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.
At the Chorleywood Indie Fair on 16th November a lady asked me to tell her about my books. I did that and when I reached A Just and Upright Man I said, ‘This is an historical romance and crime book. It’s set in the north-east in the 1760s. So, you see, men can write romance.’ I meant that as a little joke and she didn’t seem to have a problem with it but one of my fellow ALLi author members who was listening to the conversation spat out a derogatory remark about the very idea of romance and male authors. A review in Romance Reviews Magazine, quoted on the front cover, said, “A very enjoyable and worthwhile read” and the Historical Novel Society (also quoted) said, “A truly superb novel and indie publishing at its very best” but clearly this lady was not impressed. Men can’t write romance and that’s that.
I covered up my irritation (at least I hope I did) and it was only later that I looked dispassionately at the question. That’s when I realised that twenty years ago – perhaps even ten years ago – I couldn’t have written A Just and Upright Man. Romance to me then was not what it would be now. I don’t have to search very far for the reason. In my early sixties I had trouble sleeping. It wasn’t serious enough to see a doctor but I did mention it when I was at the surgery for a cholesterol check. ‘Oh, I can fix that,’ said the doc. ‘Testosterone Replacement Therapy – that’s the answer.’
He must have been joking; in fact, I told him so. Almost all the trouble in my life has come from an excess of testosterone. I don’t think that’s unusual; it’s what people mean when they say that having testicles is like being chained to the village idiot. Be that as it may, now that that tedious hormone was depleted I had no intention of building it up again. And that turned out to be the right decision because the sleeping problem went away. It’s now, in this post-lunatic stage of my life, that I find romance easy to write.
I wrote this post in my head this morning during a six mile walk along the country lanes close to my house that I took because it’s such an unexpectedly beautiful day (especially as tomorrow is the first day of winter). While I was composing it I remembered that I had actually used that testosterone replacement suggestion in a short story. I hope you will enjoy that story – it’s free and available for download here.
She stood on the bridge at midnight is, of course, the opening line of that liberal anthem of which the first verse runs:
She stood on the bridge at midnight
Throwing snowballs at the moon
She said, “Jack, I’ve never ‘ad it”
But she spoke too bloomin’ soon.
The chorus that follows sets the tone:
It’s the same the ‘ole world over
It’s the poor wot gets the blame
It’s the rich wot gets the pleasure
Ain’t it all a bloomin’ shame?
Common politeness prevents me singing other verses outside a rugby club (which is where I learned many of my choicer ditties; it’s only now that I wonder whether other people know a more wholesome version of this song), although there’s no harm in telling you that the last two lines before the final chorus are:
She is now completely ruined
And it’s all because of ‘im.
I found these lines running through my head after receiving an email telling me why A Just and Upright Man was such rubbish and how pleased my correspondent was that she’d bought it for her Kindle and read it quickly because she’d been able to get her money back from Amazon, the miserable skinflint, and so my trash hadn’t cost her anything other than the few hours of her time I’d stolen.
My offence was to write an historical romance/crime novel from the point of view of the people at the bottom of the social heap—the poor. Lizzie Greener and her family, as well as Tom Laws and his, should be beneath notice. Literature, whatever that is, should concern itself only with the upper classes. If some people of the past are invisible there is, it seems, a reason for that. They are not worthy of notice.
Well, I can’t agree. I suppose I’m influenced by the fact that, if Lizzie Greener and Tom Laws had not lived in the northeast two hundred and fifty years ago then I wouldn’t be here now, but it’s more than self-interest. Those peasants and paupers whose every day was a struggle to survive make for better fiction than some spoilt princess.
In any case, they’re not invisible. You have to look a bit harder—I’ve spent hours in archives around the country, going through original documents, and I’ll spend hours more and after doing that for a while these “invisible” people start to look out at you from the pages. Look at this from a 1765 parish account book:
Three Fox and two Foulmartens heads four and twopence
Who trapped and killed those foxes and martens so that they could claim the bounty? And what did they do with the money? Four shillings and twopence was a fortune at a time when they could also write:
To Hauxley Todd for 2 carts of coals & loading three shillings and eightpence
and when it cost the parish a guinea—one pound and one shilling—to keep Edward Scott in the Poor House for 14 weeks.
