Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How McCusker found himself investigating a murder down on Leafy Cyprus Avenue

My first trip to Belfast would have been when I was about six years old. My dad took me down on the bus. I’d never been in a city before and I just loved the buzz and the unique aromas of the city. Coming from a small rural village I couldn’t believe the actual volume of the noise around and about the streets. In my home town, Magherafelt, if someone sneezed up the town it was news in the following week’s edition of The Mid Ulster Mail, and, most likely on the front page at that.

My memories of that precious trip to Belfast are of streets crammed with exotic cars; lorries packed so high you felt they might actually topple over; my first ever sighting of a double-decker bus; the same streets absolutely bursting with busy and hyper people mostly laughing and joking; chilled people gilding along the footpaths and, the hustle and bustle of Woolworths, crammed so full you could hardly move through it. The shop assistants appeared so sophisticated with their chic make-up so expertly applied they looked just like movie stars. But packed though Woolworths was, my dad worked his way around the super-shop diligently buying hardware: hinges; brackets; nails; thingamabobs and cuttermegigs, lots of cuttermegigs. Things, which on paper he’d no need for, but then over the course of the next few years bit by bit, item by item, they’d all get used up and used in a manner that was always vital to making pieces of furniture and suchlike that had such a positive impact on our lives we invariably found ourselves wondering how exactly we’d ever managed to do without them. In a way I suppose that’s where I picked up the habit of hoarding; yes hoarding things like: locations; words; character-sketches; accents; traits and sayings. You just never know when they’re going to come in handy, do you?

The memories of that day, both of my introduction to the tangible excitement of Belfast and of being there with my father, have stuck with me so far through my life, and very vividly at that.

I have to admit I was up in Magherafelt while the Beatles were on stage at the Ritz Cinema on 8th November 1963. I would have been sitting down to tea with my family when they would have appeared on BBC TV at 18.10 and UTV at 18.30. Playwright Alun Own was in Belfast observing John, Paul, George, Ringo, Mal and Neil and the fans very closely that night for a screenplay he was working on. We have to assume he would have been inspired with both band and fans and worked some of the ideas from his Belfast research into scenes for the final script of A Hard Day’s Night.

Since those early days Belfast has always been close to my heart. There has always been something mystical about the city for me. I will admit I don’t really know why. Possibly it might have something to do with the fact that the grand city was home to George Best, Van Morrison and Alex Higgins, a trio of geniuses so talented in their chosen field that - although while all three were most certainly outstanding in their fields, sadly the fields were empty bar themselves - the world has just never been big enough for them.

Following my trip with my dad my next memories of Belfast are of visiting the city in my teenage years seeking bookings for my first group, the Blues by Five. It would have been on some of those adventures I would have been lucky enough to see and hear Taste, The Interns, Cheese, The Gentry, Sam Mahood and The Soul Foundation (Sam was way, way ahead of his time) and The Method, in places the likes of The Maritime Club, Sammy Huston’s Jazz Club, Betty Staffs, and Clarks Dance Studio. Sadly I never got to witness a live performance by Them but I did witness one of the best gigs I’ve ever attended one Saturday afternoon when The Interns played at Them’s old stomping ground, The Maritime Club. We - The Blues by Five & manager - had a group trip down into Belfast on 23rd July 1967 to witness the Small Faces do an absolutely blistering set at the Floral Hall. There were also a couple Northern Irish bands on the bill that night - I seem to remember The Interns being one of them, but I couldn’t swear to that. The Pink Floyd also played at the Floral Hall in April the same year but for some reason or other we didn’t make it down to Belfast for that show, catching them instead up at the Flamingo in Ballymena.

Later again came The Pound, Good Vibrations, The Ulster Hall, Fruupp and EMS at Queen’s Student’s Union.

Even when I moved to London in 1967 I still retained my strong links and connection with Belfast. I became the “London Correspondent” for all pop/contemporary/progressive music for City Week, a Belfast newspaper, which eventually morphed into Thursday Magazine. But more about that later. 

