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Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes by Robert Louis Stevenson – an enchanting, personal memoir exploring the city’s culture and heritage.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

“Stevenson’s writing strikes the twenty-first century ear as still being fresh and intensely readable … we are in the company of an agreeable and relaxed guide giving us an anecdotal run-down on Edinburgh over a cup of coffee or lunch.”

Alexander McCall Smith

Novelist, poet and travel writer, Robert Louis Stevenson first published Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes in 1878, (revised 1889). This attractive new edition has been published by Manderley Press, a new indie publisher founded by Rebeka Russell, focusing on forgotten or out-of-print books which feature a memorable house, place or landmark.  The books will be small hardbacks, quarter-bound in cloth and printed on high quality paper. Cover artwork will be available to buy as prints.

Rebeka Russell, founder of the Manderley Press

I have always loved books, art, travel and old houses, so when lockdown happened, I decided the time was perfect to set up Manderley Press. Armchair travel and literary escapism had never seemed so important!” Rebeka Russell

Most appropriately, the name ‘Manderley’ is taken from the classic romantic novel, ‘Rebecca.’ “I could swear that the house was not an empty shell but lived and breathed as it had lived before.”  Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca.

The first book selected for the Manderley Collection is ‘Edinburgh’ featuring decorative artwork by Iain McIntosh (as shown here on the front cover), with a marvellous Introduction by Alexander McCall Smith, who is renowned for his popular and most amusing novels set in the city (44 Scotland Street, Isabel Dalhousie).

McCall Smith begins with succinct biographical background explaining that having studied engineering (to join his family clan of lighthouse designers) and then law, RLS wisely followed his literary vocation as an excellent storyteller.

 ‘Stevenson found Edinburgh such a rich source of inspiration for his writing. This is a walk through parts of the city that have survived to this day as they were during his lifetime.

Vintage drawing of Heriot Row, the family home in the New Town

If we were to stroll down Heriot Row with him today, there would be no surprises for him when we reached No. 17, although he might not have expected a plaque.’

RLS moved here with his family in 1857 when he was seven. From the nursery window, he loved to watch the lamplighter, the Leerie, switch on the gas lamps every evening.

17 Heriot Row, with a stone plaque beside the door and brass sign on lamp-post

McCall Smith describes how much the city inspired him from his childhood, frequently ill in his bedroom, looking out over Queen Street Gardens. As young man he explored the streets, taverns, monuments, rivers and hills, fascinated by ancient history, legendary myths and cultural heritage.

“It is at times a prose poem. It is a stream of conscious memoir about living in a town so gorgeously romantic it could be an opera set; it is a love song to a city.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, painted by John Singer Sargent (1887)

This personal Memoir is divided into ten chapters, taking the reader on a journey to Stevenson’s favourite haunts as well as describing seasonal weather and festivities. RLS appreciates how the magic of Edinburgh gets under your skin – “ the place establishes an interest in people’s hearts; go where they will they find no city of the same distinction.’

Edinburgh – his home city was a life long, literary inspiration

What a clashing of architecture! Greek temples, Venetian palaces and gothic spires are huddled one over the another..  the Castle and the summit of Arthur’s Seat look down with a becoming dignity.

This is a city set up on a hill, he explains, dominated by the Castle with its open view to sea and land.  

Tourists love to stroll down the Royal Mile from the Castle to the Palace of Holryroodhouse as did Stevenson to see St. Giles Cathedral, Parliament Close and the High Court spotting “ an advocate in wig and gown and a tide of lawyers.” (just as you will see today).

He is especially shocked by the social inequality between the overcrowded tenements, families living in a ‘huge human beehive’ in the Medieval Old Town, in contrast to the wealthy citizens in their grand houses on Heriot Row and Moray Place et al. around the Georgian-Victorian New Town.

‘The human Beehive’ – the high skyscraper tenements in the Old Town

Chapter Four is Legends, illustrated with a drawing of a man in a blindfold and bow tie with a hangman’s noose in the background – Deacon Brodie, a respected city councillor and cabinet maker by day but a thief by night – whose secret double life sparked the novel, ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’.

Edinburgh may be haunted by ghostly tales of grave diggers and murder but this is a “city of churches .. a clamour of bells upon the Sabbath morning in one swelling, brutal babblement of noise”.  Babblement! – Stevenson’s rich language is inventive and colourfully poetic. 

RLS was inspired by the stone carved tombs of the moody, gothic Greyfriars Kirkyard. More than a century later, J. K. Rowling followed in his footsteps to borrow a few names on the gravestones – Potter, Riddell, Scrimgeour, McGonagall, – now resurrected as her famous fictional characters.

Greyfriars Kirkyard – a gothic moody place of ghosts and gravestones

The symmetrical grand design of the New Town features spacious crescents, round circuses, and private gardens. This sounds like the writer is standing on the corner of Heriot Row and the steep hill of Dundas Street with a view of Fife: “It is surprising to see a perspective of a mile or more of falling street and beyond that woods, villas, a blue arm of sea and the hills upon the further side.” 

The view across to Fife from the corner of Heriot Row and Dundas Street

RLS takes a walk to the Dean Bridge over the Water of Leith where “carriages go spinning by and ladies with card cases pass to and fro about the duties of society” (elegant 19th century ladies who lunch!).

He recalls outdoor adventures as a schoolboy with a love of nature: “many an escalade of garden walls, a ramble among lilacs  .. when the Spring comes round, the hawthorn begins to flower and the meadows smell of young grass”.

Calton Hill has hardly changed since Stevenson’s day with the Athens of the North  ‘Parthenon’, Lord Nelson’s monument and Observatory. “Of all places for a view, Calton Hill is the best, since you can see the Castle, Arthur’s Seat, Holyrood Palace, Princes Street, Leith, the Firth. It is the place to stroll on one of those days of sunshine.”

Calton Hill with views over the city and across the Firth of Forth to Fife

In the chapter, Winter and New Year, RLS embraces the Scotch dialect to describe the cold wind – “snell, blae and scowthering, words which carry a shiver with them.” But there’s nothing cosier than an old pub, “the warm atmosphere of tavern parlours and the revelery of lawyers’ clerks.”

He finds a painterly beauty in the winter chill. “We enjoy superb sunsets, the profile of the city stamped in indigo upon a sky of luminous green.”

The New Year festive season in Edinburgh is listed in the book, ‘1,000 Places to See before you Die,’ attracting thousands of global visitors to join in the Hogmanay Street Party with music and fireworks.   

For RLS too, it was “the great national festival, a time of deep carousel, musicians, whisky and shortbread, singing Auld Lang Syne”. 

Hogmanay in Edinburgh: fireworks from Edinburgh Castle at midnight

He remembers student days at Edinburgh University enjoying “heroic snowballing – skating and sliding on Duddingston Loch – reminiscent of the iconic painting of Reverend Robert Walker by Henry Raeburn (c.1795).

Reverend Robert Walker by Sir Henry Raeburn

While he is fond of the city streets and sociable lifestyle, he would often escape to the rural tranquility of the Pentlands, Fairmilehead for a walk beside rivers and rolling hills, “a bouquet of old trees, a white farmhouse,  the bleating of flocks… a field of wild heathery peaks”.

The Pentland hills, to the south side of Edinburgh

After many journeys far and wide, Robert Louis Stevenson left his family home in 1887 for the last time, sailed to New York, toured America and from San Francisco he and his wife Fanny chartered a schooner to cruise the South Seas. In 1890 they settled on the island of Upolo where he adopted the Samoan name, Tusitala, the Teller of Tales.

Stevenson would never forget his emotional attachment to the city of his birth, as he wrote in this memoir of Picturesque Notes.

“ There is no Edinburgh emigrant, far or near, from China to Peru, but he or she carries some lively pictures of the mind, some sunset behind the Castle cliffs, some snow scene, some maze of city lamps, indelible in the memory.” 

https://www.manderleypress.com/home

https://www.manderleypress.com/shop/p/edinburgh

Note: I would like to suggest that a decorative ribbon bookmark would enhance the design and the leisurely experience of reading these classic books by Manderley Press. 

The addition of photographs and imagery in this feature are to offer background information and colourful illustration only.

‘The Padre was a Hooker’ by Stephen A. Blakey: the dedicated life of an Army Chaplain told with heart-warming compassion and gentle humour. 

Born in the same house where the Scottish poet Robert Burns died, little did Stephen Blakey know the significance of this connection and that 30 years later he would be transporting a haggis from Hong Kong to Nepal for a Burns’ supper with a troop of Gurkha soldiers. 

Guided by the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” it may seem a contradiction in terms that a committed Christian would choose a career in the Armed forces but Holy men and priests have accompanied soldiers into action over many centuries. A Royal Warrant of 1796 decreed that provision should be made for the religious duties in the army. A contingent of sixty chaplains was recruited for the Crimean war, twelve of whom died.  At the start of Great War, there were 117 Padres but by 1918 the number had risen to nearly 3,500. 

“The Padres, what decent fellows they were, as we knelt in the fields or farmyards on a Sunday to listen to them speak.”

