Photoshoot for The Lighterman

IDENTITY CRISIS

 

In this blog I share the novel experience of being the subject of a photoshoot to produce images for marketing purposes,  especially the forthcoming The Lighterman due out 8 June.

Bizarre, but lots of fun!

In the last few months I have been doing signing sessions in bookshops and talks to various groups about the Charles Holborne legal thriller series, and how my family background and my life at the Bar have affected the stories.  Unsurprisingly, bookshops aren’t keen on authors accosting customers, so even when a shop can be persuaded to give you a slot, you’re often sitting at a tiny table at the back of the shop.  Many authors only sell two or three books in an afternoon. I do have an enormous advantage over most authors in that I can wear my court robes and wig.  Standing in a  bookshop dressed as a barrister certainly does raise eyebrows.  I’ve been mistaken for a dummy (I assume as in “Madame Tussauds” not as in “stupid” but who knows?), a cardboard cut-out and a vicar (?!) but attracting attention is only the start; I then have to launch into a long complex explanation of why I’m in court dress, the fact that I am a barrister and an author, the fact that my books involve a barrister anti-hero and so on.  So my publishers and I decided that we needed some posters which told the whole story; a picture is worth 1000 words, right?

Gordon Tant, a very talented local photographer was brought in.  The concept was mine: Charles is an ex-boxer and ex-criminal with an East End past and a West End profession, so Charles needed to be shown as a barrister but with hints at his violent past. A lockup perhaps, boxing gloves…maybe a shotgun.  Everyone liked the idea, but we had no budget beyond the photographer. In return for free books my local coach repairer let me borrow his lockup, and further enquires turned up a policeman who owned a  shotgun – and he was willing to lend it to us and attend the shoot so we didn’t need to apply for a new licence. But a model?  Professional actors and models were prohibitively expensive.  So I found myself playing Charles Holborne.  Holborne is a fictional character loosely based on me and my  experiences.  Now I was being photographed playing my own fictional hero, who is based on me.  Very odd.  I’m not sure who is being shown in these mean and moody photos: me dressed as Charles?  Charles dressed as me?  Me dressed as Charles, based on me?  In any event, what do you think?

The Boxer

The Lockup

The Shooter

Click here to pre-order The Lighterman

Memories From Beyond Dementia

It’s my mother’s birthday today.  My parents are both, for just a few short weeks, 92 years old.  In another six weeks my dad will turn 93 and will once again be a year older than my mum.   They both have dementia.  Mum’s Alzheimer’s has robbed her of almost everything except a gap-toothed recognition of her husband and two sons, and fragments of her sense of humour.  Doubly incontinent and unable to do anything for herself, this formerly elegant and highly intelligent woman cannot even be described as a shadow of her former self.  At best, once in a while, I see that shadow flicker but the rest of the time she is vacant; a human shape taking up three-dimensional space – literally, a waste of space.

Dad’s vascular dementia presents differently: profound and almost total aphasia.  He can neither understand the words said to him nor use words to express himself.  The links between concepts and their expression has been utterly broken.  True, words sometimes come, but they’re always the wrong ones.  “I’m saying all the right words, but not necessarily in the right order.”  He used to love Eric and Ernie.  Perhaps it is his unbearable frustration at being unable to communicate which has turned a formerly placid and easy-going man, one who never raised his hand or voice to either of his extremely trying sons, into a man who barricades his room against the carers, threatens them with his comb, sometimes refuses personal care, and can be unbearably rude to those who still love him.

The flat they bought fifteen years ago, hoping to see them through to the end, has to be sold if they are to remain in the excellent, but eye-wateringly expensive, care home where they live.  So I drive to London every weekend to make a start on clearing it.  It’s cold and musty, and the familiar smells of my mother’s cooking have long gone.

My father is a dreadful hoarder.  The flat contains the accumulated detritus of over 70 years.  I have found ration books from 1942; research he undertook for his thesis in metallurgical engineering in 1947; and documents relating to the long ago wound-up estate of my late grandmother, who died in the 1960s.  The garage is full of what had formerly been the contents of the garden shed from their previous home, crammed with stuff that my father had decided “might come in useful”.  An example of something he thought “might come in useful” is the alternator taken from a Morris 1000 he disposed of, for scrap, in the early 1970s.  Having fitted the alternator shortly before the car was involved in a shunt which led to it being scrapped, he resented the thought of having to throw it away.

Anyway, to the point.  I have been slowly working through the cupboards and filing cabinets, throwing out anything more than a couple of years old and filing the rest.  It’s emotional and time-consuming.  It would be different if I was clearing the flat after their deaths; that would be sad but inevitable.  But they are, in some senses at least, still alive, and I am throwing away their lives, the accumulated treasures and memories of over 90 years.  I have power of attorney, I’m entitled to do it, and if they are to remain in their care home, there is no choice.  But it’s hard.  It’s also time-consuming because every cupboard yields another treasure, like unseen photographs of my parents as children, or letters written during the war from cousins in America.

This weekend I ran out of time and so picked up a manila envelope of documents to look at when I got home.  I read the contents today, my mother’s birthday.  I find it’s full of short stories, articles and poems, all written by my mother.  She writes about her family in the 1930s, being evacuated in the War, working as an auxiliary nurse, jitter-bugging with American servicemen, meeting my father for the very first time, her work, how she felt about her sons, her retirement, moving home…her entire life is here.  I had no idea she wrote.  Why didn’t she tell me?  And if she did, why have I not remembered?  Only now, when it’s too late to talk about it, do I realise that we shared a passion for writing.  And she was good too, really good.  I’d have been proud to have written some of these stories.  So, what talent I possess seems to have come from her.  What a wonderful thing we could have shared, had I but known.

I have discovered a window onto the soul of a woman I realise I never really knew, and now it’s too late.

