It was a gorgeous start to a hot day. You could sometimes catch the scent of the salt from the sea carried on the light breeze that struck up now and again. The date was the 12th July, the venue: Chalkwell Park in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. The event is the Village Green. There are two huge stages for music with tons of stalls and other tents. But I am interested in only one tent: the Dragnet tent. Within the multi-coloured marquee a day of murderous whisperings was promised as we celebrated our love of crime fiction.
Our hosts for the day were crime writer, Cathi Unsworth and Travis Elborough. They kicked off the day discussing the dark currents that run between the coast and crime fiction. Many books have been enacted out against a coastal backdrop. One that sprang to people’s minds was that famous novel by Graham Greene – ‘Brighton Rock’. It also reminded me of a Golden Age classic that has currently been issued; ‘The Cornish Coast Murder’ by John Bude.
Poet, Benedict Newbery was next with his poems of childhood on the Dorset coast. His poems were so vivid that many of the visuals he conjured with his words were pertinent to my own childhood and brought back nostalgic memories for those more innocent days of the seventies.
Anna Whitwham, the writer of debut novel, ‘Boxer Handsome’ was put under the spotlight by Ann Scanlon who left no stone unturned when questioning Anna. Based in the present, this novel is quite timeless and yet has an earthy, Fifties feel to it. The premise is a love triangle between two boxers, Bobby and Connor and their tussle over Theresa. For those of you who haven’t tried ‘Boxer Handsome’, Ann, Cathi and myself all highly recommend it.
Max Decharne was on stage next with a brilliant talk about the use of slang in the English language and how it has traversed the Atlantic to the US and vice versa. Max informed us that 18th Century English slang was used in 20th Century Chicago. How? Mainly due to many Brits who were on the wrong side of the law being deported to the U.S.
Max also detailed the meaning of words and their origins, especially with early crime novels. He used a fascinating book which is marvellously entitled, ‘Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’ by Captain Francis Grose which has to be the best name for an author
for this particular tome! To the intense pleasure of the crowd we all found out the following slang:
‘Barking Irons’ – Pistols
‘Horse Godmothers’ – women of a masculine disposition
‘Shook a Dummy’ – Picked a pocket
‘What’s your spark?’ – A complaint or gripe
‘To Pull Coat’ – To inform
‘Send them on a permanent wave’ – Sent to the electric chair
My list could go on and on. Despite having read crime fiction for decades even I didn’t know that Raymond Chandler had named two of his books after slang terms meaning ‘death’: ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘The Long Goodbye’.
I could have sat and listened to Max all day, he was that fascinating. I do hope he is given another spot next year!
Another highlight of the day was the radio play chronicling the downfall of John George Haigh, (The Acid Bath Murderer) who was found guilty of murdering six people and hanged in 1949. Marc Glendening was the writer of this piece that chronicled Haigh’s meeting with his final victim, Olive Durand-Deacon, a wealthy widow of 69 who Haigh met at the Onslow Court Hotel. He invited her to his workshop over an idea she had about a new innovation from the U.S.: false fingernails. As with many of his victims, she was shot in the back of the neck and then plunged in to a vat of acid as Haigh was under the misapprehension that he could not be convicted if a body could not be produced. However, Mrs. Durand-Duncan’s gallstones and dentures were found. These items were enough to send Haigh to the gallows to be hanged by the most famous hangman of them all, Albert Pierrepoint. Marc Glendening said the inspiration for his play was an old Great Aunt of his who had met Haigh. She said he was a very charming and persuasive man – as Marc told me, his Great Aunt could also have become one of Haigh’s victims.
The radio play was sublime and Marc added his own splash of acid humour to the proceedings. The three character actors, Callum Coates, Emma Brown and Duncan Bolt played their parts magnificently and with perfect clipped, crisp English
accents, brought the Forties alive inside the tent! It was a wonderful fun half hour in
homage to an extremely gruesome crime. The atmosphere of the play was
heightened by Sophie Loyer who provided the accompanying music on her violin.
After, Paul Willetts discussed with Marc Glendening his novel ‘North Soho 999’ which is about a true crime that happened in April 1947. It all starts with a man walking down Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia and observing another man slumped by a motorbike. The chap sees he is being attended by others and so continues on his journey. That man who continued on his way happened to be Albert Pierrepoint. The reason he didn’t stop? He wasn’t trained in First Aid – which many in the tent found quite amusing. This murder started a nationwide manhunt for the killers and was also to be turned in to a film titled, ‘The Blue Lamp’ featuring a young Dirk Bogarde.
Another fascinating fact from Paul was that there was a sense of lawlessness in the 1940’s and in 1946 there was a gun amnesty and in one day 18,500 handguns and 400 machine guns were handed in to the police. Again, this was a fascinating talk and I have already ordered my copy of Paul’s book as he made me want to read it straight away.
Things took a sinister and supernatural turn when author of ‘The Drowning Pool’, Syd Moore and publisher, Mark Pilkington got together. The brief was ‘witches, smugglers and highwaymen’ but the subject of witches was so enthralling that we didn’t really get beyond the ‘witches’ part of the discussion!
Witches indicted in Essex numbered 503 and many of those were brought to trial and killed by the Witchfinder General, Matthew Jenkins. In a two year period Jenkins would be responsible for the deaths of over 300 women who were claimed to be witches. Another little fact is that his role was very short and he died of Tuberculosis at the young age of 29! And Vincent Price was 56 when he played Jenkins in the famous film.
Moore also alleged that if someone was in a prison awaiting trial and a fly, or moth or a rat came in to the cell then they were classed as that person’s familiar and they were immediately found to be guilty of witchcraft.
Moore discussed Sarah Moore (no relation) who was claimed to be a seawitch. Legend said that she was the main cause of the great storm of 1870, although evidence points to Moore dying in 1867, three years before the storm happened. Moore was feared as a witch but is more likely to have been a healer of some description.
Another witch who caused a lot of discussion was Ursula Kemp who forms part of Syd’s next book. In 1921 it was claimed that her bones had been discovered in a back garden. The owner placed glass across the top and charged people to look at the witch’s remains. After the Second World War the remains were moved to Bocastle museum and then the remains disappeared and a search was started
to relocate them. The search continues to this day.
The last time a woman was jailed for being a witch was Helen Duncan in 1944, but that was mainly for fraud as she pretended to know information about those attending her séance when in fact she had paid for the information beforehand.
The last talk of the day was between Iain Sinclair and Cathi Unsworth about the crime writer, Derek Raymond who is well-known for his ‘Factory’ novels, the most famous being ‘I Was Dora Suarez’.
The day was rounded off by music from The Cesarians. This is the first time there has been a crime tent at this event and the whole day was a resounding success. The tent was permanently crammed with people and everyone had a fabulous time and I for one came away with a lot more information rolling around my head, so educational as well! I truly hope there is a crime tent next year as it can only get bigger and better!
Photographs supplied by Fen Oswin - Fenris Oswin