Some musings on M.R. James

At a conference, I heard Peter Kemp of the Times talk about ghost stories, in particular those of M.R. James.

It made me realise what a great influence James has exerted on my writing. And also how much I’ve deviated from his golden rules regarding the genre. It was probably watching the ITV adaption of ‘Lost Hearts’ in 1966 which drew me into the world of supernatural horror. None of the subsequent versions come close in scareability. Apparently all copies of that production have been lost. It’s strange that the one feature I found most frightening was the long fingernails of the avenging victims.

James suggested that sex had no place in ghost stories, and that the spectres should be inhuman monsters. ‘Lost Hearts’ might have broken the second rule (if unlike me you can forget the length of the fingernails), but most of his supernatural creations are vile beings with no motivation other than to do harm. James’ protagonists tend to be academic bachelors—like himself, who meet their fate through curiosity or accident and it’s likely sex rarely if ever found a place in the life of MR James.

If ‘Lost Hearts’ wins the award for my scariest supernatural TV moment, the second would be the victim rising to the surface of a lake in the 1980 adaptation of Thérèse Raquin. Okay, you could argue the corpse was merely the figment of a guilt-ridden imagination, but…

James was wrong. A good writer can frighten the reader with sex and a blameless ghost. Where James got it right was the structure, the arc of his story, and it’s arguable no-one before or after has ever bettered him.

Why Can’t I Write Black Characters?

It’s an academic question. I have written about black, gypsy, gay, young, female, Albanian, even though I’m none of those.

But there are mutterings about a woke Gestapo who think I shouldn’t. I should only write about people like me.

That’s crap. If I only write about straight white men of a certain age, then I can’t mention any intimate relationships. For they could only be between two straight white men, which would make them gay, which is clearly a paradox. DH Lawrence wasn’t an aristocratic sex-starved woman, and Agatha Christie wasn’t a chap from Belgium, but they seemed to find success in the associated works.

What I can’t do is try to get inside the head of someone who’s not like me without doing research, preferably talking to such people and asking them for advice. Plus, avoiding stereotyping should be added to the Ten Commandments. Maybe drop the one about coveting, which is sexist and homophobic. What about not coveting your neighbour’s husband?

Yes, contemporary fiction should reflect our modern diverse society. So, we need to write characters that reflect the world around us, not wallow in a false, homogeneous world.

A Curse on Technology

They didn’t like this in 1889. Their modestly profiled Paris, dominated by the holy Notre Dame, suddenly invaded by a steel monster on legs. The authorities promised it would only stand for 20 years, and 1909 would see its destruction.

Try suggesting it should be demolished now. It’s the symbol of the city, its most visited attraction. The Eiffel Tower is a triumph of technology

So why am I cursing technology? And why is this picture so fuzzy?

Second question first… I took this from my hotel room, and the image has suffered a major crop from the original iPhone image. I won’t name the hotel, save that’s it’s in the west of the city and very tall. And very nice, except…

They’re trying to be too clever. The lifts, for example. (Or elevators as our transatlantic friends would say) There are two banks of lifts. One is well-lit, and intended for guests. You have to press a button corresponding to your destination floor, and the display advises which lift to take. No security, like having to present your keycard, but no real problem. Note, there are no buttons inside the lift.

The problem is that the second bank is almost identical to the first, and after an excellent bottle of St Emilion the lack of bright lights is easily ignored. I selected my floor, only to be disgorged into an area of blackness.

For I have used a service lift.

I have to exit to search for buttons in the stygian gloom without success. Only a thin strip of light under what proves to be a door allows me to reach the world I know.

There is worse to come. Some crazed designer has decided it would be a wonderful idea to put a motion-detecting light under the bedside table so that any guests who’ve consumed half a bottle of St Emilion and a few coffees can find relief in the early hours. The idea is that once a foot is placed outside the bed this illumination will be activated.