I think few us really know our parents.  They are just, well, our parents.  We don’t know what they were really like, before we were born, when the unknown paths of the future lay ahead, bursting with life and promise.  As a parent myself, I understand that.  The children, almost completely grown up now, are busy getting on with their own lives; they see their mother and me as just “the wrinklies”.  Although they are far too well brought-up to say it, a discussion of our young lives and dreams from the 1960s and 1970s would bore them; the thought that we were once just as capable of irresponsible behaviour, dancing, high excitement (or, God forbid, sex) revolts them faintly.  I hope that when I’m 92 my children won’t regret having never asked what it was like to grow up when I did; what it was like to have been me, so like them but so different.

Here is one of my mother’s poems.  It says much about her, how she railed against old age but how she retained her sense of humour, which appears now to be the very last bit of her to disappear.  Like the last rays of the sun as it drops below the horizon, the vacant shell that is my mother will still laugh, out of the blue, at a joke.

 

Counting My Blessings
by Regina Michael, 2.2.25 –
There are times when I find sleep elusive,
When thoughts ramble free from restraint;
When I spend the night tossing and turning,
And things seem to be what they ain’t.

 

Last night I went down to the kitchen
And sitting and drinking my tea,
I started to add up the value
Of things that mean something to me.

 

The house that we’ve moved ourselves into
After worry and endless frustration,
Is beginning to feel a bit more like a home –
But a bloody long walk to the station!

 

My memory’s great for the forties,
And the fifties and sixties as well.
But I don’t know what day of the week it is now
And I’m missing my slippers like hell.

 

My waistline is starting to thicken;
In contrast my hair’s getting thin.
My grandson says “Grandma, your neck’s very old”
And I find I’m agreeing with him.

 

I’m doing my best to eat wisely
And never to go off the rails,
But the kilos keep adding themselves to my weight –
So I’ve taken to hiding the scales!

 

The children and grandchildren live miles away,
And I find myself frankly confessing
That as long as they keep their complaints to themselves
Their phone calls can count as a blessing.

 

Yet my weird sense of humour is still going strong,
And I still tell a joke with some flair;
My chicken soup’s still reckoned second to none –
So I feel that I shouldn’t despair.

 

For thousands of people are worse off than I;
I suppose that I ought to be grateful.
But, having decided that life’s not too bad,
I’ve spent the last half hour unsuccessfully trying to find a rhyme to end this silly poem.

A Culture of Fear

greatuncles

As church bells sounded across Britain on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, my family celebrated the fact that, by some miracle, all six brothers shown in this photograph survived the Great War.  Second Lieutenant Mick Michael, King’s Royal Rifle Corps; Leading Aircraftman Joe Michael; Sergeant Harry Michael, 40TH Royal Fusiliers; Sergeant John Michael, Royal Army Service Corps; Private Maurice Michael, Manchester Regiment.  And, the youngest of the six, my grandfather, Rifleman George Michael, Queens Westminster Rifles.

I don’t usually post, blog or tweet about politics.  Political discourse has become frighteningly tribal in the last couple of years and I believe there should be some tranquil public spaces immune to the virus, especially in a blog dedicated to fiction and entertainment.  This blog is to be no exception.  However Britain’s decision to quit Europe, the growing acceptability of vilifying “the other” in our midst, the refusal of FIFA to permit British footballers to wear poppy armbands, and my own family history have together combined to produce this reflection.

My father’s family left Cordoba in what is now southern Spain in 1492, Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition.  I must assume they were, at least in the fifteenth century, devout Jews, preferring to flee what had been their homeland for hundreds of years rather than face forced conversion or auto-da-fé (burning at the stake).  They landed in the East End of London, where they remained for the next 450 years, contributing in an undistinguished way to the commercial and cultural life of the city and, finally, integrating fully.  By the twentieth century they wore their Judaism lightly and considered themselves Londoners, albeit with a Jewish cultural identity.

All six brothers volunteered to fight during the 1st World War.  Two of the eldest found themselves in the same theatre of war, Salonica, Greece, during the Jewish High Holy Days, and for a few days were billeted with a Jewish Greek family named Cohen which also had three sons, two of whom were in the Greek Venizelist army fighting Germany and the Central Powers.  The friendship created between the four young soldiers lasted the duration of the war and continued thereafter when the Cohen brothers, now named Jacques and Nico, moved to Paris between the wars.

After the 1st World War the families continued to keep in touch.  All those young enough to do so fought again in the 2nd World War.  When I first met the third brother, Michel, I was astonished to find that he spoke French not with a Greek accent but with that of a Glaswegian.  He had not been in Thessalonica during the 1st World War.  The Greek monarchy had been formally neutral but de facto pro—German and Michel, a hotheaded political young man, had wanted to fight against the Germans.  He had run away, hidden aboard a cargo steamer, and landed up in Glasgow, where he joined the Black Watch and fought with the Scots in northern Europe.  He was in Paris when war broke out again, and became an organiser in the FFI (the French Forces of the interior – the Resistance).  At the end of August 1944, two days before the German garrison surrendered Paris to the Free French and the advancing Allies, he watched as his wife and daughter were captured by the SS and shot dead on the street.

After the war, when all the men were again demobbed, the friendship continued in correspondence.  My parents married in 1949, and took the boat train to the south of France for their honeymoon.  They knew no one in France, but my father was given the address of Nico Cohen in case of emergency.  On the return journey my mother suffered a bad bout of flu and could travel no further than Paris.  They got off the train and my father found a telephone to call the name on the piece of paper my grandfather had given him.  How he managed to communicate the problem remains a mystery, because my father has never spoken a word of French or Greek in his life, but within a short while Nico Cohen had arrived in his old Citroen, collected my parents from the station, and taken them to his flat.  There he and his wife, Odette, gave up their bed to the newlyweds.  The Cohens slept on the couch for a week until my mother was recovered.  Thus was formed a second generation of friendship between a Greek/French family and an Iberian/English family.

Letters continued to travel backwards and forwards across the channel over the next 25 years.  Nico was particularly fond of Marks & Spencer T-shirts, underwear and marmalade, and every now and then a parcel would be sent to Paris.  In return, several unlabelled bottles of red wine would periodically be delivered to London, the produce of a vineyard in which Nico had a share.