A soldier serving during World War 1.

Live with the men, go everywhere they go, share their risks and they will listen to you.’

Wise advice by Reverend Hardy to Reverend Studdert-Kennedy, aka ‘Woodbine Willie,’ the renowned World War 1 Padre who was awarded the Military Cross for bravery at Ypres.

‘For God and Country’ was a dramatised American Army film (1943) following Catholic, Jewish and Protestant Chaplains from training school to the battlefield, (Ronald Reagan as Father Michael O’Keefe), to explain how religion is required for motivation and mental healing factors in wartime.

This brief historical background clearly illustrates the vital importance of the role of the chaplain, ‘to raise morale in difficult and hazardous conditions,’ which continues in our modern age.

 “ You should join the Navy as a chaplain,” Blakey’s friend John suggested during his final year at New College, training to be a minister with the Church of Scotland. “You would make a good bish’. 

Short for Bishop, this is the nickname for chaplains in the Navy, while the Army uses the affectionate term, Padre, Spanish for Father.  In 1977, there were a large number of theology graduates all seeking a place for their first year probation.  Not particularly enamoured with restricted life at sea, he applied successfully to join the British Army and, aged 24, was the youngest chaplain ever commissioned. The first posting was at Redford Barracks, Edinburgh with an intense training programme at Sandhurst. “Seven weeks that would change my life.” 

This was the start of a forty year career as the longest serving chaplain in the British Army, moving around five Scottish Regiments at home and overseas, in war and peace, in church and on the rugby pitch. Hence the witty title of this Memoir.

The focus for Church of Scotland chaplains is to care for the spiritual and moral welfare of Scottish soldiers and their families.  This is Reverend  Blakey’s account of his dedicated life serving in Northern Ireland, Belize, Italy, Brunei, the Balkans and the First Gulf War, et al. experiencing many a dangerous posting to the front line of defence.

As a non-combatant officer, Blakey still had to undergo essential training for health and safety, such as Nuclear Biological Chemical, having to wear a gas mask for 24 hours. A rough, tough, exhausting exercise. 

Commanding Officer’s Warrior in action, Operation Desert Storm

In August 1990 after Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, Saddam Hussein declared Kuwait the 19th province of Iraq and very soon the Royal Scots first battalion in Germany was to be deployed  to the British armoured division in Saudi Arabia.  The Unit moved to Scotland for intense training, running to build up physical fitness and sweating it out in the sauna to prepare for the desert heat.

“The men were going to war. They were not all expected to make it home” was Stephen’s sobering thought as they set off on the mission, Operation Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait.

If the men can’t go to church, then the church must go to the men.Unknown Padre

The challenge for Stephen Blakey was conducting a Christian service in a Muslim country including serving wine at Communion, both against the law. But they persevered as The Royal Scots maintained the tradition of Church Muster and everyone attended not just for corporate worship but “a shared sense of unity.” 

Padre Stephen Blakey leading a church service in the desert

 The Daily Mail reported on one of these services in a most moving description – the Padre standing at a makeshift altar of a trestle table covered in a tartan cloth and white linen with a simple wooden cross. Whatever their religious belief or creed, ‘in times of war, men who would not step inside a church need to find inner strength and comfort. And that is what is happening among the Royal Scots.”

A photograph of Corporal Brash shows him kneeling in the sand, dressed in desert combats with head bowed, a prayer book in his hand. It’s the juxtaposition of a rifle at a Christian service which is so chilling, a moment of peace during a time of enemy conflict.

Corporal ‘Basil’ Brash with prayer book and rifle

‘The MOD does not employ chaplains to make soldiers into better Christians but to help care for them so that they will contribute to the challenges of military life including killing the enemy.’

In the desert, the Padre’s key role was all about offering comfort, guidance and a listening ear to share worries about “life and death, hopes and fears.”  In this tight knit community, as a young man himself, Stephen it would seem, was not so much a Father figure but a brother or friend in time of need.

As well as sufficient food rations, he had to ensure a regular supply of cigarettes, chocolate, batteries, electric razors and radios – not always an easy task. The Jocks were a romantic lot it seems and requested flowers and Valentine cards to send home to wives and girlfriends.  Hogmanay 1990 was a teetotal affair with Irn Bru and shortbread but no whisky although there was a rumour that bottles of Communion port were secretly pilfered.

In the darkness before dawn, the Siberian cold made you gasp. Padre Blakey had wrapped a black and white checked shemagh round his neck, handing out prayer books. Standing beyond, Royal Scots HQ staff of 200 men, silhouetted in an orange glow from the fiery sun that was rising to replace the sight of the ugly angry flashes from the artillery. This was to be the last religious gathering.” Richard Kay

Prayers at sunrise on the eve of battle in Iraq

Following the service, Lt Col, Iain Johnstone addressed the troops to prepare them in no uncertain terms of the major challenge at the start of the ground war. His message was about killing, short, sharp and to the point. “We were due to move north and form up with the rest of the Brigade ready for the move into Iraq and whatever lay ahead.”

And so back to the title of the book. Stephen had played rugby since the age of eleven, captain of the school team and then at St, Andrew’s University and Edinburgh University.  Sports every Wednesday afternoon was an important part of military routine. When based at Fort George, Inverness, the team from Kings Own Scottish Borderers were up against the Royal Highland Fusiliers with the Padre as hooker, which developed into a fierce battle of a different kind. He became a Rugby officer and hooked for several regiments over his Army career.

KOSB celebrating a victory over Vanderbilt University, USA in 1980.

Here too are personal stories about his childhood, moving around Scotland in his younger days before settling in St. Andrews.  As an Infantry Battalion Padre, he was mainly based in the Married Quarters with his wife Christine and a growing family of four children. Being posted around the world from Inverness to Hong Kong was all part of the job – “Over 16 years of regular army service, we had nine homes and six international moves.”

This regular disruption involved trying to arrange seamless school education and therefore many Officer’s children go to boarding school from the age of eight. When based in Germany, a soldier’s wife worked as an assistant in the Nursery, “learning the bairns their ABCs.”  Realising that correct English grammar would not be taught here, they immediately enrolled their daughter at a local kindergarten where she thrived and learnt to speak German fluently.

Commuting to work was never an easy bus ride but a dizzying flurry of helicopter trips to see soldiers on observational watch from clifftop towers between Belize and Guatamala or visiting troops on guard at the Irish Border during the Troubles. The unnerving experience too during the Cold War crossing Checkpoint Charlie between East and West Berlin“which sat like an island in the middle of a hostile Communist sea.”

While based here, learning the basic language was a struggle for the Padre –at school he had studied Russian which was helpful later on, knowing the Cyrillic alphabet when travelling in Serbia.  Most soldiers learnt essential German phrases, ‘Noch Schwei bier bitte (another two beers please).’

There’s also the crazy, colourful adventure with a Haggis as mentioned above.  When Blakey was based in Hong Kong, his military parish covered Brunei, Korea and Nepal. As he prepared for a trip to Nepal in January 1983, a telegram arrived: ‘Ref. Visit by Padre next week. Request he brings haggis. Stop.”

The Scots Guard’s chef made a haggis which he duly packed in his luggage for a flight via Kathmandu to Dharan and fortunately it was not confiscated going through airport customs.! Wearing the uniform of an Army officer no doubt did help. With pipers and poetry for entertainment, a very successful Burns’ supper was held for the Gurkha soldiers with a dram or two of imported whisky.

Time to relax socially was essential, after long hours of military duty and exercises. There’s an hilarious anecdote about leisurely, liquid lunches at the Officer’s Mess on occasional Friday afternoons: “the port decanter would circle, the banter would flow and we would all enjoy the ambience and humour.”  

The Padre would never, it is clearly apparent, let anyone down. When he was due to preach at a Remembrance Sunday service one year in Glasgow, he was then instructed to go to the Festival of Remembrance the night before at the Albert Hall, London which would be attended by the Queen. So afterwards, he drove all the way back through the night to Glasgow in order to get to the Church on time.

This poignant, page-turning autobiography captures the highs and lows of the peripatetic travels of an Army Chaplain blending stories of terrifying ordeals and humorous escapades. Moreover, as he was so often far away from his own family, it reflects his genuine kindness, compassion and commitment for the pastoral welfare of the soldiers.  

Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Iain Johnstone, Major Norman Soutar and Major John Potter and officers of the 1st Battalion The Royal Scots

It is heart-warming to know that his service to God, Queen and country, the Padre was very much appreciated as expressed in a letter of thanks on behalf of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Scots.

You are so thoughtful and caring towards every single one of us and our families… a great support. You are about the most popular man in the Gulf. We are all grateful. Thank you.”

“The Padre was a Hooker” by Stephen A. Blakey

Published by Austin Macauley

Available from Amazon and all good bookshops

Hardback ISBN-13 : ‎ 978-1788230803

Paperback SBN-13‏: ‎ 978-1788230780

The Padre washing up after Communion service under the heat of desert sun

John Lowrie Morrison, O.B.E: Let’s Go Back to the Hebrides – an exuberant, expressive journey around timeless, tranquil seascapes.  