In 1745 there were sixteen paupers in Ryton Constablery (sic) and we know their names and how much they were given to get them through the year (it wasn’t much). Turn to the parish registers and there they are lined up for us: the year of their birth; the year they were baptised (not always the same as the birth year and there’s a story there, too, for anyone who cares to look); the names of their parents; who they married (and when); what children they had; and when they died.
What about Richard Evans, imprisoned and sentenced to hard labour for being “a loose disorderly fellow of ill fame”. Evans was convicted on no more than the oath of a churchwarden. Who is going to tell his story if not me? And what would that churchwarden have made of the man I saw sixty years ago trying to get the key into the door of his miserable cottage while concealing from this small boy the fact (actually quite unconcealable) that he was as drunk as a Lord? Why does this woman who abuses me by email and steals the fruits of my labours by reading and then not paying believe that the Lord’s story would be more worth telling than the labourer’s? Those shabby cottages were knocked down years ago—is every trace of the people who lived there to vanish?
Not if I have anything to do with it.
The visible crises in A Just and Upright Man are the murder of Reuben Cooper and James Blakiston’s search for the killer, and Blakiston’s equally urgent wish to deny—to himself as much as to anyone else—that he is in love with Kate Greener. Those are the matters the book is concerned with. No-one, though, can get away from the troubles in the wider world that surrounds them and the threat of enclosure weighs on Blakiston and everyone else in Ryton.
We look back now on the enclosures in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as things from which we benefited. At the most, necessary evils. In Poor Law, the second book in the series, Blakiston himself ponders on this: Times were hard for those without land, and getting harder. He was confident in what he was doing; future generations would be grateful for the larger farms, the transfer of strips of land in common ownership to more effective units, the modern farming methods that meant fewer people could produce bigger crops. Better agriculture would make the country richer, and so would the mining and manufacturing industries that were growing as men and women no longer needed on the land expanded the workforce in the towns and pit villages. Still, many of the people who had worked the land were paying a terrible price now for the benefits others would have in the future. The Rector would say that all was ordered for the best in God’s world, and the poor would have their reward in the life to come. Walter Maughan on the other hand would say that the poor were being punished by God for sins known to Him though invisible to us. But these comforts were not available to Blakiston.
Blakiston was a Sussex man before family ruin forced him to the northeast of England, and enclosure came to Sussex decades before it reached Durham. When his employer, Lord Ravenshead, asks what he knows of enclosure, Blakiston says,
‘My Lord, in Sussex all the land is enclosed. There are no common lands left.’
‘And have the enclosures been successful?’
‘For the landowners and the larger farmers, My Lord, yes. For the ordinary people, enclosure has been disastrous. They have been ruined. Cast out to make their living where and how they might.’
Tom Laws, a labourer whose marriage to Lizzie Greener brought him tenancy of a farm, knows nothing of this. We can feel his shock in this passage as he learns what the gentry can do to a hard working labourer:
‘We are poor men, master. The wife and me have three bairns still at home. You know how it is with us, for you were one of us not so long ago. Meal is dear and meat near impossible. Without the chickens and the pig and potatoes from the garden, and milk from the cow, we would starve. Now I must kill the cow because their lordships will take the common I feed it on. That land belonged to all of us and soon it will be theirs alone.’
‘It is hard, I grant. You will still have the chickens and the pig and the garden.’
‘Aye,’ said Zeke. ‘But for how long?’
‘I don’t understand.’ ‘What do you know of enclosures?’ asked John.
‘Nothing. I was never part of one. And neither were you.’
‘No. But my cousin in Barton, James Savile, he was in one. After the Act was passed the commissioners came to divvy up the land. James was to get a little piece to make up for everything they took away from him. So he didn’t have his grazing or his turbary but he would have some land. What they call his allotment. Not the best land, mind, the squire would get that, but land.’
‘Yes. That’s fair.’
‘Of course it is. But they had to pay for the fencing, see, man.’