In 1973, at the age of 18, I was about to go to university when my first serious relationship ended, and I decided the best way to mend my broken heart and forget the young lady concerned was by deferring my place and travelling for a year.  Realising with some disappointment that the French Foreign Legion was unlikely to accept me, I decided to take my entire savings of £50 (presently worth just less than £600) and travel to the nearest capital city, Paris, and see what came up.  I spoke poor O-level French degraded by two years of disuse, and I knew no one in France.  The only assistance my parents could give me in case of emergency was a scrap of paper on which were written the names Nico and Odette Cohen, and an address.

At that time there was a bureau at the Gard du Nord to place students who arrived in the city in appropriate hostel accommodation, but I was unlucky.  No beds could be found for me on the day I arrived, having made no plans whatsoever for my first night, and I was given the choice of a park bench or a room in a hotel in the 15th arrondissement.  I chose the latter (you will have suspected that a young man who needs his creature comforts was never likely to have been happy in the French Foreign Legion).  Only after my first night did I appreciate that the rooms in the small hotel were all, with the exception of mine, used throughout the night by prostitutes.  The room I occupied was immediately next to a large flashing neon sign which put the punters off their stroke.  More about my first few weeks in Paris will be the subject of another blog.

After four weeks in France and most of my money gone, I had been unable to find a job or a flat.  Not only was my French poor, but I was a very young and innocent 18-year-old who looked barely 16.  In retrospect it’s hardly surprising that no landlord or employer was prepared to take a chance on me.

Eventually I had no choice but to phone the name on the piece of paper.  I fully expected to be packed off back to London with my tail between my legs.  I called, and Nico arrived at my “working girls’ hotel” later that day.  He was a little man, no more than 5’6” in height, wearing a beret and a raincoat with a turned-up collar.  He was exactly what I expected Commissaire Maigret to look like.  I knew nothing of his background or the fact that he had been born and grown up in Greece, but he spoke French very fast and, at least to my ear, had no accent except that of a Parisian.  He was scandalised that a teenager had been allowed to run around Europe on his own without a proper home or parents to care for him, and he promptly took me under his wing.  I had to resist hard the suggestion that I should live with him and Odette, and so he set to finding me a job in a relative’s textile business.  Having secured a job working in the warehouse where I found myself amongst a group of other non-Anglophone foreigners, he telegraphed my parents and insisted they came over to countersign a lease of a tiny flat he had found in the 19th arrondissement just opposite the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

During the nine months I lived in Paris, Nico became my adopted grandfather, making sure I ate a proper Sunday lunch every week in his tiny flat, trying, in vain, to teach me something about wine, and keeping an eye on me from a distance via his relative’s fierce wife who ran the textile business in a manner of which Napoleon would have been proud.  He remained my friend for the next fifteen years until his sudden death, making mine the third generation to enjoy the friendship of this remarkable Greco-French family.

My books are about alienation and people who don’t fit in.  Charles Holborne, the antihero of The Brief series, faces daily prejudice, anti-Semitism and class prejudice.  He wants to be accepted, but is not.  Whereas in British society it used to be the Jews, now it is the Muslims.

The European Union was a deeply flawed project but it nonetheless brought 28 nations of Europe together in a way which had never occurred before.  Whatever one thinks of the overall project, its underlying themes were of cooperation and shared democratic values.  It took the position that what unites us as humans is greater than what divides us, and in allowing so many Syrian refugees into Germany, Chancellor Merkel put those principles into practice.  It might have been a mistake in political terms but, in my opinion, it was undoubtedly right in human terms.  It spoke to the best we can be, and not the worst.

Globalism and the birth of global terror are making people afraid again.  Brexit, Donald Trump and his Mexican wall, Marine Le Pen – all are just examples of what can happen when politicians prey on the fear of “the stranger”.  The story of my great-uncles and their friendship with the Cohen brothers, all immigrants at different times, and their willingness to fight for a unifying human cause, tells me we can be better than that.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Me (aged 24) with Nico Cohen, M&S bag in hand, on his return to Paris from a London trip c. 1979

Time and Place Interview – Jill’s Book Cafe

Jill Doyle of Jill’s Book Café, published the following in October 2016, and with her permission I reproduce the interview here.  Go check out her blog at Jill’s Book Café – it’s well worth it!

___________________________________________________________________________________

I’m delighted to welcome author Simon Michael, who kindly agreed to be my first guest to discuss ‘Time and Place’ in his life and work.

During Simon’s years of practice at the Bar he has prosecuted and defended enough murderers, armed robbers, con artists and other assorted villainy to provide him with a lifetime of true crime stories. Simon had several books published in the UK and the USA in the 1990s and his short story Split was shortlisted for the Cosmopolitan/Perrier Short Story Award. Four children, two divorces and lots of therapy forced him to spend the next 20 years in full-time practice as a lawyer, but in 2016 he was finally able to retire from the Bar to devote himself to full-time writing.

The Brief (2015) and An Honest Man (June 2016) are the first two books in the Charles Holborne series, set on the dangerous gangland streets of 1960s London. (See end of article for full links)

So without further ado, over to Simon

piccadilly-circus

Your books are courtroom dramas set in 1960’s London featuring criminal barrister, Charles Holborne. Why did you decide to set your books in the 1960s?

Multiple reasons.  Firstly it was the “Wild West” of British justice.  The criminal gangs, for example, the Krays, Richardsons and Messina brothers, were fighting for control of the proceeds of vice, pornography, gambling and drugs in the big cities.  There was widespread police corruption, particularly in the Metropolitan Police, which meant that officers were taking a cut of the proceeds rather than trying to prosecute the criminals.  There was also significant bias in the judiciary.  I’m not suggesting the judges were corrupt, but they were from a previous generation.  Born at the turn of the last century, they believed that they and the police were the last bulwark against a tide of corruption sweeping the country.  The arrival of sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll was viewed by the establishment with horror.  Many in the judiciary simply would not believe that police officers could be corrupt – that they might beat a confession out of an innocent person; that many of them would take bribes.  The result was that trials were weighted in favour of the prosecution and against the defence.  Prosecuting for the Crown at that time was like sailing with the wind full in your sails; defending was like wading up to your thighs in a swamp into the teeth of a gale.