During the Troubles, while living in London, I booked all the music acts into Queens University (and the Irish University circuit) and it was during that period I got to know the Queens campus area of Belfast very well working with Queen’s ace social secretaries, Gary Mills, Tim Nicholson, Roy Dickson, Allister McDowell, Brian Gryzmek and John McGrath while we persuaded people as diverse as Chuck Berry, The Stranglers, The Clash, Loudon Wainwright III, Stackridge, Mike Nesbitt, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, The Clash, Dire Straits, Eric Clapton and Elton John to visit while boasting, truthfully, that they’d get the best reception of their lives while on a Belfast stage. Conversely, but we never admitted this in advance, should the said act, shall we say, not be at the top of their game performance wise… well then, there were few other stages, excepting Glasgow of course, where they’d wish to be caught out, as it were. In the interest of full disclosure all the above mentioned artists enjoyed rapturous receptions while in Belfast.

In my City Week/Thursday Magazine days, as I said, I covered the London music scene with a special emphasis on the Irish/Ulster acts doing well in the UK. I went to see Herbie Armstrong and Rod Demick (aka Demick & Armstrong - an act from Ulster formed out of the ashes of The Wheels) performing at the Lyceum Ballroom in the Strand in London. During the course of the evening they performed a song called Friday’s Child which Herbie introduced as a song written by his mate Van Morrison. In my following week’s City Week column I mentioned the show and particularly the song Friday’s Child. I’d never heard it before and couldn’t find a recorded version of it. I asked “if anyone out there” knew where I could find a copy. A few days after that week’s paper was published an envelope addressed to me was dropped off at the City Week office in Pottingers Entry. In the envelope was a mint copy of a single on the Major Minor label. The A side of the 1967 single (D410) was a re-release of Gloria (the original B side of Them’s hit, Baby Please Don’t Go) and on the B-side … yep, you guess it, Friday’s Child. Also in the envelope was a very nice and gracious note from a Mrs Violet Morrison, none other than the mother of Van and a fine singer herself. The only reason I mention this here is due to the fact that when I’m walking about the streets of Belfast the song which most frequently comes to mind is the very same Friday’s Child. 

You don’t really get to know a city until you’ve walked it. Recently I had reason to spend a few weeks in Belfast; I probably wore out a pair of shoes in those couple of weeks. In Down On Cyprus Avenue the main character, McCusker, likes to walk absolutely everywhere. Lucky for him Belfast is an extremely walkable city. He loves to ramble about the city being seriously distracted by the incredible historical and dramatic buildings. Buildings like the City Hall where, during my research for Down On Cyprus Avenue, I was allowed to spend several hours investigating it from the inside.  As I checked out the breath-taking beautiful building I couldn’t help thinking that the City Hall was so big, one could quite possibly fit all of Magherafelt into it. Well, at the very least, all of the Magherafelt I had left in the 1960s.    

But back to McCusker.

McCusker had a cameo appearance in the Christy Kennedy 2002 mystery, I’ve Heard the Banshee Sing (as did Inspector Starrett.) I liked McCusker. I liked the way his mind worked. He’s is fearless of the investigation, he doesn’t see it as a chore. He’s not jaded and is genuinely excited about leaving his paper-pushing days of the RUC behind him in favour of front line investigating as an agency cop. He is driven not as much by apprehending the guilty as by protecting the innocent.  He was (and is) a real pleasure to work with. But I couldn’t see a way of making it work in Portrush as I was already covering the rural setting with The Inspector Starrett series set in Donegal and the Castlemartin novels set in Mid Ulster. Time passed, as it has a habit of doing, I kept thinking about McCusker and the more I visited Belfast for concerts and book events the more I wanted to write about the city. So then I started to think about how it might be possible to set a McCusker mystery in Belfast and in that thought McCusker’s back story was born.

McCusker was a detective inspector stationed in Portrush. He dabbled at playing golf, more for the social opportunities than for the sport. He and his wife, Anna Stringer (McCusker always refers to her by her maiden name) successfully accumulated several properties which they (well Anna really) rented out. The idea was on McCusker’s retirement they would sell their property portfolio and retire on the proceeds. When the Patten Agreement offered a handsome payment for those willing to take early retirement during the transition from the RUC to the PSNI, McCusker bit their hand off. He was happy to give up what had become more of a paper-pushing chore than the art of detecting he’d originally joined up for. Anna Stringer perhaps fearing becoming a golf widow, (perhaps not, we never get to hear her side of the story in the first mystery) quiet and subtle as you like, sold off all the properties and disappeared with the aforementioned nest egg. The Patten payment was clearly not enough to last McCusker the remainder of his days. The only thing McCusker knows how to do, the only thing he wants to do, is detect. The Patten Agreement forbids retired officers from being reinstated but Grafton’s Agency (Belfast’s answer to USA’s Pinkerton Agency) took him on as a temp-agency cop (nickname Yellow Tops after the inferior in-house supermarket brands) and found him employment with the PSNI in the Custom House, Belfast. The PSNI aren’t actually stationed at the Custom House but I thought it ideal for McCusker’s team. I did get to spend a few hours in there and it really is an amazing building with an incredible history.

