It is not every day one gets invited to the House of Lords to conduct an interview. The hallowed and auspicious surroundings lend a frisson of mystery when interviewing a crime author in a place steeped in history. On entering the Peers’ entrance, to the right is what can only be described as a cloakroom straight out of Hogwarts with wooden frames with a multitude of large metal hooks for coats and bags with a personalised card above for each and every Peer, all backlit by decorated stained glass.
Baroness Janet Cohen of Pimlico aka crime writer, Janet Neel is already there waiting for me. As on our previous encounter some months before, she is courteous and welcoming. I am led up stone steps to the first floor and along a long corridor, Baroness Cohen talking to me all the time until we reach a large square of carpet, when I am quickly instructed that it is customary not to speak when traversing the blue carpeted part of the building because it is the part of the Chamber reserved for Peers who want to talk to each other and cannot do so in the main Chamber. It feels strange to suspend conversation until our feet touch the red carpet on the far side when conversation begins again as if not a single pause has taken place. On hearing that I am not a staunch supporter of any particular party, the Baroness recalls her own mother.
‘You’re a floating voter like my mother. She always had the knack of voting for the person who would get in to office. Then she became a member of the Conservatives. It was Mrs. Thatcher who made my mother become a big supporter. She loved the woman.'
The Baroness wishes to hear one of her Labour colleagues speak and so I am ensconced in the visitors seating area. I am instructed to watch Baroness Cohen and to leave when she rises in time for our table which is booked for 1pm.
The Lords is not as huge as one imagines, however its grandeur is massively impressive. It is not so much the room itself, but the fact that our laws have been decided and passed in this very room for centuries. It is indeed quite humbling.
Settled at our table I try to ‘interview’ Baroness Cohen, but it is a little like trying to capture a butterfly with one hand tied behind your back. This woman, born on the 4th July, 1940 is a force to be reckoned with. Even in her seventy-eighth year, Baroness Cohen is a burst of energy. I get the feeling she is the sort of person who has completed at least twenty tasks before breakfast when we mere mortals are still making our first morning cup of tea!
Neel (as I refer to her crime writer persona) launches in to a tale about how in 1964 she followed her first husband to America who was studying in the U.S. Fresh from her own studies as a solicitor, Neel could not practise in the US This led her to entering the field of ‘War Games’.
‘I was hired to write scenarios for war games for this company. It was only on a trial basis, but I seemed to have a knack for it and they took me on permanently. One game involved a fictional Latin American country governed by a repressive military govenment It must have been close to the knuckle as the C.I.A came calling and wanted to know where I had got my Intel. I told them it came mostly from my imagination, but also it was all down to history. I had to take the C.I.A through the whole process before they were satisfied I wasn’t a spy or anything like that. It quite unsettled them. They must have been happy with my answers as they gave me a security clearance afterwards!’
Moving back to the U.K., Neel (which is her maiden name), worked in North Kensington Law Centre.
‘They could pay for two solicitors, but the other positions had to be voluntary. We did all the usual subjects, crime, housing and illegal immigrants. Nothing much has changed since those days, it is still an area where you can find huge wealth and abject poverty living cheek by jowl in this small part of London. We also had to deal with Notting Dale police, who back then were just as criminal as the people we were defending!’
I ask if this training was the basis for her last novel to be re-issued by Ostara, ‘Ticket to Ride’?
‘Yes, Paul Jenkins Solicitors was based directly on my experience. It was perfect to allow my heroine, Jules Carlisle to work there. Like me, she was fresh out of her solicitor’s training and as wet behind the ears as I was back then.’
I ask if a location is her starting point.
‘P.D. James always said a location was her jumping off point for a book. For me, it is a person. I get a person in my head and I build out from that character. For ‘Ticket to Ride’ it wasn’t Jules as everyone would suspect, but her boss, Paul Jenkins, the head of the practise. Once I had him clear I could flesh out the story.
‘Ticket to Ride’ is about illegal immigrants and how immigrants come to work in the U.K. on a temporary work permit.
‘The U.K. has always had immigrants, the nationality changes with the decades, that is all. We had Jewish immigrants, then people from India and Pakistan, now we have Eastern Europeans. The U.K. has always had a good reputation for welcoming in those from other countries.’ Neel sighs about the effect on Britain after Brexit. But that is a conversation for another day.
‘Thankfully, my cousin’s husband ran a lettuce farm out on the Fens, so I had my prime location for ‘Ticket to Ride’. He would employ immigrants on a temporary work permit and they would work from May collecting lettuce, and then during the winter until January, they would collect daffodils. They would go home at the end of nine months with enough money to buy a place outright in their own country.
‘Then there was the actual Fens themselves. They are reclaimed marshlands and very rich but as the peat dries out the land sinks and becomes less fertile. Fen farmers are increasingly working with a mixture of clay and peat. These skirt-lands are less fertile, and for the farmers it was and is a difficult time to keep everything going. They would deal with the Home Office to take on these seasonal work force and from there grew the plot of ‘Ticket to Ride’’
I mention that one of the characters, Baroness Beryl Williams who is affiliated with MI6 and is trotted out now and again to be the ‘face’ of MI6. This raises a smile from Neel.
‘Beryl is based on Daphne Park, Baroness Park of Monmouth. She died in 2010. She was a Senior Controller in MI6 and Beryl came direct from Daphne. I do base my characters on real people and sometimes when they have read the book, they don’t recognise themselves, even if I think there is not much difference between the real person and my character. Daphne was a strong woman and I very much admired her.'
So what does the future hold for Janet Neel? It has been 2005 since ‘Ticket to Ride’.
‘I have been writing my autobiography, which is more of a vanity project.’
I ask her if she was honest writing about herself.
‘A bit too honest, if I am being truthful. It was an experience that made me look at myself deeply.’
So, will she go back to fiction?
‘Yes, I have already started the next Jules Carlisle book. My autobiography is finished and to be published and so I had to write something else. My writing methods have changed, though. Years ago, being a mother of young children, I could write on the corner of the dining table for half an hour. Now I need to be sat for a good while with a blank wall in front of me. I have to use my imagination without any distractions.’
Can she say what it is about?
‘It picks up a few months after ‘Ticket to Ride’. That book dealt with the Bosnian War and how it affected us. Several countries from that area of the world wanted to join the E.U., and after the war they were prepared to surrender their citizens who were considered war criminals to the court at The Hague. This new book deals with the second Gulf War.
‘It undermined military morale.’ Neel says. ‘It was fought with terrible savagery and it deeply affected the soldiers. No one except the soldiers themselves can understand the intense psychological pressure of being in a war zone 24/7. That is what I am concentrating on in the next case for Jules Carlisle.’
I ask if her main characters from earlier books Francesca Wilson and John McLeish will ever come back.
'Francesca had children and was happily married to John in their last book. I would like write something perhaps in the present with the children grown up, but first Jules will get a second outing.’
And so it is with this answer that Baroness Cohen has to excuse herself. She is speaking in the Lords this afternoon and has a speech to write, although as with any writer, she already has it outlined in her head.
Back through the cloakroom to collect my bag hanging on the Baroness’ hanger, we say our farewells. Baroness Cohen is one of those wonderful people you could sit and listen to for hours and hours. Her clear analytical eye and mind are hidden by the façade of the genteel elderly stateswoman. Not quite Miss Marple, but I have a feeling you take Baroness Cohen and her alter ego of Janet Neel as an easy pushover at your peril!