In addition there were no mobile phones, DNA or any of the scientific advances which enable modern day detectives to solve cases.  Detectives from a previous era like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe had to detect.  I want my investigators, including Charles Holborne, to do the same.

So the 1960s is the perfect period to set my novels.  When the Charles Holborne series is finished (probably around Book 5 or Book 6) I’m going to have to think of another hero to put in the same period.

What made you choose London over say Manchester, Birmingham or Liverpool for your location?

I know London.  My father’s family came to England in 1492, settled in the East End and for the next 500 years lived within 20 mile radius of where they first landed.  I was born, grew up, went to university, and practised at the Bar in London.  It’s my “patch”. I know it very well.

1492 stands out as a seminal date in history (coinciding with the discovery of the New World and the Re-Conquest of Spain). Was there a specific reason that the family arrived in that year and is there a family historian in the family or is it family lore?   

One of my great-uncles, who has since died, apparently spent a great deal of time and money researching the family tree at Somerset House and in the records held by the Jewish community in the East End before the Second World War.  It had always been family lore that my father’s family was part of a group of Jewish refugees from Cordoba who left as a result of the Spanish Inquisition rather than face conversion or death.  Indeed it was said that they were part of a group of refugees in ships sent by Christopher Columbus to supplicate the British crown for money for the westward expedition which eventually resulted in the discovery of America, and Columbus paid for the trip as far as London with fee-paying Jewish refugees, including the Michael (probably then called Miguel) family.

My father as a young boy actually saw some of the records produced by his uncle which supported the part of the story that the family had arrived in Whitechapel in 1492 with a group of other Spanish and Hebrew-speaking families.  Unfortunately however both my great uncle’s house with his researches, and the records at Somerset House, were destroyed during the war and all the documentary proof has disappeared.  I have often thought that I should try to reconstitute the evidence, but I have never had time.

It’s a great story, and I’m sure it’s true; unfortunately I can no longer prove it!

(When I asked the question I didn’t expect the answer to have such a direct link to it. I love this story it exemplifies how family research can really bring history to life.)

Did your research confirm or confound the commonly held perceptions of the period and did it throw up anything that surprised you?

This is a very good question.  In retrospect I think we tend to regard the 1960s as a time of flower power, Carnaby Street, Mary Quant, the Stones, the Beatles and mods versus rockers fighting on the beach in Brighton – exciting, brightly-coloured, and raucous.  In fact the beginning of the decade was very different.  Britain was very definitely post-war in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  People were poor, the housing stock was dreadful, immigrants, homosexuals and women were unfairly treated – you could argue that in some respects things have changed little, 50 years later.  I had to adjust the pictures unfolding in my head for the beginning of my series to paint a much grittier and greyer scene.

How do you think you would have coped had you had to operate under the same conditions as Charles Holborne? 

This is another very interesting question bearing in mind the character of Charles Holborne.  I try, with as much realism as possible, to put Charles under stress.  For example in The Brief I make him falsely accused of a murder which requires him to go on the run from the police.  I want the reader to ask him or herself the question: “What on earth would I do if that were me?”  At the same time however, Charles is, in part, based on me, my history and that of my family, and so not only am I asking the reader, but I am posing the question of myself.  The answer to that is, unfortunately, I would probably have believed in the honesty of the police, and been wrongly convicted.  Charles is an ex-boxer, ex-burglar, for whom violence and crime come easily.  I, on the other hand, am a middle-class professional who has never committed a crime in his life, and I don’t have Charles’s resourcefulness or daring.  I’d have caved, no doubt about it.

I’m aware that in addition to further books featuring Charles Holborne you are planning a novel set in New Orleans. New Orleans seems a far remove from London. Why New Orleans and how do you think you’ll adapt to the cultural/language changes?

I have visited New Orleans and I love the city.  It seems to have its very own atmosphere, an evocative blend of jazz, poverty, drugs and death.  So it gets my creative juices flowing.  I am a perfectionist and making even tiny mistakes in the Charles Holborne novels makes me cross with myself (I was recently taken to task for having Sally wearing a Mary Quant miniskirt two years before it was designed).  I know therefore I’m going to have to be very careful indeed if I set a novel in a city I don’t know well.  I think the only way to overcome the problem is to go and live in New Orleans for a few months.  (I haven’t started negotiating that with my family, so I’d be grateful if you would keep this answer between we two and your readership).

Do you have any preference for reading books with a particular time or place context?

I do like books set in the past, both the recent past and the distant past.  I think it makes the narrative more interesting, even if you’re writing about human nature which in my opinion does not change much.  I’m not trying to educate, but I think if you set your books in an unfamiliar landscape or time, it provides an additional interest to the reader.  For example, the third book in the Charles Holborne series, provisionally entitled “The Lighterman” and almost finished, includes flashbacks to Charles’s time in the war when he was a teenager effectively running wild on the bombed London streets and working as a lighterman on the River Thames.  I knew very little about work as a lighterman but my research has revealed a fascinating and now largely extinct occupation which had existed since Roman times, and the reader will learn, unwittingly, something about that.

Is there any time or place in history that holds a particular interest for you?

I am particularly interested in the underbelly of old London.  For example I adore Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  I think the reason is that I feel connected to London because of my family’s long history there.  It’s where my roots are deepest.

Where is your favourite place?

Having banged on about London so much, my answer may surprise you.  I love Gascony, and I am very lucky to have an old farmhouse there.  It’s probably one of the least fashionable parts of southern France and it lacks the grandeur of, for example, the Loire valley with its great châteaux.  But the countryside is incredibly varied, caused by a fan of rivers bringing melt water down from the Pyrenees.  So in the space of a fifteen minute drive you see hilltop villages, wooded escarpments, clear fast-running rivers and small fertile plains of crops.  It has the largest concentration of châteaux anywhere in France but they are usually small, almost domestic in size.  The Pyrenees line the southern horizon, those in the foreground with white glistening tops and those in the background receding into purple misty shadows.  The people are wonderfully friendly (I’ve written about that in some of my blogs on my website), even to Brits who totally mangle their language.   The food in the area is wonderful, focusing on duck, wild boar and Armagnac, and the light! The quality of the light at dawn and dusk is simply ravishing.  I could talk about my love of le Gers forever, and you might have to edit some of this rather long winded answer.

