listen, mate, this is a Romance. Capital R. Which I am writing. You, my friend, will love whoever I tell you to love.
That Kate Greener’s a nice girl – don’t you think? What? Not your class? Get outta here.
I think this, from JJ Marsh, is the most warming review I’ve ever received.
You can read more about the book here.
You can listen to the opening of Chapter 1 of Sharon Wright: Butterfly by clicking on the link above. This is the beginning of what will become an audio version of the book, but it should also help those who prefer paperback and e-book reads to decide whether this is a book for them. It’s read by Lucy Lowe, who makes a splendid fist of the South London accent – but she does much more than that.
At the Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, I read an extract from the book that includes this exchange:
‘What did you mean,’ Buggy said, ‘about Carver being peculiar?’
Mitchell stared across the table. ‘You’re right. The man kills people for a living. Nothing strange about that. Just your loveable English eccentric.’
Carver is, of course, as mad as a hatter. He is a hired killer who believes that he is normal and everyone else is nuts. I wasn’t sure how successful I had been in showing that, but listening to Lucy’s reading it comes across loud and clear. I’m also delighted with the way Lucy gets into Sharon’s head – Sharon is another character who doesn’t fit with most people’s idea of “normal” but Lucy gets her perfectly.
I hope you enjoy the reading. You’ll find more about the book here.
Oh — and if you like downloads you can listen to, you’ll find here the first story I ever sold to the BBC.
I read today in one of the historical novelists’ Facebook groups I belong to that the one constant when we write is how people felt in the (sometimes distant) past. We have to research the food they ate, the clothes they wore and the kind of social relationships that existed but the one thing we can be sure of is that the emotions we experience today are the same emotions as our forebears felt. I didn’t argue with the thought, but I’m just not sure that it’s true.
For a lot of years now, I have spent a good deal of my time in the Middle East and when I wasn’t there I was in other places – Africa, South East Asia and the Americas, North and South. When I started writing the James Blakiston series set in the north-east of England in the 1760s, I needed a way to show the religious views held by many of my characters. England already had no shortage of atheists but the majority of people would express Christian thoughts and you just don’t hear that in this country any more. You do still hear it in places like Saudi Arabia (though, of course, the religion being expressed there is Islam and not Christianity) and I quite shamelessly put that Islamic way of speaking into the mouths of eighteenth century English Christians. I found it worked quite well because I was reproducing a mode of speech with which I am familiar.
Religion and emotion are, of course, different things but I think you can extrapolate from one to the other. One of the things you realise in the Gulf is that the Enlightenment has not happened there which means that ways of thinking and of feeling that we take for granted in the West are far less common. I’m open to argument here, but it seems to me that a major legacy of the Enlightenment is that it makes the individual paramount. That is simply not the case in the Islamic Middle East and it seems to me that overlooking that fact is one of the most obvious mistakes made by our politicians when they formulate policy towards the region. We talk about western style democracy, in which the individual comes first, as something that everyone should have and, if they don’t seem to be asking for it, we should press it on them. For example, we completely misunderstood what people like to call the Arab Spring (and it’s questionable, in any case, how Arabic that “spring” really was since it was actually a Mediterranean phenomenon – the countries involved were Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and it’s easy from this distance to overlook the fact that those are all Mediterranean lands). We thought people were demanding the right to self-determination when what they actually wanted was to be sure of a roof over their heads, the ability to feed their families and educate their children and security from the knock on the door in the middle of the night.
One of the most interesting books I have read on English history is The Voices of Morebath. Christopher Trychay was vicar of the small Devon parish of Morebath from 1520 to 1574 and he kept a record of parish life in far more detail than most parishes can provide. The Reformation was, of course, a lot earlier than the Enlightenment and the glimpses this book gives us of what people thought and how they felt reveal an English people far from who we are today and much closer to what we still find in the Islamic Middle East.
For anyone who wants to understand who we once were and to think about how those people developed to become us, The Voices of Morebath is required reading. I recommend it in the strongest possible terms.
See more reviews of other people’s books here
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.’
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.’