“I love the way the light affects the landscape. You don’t get the same bright colours with the same intensity anywhere else in the world.”

Jolomo

John Lowrie Morrison (aka Jolomo) presented his first solo show in 1976, the springboard for a very successful artistic career and today internationally renowned for his vibrant Scottish land and seascapes.  

Jolomo sketching ‘en plein air’ to capture the wild beauty of the seashore

Here is a wide selection of paintings of Hebridean beaches, shimmering islands, heather clad hills and remote cottages, emphasising the effect of light through the seasons, from dusk to dawn and shifting weather patterns.

Ardroil Beach, The Uig Sands, Isle of Lewis

In Ardroil Beach, the Uig Sands, Lewis the viewer feels that they are standing amidst the machair and scatter of tiny flowers – neatly illustrated by tiny dots – looking out over the bay, perhaps at dusk, with a mauve tint in the sky, the fading light shining on the water.

An enriching palette of crimson, coral, hot pink and pale blue with thick brushstrokes envelops a tranquil scene in Dawn breaks over Earsay, Barra, a quiet composition where the eye is drawn to the small red boat moored at anchor, centre stage. In the foreground, it’s either a carpet of Autumn leaves or glistening seaweed. 

Dawn breaks over Earsary, Isle of Barra

Dynamic streaks of plum, tangerine and mustard gold depict the swirling sweep of blustery clouds Stormy Evening Light, Eriskay, looking to South Uist featuring his famous motif – one of his iconic white-washed, red-roofed traditional, tumbledown crofts perched on the shore.

Stormy Evening Light Eriskay, looking to South Uist

Jolomo works almost exclusively in oils, applying the pigment wet-on-wet, mixing various shades to produce precise hues of colour for his own exuberant rainbow palette: “On a stormy day, you can see the weather moving across the sky and the colours can be incredible, the light giving you colours like green, pink and magenta.”

A calm summer afternoon perhaps in Struan Bay, Isle of Coll, a wide panoramic view with the shapely curve of the sandy beach looking out to the hazy horizon.   The white splashes of surf breaking over the rocks are simple, delicate flicks across the flowing tide.  

Struan Bay, Isle of Coll

Reminscent of a sun-drenched Caribbean island is the ring of bright aqua water, this shade of sea is also distinctively Hebridean.

Again, a glorious curve of soft golden sand and turquoise-tinted sea in Stormy Evening light, Luskentyre, Harris expresses a whiff of fresh salty sea air and captures the vivid colours, if not the climate, of an idyllic tropical island.

Stormy Evening Light over Luskentyre and the Hills of Harris

As well as the pretty flourish of wild flowers on the beach in Sea pinks and Spindrift, Barra, a brash, bold expressive technique evokes a mesmerising, atmospheric sense of energy, with the swirling, crashing waves creating a vivacious sense of movement as well as a blast of the bracing wind.

Seapinks and Spindrift, Isle of Barra

From the lone sheiling of the misty island, Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas;

Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland, And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.

(from The Canadian Boat Song)

With a passion for the Highlands and Islands, John Lowrie Morrison returns again and again to paint his favourite places, sketching outside to capture the timeless, wild natural beauty where the land meets the sea and the sea touches the sky.  The personal narrative behind ‘Let’s Go Back to the Hebrides’ clearly reflects an emotional, mystical mood of nostalgia and, moreover, of renewed hope.

John Lowrie Morrison, O.B.E: Let’s go back to the Hebrides

25th September to 16 October, 2021

The Torrance Gallery, 36 Dundas Street, Edinburgh EH3 6JN

View the gallery of images on line and for more information

www.torrancegallery.co.uk

Open: Mon-Fri: 11am to 6pm; Sat: 10.30am to 4pm

There are two books on the artist’s work, “The Colour of Life” and “Jolomo – Retrospective,” for sale at the gallery

Beach and Machair Flowers, Isle of Coll

Nina Hamnett (1890-1956): the legendary, but long lost, Queen of Bohemia in London and Paris, remembered by Alicia Foster.

The vivacious, often outrageous, Nina Hamnett was a romantic rebel with a cause: one of the most respected artists of the Modernist movement through the Camden Town Group, Omega Workshop and School of Paris, her work was shown widely, including at the Royal Academy and the Salon d’Automne.

This attractive, pocket sized book by the art historian, Dr Alicia Foster, who is also the curator of a current retrospective of Nina Hamnett at Charleston Farmhouse, Firle Sussex, 19th May to 30th August.

After a strict Victorian, military childhood, Nina refused to train as an office Clerk at her father’s suggestion, and her grandmother kindly paid for the fees at Pelham School of Art.  Achieving a place to study at the London School of Art 1907 – 1910, Nina knew her vocation, “Here at last was paradise”.

Her tutor, William Nicholson encouraged her aptitude for still life – moving away from colourful studies of fruit and flowers as depicted by Cezanne, Matisse and Manet, to focus on the simplicity of kitchen pots, pans and jugs. 

As seen in several Still Life paintings from 1917 and 1919, here are soft muted colours, a delicate touch of light and shade and often with a staged inclusion of avant-garde magazines and books.

Self Portrait 1913 shows her short, bobbed hair style, artist’s smock, hand on hip with a confident stance and gaze, as if to say, “Look at me and judge my work seriously”.

Self Portrait, 1913, Nina Hamnett (London Library)

It was this year when Nina joined the Omega Workshops, a Bloomsbury co-operative led by Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell to develop modernist decorative and applied arts.  Hamnett was encouraged to experiment with figurative and abstract designs for fabric, furniture, carpets and murals. She and Fry later had a close professional and personal relationship after posing for intimate life drawings.

Introduced to the world of the French Post-Impressionists at London exhibitions, she first visited Paris in 1912, returning regularly to immerse herself in the intellectual literary and artistic social circle around Montparnasse. 

In Spring 1914, sitting alone for dinner at La Rotonde, she met a dashing young man, the struggling artist, Amadeo Modigliani, trying to sell his drawings.

Portrait of Nina Hamnett by Amadeo Modigliani

She encouraged his work, posing as a model – this fabulous iconic portrait of Nina by Modigliani was painted in 1914 – while he introduced her to Picasso, Diaghilev and Cocteau et al. Here, at the heart of this inspirational community, Nina began to sketch café and street scenes with a quirky caricature style akin to Toulouse Lautrec.

Paris Cafe, 1921, Nina Hamnett (Bridgeman Images)

Back in London, she was commissioned to paint the Sitwells, the trio of siblings who had formed their own literary and artistic clique, capturing Osbert and Edith’s theatrical eccentricity.

As Foster comments, their brother Sacheverell thought Nina’s artistry was “magnificent” while Hamnett described these as “psychological portraits that shall accurately represent the spirt of the age.”

Formal fashionable spirit of the age is captured in Gentleman with a Top Hat c 1919 or 1921, described as “one of Hamnett’s most dazzling portraits” but a shame that the sitter is not identified in this book.   This is George Manuel Unwin, a Chilean opera singer who paraded around Paris in his spats, wearing a monocle, hat and carrying a cane, and Nina adds ther studio accessories of a Moroccan rug and a guitar as a backdrop.  

Gentleman with a Top Hat, (1919/ 1921), Nina Hamnett (Bridgeman Images)

Another renowned portrait is of the ballet dancer, Rupert Doone, 1923, whom she also met in Paris; his classically handsome good looks accentuated with pink blush along the cheekbones, pink gloss on cupid lips, and given a rather morose, moody expression. 

Rupert Doone, 1923, Nina Hamnett (Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery)

In her vivacious and vital role as an unofficial cultural ambassador she embraced British and French high society through art, literature and music. Her friends and mentors included Augustus John, Roger Fry, Gaudier-Brzeska, Sickert, Modigliani, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Brancusi, Zadkine, Satie and Stravinksy.

 ‘Nina Hamnett’ does not claim to be a comprehensive biography and at under 50 pages, it’s a speedy scamper through her career with more of a thematic study of her work than covering personal and professional relationships.

There’s not a clear chronology through the narrative which concentrates on a selection of key portraits, sketches and life drawings, with limited detail of her promiscuous, bisexual behaviour and bohemian lifestyle.  Standing out from the crowd, she was a serious drinker, danced on bar tables and wore bold red, yellow or checkerboard stockings and children’s sandals with flamboyant flair. 

A meeting with Gertrude Stein in 1912, which sounds like a fascinating encounter, is a passing remark within parenthesis. Nina’s life drawing, ‘Standing Nude’ 1920 is interestingly the same title as an earlier limestone sculpture by Modigliani. This could be a tribute to the artist who had died that year but the fact that they were lovers is not mentioned.

Standing Nude, 1920, Nina Hamnett (Leeds University Library)

This tasty amuse bouche into Nina’s extraordinary tragic short life will certainly entice readers to seek out her two volumes of memoirs, ‘Laughing Torso’ (1932) and ‘Is She a Lady’ (1955). These provide all the colourful (truthful or exaggerated?), anecdotes of her travels, brief encounters and seductive liaisons dangereuses, flitting between London and Paris. Apparently, she introduced James Joyce to Rudolph Valentino.! 

“Laughing Torso” is a neglected and misunderstood Modernist masterpiece.” Dr Jane Goldman

A photograph of Nina from 1920 in her studio depicts her individual personality: a masculine stance in wide-legged trousers, open toe sandals, cigarette in hand with a sense of rebellious freedom.  The title is quite simply and enigmatically, ‘Myself.’

Myself, 1920, Photograph of Nina Hamnett (London Library)

Walter Sickert was a great admirer, who wrote the preface for the catalogue of her exhibition at the Edlar Gallery, London in June 1918: “Nina Hamnett draws like a born sculptor and paints like a born painter.”

This book and the retrospective exhibition at Charleston this summer shines a timely light on this talented born artist who became the best known British artist in Paris in her prime, slowly fading from the limelight until her tragic death aged sixty six.  Nina Hamnett was never afraid to do things differently, embracing the Bohemian spirit of her time with free spirited passion and pioneering creativity.

Nina Hamnett by Alicia Foster, Eiderdown Books RRP £10.99:

Modern Women Artists series: www.eiderdownbooks.com

Nina Hamnett Retrospective: 19 May – 30 August, 2021

https://www.charleston.org.uk/exhibition/nina-hamnett/

The Modern Women Artists Series
The Modern Women Artists series of collectable books reveals an alternative history of art, telling the story of important female artists whose art might otherwise be overlooked, overshadowed or forgotten in the first half of the twentieth century.

The Student, 1917, Nina Hamnett (Ferens Art Gallery, Bridgeman Images)

‘The Appeal’ by Janice Hallett: an ingeniously plotted, finely crafted, murder mystery with masterly Miller-esque dramatic style.

Dear Reader – enclosed are all the documents you need to solve a case. It starts with the arrival of two mysterious newcomers to the small town of Lockwood, and ends with a tragic death.   Someone has already been convicted of this brutal murder and is currently in prison, but we suspect they are innocent. What’s more, we believe far darker secrets have yet to be revealed.

Throughout the Fairway Players’ staging of ‘All My Sons’ and the charity appeal for little Poppy Reswick’s life-saving medical treatment, the murderer hid in plain sight. Yet we believe they gave themselves away. In writing. The evidence is all here, between the lines, waiting to be discovered.

Will you accept the challenge? Can you uncover the truth?

The Appeal’ is the widely critically acclaimed, debut novel by Janice Hallett, a former magazine editor, journalist and political speechwriter. She co-wrote the psychological thriller feature film The Retreat and has had several plays produced with further scripts in development.

The cover image illustrates the Defence Barrister’s Brief neatly tied up in pink ribbon.  Roderick Tanner, QC is representing a client who is appealing against their sentence and sets his trainees, Femi and Charlotte, the task of studying the papers to see if they agree with his conclusions.  

Open the book to find this collection of emails, texts, WhatsApp messages, police interviews and QC’s notes which will guide the reader too through all the legal evidence to unravel the truth behind the murder and if there has been a miscarriage of justice.

We are introduced to the large and colourful cast list of characters through their testimony in this flurry of correspondence – personal observations, anecdotes, chit chat, gossip, facts, and, no doubt, many secrets and lies.

Many of these are members of the Fairway Players, getting ready for the casting and rehearsals for a production of Arthur Miller’s, All My Sons (1947).

The award winning play is based on a true wartime story about a corrupt businessman, Joe Keller, who sold defective airplane parts, driven by a thirst for money and success even if it comes at the cost of family relationships and tragic consequences.

The film version of All My Sons, by Arthur Miller (1948)

A play within a play is a clever device.  Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is a farce set behind the scenes of a theatre production where mounting egos, memory loss and secret affairs turn every performance of Nothing On into real drama from dress rehearsal, the opening night and a performance towards the end of the run.

Alan Ayckbourn also used the scenario in ‘A Chorus of Disapproval’: A widower attempts to escape loneliness by joining the local amateur light operatic company for a performance of The Beggar’s Opera with all the day to day, often immoral, activities of the actors off stage. 

So here we have a modern murder mystery set around a classic play.  Very much in charge of proceedings is Martin Hayward, the director, a respected local businessman who owns The Grange Golf and Country Club.  In the cast of All My Sons are his wife Helen as Kate Keller, their daughter Paige is Lydia, three members of the McDonald family; Sam and Kel Greenwood, are new members having recently been voluntary aid workers in Africa. Isabel is a bit of a loner, neurotic and obsessive, desperately keen to make friends and have a starring role with the Fairway Players.

Drama off stage too when Martin and Helen’s grand-daughter Poppy is diagnosed with a brain tumour, and a Crowdfunding campaign is launched to raise £250,000 for experimental drug treatment in the USA.  Medical evidence on Poppy’s condition is supplied mainly by Dr Tish Bhatoa, an Oncology Consultant.

Of course, we are well aware that these amateur actors are playing a role on stage, who may well have a talent to deceive friends, family and the police in real life too.  

This is a complex maze of intertwined events: behind the scenes of the theatre production, Poppy’s terminal illness, the fundraising appeal – all leading up to the night of the murder. The correspondence between the characters together with police reports, offer a conflicting summary of everyone’s involvement, grudges, suspicions, arguments and strained friendships, as we try to work out the timeline of action.  But whom can we trust.?

Rather curiously as the Fairway Players are the prime suspects, the characters and motives in All My Sons, dealing with a fraudulent business scam and family deceit, are never explored by Martin and his cast, despite the close thematic links to the central plotline of The Appeal. 

On Page 296 there is an essential List of Individuals totalling 81 characters. This would be far better published as a pull- out Theatre programme, as you have to keep referring to it as a reminder of who everyone is – the key players, family relationships and the small but important cameo roles.

Another point to make is that Femi and Charlotte communicate by WhatsApp, with some messages printed in dark grey and difficult to read clearly (as illustrated above).

Sunday Times Crime Novel of the Month, January 2021

However, what does work so brilliantly is that through the dialogue of emails and texts, we can virtually ‘hear’ each character’s voice, giving a first-person narrative with sharp, psychological insight.  The antitheses of a fast paced, action thriller, the focus in The Appeal is on detailed discussion and debate with a slow methodical pace, ingeniously plotted and finely crafted with masterly Miller-esque dramatic style.

From a Review of the premiere of ‘All My Sons’, 30th January, 1947:

Mr. Miller has written an honest, forceful drama about a group of people caught up in a monstrous swindle.   Writing pithy yet unselfconscious dialogue, he has created his characters vividly with hearts and minds of their own. His drama is a piece of expert construction ..  an original play of superior quality by a playwright who knows his craft and has unusual understanding of the tangled loyalties of human beings.’ Brooks Atkinson, New York Times.

THE APPEAL by Janice Hallett is published by Viper @ Serpent’s Tail. 

Will you accept the challenge? Can you uncover the truth?

ISBN: 978-1788165280 –  Hardback.

ISBN: 978-1788165303 – Paperback to be published on 1st July, 2021.

Janice Hallett: the multi-talented journalist, film script writer, playwright and novelist

‘From the River to the Sea: Aquitaine, A Place for Me’ by Basia Gordon. A Memoir: A time-travelling, personal journey between Scotland to South West France

We Brits are born travellers eager for adventure, an escape for cultural experiences, a taste of luxury, or perhaps, in search of a new place to call home.

When Peter Mayle moved to rural France, he intended to write a novel, not a bestselling memoir. ‘A Year in Provence,’ first published in 1989, is an aspirational lifestyle tale about a fifty-something couple renovating a derelict farmhouse in France.

Their decision had begun with “.. a meal that we shall never forget, beyond the gastronomic frontiers (and) we promised ourselves that one day we would live here.”

Peter Mayle at home in Provence.

Unintentionally, Mayle created a new style of literary travel genre, leading to other successful narratives such as ‘Driving over Lemons’ by Chris Stewart, and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ by Frances Mayes.

Basia Gordon

“Let your dream take over your life rather than your life take over your dream.”

This translation from a French proverb is the apt starting point of Basia Gordon’s narrative about taking a year out from life and work in Glasgow to refurbish an early 19th century farmhouse in Aquitaine.  She first gives a glimpse into her rich Polish heritage covering her parents’ distressing wartime experiences which led to them both, independently, to Scotland where they soon met.

Map of the Aquitaine region and location of their family holiday home

As it was a long way to travel to Poland for regular holidays, in 1972 her father had bought Coutal, a “charming wreck” in rural France for £3.000: “We would never quite belong there, half marooned, half anchored to it as we were.  We would always be regarded as foreigners, invariably referred to locally by the misnomer, Les Anglais.”

Coutal, – the family holiday home, Lot et Garonne, Aquitaine in the 1970s.

Memories of summers here are colourful and carefree, “as children we were feral and relished our freedom, only coming home late in the evening when we were hungry”.

After her father passed away, it continued to be a place for Polish and Scottish family reunions but with limited funds for maintenance and development. “In 2018, my partner Gerry and I decided to take a sabbatical from our teaching jobs to renovate Coutal.”  