With no time and money constraints, where would you like to visit that you haven’t already been?

I have been chasing the Northern Lights for the last five years.  It is right at the top of my bucket list and despite several trips to Iceland and elsewhere they still evade me.  Lapland is likely to be the next destination.

o-O-o

Despite what I felt were possibly quite basic and obvious questions, Simon has more than done them justice with interesting insights and fascinating revelations. I’m really grateful to Simon for taking the time out to indulge my idea for a feature and I hope you enjoyed reading Simon’s responses as much as I did.

Interview with the Book Review Cafe

This Q&A was first published in the Book Review Cafe (https://thebookreviewcafe.com)

and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Lorraine Rugman.

Do check out her blog for insightful reviews of books and other authory stuff.

 book-image

Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Simon Michael the author of The Brief and An Honest Man. Unfortunately my review pile is in danger of toppling over, it’s that big! So I haven’t had the chance to read either of them, but from the book descriptions they certainly sound like the type of books I would enjoy, so rest assured they will certainly be added to my ever growing TBR pile. In the meantime here’s my interview with Simon Michael, and if the interview piques your interest I’ve included the buying links further down the post

 author-interview

There’s a lot of crime thrillers out there.  Why should readers read your Charles Holborne series?

Wow – talk about getting right to the point!  That’s a bit like a boxer landing a great punch as soon as the bell’s gone for the first round.  I think I’ve discovered a new genre of crime writing – the barrister procedural. There are hundreds of authors writing police procedurals and psychological thrillers, but those elements have never been tackled from the point of view of further down the criminal justice line, in court.  The search for the truth by the police is not the end of the story – in fact it’s only the beginning.  The real search for truth occurs in court and, as for psychological thrills, anyone who’s ever been in a criminal court room – especially on serious cases like murder – knows it’s pure theatre – nail-biting, breath-holding drama.  For a recent example, just look at Helen’s trial in the Archers.

Are the books courtroom dramas then?

Every book has scenes in court, but they take up a relatively small part of the action.  The rules regarding evidence in the period I’m writing, the 1960s, were much more lax than they are today.  The investigation process often continued after the accused was charged.  I take the readers along for the ride, as the lawyers and the police put together the jigsaw of the case to present it to the jury.  I use parts of real cases and sometimes real documents normally only seen by the police, the lawyers and the judges.

Is that why you date your books in the 1960s?

Partly.  In many respects the 1960s were the “Wild West” in criminal justice, especially in the big cities like London, Birmingham and Liverpool.  Huge swathes of the police force were completely corrupt; they took bribes, worked hand-in-hand with criminals, and suppressed and manufactured evidence.  The Dirty Squad (the name by which the Obscene Publications Squad was known) was, to a man, in the pay of the Soho pornographers, right up to the detective chief superintendent at its head.  They actually negotiated a licence fee from the pornographers, the very people they should have been shutting down, to allow them to keep operating.  And some of my clients were beaten into confessions or threatened that their children would be taken into care, to keep the truth from coming out.  On the other hand, big gangs like the Krays and Richardsons controlled the streets with terrifying violence.  London was beginning to look like Chicago in the 1930s, with an unholy alliance between organised crime bosses and the police.

So placing my hero, Charles Holborne, in London in the 1960s presents him with challenges which don’t exist today.  Make him morally ambivalent – he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in the East End, was a boxer and was himself in trouble with the law as a youngster – and the dynamic becomes even more interesting.  Add in the racial, religious and class prejudice that existed in those days, the post-war liberalisation in social mores – sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – and you have a perfect mix.

Does that give you problems with research?  I know you were a barrister for a long time, but I don’t think you’re old enough to have been in practice in the 1960s.

No, you’re right, although I was alive at the time, I was still in short trousers!  Things were beginning to change when I started at the Bar, but not by much.  So some of the background comes easily.  I know exactly what the cells of the Old Bailey smell like; I remember how shabby the court buildings were; I have personal experience of corrupt police officers manufacturing evidence against my clients; and I experienced prejudice myself in the early days of my career.  But I do have to take great care to ensure that other facts are right.  The series seems to appeal to a lot of younger readers but a good part of the readership are old police officers and lawyers like me!  And they’re the first to send an email saying “I loved the book, but they didn’t build that court building till five years after that scene!” 

Having read some of the reviews, people seem to like Charles Holborne’s character, but several female reviewers want to give him a proper slap!

Yes, he is a bit of a dinosaur, a man of his times.  I’m aware of the risk that if Charles were to be portrayed as a typical man born in 1925 he’d probably be quite unlikeable.  It was a time of casual prejudice, not least against women.  I think the trick is to write strong other characters, like the women in Charles’s life, who can pull him up so he can learn and grow.  I hope readers will see changes in his attitude as the books progress.

I note that you spend more time dealing with your characters’ private lives than some other crime thriller writers.

I think that’s true.  I’m afraid I’m a little impatient with some of the protagonists in crime thrillers.  Some writers think that by throwing in a problem with alcohol, a divorce, a prickly relationship with a superior officer, they create a real protagonist.  I think people are very complex and even those trying to do their best make mistakes in their relationships.  Everyone’s a mixture of good and bad, so I try to show that.  I deliberately intertwine the main threads of the crime thriller with the investigation, the court case and the problems facing the people involved.  They all have their private lives and they bring those into their daily work.  I try to create extremely stressful and difficult circumstances impacting on real people, and then see what those people do.

Are there more to come in the Charles Holborne series?

Definitely.  The third and fourth are already part-written, and I know where the series will end.

So there will be a finite number of Charles Holborne books?

I think so.  That’s real life, isn’t it?  People grow and change and I see a definite arc of development for Charles with a conclusion.  I don’t want the stories or the characters to become repetitive.

And then?

Well, I do have some ideas.  In particular I am roughing out a stand-alone thriller set in New Orleans.  But that’s at least three further novels down the line!

You’ve had two books published in the last year, and you have two more part-written?  What explains this sudden burst of creativity?

I’ve only been able to do what I really love for the last 18 months or so, and full-time since March.  Practice at the Bar is all-consuming and I frequently worked 16 hour days, 7 days a week.  I have finally taken the plunge, given up the law and started doing what I always wanted to do.  It’s been bottled up a long time!

Buy The Brief Buy An Honest Man

 

Where’s Wally?

(Or why Twitter and Facebook are bad for your confidence)

This is the usual dinner party narrative:

“So, what do you do then?”  – asked with polite interest.

I try to keep my face neutral.  “I’m a novelist.”

The answer is still quite new, and my natural response is still somewhere between grinning with pride and faint embarrassment at the perception that I’m showing off.

“Oh, really?” – asked with genuine interest.  “Will I have heard of you?  What’s your name?”

Now, there used to be a light sprinkling of glamour around authors.  It sparked people’s interest and made you stand out somewhat from the crowd.  Traditionally it meant you had an agent and a publisher and so presumably at least two independent people thought you had talent.  Not so nowadays.  Too often the next question is: “Self-published?” as if self-publication meant you couldn’t write (not always true) and were indeed just a show off.

But when you confirm that you do indeed have an agent and a publisher and your sales are not too bad, the response is still heart-warming.  “Wow, that’s interesting,” (or something similar) “I must have a look on Amazon.”

And you feel just a little bit special.  You write words which other people want to read.  You create characters who come alive in other people’s heads.  As one of my favourite reviews of The Brief says, “I kept wondering what the characters were doing after I finished the book.”

I recently left the Bar, and there are only 16,000 or so barristers in the whole of England and Wales.  When I started practice in 1978 it was half that number.  Everyone in the profession was familiar with “the runners and riders”; the up-and-coming juniors, the battle-scarred senior juniors, the brilliant silks and the duffers, those with no real practice but who clung on by feeding off the scraps from others’ tables.  It was easy to know your place in the rankings.  Basically, as long as you didn’t get caught with your trousers down in the clerks’ room or your hand in the till, if you were any good you would slowly rise to the top.  Merit was recognised.

Having returned to writing for the first time in 25 years to an age of social media, it was a bit of a shock to discover that there are, literally, millions of authors out there.  Every author appears to have a Facebook page and is on Twitter.  And every one of them is apparently the author of a best seller and the next “Best thing since…”  Every nanosecond Twitter twitches with another bit of self-promotion, until it becomes a white noise of voices shouting “Me!  Me!  Me!”  I have had a picture in my head of the wonderful “Where’s Wally” cartoons.  In the US it’s “Where’s Waldo.”  You’ve seen them: a sea of people, and somewhere in the jostling crowd is Wally wearing his distinctive red and white striped shirt and bobble hat.  The purpose of the cartoon, the trick, is to find Wally in the throng.  I feel like Wally – lost in a sea of others, hoping to be spotted.

I grew up in a time and a profession when you didn’t shout about your achievements, you let them speak for themselves.   Self-promotion just wasn’t classy.  Indeed, for most of my practice at the Bar barristers weren’t even allowed to have business cards because handing out a card implied you were touting for business.  It was frowned on even to have lunch with solicitors (the source of our work) for the same reason.

But everyone tells me that nowadays there is no choice but to join the clamour.  Without a social media presence, unless you’re willing and able to invest massive sums of time and money in marketing and PR, you won’t be noticed.  It’s a business and your book is a product.  Sell, sell, sell!

I loathe it.  I have real characters inhabiting my head who insist on having their stories told.  They are real people to me and, it appears, to the small band of reviewers who have stumbled across them.  They are not the sort of people who want to be the subject of fairground loudhailer advertising.  “Roll up!  Roll up!  Read the story of Charles Holborne and his struggle to stay on the right side of the law!  Watch as he displays his dysfunctional family relationships!  Marvel as he has sex!”

It’s just plain unedifying.

So, although I have a Twitter presence and a Facebook page, and several very patient experts have tried hard to instruct me in how they should be used to improve my “social media profile” you’re not going to find me using them very often.  Every now and then I will share my thoughts with the small band of people who know about these postings, and I will do my best to reply in kind to those fellow authors who are so supportive and who tweet and post lovely things about my writing.

But I won’t be shouting much from the rooftops, as it’s too dispiriting and it’s against my nature.  You’ll have to look for me somewhere out there in the ether, wearing my red and white striped jumper, looking modest.

Trial By Jury

 

The life of a criminal barrister is one of high stress, sweat-inducing responsibility, poor pay, unbeatable camaraderie and extremely funny stories. I have often thought that the “life-and-death” issues in which barristers deal – like police officers, surgeons and firemen – make humour an essential coping tool.

I was a pupil barrister in the Chambers of Robert Flach QC, in the Middle Temple, of whom hilarious stories are legion – but this guest blog is not about him. It is about two very green barristers, your writer and a man who was to become a close friend, whom I shall call Derek. We were both about 23 years of age and pupils to an up-and-coming criminal barrister, hereinafter referred to as “Mr Smith”, who was at that time being led by an eminent QC in a high-profile criminal trial at the Old Bailey.

Mr Smith had left us to do some paperwork while he was in court that day and we were, as always, floundering around a mountainous pile of papers involving arcane and unfamiliar concepts, nattering away and finding every available excuse not to deepen our knowledge of the Law.

Then the telephone rang. It was our senior clerk. Mr Smith had left behind some important documents, and one of us needed to run the papers down to Court 2 at the Old Bailey immediately. Enormous excitement – this would be the first time that we had actually been in the legendary Central Criminal Court. Did we need to be robed? Mr Smith didn’t say, replied the clerk, but better safe than sorry.

So we changed our Windsor collars for brand-new wing collars, pushing the brass and mother-of-pearl collar studs through the buttonholes closed with dried starch, tied our bands (those white things worn also by vicars) pulled on our gowns, and grabbed our wigs. Then we looked for the papers on Mr Smith’s desk and found what amounted only to two short Statements, no more than ten pages. So, only one of us was needed to make the delivery.