One of the original ideas for the McCusker Mysteries (hopefully plural) was to have D.S. Willie John Barr (no ‘e’) as McCusker’s side-kick, as was the case in the two McCusker short stories, Based On A True Story (included in this year’s Mammoth Book of Best British Crime - No. 11) and the Case of The Humming Bee. However when I came to start work on Down On Cyprus Avenue I had to deal with the fact that McCusker would have to be a Yellow Top and as such would have no real authority or seniority in the PSNI structure. So I introduced D.I. Lily O’Carroll who arrived on the page fully formed and who consequently quite literally forced her way into the partnership. Barr is still around though in what is also becoming a very important role.  

The Case of The Humming Bees brings us back nicely to McCusker’s preoccupation with the beautiful and historic buildings in Belfast in that it is entirely set in The Ulster Hall. The Ulster Hall was built in 1859 and designed by William J. Barre (with an ‘e’ this time.) The Ulster Hall is the hallowed concert hall we all visited to be in the presence of the greatness that was Rory Gallagher. Rory played there on numerous occasions either with Taste or, later, with his own band. A Donegal born, Cork bred man who also spent a lot of time soaking up the Belfast vibe and giving it all back to the audiences in spades at a time when few artists were visiting Belfast. The photos (but not the music) on the Live Taste album are from the Ulster Hall. The album was in fact recorded in Montreux Casino, Switzerland on the 31st August 1970. The album was released on Polydor on 1st January 1971 with my (short) sleeve notes. Sixty-four days later on Friday 5th March 1971 Led Zeppelin took to the stage in the Ulster Hall, Belfast and performed for the first time in the world a new song by the name of Stairway To Heaven.

In 2014 McCusker reckons that he and Belfast were starting over again at the same time. They both reached a good point in their life cycle and both seemed very happy to be doing so. McCusker for his part is thrilled to be getting to know the city; getting to know it in this era.

I have my father, Andrew, to thank for introducing me to Belfast. McCusker (indirectly) has Anna Stringer to thank. Yes he still has things/issues he needs to address and resolve but he frequently reminds himself about what he’d committed himself to when he left Portrush. He’d promised himself that he would forget the past, ignore the future, and get lost in the present.

Talking about the present I’d like to thank the Dufour fab four for producing such a handsome volume of Down On Cyprus Avenue and getting it out there into the world (November 2014.) I’m continuously humbled by this entire magical process.
This time I've been listening a lot to Leonard Cohen's beautiful new album, Popular Problems.  To my ears a true classic and the best album of the year so far by a country mile.

Until the next time,





Tuesday, April 1, 2014

An Adventure of a Retreating Crown a.k.a., Hats

      The time I started to grow conscious of caps (or hats) would have been during my pre-teens when my mum knit my dad and me a bobble hat each. Mine, by request, had blue and black hoops and my dad’s had red and black and they both, obviously, had bobbles on the crown. I had my mum remove mine. I thought my tassel was just a bit too loud. It’s a thing I’ve always had about clothes; I just don’t like them to be loud.
      Don’t get me wrong, I love people who can wear loud clothes and get away with it. I’m just not one of them. I remember I’d been bought a pair of sandals and they were so spanking new, the sole was snow white and, to me, they looked too much like new sandals, so I had my dad put brown boot polish on the white edges to the soles, just so they'd be ‘quieter,’ not so loud and would allow me to sink into the background. I was about six or seven at the time and I often wonder why I would think that way. I mean I haven’t changed a bit really. As an adult I’ve bought clothes and left them in my wardrobe, sometimes even for a couple of years, just so they would age and I’d feel more comfortable wearing them. I recall going to the Royal Albert Hall in London, my favourite venue in the world, for a concert and I remember John Peel was the compere and he had a buckskin, fringed-jacket - as favoured by Native Americans in the movies - draped over his arm. He just wanted to show it to us, the audience. He explained that he hadn’t plucked up the courage to start to wear it, “just yet.” I seem to remember that he brought the said jacket to several concerts, every time unworn, he clearly just wanted us to see that he was still trying to pluck up courage to wear it. So it was comforting to know I wasn't alone.