Coutal in the rural tranquility of Lot et Garonne

Their initial 29 hour journey from Glasgow to Aquitaine by car with an over-packed trailer (an array of objects, thirty T shirts, Philippe Starck cheese grater, Cocktail book, but no cocktail shaker), is related with light hearted humour through a series of unfortunate incidents.

Lot et Garonne and community of villages

The destination is Lot-et-Garonne, south of the Dordogne and north of Gascony in the Aquitaine region of France. A lush fertile landscape with fields of sunflowers, plum trees, vineyards, farms, market towns and pretty Medieval villages.

Basia lost in a meadow of sunflowers near Coutal

This Memoir follows Bazia’s personal, often emotional reminiscences of Coutal, the progress of the building work, daily challenges of language, laws and lifestyle to fit in, not as tourists but as locals.  

This is not a quick decorating job, but hard manual labour, digging the earth, building walls, erecting a garage, creating an ensuite bedroom in the barn, electrical wiring, grass cutting, all in preparation to welcome their first visitors at their farmhouse ‘hotel”.  

A rhythm of work, eat, siesta, rest, work again. They need to brush up their French especially technical and DIY phrases in order to buy wood or a hinge and learn that sandpaper is Le papier de verre.

Gerry and Basia, armed with essential tools

The reader is introduced to their friendly, nonagenarian neighbours, Etienne and Suzanne Gouget, “peasant’ farmers, who eat well with their own fresh eggs and vegetables, farm reared poultry and wild rabbits.

 Basia and Gerry explore the local villages, Largadonne, Born, St. Vivien with numerous vineyards all around, including Chateau de Planque and Buzet – yes, Plonk and Boozy.!

Known as the Tuscany of France,  “there is a surfeit of prettiness here, rolling hills and bucolic charm” amidst the sizzling hot summer sun.  

The region of Lot et Garonne – the Tuscany of France

Following country customs, Basia makes soap from orange blossom, lemon grass and bay leaves while their garden is now flourishing with sunflowers, pumpkin, rosemary and lavender.

The picturesque heritage town of Monflanquin

The Medieval towns of Monflanquin and Villereal attract 100,000 visitors a year, and Bodega, the annual festival in August is when clowns, musicians, dancers and jugglers stage street theatre circus entertainment creating a lively, sociable event.

The lively cultural, social community of Villereal

Many old properties in this area with swimming pools and outhouses have been purchased cheaply, but renovation is very expensive -“dreams crumbled and houses abandoned.” Meanwhile, they plough on with their dream designer holiday home, visiting many a Vide Grenier –  car boot sales – to buy vintage homeware, art, antiques and curios.

Conducting financial business with the Tax office and bank seems to be a bureaucratic nightmare .. not to mention the ensuing complications of living in France after Brexit which has been nothing but “Mayhem.. Brekshit.”  Expenses are a constant source of worry – house insurance,  medical treatment (will it be covered by the EHIC card?!) and endless car problems – ( L’embroyer is the word for clutch). When they buy a 16 year old Peugot, it requires a passport, proof of home address and payment by cheque. 

When money is tight, they keep calm and carry on, “We shall be eating baguette sans fromage for a month.”   Basia is fascinated to know that a staggering 30 million baguettes are sold in France every day, plus all those crisp crosssants and pastries!

Over recent months, the Gilet Jaunes marches have swept the country, protesting against President Macron’s changes to taxation and welfare, a grassroots revolution for economic justice. As welcome breaks from politics and the building site, Basia and Gerry relax on holiday in Majorca with a literary pilgrimage to the home of the poet Robert Graves, a heritage tour of Berlin and an exciting trip to China to observe efficient bullet trains and cutting-edge technology.

The Barn undergoing major reconstruction!

Back in ‘Coutal’, the renovation work resumes, installing a new kitchen, bedroom and bathroom.  The design is Scandi chic for the Barn in contrast to traditional oak wood in the farmhouse, now furnished with old church pews from Scotland.  

Basia is righly very proud of the smart new windows now installed in the Barn

“I wonder what my father would have thought of the changes at Coutal Haut?” muses Basia.   

During a cold, wet January, Basia and Gerry celebrate Burns Night with a party for friends, and find that the bottles of whisky are cheaper in France than in Scotland.!  Their rural retreat has often been a revolving door of family and friends, which prove to be enjoyable diversions from the job in hand, especially if guests bring Tunnocks caramel wafers from Glasgow.

Amongst all the anecdotes, the most poetic stories describe an appetising feast of good food and drink.  The buzzing farmers’ Markets are the place to buy the freshest fruit and vegetables, and they also pick their own walnuts and plums – the delicious Pruneaux d’Agen is a famous speciality.

Fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables at the weekly local markets.

Cheap, gluggable, quality wine is purchased in BIBS  – a bag of 5 litres in a box and they also try their hand at making walnut wine.  Embracing local manners, it is important to greet everyone you meet each day, with a cheery Bonjour.

Their elderly neighbours, Etienne and Suzanne, are true Masterchefs, rustling up Broad bean soup, truffle omelette, venison pate for lunch. A turkey “fed with grains and fruit produced the most succulent, mouth watering meat we had ever tasted.”  Quality, simple peasant cooking at its best.

Just like Peter Mayle’s passion for French cuisine which enticed his move to Provence, it’s the food and wine which has been a highlight of their sabbatical in Aquitaine. “From the River to the Sea” is a most enchanting, time-travelling journey, enriched with childhood memories, cultural & culinary adventures, relating the story of a beloved family home, ‘Coutal’ for over nearly fifty years.

   “A year of difficult situations and heartbreak ….I could write a dissertation on French building terms!.” Basia Gordon.

Coutal – beautifully redesigned for the 21st century

From the River to the Sea: Aquitaine, A Place for MeA Memoir by Basia Gordon is published by Matador.

Hardback: £17.99 ISBN: 978-1800461345

Paperback: £12.99 ISBN: 978-1800461352

Lies to Tell by Marion Todd – D.I. Clare Mackay is back for another crime-busting, thrilling, twisting rollercoaster ride.

Marion Todd is a full-time crime novelist based in North-east Fife, overlooking the River Tay, but like many aspiring, talented writers – including J.K. Rowling – it has been a long road to success.  She first studied music with the Open University and worked as a piano teacher, accompanist and a hotel lounge pianist. After a busy family life, (married to a Detective with Police Scotland), bringing up three children, she then had time to write short stories for magazines and was shortlisted for a Scottish Arts Council Award.

Marion Todd, creator of the DI Clare Mackay crime novels

With a life long love of the crime genre, since reading Agatha Christie in her youth, she then created a feisty character, Detective Inspector Clare Mackay as the star of her debut thriller, “See Them Run” published in 2019.

On the night of a wedding celebration, one guest meets a grisly end when he’s killed in a hit-and-run.  Set in St. Andrews, the ancient University town and international home of Golf, DI Clare Mackay is on the hunt for a cold, systematic, serial killer.

All the ingredients of a cracking crime novel: a strong female lead, a vivid sense of place, a rising body count and a twist you don’t see coming … A welcome addition to the Tartan Noir genre’ Claire Macleary, author of ‘Cross Purpose.’

Fairmont Golf Resort, St. Andrews – as featured in “See Them Run”

An immediate smash hit, “See Them Run” was nominated for the Bloody Scotland Scottish Crime debut of the Year, 2020.  

Canelo commissioned Todd for a three book deal and so DI Mackay was back again in the second novel, “In Plain Sight.” When a baby girl is snatched from the crowd of spectators at a fun run on West Sands beach, the local police have a major investigation on their hands. Which of the residents of St Andrews is hiding something – and why?

And most recently published is the third thriller in the series, “Lies to Tell.”

LIES TO TELL by Marion Todd

If you have not yet read the first two in the series, like me, no problem at all as this is a stand-alone novel and it’s easy to pick up important elements of the backstory.

The charming old seaside town of St. Andrews, Fife

Early one morning DI Clare Mackay receives a message from her boss DCI Alastair Gibson telling her to accompany him on a secret mission to meet Gayle Crichton, an ethical hacker who is to investigate a serious security breach inside Police Scotland. However, Clare must conceal Gayle’s true identity and undercover work from her team at the St. Andrews station. 

Meanwhile, DI Mackay is dealing with a key witness under police protection in a Safe House before an important Court case, and the report of a missing university student. The action takes place over a short time frame, 15th to 24th May, so expect a pacey, tense and dramatic narrative.

Getting to grips with the full rounded personality of realistic characters is essential to grab the reader’s attention.  Within the first couple of pages, we learn that Clare lives alone with her dog, Benjy, at Daisy Cottage, with its wildly overgrown garden.  At work, she wants to prove she is a competent, ambitious detective, as good as her male, macho counterparts, and dresses smartly for the professional image.

Todd has an easy, free flowing style of storytelling, with vivid descriptions such as this picture of DCI Alastair Gibson:

“ The DCI, dressed to impress in a fine dark grey suit … Giorgio Armani. His tie was knotted tightly at the neck and his shirt cuffs were held by a pair of plain silver cufflinks.”

The location setting too is vitally important for a realistic sense of place – whether Rankin’s Edinburgh or Dexter’s Oxford.

Market Street, St. Andrews with its old cobbles and fountain

“ The Safe House was a two bedroomed flat in busy Market Street, above a shop selling what Clare called, tartan tat for tourists.  The street was cobbled with a dried up fountain . .. busy with mums wheeling pushchairs and red gowned students going between lectures.”

The familiar sight of red gowned University students

As Mackay tries to navigate the increasingly complex, convoluting maze of criminal cases, the underlying theme is all about secrets, lies and whom she can trust. As the pressure builds up, we can see her strong minded, feisty nature focussed on the job.

But we also see the softer, feminine side, as she misses her partner Geoffrey who has moved to Boston, and her new singleton lifestyle is now akin to Bridget Jones: “She opened the fridge – a Cottage pie from M&S stood alone on the shelf .. and she took a bottle of red from the wine rack, pouring herself a large glass.” 

Footloose and fancy free, enjoying many a glass of vino and Prosecco, we soon follow her tentative steps through text messages to the temptation of a closer relationship with a senior officer.  Romantic encounters aside, the heart of this gripping, gritty plot line, is a murky mire of dangerous liaisons involving scams, money laundering, abduction and a gruesome murder.   

Clare is a tough cop, (a former armed response officer), but she is also vulnerable, emotional woman, which is well portrayed. As she confides DS Chris West, “I don’t know who I can trust” …. “The strain of the past week, she felt as if it was all coming crashing down on her.”

With so many unexpected, terrifying twists, the reader is taken on a rollercoaster ride until the clever, cliff hanger ending which indicates a tricky romantic entanglement for Clare to solve.

As a genuine, believable, leading lady, DI Clare Mackay could easily follow DI Rebus in Edinburgh, and DI Perez & DS Macintosh on Shetland to the small screen, amidst the atmospheric setting and wild seascapes around St. Andrews in the Kingdom of Fife.

https://www.canelo.co/authors/marion-todd/

https://www.canelo.co/books/lies-tell/

​In September 2020, independent publisher Canelo launched a new crime fiction imprint, Canelo Crime.  

I remain convinced that crime fiction offers the most exciting combination of thrills, deceit and cleverness. The best of the genre will emotionally invest its reader, and give hope that good can overcome evil, (though only with a brilliant sleuth or fearless hero in charge). We have been proud of the recognition that Marion Todd received a nomination for the Bloody Scotland, Scottish Crime Debut of the Year, 2020. Marion’s ongoing DI Clare Mackay series has quickly been established as a favourite with crime fiction fans. Keep an eye on our website for forthcoming news about Marion’s new novel, ‘What They Knew’.

Louise Cullen Publishing Director
CANELO | CANELO CRIME

 “What They Knew” by Marion Todd is to be published on 11 February 2021 by Canelo Crime.  The New Year starts with a death ...

‘The Killings on Kingfisher Hill’ bv Sophie Hannah: the new Hercule Poirot mystery

It was one hundred years ago when Agatha Christie introduced the now legendary Belgian detective in her first crime novel,“The Mysterious Affair at Styles.” 

‘Poirot was an extraordinary looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible’. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, (1920)

Pan paperback edition of the first Poirot novel, 1920

There are 13 chapters with enticing titles: Poirot Investigates, Fresh Suspicions, The Night of the Tragedy, Poirot Explains.

This popular, iconic character went on to star in 33 novels, two plays and more than fifty short stories.  “My Belgian invention was hanging around my neck, firmly attached there like the old man of the sea.”  Agatha Christie, An Autobiography

Agatha Christie and her collection of crime novels

Poirot’s final case, which brings him back full circle to Styles, was written during World War II as a gift for her daughter, but kept in a safe for over thirty years until “Curtain” was finally published in 1975.

Curtain, by Agatha Christie, first UK edition, 1975

The news of Poirot’s death in the novel was commemorated in an obituary in The New York Times, the only fictional character to have received such an honour.

The Hercule Poirot mysteries have been adapted with great success the cinema and television screen, portrayed by many actors from Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov to David Suchet and Kenneth Branagh, with their own personalised manner, mode ……and moustache.

The portrayal of Hercule Poirot over the past century

It was therefore a most inspired decision of the Agatha Christie Estate to resurrect the Belgian detective and authorise Sophie Hannah to write a exciting new Continuation novel.

Sophie Hannah is a massive fan of Agatha Christie’s crime fiction, having first read “The Body in the Library” aged 12. She is an international best selling writer of psychological thrillers, winning numerous awards. Sophie created a Masters Degree course in crime writing at Cambridge University, where she is a fellow of Lucy Cavendish College.

Agatha Christie is the greatest crime writer of all time and it is a huge, huge honour for me to be the person chosen to do this.” Sophie Hannah

Sophie Hannah with Mathew Pritchard, grandson of Agatha Christie

Sophie presented a detailed 100-page outline for a Poirot-esque detective novel to the publishers and Christie estate, which was approved. ‘The Monogram Murders’ (2014) was the first of her four novels in this new series.

Celebrating 100 years since Poirot solved the mystery at Styles, he sets off once again to investigate a new case, “The Killings at Kingfisher Hill”. 

It is ten minutes before two on the afternoon of 22nd February, 1931. That was when the strangeness started,”  begins the first person narration by Inspector Edward Catchpool who is accompanying Hercule Poirot to Little Key, a mansion on the Kingfisher Estate, Surrey.  

Richard Devonport has summoned Poirot to prove the innocence of his fiancée, Helen who faces the death penalty for the murder of his brother, Frank. A clever ploy by Hannah to retain authenticity, is that the plotline of an allegedly innocent person being accused of murder was used by Christie several times: Ordeal by Innocence, Towards Zero, Mrs McGinty’s Dead, The ABC Murders, Five Little Pigs and also the play, Witness for the Prosecution.

Curiously, the rest of the Devonport family cannot know the real reason for the visit and they will pose as enthusiasts of a board game, Peepers, created by Richard’s father, Sidney, as a rival to Monopoly.

The journey by coach from London to Kingfisher Hill is not without incident: unfortunately, it takes almost 100 pages to describe a series of incidents, a damsel in distresss, lunch, a minor emergency and missing passengers before they arrive at the Devonport home. Yes, a couple of these characters will make a later appearance, but this is a convoluted start before cracking on with the heart of the mystery.

It’s the classic Country House setting where the murder took place on 6th December, 1930.   “At twenty minutes to six, Frank Devonport fell to his death from the landing. He’d been pushed from the balcony. Fell and cracked his head open on the hard floor beneath.”

If it’s not Helen Acton as Richard believes, who is guilty of the crime? There were seven other people there at the time – Sidney, his wife Lilian, their daughter Daisy, her fiancé Oliver Prowd, two family friends, Godfrey and Verna Lavliolette, and the servant Winnifred.

Like Sherlock’s Watson, Hannah’s new creation, Inspector Catchpool is an assistant sleuth like a blend of the amiable Hastings and the solid but slow, Chief Inspector Japp. Poirot likes to challenge his friend, asking for a list of questions on the case, to test a methodical mind.  “Precisely, Catchpool, you have hit on the head the nail!… it proceeds most satisfactorily, the training of your brain.” 

The title of the novel is, of course, ‘Killings’ in the plural and so far, just one. But then the shocking discovery of a body of an unidentified woman, bludgeoned to death with a poker in the drawing room at the Devonport home.  The Cluedo style setting is reminiscent of Christie’s classic, The Body in the Library, in which an unknown blonde girl is found at Gossington Hall, home of Colonel and Mrs. Arthur Bantry.

Certain members of the rather dysfunctional Devonport family are unreliable witnesses due to their eccentric behaviour. There is one marvellous character, Hester Semley, “a small bony, bespectacled woman with thick, coiled springs of white hair,” whose dagger-sharp intellect even throws Poirot on the back foot. A Miss Marple with feisty attitude!.

This is a twisting, turning maze of a plot like a complex jigsaw puzzle, where, it seems, half a dozen pieces are missing, until of course, Poirot uncovers the truth in the final flourish of a denouement.  

You can expect the narrative structure, language, period style and social manner of an Agatha Christie novel, not least the impeccable personality, wit and wisdom of Hercule Poirot.

“I regard every word Agatha Christie ever wrote almost as a holy text, so I’m not going to be taking any liberties,” Sophie Hannah. “

Set in 1931, this is vintage detective fiction but not old fashioned. Crime, past and present, is a moral matter, understanding human nature, jealousy, deceit, the psychology of good and evil.  The classic detective story is a world of theatricality and illusion.

So no wonder Christie’s murder mysteries adapt so well from page to stage and screen.  David Suchet is legendary in the role of Hercule Poirot which he played in 70 episodes of ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot series over twenty five years.

David Suchet and Hugh Fraser as Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings

The highly acclaimed series adapted all of Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories featuring Poirot between 1989 and 2013 and continue to be repeated on a regular basis.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot in ITV series

The enduring appeal for Hercule Poirot has no sign of slowing down. Following the masterly remake “Murder on the Orient Express” directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, his next Agatha Christie movie is “Death on the Nile,”  to be released in 2021.

The two new Poirot films directed and starring Kenneth Branagh


The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie Hannah – the new Hercule Poirot Mystery is published by Harper Collins.

The previous titles in the Continuation series of Poirot mysteries are “The Monogram Murders”, “Closed Casket” and “The Mystery of Three Quarters.”

The Continuation series by Sophie Hannah

“From Oceans to Embassies” a Personal Memoir by Gillian Angrave – a colourful, cultural globetrotting journey (braving wars and typhoons along the way)

While on a Mediterranean cruise in 2017, I was delighted to read Gillian Angrave’s travelogues, “Venice – The Diary of an Awestruck Traveller.”  In this series of personal guides, Gillian shares her love affair with Venice, the art, culture and heritage, with humour, enthusiasm, knowledge, passion and quirky anecdotes.

At the age of 10, Gillian began travel writing in youthful earnest when she won the Cadbury’s national competition for her essay, “Life on a Tropical Island” – a rich imagination more than personal experience!.  She followed her childhood dream to travel the world for work and has now browsed through her diaries and photo albums to compile a captivating memoir of her globetrotting life in “From Oceans to Embassies.

Part 1 is a fast paced introductory scamper through Gillian’s family life, school days, learning languages, playing sports and then an interest in driving and fast cars.  With three A levels, including French and Spanish, as well as secretarial qualifications, in 1967 Gillian joined P & O – the Peninsula & Orient Steam Navigation Company –  in the role of Junior Woman Assistant Purser.

In a brief history of the shipping line it’s interesting that until the 1970s, P&O passengers emigrated to Australia or visited family and friends overseas as the only mode of transport. After the launch of affordable jet travel, the ships changed their regular routes from crossings to cruise itineraries for leisure.

S S Canberra

How she came to board the SS Canberra with little notice to pack and prepare in January 1968, is a marvellous anecdote, setting sail on a four month world voyage.  We learn about her life on board from blue and white uniforms (fashionably designed by Hardy Amies) to the daily routine of the Pursers Department in charge of reception desk, food & drink supplies, immigration and finance by day, to cocktail parties and dinners at night.

Gillian was first given the job of “Berthing Queen,”  allocating cabins and dealing with complaints from passengers including 1st Class guests requesting a more luxurious Suite.  Not always easy.!

What is most revealing is the fact that there were few professional entertainers employed and so the pursers doubled up as song and dance men and women.  Creating costumes and choreography, they performed such themed shows as Music Hall,  Hawaiian nights and a night at the Moulin Rouge.

A high kicking Can Can show from Gillian and team of Pursers

Life on the ocean wave is not complete without experiencing gale force weather – “We hit the eye of the storm,” she recalls, when they encounter a Typhoon in Japan.

Gillian, WAP, (Woman Assistant Purser) with P&O ships, in tropical whites. (1970)

Read all about her favourite ports from South Africa to Australia, and hopping around idyllic tropical islands from the South Pacific to the Caribbean.   Staff were allowed to enjoy some shore excursions to see historic sites, shop for souvenirs and go on Safari.  On a trip with four colleagues to the Natal Game Reserve, unfortunately their Dormobile van broke down.  They had to get back to Durban before the SS Canberra departed as ships do not wait for passengers or crew. …

Breakdown in Natal Game Reserve – with just a few hours to get back to Durban!

Gillian cruised the world on two P&O ships, SS Canberra and the SS Oriana over a seven year career, during which time her salary rose from £35.15s to £58.15s a month.  At least alcohol on board was relatively cheap – 12 shillings for a bottle of gin.  I expect a G&T was essential after a long day’s work.

S S Orianna, Pago Pago, American Samoa

An important aspect highlighted is that this was tne era before the Equality Act and WAPs were treated unfairly compared to the senior male pursers in charge. Women were offered no pension rights and had to leave at the age of 40.   With no chance of a long term career or promotion, Gillian decided to disembark and seek another route to continue her itinerant life.

Next port of call was joining Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service on 5th July 1976 at the Foreign Office, London – the start of a high flying career, based at various British Embassies in Asia, South & Central America and Hungary.  Gillian had to sign the Official Secrets Act which is a lifetime agreement so there are no Government revelations here!.

Enter the world of Ambassadors, Consuls and Embassies and its vital role covering assistance to British citizens and ex pats overseas, international promotion of trade, defence and culture.  Her first posting was Manila, capital of the Philippines where administration work was balanced by formal lunches and receptions.  At a Christmas Dinner with the Ambassador, she had to try the Filipino delicacy, bats’ wings!.  There was also the chance to play golf on neatly mowed greens in glorious sunshine.  Around the world, she continued to visit many golf courses – occasionally lurking with scary wildlife – finally awarded great succcess at the Blue Danube Club, near Budapest.

More adventures when working at the Embassy in Lima, Peru, giving the opportunity to visit the Amazon basin and the majestic heights of Machu Picchu.

Gillian at the Urubamba River Gorge, Macchu Picchu – with furry friends!

Moving on after a few years to Guatemala during a time of political conflict and their claim over Belize, this was a dangerous mission with a seriously terrifying outcome.

There are fascinating insights into Embassy work, such as the Diplomatic Bag to transport official documents – it has its own passport, cannot be opened or x-rayed and personally carried by the Queen’s Messenger or Embassy staff.

Gillian was stationed for three years in Chile during the regime of President Pinochet, the country governed by martial law; then in April 1982 came the devastating news of the Falkland Conflict between Argentina and the UK.  However, despite serious political concerns, social life seemed to be an entertaining whirl of  official social events and Scottish country dancing – who knew that that there is a strong Scottish heritage in Chile?

The Santiago Caledonian Society, Chile

More travel trips such as to the icy terrain of the San Rafael Glacier in the remote South Patagonian fjords.

Angrave of the Antarctic … (or sort of)

Another posting was to Mexico City, where, when not at her desk, there was time to keep fit on the tennis court and golf course.   The British Embassy, Mexico City is illustrated above on the front cover.  And here there was a thrilling encounter with none other than James Bond, aka Timothy Dalton who was in town for the filming of “Licence to Kill.”  Assisting the actors and crew, (trading tea and baked beans with 007), Gillian must have felt akin to being Miss Moneypenny or M in H.M. Secret – rather than the Diplomatic – Service!.

“James Bond” (Timothy Dalton) with Gillian Angrave in Mexico

Working for the Diplomatic Service for nearly thirty years, certainly brought extraordinary opportunities to meet Royalty, Government Presidents, Ambassadors and film stars, and making very dear friends within the team of colleagues.  But equally, there were worrying situations coping with mosquitos, malaria, snakes, alligators, typhoons, earthquakes, civil war and serious illness, far away from family and home.

“From Oceans to Embassies” is compiled with meticulous detail, vivid descriptions and vivacious enthusiasm; this is a page-turning narrative taking the reader along on a thrilling, rollercoaster ride to learn all about her exhilarating journeys by land and sea.

An enriching life indeed, which was predicted when Gillian was just three years old. Chapter 1 of this Memoir begins with a charming anecdote related years later by her mother. A Romany Gypsy had knocked on the door selling clothes pegs. Thankful for the threepenny bit, she offered to read her fortune: “You will have two daughters, one will be musical and one will go over the seas.”

Her younger sister grew up to enjoy a musical career as a flautist and and Gillian circumnavigated the globe for nearly 40 years, her destiny was written serendipitously in the stars.

I count myself so lucky and privileged to have sailed the Seven Seas and been sent on postings with the Diplomatic Service to such exciting and interesting countries. Travel has been my constant companion and I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world. I intend to keep travelling for as long as I can”  Gillian Angrave

Gillian on board the Fred Olsen cruise ship Braemar in St. Maarten.

“From Oceans to Embassies” A Personal Memoir by Gillian Angrave

Purchase price: Hardback, £14.99 and Paperback, £11.99 (plus £3 p&p)

available from Amazon and Waterstones

Also direct from – https://www.gillangrave.co.uk

Email: info@gillianangrave.co.uk

Also, highly recommended:

“Venice : The Diary of an Awestruck Traveller” by Gillian Angrave (3 volumes) 

Purchase price – Paperback, £9.99 (plus £2.87 p&p) from Amazon and Waterstones.

Gillian Angrave, today as a Registrar of Marriages

After retirement from the Diplomatic Service in 2005, Gillian became, and still is, a Registrar of Marriages in West Sussex. She continues to love travelling, photography and writing books and memoirs.  She also has many interests – bell-ringing, modern languages, gardening and golf.

Saltire Literary Awards – the shortlists announced for Scotland’s National Book Awards 2019.

Scotland has indeed long been an extraordinary cultural and literary country from the era of Enlightenment to Edinburgh being named the first ever Unesco City of Literature in 2004.  In 1919, the James Tait Black Book Prizes were founded at the University of Edinburgh, the oldest literary awards in the world; in 1936 the Saltire Society was founded to support and celebrate the Scottish imagination across all the arts and sciences.