‘Toss for it,’ I offered.

‘Fair enough,’ agreed Derek. I won.

‘Best-of-three?’ suggested Derek. Like an idiot, I agreed. He won the next two.

‘Best-of-five?’ I suggested.

‘No time,’ he said, looking at his watch, and off he scuttled, wig in one hand, statements in the other and black gown billowing behind him. I followed; having changed into my fancy dress, there was no way I was going to miss the adventure.

It took us little more than five minutes to jog down Fleet Street, over Ludgate Circus and left into Old Bailey. We paused outside the heavy swing doors of Court No 2 and Derek placed his wig on his red Irish hair. Inside we could see the tall wooden dock in which sat our pupil master’s clients, the raked banks of jurors, the massed ranks of reporters and the packed gallery. The back of the prosecution QC could be seen as he addressed the Recorder of London, who sat robed in black and purple, higher than everyone else in the court, under an enormous pediment bearing the crest and the words “Dieu et mon droit”.

‘How do I look?’ whispered Derek.

‘Fine,’ I replied.

‘Okay. Here we go.’ He took a deep breath and reached for the door.

‘Don’t forget to bow,’ I reminded him.

He turned back to me, his face slightly pale. ‘Right, thanks,’ and he pushed open the door.

The door made a loud squeak just as, unfortunately, there was complete silence in court. The jurors turned at the noise, followed by the members of the press. Derek’s progress down the centre aisle towards the barristers’ benches at the front of the court was followed by forty pairs of eyes. The prosecution barrister began speaking again but realised that the attention of everyone in the court was on something going on behind him. He turned, and every other barrister on the benches followed suit. Within a few seconds Derek was the centre of attention of everyone in the court.

Blushing as red as the hair emerging from under his wig, Derek located Mr Smith in the second row amongst all the other identically-dressed barristers. He walked along the front of the row and handed our pupil master the Additional Statements. He then turned and, apparently remembering my last comment, bowed to the judge. He bowed to the ranks of barristers. He bowed towards the dock, causing the jurors to giggle. Hearing the noise he then made a quarter turn, and bowed to the jury, causing the giggle to become a ripple of laughter.

He then backed back up the aisle – bowing once more to a surprised court usher holding a water jug – felt behind him for a door, opened it, and stepped backwards – into the exhibit cupboard, closing the door behind him.

Everyone in the court knew that poor Derek was now standing in complete darkness surrounded by boxes of exhibits, and they waited to see if he would emerge again. Like the rumbling of distant thunder, the laughter grew until it became a crescendo of hilarity ringing around the court. After about thirty seconds of what must have been complete torture to Derek, but during which he was utterly immobilised by embarrassment, the Recorder of London took pity on him.

‘For heaven’s sake, usher, let the poor fellow out,’ he directed.

The usher put the jug on a bench and walked up the aisle. She opened the door to be greeted by a mortified pupil barrister standing in the dark. Derek stepped into the court to an eruption of wild applause. He cast about himself, saw me furiously beckoning from outside, and ran to the safety of the corridor.

I’m delighted to tell you that despite this setback, Derek enjoyed an extremely successful career at the Bar, but perhaps unsurprisingly he forsook practice at the Old Bailey, opting instead for the quieter life of a civil practitioner, toiling through mountains of papers, but safe from the ridicule of any jury.

The French Are Unfriendly?

We have builders at the house in France, who have been let loose on the property without supervision. Not ideal, I agree, and their principal achievement so far seems to have been to ruin the garden with building materials, without actually building anything. So I decided to make a short trip to assert myself in French (just stop that sniggering right away, okay?).

I took a cheap easyJet flight to Toulouse and picked up our 11 year-old Citroen banger from the car park at Blagnac, where it’s kept for at least nine months of the year. I reconnected the battery, and with fingers crossed, started the ancient car. Sigh of relief: everything seemed to work fine. Until I got onto the road. Then I realised there was a repeated banging from the rear tailgate. I stopped, and discovered that it wouldn’t shut. It’s hinged at the top and it’s heavy, so it stayed more or less closed, but the latch wouldn’t fasten and it wouldn’t lock. That meant driving back to Toulouse in three days’ time and leaving the car unsecured for what might be several further weeks or even months. Getting an appointment with Citroen in the time available was a non-starter.

However, once in the village I learned that a chap called Yves who lives a five minute drive away used to be a Mercedes, or perhaps BMW, mechanic, but now worked for himself out of his barn. So I searched Google Translate for some essential phrases such as “lock” and “boot”, and set out to find him.

I turned up in the middle of the morning, but Yves wasn’t home. However the aged mamie (grandmother) who answered my knock identified herself as his mother and she invited me into the kitchen. He would only be ten minutes, she said. My French is far from fluent, her English non-existent, and her Gascon accent almost impenetrable, but she plied me with fresh coffee and told me her family history while her two enormous dogs tried repeatedly to climb into my lap. Twenty minutes later her son, the mechanic, arrived. I managed to make myself understood with my essential French phrases, and he set to work stripping the tailgate. I stood by, pretty much useless, handing him the occasional tool and holding the tailgate at an appropriate height. After half an hour the tailgate and its locking mechanism were in increasingly small and worrying pieces, and I was wondering if it would ever be reassembled. After a further while mamie came out to watch, and having understood correctly that I was only in the village for a couple of days and had not bothered to stock up with much food, she placed a box of freshly laid eggs on the passenger seat.

Half an hour passed, and she emerged with another cup of coffee, and this time a pot of her own pate. Everyone in this region makes their own pate in vacuum jars, labelling it with the year and the species of the unfortunate animal (usually killed by the local hunters) now compressed inside. The pate joined the eggs in the car.

After an hour and a quarter my new-found mechanic friend had diagnosed the problem: a broken piece of plastic that should communicate between the lock motor and the catch. In the likely event that the entire assembly would have to be replaced, I was looking at between €200 and €300. On the other hand, he thought he might be able to locate a second-hand lock assembly and cannibalise it. He would make enquiries, and if I left my telephone number, he’d call. In the meantime he would effect a temporary repair which will allow me to lock the tailgate manually.

While he started the reassembly a man in a white van arrived. The smell of fresh bread poured out of his van as he slid open the door. This was the travelling boulanger, supplying the far-flung houses in the region with daily fresh bread.

In a further ten minutes the tailgate was complete, and locked. How much? I asked. Yves waved away any payment. I don’t charge the locals, he said. There’ll come a time when I’m sure you can do me a favour. I protested, but to no avail. Maybe once, when Yves is out on a job, said mamie, and I need a lift to the market, I’ll ask you to give me a lift. I said my goodbyes, thanking them both profusely. As I was about to drive off mamie put out an arm to stop me. She scurried back to the kitchen and emerged with a still-warm bagette. I bought a spare for you, she said, so you’ll have fresh bread on which to put your pate.

I left with a repaired car and a complete meal, from people I had never met before.

I may be wrong – I like to think I am – but if I had been a Frenchman in a small English village with a problem with my car, I doubt I would have received such kindness. And certainly no pate.

Don’t let anyone tell you the French are rude, or don’t like the Brits.

Ce n’est pas vrai.

Writing Sex Scenes (that will be read by your Mum)

I guess mothers are always proud of their sons. I’m tempted to say Jewish mothers especially so, but I suspect Asian, Italian and African mothers – indeed all mothers – are no different. So the publication of a mother’s son’s first novel was never likely to pass unnoticed. And while it’s easy to deflect the “So, when can I read it?” during the gestation period, it’s more difficult after it’s been accepted for publication; more difficult still once the proofs have arrived; pretty much impossible once proofed, mere weeks before publication. She wants a copy of the book – several copies in fact – one to read, one to show her friends at the bridge club, and one for “best” to lie artfully on her coffee table, my photograph ready to greet her guests. And there’s the difficulty. There are sex scenes. Sex scenes which, if I’ve written them properly, will make the reader’s blood pump slightly faster, their pupils dilate and their breathing catch slightly in their chests. It’s not just sex; it’s sexy.

Of course, I can tell her that the book isn’t autobiographical, and there is much truth in that. But all authors draw on personal experience even if they then twist, expand and embellish. The uncle who might have been the genesis of a character in the book becomes almost unrecognisable by the end. That’s when the writing process is at its best – when characters start breathing, speaking and acting for themselves. When that spark of life you have tried to breathe into them suddenly glows of its own accord and – what do you know? – the character starts acting in ways which you would never have expected. But still…they start life rooted in real experience. Just like those sex scenes. And while I may not have done precisely what the characters are doing, it’s close enough.

My mother’s no prude, and she isn’t shockable. In fact on the extremely rare occasions when she has one sherry too many, she is liable to tell quite a risque joke. [1] And when I was little, and I asked how babies were made, she gave me a precise and extremely detailed explanation, using proper biological terminology and diagrams, until my seven-year-old eyes glazed over and I became so bored that I didn’t ask again for another five years.

But still… I cannot escape from embarrassment as I picture my mother reading in detail what I may, or may not, have been doing with parts of my body she last saw in (or, more accurately, out of) swimming trunks several decades ago. I’m married with children, so we both know I figured out what to do with those parts long ago. But still… demonstrating the detail of my knowledge is something else. And it’s not just the technical aspects of the act… it’s the… peripheral stuff… less procreative, but more fun.

The situation takes me straight back to when I was 14 or 15 and my mother insisted on taking my younger brother and me to the cinema on the last day of half term. I knew all my mates would be there, in the back row, and I resisted going, but to no avail. She was on a mission, and she thought it would be fun. After the lights went up at the end and we filed out, and my mother’s eyes lighted on the canoodling couples in the back row, several boys’ hands indiscreetly inside the clothing of several of the girls. “Oh,” she commented, rather too loudly, as we were forced by the exiting crowds to pause at the end of the row. “Isn’t that disgusting? You wouldn’t do anything like that, would you?” My mates all grinned at me, and I knew I was in for it on the Monday. Of course I would have done something just like that, given the chance. I used to dream of getting that lucky, and if mum hadn’t insisted on taking me to the cinema, I’d have hoped to be in the back row with them.

But I’m no longer 14 or 15. I’m a man of the world, and there really is no need for me to be embarrassed… is there?

I know I can’t avoid it any further. She knows my contract allows me a certain number of copies and she’s placed her order. In any event, there’s always Amazon. So, no amount of equivocation or explication is going to help. She will read it, sex scenes and all… and I will do my best not to blush.
[1] And seeing as you asked, here it is: A young man takes a young lady on a first date to the cinema. After draping his arm nonchalantly around her shoulders for the first half of the film, and receiving no rebuff, he puts his hand on her knee. Then he gradually moved his hand up her thigh. The young lady lets him continue for a few inches, but then slaps away his hand. “Manners!” she hisses. “Tits first!”

Quintessentially English

Doesn’t everyone have one or more pieces of music that immediately transport them back in time to that amazing party, wonderful holiday or intense love affair? Music which drags you to your feet and forces you to dance or brings a lump to your throat?

For me there are phrases in the English language with a similar impact. They engage me on a visceral level and I can’t help but react when I hear them. For example:
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”

Lump in the throat time. Get me a Union Jack to wave.

“Don’t tell him, Pike!” makes me laugh every time. You can say it to almost any Englishman or woman over the age of 40, and they’ll smile. It binds us together because it’s about the war, about the pompous Capt Mainwarings we all encounter and about our shared sense of the ridiculous.

“They think it’s all over… it is now,” does it too. Again, it’s about Englishness – The Three Lions – pride at finally, even if only for a short time, being world-beaters in the game we invented, exported and historically lose.

If anyone’s interested, send me your favourite phrases or lines which immediately prompt that emotional response. My contact page is at http://simonmichael.uk/contact-the-author/. If there are enough I’ll collate and award gold, silver and bronze prizes in my next blog.