‘Well, if you’ve got some land of your own, of course you have to fence it. You’ll be feeding someone else’s pig instead of your own, else.’
‘No, man. James didn’t just have to pay for his own little bit fence. He had to pay for the squire’s and the rector’s an’ all.’
‘No, John. No, that can’t be right.’
‘Right? We’re not talking about right, man. We’re talking about what’s in the Act, and who wrote the Act, and that wasn’t the cottagers and the squatters. It’s the squire and the rector and their pals in Parliament who wrote the Act. And that’s what it said. The squire and the rector and all them that were getting big bits of land out of it, they didn’t have to pay one penny for fencing. But all the poor little buggers that were getting enough land to raise a pig and grow cabbages, they’re the ones who had to pay for all the fencing. Their own and everybody else’s.’
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘You can believe it or not, man. It’s true. And that’s what’ll happen here an’ all. Mebbes Lord Ravenshead might be ready to pay for his own fences but yon greedy bugger in Durham Cathedral, he’ll not, the miserable Welshman that he is. And as for the Blacketts, who believe we are nothing…we’ll get no mercy there.’
‘So what happened to your cousin James?’
‘Exactly what they meant to happen when they wrote their bliddy Act. “Oh, James, man, can you not pay your bit fence money? Well, divven’t ye worry, man. We’ll help you out. We’ll buy your bit land off you for five pound and you can have yourself a nice drink and we’ll have all the land for ever. And you can forget about your bliddy pig.” And that’s what’ll happen to me and me pig and me cabbages and me chickens.’
‘I knew nothing of this,’ stammered Tom.
‘You know it now,’ said John Robinson. ‘We were wrong to talk behind your back. You are not our enemy.’
‘Mebbe not,’ said Zeke. ‘But I warn you, Tom Laws. Watch out for Isaac Henderson.’
‘Zeke’s right,’ said John. ‘Isaac hates you. If he can bring you down, he will.’ He stepped closer to Tom. ‘You are a fool to let him take your rabbits. It brings him onto your farm. He has big eyes, that one. He sees things he should not.’
Did I make that up? I did not. What John Robinson describes is exactly what some rapacious landlords did to swindle their labouring men out of the small pieces of land—the “allotments”—that the law said they should have. When I learned that while researching A Just and Upright Man I was determined to get it into the book and expose this awful piece of history to a wider view.
In Poor Law there is another insight into the effects of enclosure when Tom Laws, newly elected against his will as one of the Overseers of the Poor, tells Blakiston this:
It is not farmers who say that an old widow-woman must be removed to her place of settlement, a place she may not have seen since she came here as a young bride. It was not farmers who built the Woodside Poor House two year ago and said the poor must enter it or starve. But it is farmers who are made Overseers of the Poor and have to carry these things out on behalf of their betters, and farmers who get the blame. When a labourer has no work and must go to the mines or see his children sent as apprentices to some place from which they will likely never return, it is a farmer who has to tell him. Our people go off to the towns and the pit villages and they do not like it and they blame us.’
‘I am sorry.’
‘And when enclosure comes…’
‘…and it will come, as it has come everywhere…’
‘…people will see some farmers with big farms and many small men driven from the land. It will be the Bishop of Durham’s doing, and the Blacketts’ doing, and it is they who make money from enclosures but it is us the people see and us they blame. People have long memories. They remember not only their own grievances but those of their fathers and their grandfathers.’
Economic historians will tell you that enclosure paved the way for the Industrial Revolution, for two hundred years of world domination by the Royal Navy and for the birth of the United States of America as a bastion of freedom and I don’t doubt that all of that is true—but the price paid by the poor was a dreadful one.
When I’d finished A Just and Upright Man, I wanted to start on something different—a story set in the 21st Century instead of the 1760s. I sat at my keyboard and waited to see what would come. It was this: All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers. I sat and stared at the screen. Where on earth had that come from? I really didn’t have a clue. People ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” and in this case I’d have had to say, “I haven’t the faintest idea.” And I didn’t.