      But let's get back to the hats. The trouble is finding a hat that suits. Elvis Costello for instance looks absolutely fab in every style of hat. Me, well, not as much, well… not at all really. I do however have to play to the tune of my needs, but we’ll get to that later.

      So how do we start off on this great hat wearing adventure? Well, most likely through being influenced by our fathers, through fashion or by necessity.        
      Following my initial few months with the bobble hat my mum knit for me, I would have gone hatless for a good few years. Then in my early teenage years I would have sheltered under the hood of my trusted, and treasured, duffle-coat. It wouldn’t have been as warm as a hat or a cap – it was a bit of a wind trap really and only helped to compound the bluing of the ears.

      My big movement into hats and caps coincidently seemed to happen around two important points. One, the modern day popularity, not to mention preoccupation, with baseball caps, aka Trucker Cap, and, two, my physical need to shelter my head.

      I’d worn baseball caps for ages but I could never find the perfect model, for me. I mean, I would frequently see great models on TV or in the movies, but the ones that were available to purchase would either be too flat, too tall on the crown, a bad fit, or made from transparently synthetic material. But all the time I was going through the search process, I was gradually finding the need to wear some kind of covering on my head. In the winter I would need a hat, some item to cover the head, with its ever receding hairline, to stop it from getting cold. In the summer I’d need it to stop my crown getting burnt by the sun.

      Then I found a Magic Johnston baseball cap which was all but perfect. It was the correct shape; the crown wasn’t too high; neither was it too low; the logo was subtle; the material was good, classy looking and, it was the perfect fit. In fact the MJ cap was so perfect, so cool, that lots of people, and I do mean lots, started to ask me where I’d purchased it. A few were so impressed they even went as far as seeing if they could buy mine from me. Fewer still offered me not unsubstantial amounts of money for my prized possession, thereby, in a way, putting a price on my head. All of which only served to defeat the object of the exercise, which had been to try to find items of clothing which would be comfortable, but would not draw attention. The Michael Johnston cap, as I have already mentioned was, “all but perfect.” Its only two flaws? One: it was snow-white and white hats do tend to… well go off-white through wear and tear and eventually can become grubby. Two: by the time I went seeking a replacement I discovered they’d discontinued my particular model. Maybe I’d been giving the elevated MJ bad press, or uncool attention, by wearing non-stop, an item he’d endorsed.

      Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

      You know, after searching for years, you eventually find an item of clothing you are totally comfortable with, and then, because it works for you so well, you eventually wear it out, (not as in wearing it outside, but as in wearing it until it literally falls to pieces around you) only to find it’s no longer an item of clothing you can buy, even on the internet. Recently though when I find something I like, if through wearing it I find I really, really, like it - like say for instance, a pair of shoes, or a jacket even, you know, something I’m really comfortable with - I’ll go back and try, if I’m not too late and they’re already sold out, and buy an extra back-up identical item, just in case.

      During my base-ball cap period, the two things I discovered about them were that you (obviously) couldn’t wear them everywhere. For example, it would be a bit unseemly to wear a baseball cap at a funeral, or to a formal black tie event, or similar, don’t you think? They certainly weren’t appropriate, so on those occasions you’d either have to risk getting cold by going bare-headed, or revert to a standby black cloth cap in the style favoured by my father during my childhood – even he set my mother’s woollen black and red hooped bobble aside following a discreet passage of time. The other great thing about the traditional cloth cap is that you can fold it and put it in your pocket. This would always come in handy at the above events. I did toy for a brief time with trying to find a suitable cloth cap, as an everyday item of clothing, even tried the one you wear backwards with the wee kangaroo logo on it, but I never really felt either was for me.                