I’m not sure which of my appendages dangled far enough to trigger the light, but at two o’clock on it came. And not being appraised of its existence, I began a search. If I moved away, it went off. When I returned to sleep, it came on.

I don’t need it. I don’t want it. And I don’t want lifts that haven’t got buttons inside. I love new technology, but only if someone with half a brain has thought through the consequences of what might happen.

More on the Death of John Barker

I’ve carried out further investigations into John Barker’s death. The coroner held an inquest two days later and decided it was an accident. He based this verdict on the testimony of one witness, Henry Clarke, whose account raises a few questions. Clarke described how a cart broke away from its blocks, rolled down a hill, then struck a trolley. Although both vehicles were on the move, Barker ran between them and tried to apply the brake on the trolley. It seems odd that there was sufficient space, and that the victim didn’t realise the consequence of his actions.

The press report the day before gives a different (and more believable) story. It suggests Barker was trying to halt the trolley when the second cart broke its blocks and thundered down with such force that crushed the showman and caused significant damage to other vehicles.

It sounds implausible that there were two runaway carts, unless the possibility of sabotage is considered. Just over a year earlier, James Wenn, a retired coastguard from Lowestoft, died on one of Barker’s rides. The tragedy occurred in the Cattle Market, the same place where Barker would perish. The consensus at that inquest was that the victim was drunk, but the one dissenting voice was a Harry Smith, listed as either a nephew or son-in-law of Wenn. Smith denied his relation was intoxicated and blamed Barker’s company. His anger at the accidental death verdict may have been inflamed by the magistrate’s threat to not pay his expenses on the grounds he had lied.

It’s easy to imagine Smith either bribing or threatening Clarke to keep quiet about what really happened. Most likely it was a simple accident, but…  

What Happened to John Barker?

I’m curious…

When I mention #RosaryRoad, people keep asking if I’ve visited the Rosary Cemetery. Until now, the answer was no. Today I changed that.

Brief history… in an era where the Church of England dominated the death business, a Reverend Drummond created the cemetery to allow other denominations the ability to conduct their own service. I expected a compact, well-trimmed space. I found an overgrown wilderness, gravestones at odd angles, mausoleums hidden among the trees.

Most intriguing of all, I came across the grave of John Barker, steam circus proprietor, killed in the cattle market. I need to know how. Was he trampled by a raging bull, or the victim of one of his own contraptions?

There’s a story here, and I want to find out what. Watch this space.

The Wild Side of Town

Unusually, I found myself wandering round Norwich with time on my hands. Enough for a stroll through the Lanes, where I re-acquainted myself with the small casting celebrating Peter the Wild Man, aka the Wild Boy, allegedly brought up by animals in the forests of Germany and brought to England by George I. Peter somehow made his way to Norwich as an adult, where he was arrested for wandering the streets and thrown into the Bridewell Jail. Suffice to say, the authorities were very happy to release him when they discovered there was a reward for his safe return to Hertfordshire. For more details, visit https://www.visitnorwich.co.uk/article/peter-the-wild-boy/.

Something struck me about this mini-monument. It’s off the beaten track, quirky, and doesn’t flaunt its fascinating history.

It’s a metaphor for my adopted city.

What’s Folk Music?


I went to a folk festival the other week. At least it was billed as a folk festival.
The top bands mainly played their own material. The guest Spanish band played ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ Anyone seeking traditional music would be better off finding amateur musicians lurking in odd corners than watching the main stage. There was group singing after hours, although none of the songs everyone knew were composed before 1960. “Peggy Sue” and “American Pie” featured more than once.
Which made me wonder… exactly what is folk music?
First step was to Google the term. It returned this definition: “Music that originates in traditional popular culture or that is written in such a style. Folk music is typically of unknown authorship and is transmitted orally from generation to generation.”
Let’s challenge that. Traditional popular culture… what’s that?… “The Sound of Music” at Christmas…? The Notting Hill Carnival? Transmitted orally? If we’re talking three or more generations, I can only think of football chants and nursery rhymes. Contemporary singers might learn orally but the first modern performers mined “real” folk songs from the compilations of Francis James Child and Cecil Sharpe, among others.
So, I’m none the wiser. The songs belted out by the late-night singers have survived for fifty years for sound reasons. They’re arguably now part of traditional popular culture.
I fall back on the words of the great Louis Armstrong. “There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad. I play the good kind.”
Folk music is therefore good music.

Climate Change and the Rest

I recently researched events occurring in the early years of the nineteenth century. It was an era of harsh winters. The Thames froze over. Then in 1815 Mount Tambora erupted. The dust spread across the atmosphere. The global temperature dropped by a whole degree.

There you are. One big bang and all our troubles will be over. Don’t worry about the effect on harvests and the resulting global famines that will result. But it seems logical that if there is a God, he might consider activating a few volcanoes before things get worse.

There’s no doubt our government is apathetic. Actions they could take immediately, e.g. an insistence on solar panels and rainwater harvesters on all new builds, are ignored, possibly because of lobbying by construction companies. And we could do more. Buy local, buy seasonal. Don’t think you’re helping the planet by eating avocados shipped from South America rather than lamb from otherwise unusable uplands. Walk more—you’ll help the NHS as well.

But in all the talk of climate emergency, there’s one aspect that rarely surfaces:


Trees are being cut and land covered in waste because of the increasing number of people. And yet religious leaders rant against birth control. The Pope, not the Devil, may now be the enemy of the world. Add to that a constant pressure for economic growth, and we’re stuffed.

Anyway, that’s all I’m saying on the subject for now.

The Ten Commandments

(or the rules I follow to write Whodunits)

  1. Thou must remember there aren’t actually any commandments. I’m not bound to follow any rules, but…
  2. The murderer shall be known to the reader within the first three chapters. I know I broke this rule in one book, but he wasn’t the uber-villain, so the rules stands.
  3. The astute reader shall be able to work out who did it three quarters of the way through the book. No last chapter clues.
  4. As with ‘Death in Paradise’ there shall only be four or less viable suspects at the denouement. Unlike DiP, many more should be tainted with the whiff of villainy in the earlier chapters.
  5. There shall be sub-plots. These hinder the curious spotting the obvious solution.
  6. The protagonist(s) shall have a story arc. No Hercule Poirots starting as smug smart-arses and remaining so throughout the tale.
  7. Thou shalt not portray any police person as an idiot. Misogynist, racist, arrogant, yes, but they don’t get hired for stupidity.
  8. Thou shalt ignore the anal retentives who point out the police would never carry out an investigation in the way you describe. Your public know better. They’ve seen Morse and Midsomer.
  9. Do not allow Commandment #8 to suggest the constabulary are happy to leave the investigation to priests, nuns, and vicars. They have better things to do.
  10. Keep it under 90,000 words.

On Agatha (Christie not Raisin)

I recently heard a much-respected writer of detective stories announce his disdain for Agatha Christie. His main criticism was the lack of empathy for the victim.

It’s easy to pour scorn on the Queen of Crime. Her later books are a warning that one should quit while one’s ahead, and her description of murder scenes seem too sanitised. Where is the blood splatter, the stains on the killer’s clothes? It may be that blood was invented in 1940 and I missed that history lesson, but somehow I doubt that.

That’s not the point. She’s popular because she didn’t wallow in guilt and sympathy. She set two-dimensional puzzles, and as such deserves to be compared with the Times crossword compiler, not Leo Tolstoy. She’s a crunchy oats bar, not a Michelin-starred entre – safe and easy to digest at any time. At her peak her plotting is superb—the ABC Murders and Death on the Nile for example.

I will raise another glass to Agatha Christie. Probably beer or supermarket plonk, certainly not vintage Dom Perignon. Or maybe I’ll drink Devonian cider. To paraphrase a party slogan, she’s a writer for the many, not the few.