But somebody did because the story, which became Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, developed—and, while it did, someone was talking to me. It took me a while to identify the someone as Billy McErlane, narrator and hero of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. He was so heavily invested in the story that he kept prompting me: “Tell them about the anger management”; “Don’t forget the psychologist”; “Don’t say that, because that isn’t really how it was.” By the end of the book I knew as much about Billy’s life as Billy did. I knew how he’d felt when Wendy dumped him; I felt his fear as he watched The Creep being beaten to death and his impotent fury at the lies told about him in court. But I still didn’t know where all this was coming from. Who could possibly be telling me all this?
And then I remembered that time while I was writing When the Darkness Comes—a book so complex in design that it still after four years isn’t ready to meet the public—when Barabbas walked into the Canaries hotel where a TV chat show was being filmed and Haile Selassie arrived out of nowhere in a very bad temper to tell me what I could and couldn’t do with a man he regarded as a usurper.
That was a sobering experience. One result is that, when people do say, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I don’t attempt to tell them because I know they’d think I was nuts.
Now where would they get that idea from?
Bit by bit, A Just and Upright Man gathers reviews. It seems that quite a lot of people have to buy the book for each one that reviews it. Somehow, that makes the reviews even sweeter when they come. This one turned up last week on Amazon’s UK site:
4.0 out of 5 stars Very enjoyable 23 Feb 2014
Superbly written historical fiction with plenty of suspense and tension to keep you turning the page. I am not familiar with the period in history but had the distinct impression that it was an accurate portrayal of the times. Will be looking for more books from the author RJ Lynch.
“Superbly written”. I like that—who wouldn’t? Another four star review had appeared on the UK Amazon site a few days earlier:
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing and Educational 20 Feb 2014
‘A Just and Upright Man’ educated me enchantingly about the culture and practices of the late 18th century, in words I could understand. I wasn’t sure that I grew to know all the characters fully, but it was certainly clear that many of them, including the protagonist had light and dark sides, which left me curious to read more.
I was fascinated by the difference between now and then in how people communicated. If Blakiston needed to ask someone a question, there were no telephones, Facebook or Twitter, and it was not always practical or possible to visit someone or somewhere to simply ask questions. Communications were face to face, by third party word of mouth or in writing, so that geography and transportation mattered, and a single communication became an event or the day’s activity. This, and the story being set against a backdrop of political tensions over change to come and the early challenges to class and gender inequalities, characterized the period very clearly for me.
I experienced the odd unexpected shift from a safe to shocking scene, but suspect that these leaps were carefully designed to depict the harshness of certain aspects of the culture. Dark fears also lurked towards the end of the story, with an 18th century curse threatening to reach its clingy fingers out into Blakiston’s future. This worries me still, but I shall have to wait…
That’s a total now of four reviews in the UK, all of them good, and there are three on Amazon’s US site. I’m glad to have them, even though given the total sales of the book seven reviews since October doesn’t seem a heck of a lot. People like it, though, and they say they’re looking forward to the next in the series. That is so satisfying.
This is some review from Book Viral for A Just and Upright Man
It is 1763. James Blakiston, overseer of Lord Ravenshead’s estate and a newcomer to the Durham parish of Ryton, is determined to solve the mystery of old Reuben Cooper’s murder – but he has no idea how to go about it.
Compelling historical drama unfolds in A Just And Upright Man by author RJ Lynch, as he commendably peels back the veneer of Georgian society to deliver an uncompromising tale of murder and mystery. Admirably eschewing the more popularly toted incarnations of the period, in favour of an altogether darker and more damning exploration of time and place, Lynch brings distinct flair to his enthralling tale with a meticulous eye for detail that is ever present. It is evident in the intricacy of his plot, but never more so than the verve with which he imbues his characters. Capturing humour and dark intent with turn of phrase that colours his telling in vivid detail; elevating this tale of detection and the dictates of a blinkered society to a class of its own.
Uncommonly authentic, highly engaging, A Just And Upright Man is historical crime fiction at its very best and rightly raises high expectations for future novels in the series. A credit to R J Lynch and recommended without reservation.
Well, maybe that’s a bit OTT. But this is a very good review of A Just and Upright Man from Francine in Romance Reviews Magazine: