Carlisle here we come…

One of the many downsides of the pandemic has been the impossibility of seeing friends. This week, after almost a year and a half, I finally got to meet up with a bunch of fellow Crime-and-Publishment-ers in Carlisle. It was absolutely lovely, but it very nearly didn’t happen at all.

With help from Irene Paterson I’d arranged it for Monday lunchtime at our favourite cafe, Cakes & Ale. I was all set to travel up by train, and really looking forward to it, if a little nervous about being crammed into a railway carriage full of strangers for over an hour. At the moment, everything is by advance booking only, so on Saturday evening I sat down to order my tickets – and found to my horror that every last seat on both the outward journey and the return had already been sold.

To say I was upset was an understatement, but Other Half sprang to the rescue, donning a cape and driving me to Carlisle on the day. He spent a couple of hours mooching round and discovering interesting bits of the city, while I plonked myself at a table in the cafe’s surprisingly pretty garden and caught up with everyone again.

Not all of the group were free at such short notice, but we managed to rustle up seven: myself, Irene, Linda Wright, soon-to-be-published Ann Bloxwich, AliceMae Jamieson, John Langley, and the superstar of the group Mike Craven, whose books are now so popular that he’s had a brand of coffee named after his main character Washington Poe.

No hugs yet, but it was super to see people face-to-face at last, and be able to talk for a couple of hours (while still leaving time for tea, coffee, soup, sandwiches or cake – though not all at once). Here’s hoping we can do it again – without having to wait another year and a half.

I took my camera to get a nice group shot of us all and forgot to take the snap! So here’s a picture of the garden instead. Hard to believe this is right in the centre of a bustling city.

The Devil’s Porridge

The-Devils-Porridge-MuseumLast year one of the book launches I attended was for thriller writer Matt Hilton’s collection of short stories, The Demon Drink and the Devil’s Porridge. Set against a backdrop of the so-called State Management System (a kind of mini-Prohibition) in Carlisle, the stories are fun and entertaining – and the history of this particular period is fascinating, too.

Basically the State Management System (SMS) was set up during the first world war to prevent hordes of workers from the nearby munitions factory at Gretna Green from descending on Carlisle’s pubs and drinking them dry. As you might expect, the combination of alchohol and explosives (mostly nitroglycerine – the Devil’s Porridge of the title) isn’t a healthy one and the authorities were alarmed enough to step in, introducing restrictions on the number of pubs and the amount of booze sold, and having nice cosy games like bowls to try to gentrify the whole process of drinking.

Rather remarkably, it seems to have worked. Even more remarkably, it lasted until as recently as 1973. And now there’s a museum at Gretna Green, called The Devil’s Porridge Museum, which celebrates the munitions factory, the people who worked there, and the SMS itself.

It sounds absolutely fascinating, and if it had been open we might well have called in during our trip to Gretna at the weekend. Annoyingly,  it had just closed for its winter break and won’t be open again until mid-January. But we’ve made a note, picked up a leaflet, and will definitely visit next time we’re in the area. It would be a shame to miss this!

Body Breaker launch

Thursday was the hottest day of the year so far – 28c and hardly a day I’d choose to go travelling by train.  However, I piled on the sunscreen, wore my coolest clothes and set off for sunny Carlisle (not just a figure of speech for a change) for the launch of Mike Craven’s latest crime novel ‘Body Breaker’.

In spite of the heat, it was a great event.  The evening started with a meal for about 8 of us at the Old Bank pub in Carlisle city centre.  It’s a ‘gourmet’ pub doing a nice line in chops, steaks, grills, fish’n’chips etc; I hadn’t been before but thoroughly enjoyed my whale (sorry, haddock, the portions were huge) and chips.  I’d happily go back.

After that we all piled down the hill to the Old Firestation where Mike was holding his combined book-launch-and-birthday party.  The launch was really well attended – I’m hopeless at counting crowds but would estimate around 100 people had turned out – and was highly entertaining.  Mike’s an amusing speaker anyway, and he’d invited fellow crime writer Michael J Malone along to act as question-master.  The two are great friends, have a neat line in banter, and spent the rest of the evening quietly killing each other with quips.  The audience, myself included, loved it!

Mike answered a wide range of questions on everything from how old he was when he started writing, to researching golf courses in Cumbria.  (The novel opens with a grisly discovery on a golf course.)  And once all that was over, there was cake.  Birthday cake.  Or book launch cake.  Or, well, you decide.  Either way it was delicious. (Apologies for the blurring, by the way.  I wasn’t seeing double, but apparently my phone camera was!)


The only slight annoyance was getting to Carlisle station at the end of the evening and finding all the trains up sh*t creek, and absolutely nothing open – no shop, no café, no bar, no information desk, nowhere to get even a bottle of water, on a blisteringly warm night.  I thought I might have to book into a hotel in the city for the night, but luckily (and unusually) my train was one of a tiny handful still running, so I made it home after all.  And was really glad I’d gone, melting stickiness (and not just from the cake) or none.

Football, dead priests and nail guns

That’s a typical night out in Carlisle.

Or at least, it is if you’re going along to a book launch by crime writer Graham Smith.  I did, yesterday, and had a great time.  First I met a couple of friends for a meal at Nandos, then we headed for Waterstones for the launch itself.  And what fun!

secretNot content with launching the usual single book, Graham had gone for two.  His latest novel, ‘I Know Your Secret’, and a novella which fits between the events of that and his first novel ‘Snatched From Home’.  The novella is called ‘Matching the Evidence’ and there’s a pun involved in the title since the plot revolves around football.  However Graham was at pains to point out that you don’t need to be a fan of the beautiful game, or even know much about it, to read/enjoy the book.  I might just take him up on that, since it sounded quite intriguing.

The launch featured an interview by fellow author Matt Hilton, and various hilarious and/or hair-raising stories involving crucifying people to the floor with a nail gun and getting thrown out of churches.  It was all thoroughly entertaining and I was really sorry I had to leave early to run for a train as I was enjoying it immensely, dammit!  There wasn’t even time to buy a book, something I hope to put right very soon.

If you like crime, or books set in Carlisle, or football and dead priests, then be sure to pay Graham a visit at his Amazon author page here.  Just watch out for the nail gun!

Of crime and cows…

Many weeks ago now I promised to blog about the Noir at the Bar: Carlisle event… and then forgot.  ::headdesk::

I’ve finally dug out the piece I wrote afterwards, and hope it’s not too late to share my thoughts on what was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.  And don’t forget – if you missed that one but would like to join in, then you can.  Just pop along to the Town Wall bar on Pink Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, at 7pm on Wednesday 1st June when another collection of crime writers will be strutting their stuff.  But for now… here’s Carlisle, and my apologies for the delay.

The 10th of March seems like ages ago but it’s really less than a month since I, Other Half and a whole heap of authors, friends, relations and interested parties headed to Carlisle for the first ever English ‘Noir at the Bar’ event.

This was held at the Moo Bar on Devonshire Street, a perfect venue in terms of size, facilities, and the sheer friendly welcoming attitude of the staff. Thanks to them for helping to make the evening such a success.

In the end there were nine performing seals, otherwise known as authors reading their work. On the night, Hull-based writer David Mark gatecrashed the party to read a thoroughly entertaining and atmospheric extract from one of his crime novels set in Hull. My Other Half thoroughly enjoyed that because he knows the city reasonably well and could immediately conjure up the locations from David’s words.

After that, in no particular order, it was the turn of Neil White, Zoe Sharp, Lucy Cameron, Jay Stringer, James Hilton, Paul Finch, and yours truly to read bits of our latest or greatest work. My personal favourites were part of a hilarious short story about carp (sorry, Koi) from Jay Stringer, and a slightly surreal offering from Zoe Sharp featuring a bunch of dead celebrities, but all the readings were skilful and entertaining. There’s no beating an author reading their own work out because they know it, and the intonations and intentions, better than anybody.

The final reading of the night came from a willing victim, oops I mean volunteer, plucked from the audience. Hats off to crime writer Linda Wright for having the guts to come out and do her bit with a whole lot less notice and practice time than the rest of us.

My own piece was an excerpt from my forthcoming novella ‘Raise the Blade’ (due from Caffeine Nights in the next few months), where the first of a series of murder victims is discovered… except that as I explained, it may not be the first body after all! I’d been terribly nervous about speaking in public, not least because I’d never used a microphone before, but in the event I needn’t have worried. The mic behaved itself (although the less said about me the better) and the audience were lovely, paying attention and listening to every word.

In that respect the format helped. Four speakers doing around five minutes each, followed by a break of half an hour, followed by the remaining speakers. It meant there were no long gaps and the evening rattled along, with the audience able to get caught up in the action and stay there.

A special thanks goes to the three hosts on the night – Matt Hilton, Graham Smith and Mike Craven – for their organisation, their compering and their general hand-holding and support. And for inviting me to take part in the first place. I know I couldn’t have done it without them and I’m sure most of the other seals would agree.

Finally I leave you with two photos. One of muggins lurking behind a microphone (taken by fellow Caffeine Nights author Lucy Cameron) and one of a cow on the wall. I leave you to decide which is which.

small cow     verysmallnoirgroup1

Good, er, moos

noirprofilepicTwo bits of good news in one, in fact.  One, Noir at the Bar, the popular and successful event series held regularly in the US, is now coming to Britain.  To Carlisle, in fact, on 10 March at the brilliantly-named Moo Bar.

And two, I’ll be taking part.  Only a very small part, alongside a raft of other well (better!) known crime, noir and thriller authors, hailing from the Far North of England and southern Scotland.  Names booked so far include Graham Smith, Mike Craven, Matt Hilton, Zoe Sharp, Neil White, Paul Finch, Jay Stringer, James Hilton, Lucy Cameron, and yours truly.  There’ll also be a guest slot on the night which members of the audience can compete for.  Less ‘Gladiators’ than ‘the Sorting Hat’, I hasten to add.

So, why not come along to the Moo Bar (3-5 Devonshire St, Carlisle) at 7pm on the 10th, to hear these authors reading from their work, and hanging round for a chat afterwards.  There’ll even be free books on offer.  And drinks.  It is a bar after all!

My own freebie is a copy of Shotgun Honey presents: Locked and Loaded (Both Barrels #3), which includes my short story ‘Running Late’, about a less-than-pure cop who’s running out of time.

Noir at the Bar looks set to turn into a regular fixture over here as well, but you’d be a silly moo to miss this inaugural event, which should be absolutely brilliant.  I hope to see you there.


That crime weekend…

I’m muddling along on the old computer while my Other Half builds me a new one, and expecting any second for it to go up in smoke with a very loud bang.  So I’m going to have to keep this shorter than I’d like!

Last weekend I went along to the inaugural Crime Writing Weekend, held at the Old Fire Station in Carlisle, the UK’s second most northerly city (after Newcastle upon Tyne, but only by a mile or two!).

The venue was newly opened, still smelling faintly of paint, and very attractive with decent studio spaces, a larger hall for the talks, and a bistro/bar/coffee shop in the main foyer which did very nice food.

The talks were informative, with an impressive range of crime authors, most of whom had links to the area of northern England/Scottish borders in some way or another.  ‘Northern Noir’, ‘Cumbria: Cosy or Criminal?’, and ‘Tartan Noir’ were just some of the many subjects tackled by panels of between four and six authors including Ann Cleeves of ‘Vera’ and ‘Shetland’ fame, Martin Edwards who pens the Lake District series of crime novels, Graham Smith who bases his books in the Lake District, and many more.  Other subjects included forensics and Sherlock Holmes, plus conversations with well-known authors including Stuart MacBride and Allan Guthrie.

In the end I couldn’t stay for the whole weekend but managed four sessions on the Friday, a stop-over in a city centre hotel, dinner with three of my writing friends, and the book launch for Mike Craven’s debut crime novel ‘Born in a Burial Gown’ on the Saturday morning.  This was probably the best-attended and (no disrespect to the other sessions) most entertaining of the lot.  Mike is a good and amusing speaker and the quick-fire questions from host Graham Smith kept us all chuckling for well over an hour.

If this is what Carlisle can achieve in their very first year, I’m impressed.  I’m also sad to see the words ‘may be back next year’ on their website.  If they do repeat the exercise, I’ll almost certainly be back for more.

Snatched in Carlisle…

snatchedNo, this isn’t some nasty news item from the north-west of England, or even the title of a kidnapping drama on tv (although… watch this space on that one!)  Thursday evening saw me pottering over to Carlisle on the train, first to meet writing friend Lucy Cameron for a meal and mooch round, and then to attend Graham Smith’s book launch/party/general knees-up for his debut novel, ‘Snatched From Home’.  Hence the title of this post!

The launch was amazingly well-attended, with upwards of 50 guests crammed into the upstairs of Waterstones book shop in Carlisle city centre.  I’ve been to some launches where it’s not much more than the author, his mother, a couple of friends and the publisher who turn up so this was a refreshing change – and no more than Graham deserves, both for the quality of his writing and for his ceaseless hard work in promoting crime fiction in general.

The session took the form of a mini-interview between Graham and Cumbrian crime writer Matt Hilton (which was a fun idea and less prone to lengthy silences than when the audience are asked for questions…), followed by Graham himself reading the first few pages of his book.  I haven’t read it myself, but it involves a gang kidnapping a couple’s children because the father owes them money, and sounds thoroughly tense and gripping.

Here’s to the success of both the book and Graham’s future writing career, and here’s hoping for a few more equally enjoyable launch parties in Carlisle in the years to come.  Mind you, the less said about my train journey home again, the better…