      The other thing I discovered about baseball caps was that, when you really got down to it, they are a young person’s fashion accessory. Eventually I start to think that it was beginning to look a tad unbecoming for a person of my age to be living permanently under the peak of a baseball cap and so, reluctantly at first, I started to look for a replacement.

      Now with hats there really is such a multitude of choices out there: the traditional English business man’s Bowler Hat, aka a Derby Hat; the cheeky Pork Pie Hat; the wet-weather Sou’westers - talking of which I’ve just remembered a photograph of myself, all of four years old and kitted out in my wellies, raincoat and Sou’wester, this would obviously have predated the woollen bobble hat, my mum knit for me, but I have no consciousness of it, only the fleeting memory of that photograph in my mother collection; the Boater; the exotic Panama; the Beanie or the very similar you-too Toboggan Cap;  the race track, Trilby; the not exclusively French, Beret; the anyone for yodelling, Tyrolean Hat; the anyone for tennis Sunvisor, aka the Eyeshade; the anyone for playing scary monsters, Homburg Hat; the Top Hat, now mostly seen only on door men in posh hotels; Sherlock Holmes’ favourite, the Deerstalker; the Leopardskin Pillbox Hat, which was very visually included in a Dylan lyric, allegedly after he witnessed Jackie Kennedy wearing said fashion accessory; the impractical Brakeman’s Cap; the expensive Poor Boy’s Cap; the Cricket Cap, aka Schoolboy’s Cap, the same style that one would receive as a commemorative model, should one ever be lucky enough to play football for one’s country and be ‘capped’; the happily near extinct, Gatsby Cap, also known as the Newsboy Cap; Tommy Cooper’s favourite, the Fez; the conical, that’s not comical, but conical, Nòn Lá; the brain-boiling, Cossack Hat; the dual purpose Ushanka; a Skipper’s Cap, as popularised mid-sixties by a very young Bob Dylan and aped shortly thereafter by The Beatles' John Lennon; an Airman’s Leather Hat, with or without goggles; a Brakeman’s Hat; a Stetson Cowboy Hat, which was also handy for fetching water to your horse, hence the Ten Gallon Hat nickname; the Truckers Cap, aka the aforementioned baseball hat and, last but not least, H the classy Fedora Hat.

      I’ve always been a fan of the Fedora, the hat recently re-popularised by Leonard Cohen. I’d never been able to work up the courage to try one though. So I experimented a wee bit with that style for a while. Once again I went through the process of discovering that some were too high; too low; too tight; had too narrow a brim; had too wide a brim; too hot in the summer or even too cold in the winter. The major problem I had with them thought was that sometimes, just sometimes mind you, they looked fine from the front, but from the side they can look like someone had plopped a miniature armchair upside down on your head. My experiments led me to discover that it was better to have different models for summer and winter. In the summer it’s best to favour the lighter “straw” and consequently naturally aired version of Mr Cohen’s preference, while in the winter I settled on the traditional heavier version. Again you’ll really only get one summer out of alternating two “straw” fedoras, whereas the solid felt, winter model - but again it’s good to alternate a couple - will last you a good few winters if you take good care of them.

      Recently I’ve even discovered what could very easily become my regular winter hat. Again, like all my favourite hats, it’s one that was discovered for me by my wife, Catherine. This particular model is made by Christys’ of London and, as they’ve been around since 1773, I don’t think they’ll be going out of business or discontinuing my favourite model any day soon). It’s called a Travel Trilby, that’s a Travel Trilby, not a Travelling Wilbury. For me, it’s the perfect shape, easy to wear, fits well, with a wee bit, just a wee bit, of a wider brim and is a brown green in colour. It looks like it might be the model favoured by the race track fraternity (but not quite). Another major plus from my point of view is that it’s easily trained into my preferred, most comfortable, shape. However even after all of that, it’s biggest ace-in-one, or USP, and it’s one in the eye to all airport security staff who seem to take great pleasure in giving my hats an extra punch for good measure to make sure they were low enough to go into the X-Ray machines, is that no matter the battering delivered to the Travel Trilby, you can very easily remould it back to your perfect shape in seconds. Christys’ claim you can even roll it up to stuff it in your suitcase and it will spring back into the preferred shape the second it’s been released. I’m just three months into my relationship with my new hat and so I don’t have the confidence or courage to  attempt the rolling–up test with mine just yet, but through time I’m sure…

      I do know it’s been a long search from the bobble-less, bobble hat my mum knit for me (and my dad) all those years ago, but I do have a feeling that, where I rest my (new Christy’s of London) Hat (on my head) will be its home for a long time to come.  

      And now the bit before I go. After finishing work on The Lonesome Heart Is Angry I've been ODing on DVDs mainly the first 4 series of Parenthood - just incredible. Also watched Michael Connelly's Bosch, with Titus Welliver perfect as Harry Bosch. The pilot was 10 outta 10 and the amazing news is it's just been commissioned for a full series! There is a justice in the world after all.   





Monday, February 17, 2014

Oscar, you've got a lot to answer for.

Why do we get so upset when the movie, actor, actress, director, screenwriter we like, don’t win?

Why do we get upset when we hear that Robert Redford is quoted as saying that the reason he didn’t even get nominated for what just might be his career best performance as an actor in All Is Lost, was quite simply due to the lack of cinema screening his film?

How come we get upset when Tom Hanks didn’t get nominated for Best Actor for his performance in Captain Philips because pundits speculate that the Oscar committee don’t want him to win a 3rd Oscar?

How can 6000 odd people (the odd refers to the ‘6000’ and not to, ‘people.’) pick the best movie of the year when they’re clearly biased? Is the reality that it is truly impossible to select the best movie of the year?

Surely audiences, with their feet, reflect a better choice for a potential movie of the year.

If this is the case should the category not be changed from best picture to most popular picture of the year?

Why doesn’t Stephen Fry, flawless at the Baftas, get to compere, the Oscars?

Why do the Sags, Golden Globes, Writers Guild and Directors Guild insist on having different lists for their award ceremonies if they are truly seeking the best performances of the year?

Now that there are so many award ceremonies are we due an award ceremony to nominate and pick the best award ceremony?
Is it a coincidence that the word ceremony ends in mon(e)y?

The answer to all of the above is: I don’t know.

We all have an opinion and it’s important to have an opinion and it might even me more important that we have different opinions. But in this case does it really matter, because it’s all part of this business we call show business.

It’s award season in movie capital of the USA and so all the film companies release their main contenders just prior to this time of the year intent in trying to ensure Harvey Weinstein doesn’t win a clutch of the awards this year again.

I can also tell you that at the exact same time of the year the weather (not to mention the breakfasts) are much better in Santa Monica than they are in either Ramelton or Camden Town so that where Catherine and I go to soak up a bit of the lack of the cold and a lot of the celluloid entertainment.

For what it worth this year this (in my opinion) is the best of the batch movies and (according to my personal opinion) I’ve listed them in the order I’d like to see them for a 2nd time.


Captain Philips


All Is Lost

The Invisible Woman

The Book Thief

Fruitvale Station

August: Ostage County


The Armstrong Lie

Who would I like to see win the Oscars?

Movie: Philomena

Director: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Screenplay: Spike Jonze (Her)

Actor: Bruce Dern

Support Actor: Bradley Cooper

Actress: Sandra Bullock

Support Actress: Jennifer Lawrence

Animated Movie: Frozen

Original Score: Thomas Newman (Saving Mr Banks)

This leads me to: Hints to cinema chains (including ones in the UK) on how to make more money.

a) Save your budget on self-adverts. We don’t want or need to see them. They’re boring - especially if you go to the cinema a lot - totally unnecessary and a complete waste of money.

b) Spend more money locally marketing your movies. It’s very important you make sure you let people know where the movie is on and the times. This really helps a lot. And do it on the street as well as on the web.

c) Have smaller bags of chocolates/sweets/popcorn on sale at your concessions stand in the long run you’ll sell a lot more. d) Always ensure you have Ben and Gerry’s Chunky Monkey on sale.

e) (exclusively for the UK) drop the adverts you’ll be able to fit in more screenings and do enjoy better box office returns.

f) Try and pause, even just for an extra 10 seconds the credit page at the end of each trailer so we can see who’s involved.

So that’s it for now.

Sorry for the delay between the blogs this time but I’ve been busy proof reading the new novel – THE LONESOME HEART IS ANGRY (Published May 1st) and writing the third Starrett mystery HELLO DARKNESS MY OLD FIEND.

More about both next time.