In 1937, the Society launched the inaugural Saltire Literary Awards and today they recognise work across six literary categories (Fiction, Non-Fiction, Research, History, Poetry and First Book) and two for Publishers.  All entrants must either have been born in Scotland, live in Scotland or their books must be about Scotland.

The winner in each category receives £2,000, with all contenders eligible to be selected for the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year, receiving a further £5,000.

For 2019, there are two new prizes: Book Cover to recognise creativity and the relationship between the designer, publisher and author.  Also a special Award for Lifetime Achievement to recognise a body of work in its entirety rather than one book, with the writer receiving a cash prize of £2,000.

The Calum MacDonald Memorial Award for the publisher of Pamphlet poetry is presented in partnership with the Scottish Poetry Library.

Sarah Mason, Programme Director at the Saltire Society, said “‘The Saltire Literary Awards celebrate the diversity, quality and richness of books from Scotland over the past year … recognising excellence. and we congratulate the writers and publishers who hav been shortlisted this year.”

This is just a quick overview to highlight a few of these authors and books across several categories.

Nominated for the Saltire Fiction award is Lucy Ellmann for “Ducks, Newburyport”  At over 1,000 words it received glowing reviews for innovative prose and powerful message. The narrative paints a portrait of an Ohio housewife who tries to bridge the gaps between reality and the torrent of meaningless information in the USA.

“A bravura feat: a stream of consciousness, fierce and succinct wit” – The Scottish Review of Books

“ Ellmann has created a wisecracking Mrs Dalloway for the internet age.” – Financial Times

‘This isn’t just one of the outstanding books of 2019, it’s one of the outstanding books of the century, so far.’ The Irish Times 

Also in the Fiction category is “You Will be Safe Here” by Damian Barr, a journalist, playwright and writer of a memoir, Maggie & Me.

He has now published his debut novel, set in South Africa, moving between 1901, covering the effect on a family during the Boer War, to 2010,  observing a radical change in life for sixteen year old Willem.

“Completely gripping and profoundly moving – you care for every character. Each of the very different stories woven together in such unexpected ways.  (Maggie O’Farrell)

“A poignant debut, written with empathy … compassion, wisdom and remarkable sense of poetry, The Guardian)

A diverse range of subjects are captured in the line up for the Non-Fiction Award.  

Melanie Reid has written a personal, painful memoir, “The World I Fell Out Of.”  On Good Friday, 2010 Melanie fell from her horse, breaking her neck and fracturing her lower back. Paralysed from her chest down, she spent almost a year in hospital, determined to gain some movement and learn to rebuild her shattered life.

Melanie Reid, author of her memoir, ‘The World I fell Out Of’

“This is an astonishing and riveting book … It is certainly frightening – a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit’ Alan Massie, The Scotsman

For those who watch real crime TV documentaries may know the name, face and voice of Dr. David Wilson. His book,, “My Life with Murderers: Behind Bars with the World’s most Violent Men”  tells the story of his journey from prison governor (aged 29), to expert criminologist and Professor.

A fascinating and compelling study of human nature, Dr. Wilson gets inside the mind of a murderer to uncover what drives men to kill.

Dr. David Wilson, author of “My Life with Murderers”

“With characteristic brilliance and admirable sensitivity, Wilson illuminates the complex causes of their horrific crimes. A page turner.” (Professor Simon Winlow, British Society of Criminology).

In the running for the First Book of the Year, is Alan Brown for “Overlander: Bikepacking coast to coast across the Scottish Highlands”   Seeking a temporary escape from city life, he plotted a personal challenge: an epic cycle ride across Scotland, wild camping under the stars, on a journey of discovery all the way.

“His sensitive, personal observations on the landscapes, wildlife and people he encounters is an eloquent reminder of the wonderful country we live in. Time to get on my bike.” Andy Wightman MSP

In contrast, another debut book is about the domestic pastime of sewing. “Threads of Life” by Clare Hunter – a history of the world through the eye of the needle, from the Bayeux Tapestry and battlefields to prisons and drawing rooms.

“This patchwork quilt of history, culture and politics ..richly textured” ( Sunday Times)

The Award for Scottish Poetry Book has six books nominated including Edinburgh based writer, Janette Ayachi for “Hand Over Mouth Musi.,”  With Algerian and Scottish roots, she describes family relationships and her role as a mother to two daughters. This is her first collection which gives voice to memories and imagined places.

“Her poems range from Venice to Barcelona, Adriatic Sea to airports, ‘where the choked heart unclogs itself.’   .. the uninhibited wanderlust of someone who is utterly in love with travel” StAnza reviewer

Janette Ayachi, poet and world traveller with a wanderlust spirt of adventure

Christopher Whyte  is a novelist writing in English and poetry in Scottish  Gaelic and translates poetry into English from a range of European languages.. “Ceum air Cheum” (Step by Step), is his sixth poetry collection covering the topic of language and the circle of life. English translation by Niall O’ Gallagher.

The Calum Macdonald Memorial award for a Poetry Pamphlet, a slim, appetising taster.  Jay G. Ying is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer and translator based in Edinburgh and his first book, ‘Wedding Beasts’ is a 20 page, hand sewn, limited edition publication by Bitter Melon.

His peach slice, dusted in sugar, left out on the breakfast tray like an ideogram of a moon …”

 Also on the list is Polygon’s New Poets pamphlet by Iona Lee – Edinburgh poet, visual artist and performer. These poems were conceived behind the retail counter of a bookshop, during loud, late night conversations, and in sticky floored pubs. Her experience of life, both painful and hilarious.

Iona Lee, poet, artist, performer

This is just a quick browse through a selection of the shortlisted books and authors. All the nominated books are listed below.

The winners of all the eleven categories and the overall Saltire Scottish Book of the Year will be announced at a ceremony at the National Museum of Scotland on St. Andrew’s Night, Saturday 30 November.   Full details can be found at http://www.saltiresociety.org.uk.

The winter is the ideal time to pick up a seriously good, inspiring, page turning book – a novel, biography, memoir, poetry, nature, travel, history … Happy Reading!

2019 Saltire Literary Awards

The Saltire Society Scottish Fiction Book of the Year Award

Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport

Ruairidh MacIlleathain (Roddy MacLean), Còig Duilleagan na Seamraig (Five Leaves of the Shamrock)

Leila Aboulela, Bird Summons

Ewan Morrison, Nina X

Polly Clark, Tiger

Damian Barr, You Will Be Safe Here

The Saltire Society Scottish Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award

Dòmhnall Eachann Meek (Donald E. Meek), Seòl Mo Bheatha (My Life Journey)

Mary Miller, Jane Haining: A Life of Love and Courage

Dr David Wilson, My Life with Murderers

Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

Melanie Reid, The World I Fell Out Of

Kerry Hudson, Lowborn: Growing up, getting away and returning to Britain’s poorest towns

The Saltire Society Scottish Poetry Book of the Year Award

Christopher Whyte, Ceum air Cheum

Janette Ayachi, Hand Over Mouth Music

Iain Morrison, I’m a Pretty Circler

Ross Wilson, Line Drawings

Roseanne Watt, Moder Dy

Harry Josephine Giles, The Games

The Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award

Angela Meyer, A Superior Spectre

Fraser MacDonald, Escape from Earth:  A Secret History of the Space Rocket

Alan Brown, Overlander

Stephen Rutt, The Seafarers:  A Journey Among Birds

Clare Hunter, Threads of Life

The Saltire Scottish Research Book of the Year Award

Kirstie Blair, Working Verse in Victorian Scotland: Poetry, Press, Community

Thomas Devine, The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed, 1600-1900

Laura Watts, Energy at the End of the World: An Orkney Islands Saga

 

The Saltire Scottish History Book of the Year Award

Norman H Reid, Alexander III: 1249-1286, First Among Equals

Alasdair Pettinger, Frederick Douglass and Scotland, 1846: Living an Antislavery Life

James Buchan, John Law  A Scottish Adventurer of the eighteenth Century

Malcolm Macdonald and Donald John MacLeod, The Darkest Dawn

R A McDonald, The Sea Kings: The Late Norse Kingdoms of Man and the Isles

Calum Macdonald Memorial Award  

Red Squirrel, Juke Box Jeopardy (Brian Johnstone)

Tapsalteerie, Glisk (Sarah Stewart) and An Offering (Stewart Sanderson)

Essence Press, zenscotlit (Alan Spence)

Bitter Melon Press, Wedding Beasts (Jay G Ying)

Polygon, Polygon New Poets: Iona Lee (Iona Lee)

The Saltire Society Publisher of the Year Award

404 Ink, BHP Comics, Canongate Books, Charco Press, Sandstone Press

The Saltire Society Emerging Publisher of the Year Award

Pauline Cuchet, Canongate Books, Anne Glennie, Cranachan, Kay Farrell, Sandstone Press,

Jamie Norman, Canongate Books, Richard Wainman, Floris Books, Alan Windram, Little Door Books