HighlandLIT member James Andrew, novelist and poet was our guest at the author event on Tuesday 21st July. James previously prepared two short videos – one in which he discussed and read from his latest poetry collection, The City that Moved, the other featuring his new crime novel, The Suitcase Murderer. (The City that Moved is available from Dionysia Press) On the Tuesday evening, James was interviewed via Zoom by Paul Shanks.
In addition to these titles, James has published five other titles: his poetry collections Sailing the Sands and Birdsong and Flame; and three novels in the crime series - The Body under the Sands, The Riddle of the Dunes and Death Waits for No Lady. He received a Scottish Arts Council Award for his first collection of poems.
James grew up in Fife, attending Waid Academy, Anstruther where he was taught by Scots Poet Alastair Mackie who encouraged his writing. ‘When did you start to write?’ Paul asked. ‘You may as well ask when did I start to breathe!’ As a teenager, he wrote in different forms – plays, prose, poetry. The stories developed first, he reckoned, then the poems, and finally the novel.
He studied at Edinburgh University, and later competed a Creative Writing degree at St Andrews. He trained as a teacher, and in that role travelled widely teaching English Literature and Language.
A poet in Istanbul
Which is what brought him to Istanbul in Turkey, where he lived and taught for many years. Istanbul is ‘the city that moved’: a city in a constant state of flux, a city which looked for inspiration and support to Europe after the first World War, and became increasingly westernised, and is now under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan turning its face to the East.
James taught at the Üsküdar American Academy a school founded by an American Christian charity in the 19th century. When James was there, there was no longer Christian teaching, but the school had an international staff, and all the lessons were in English. The pupils were Turkish children from privileged backgrounds who had to pass an entrance exam to gain a place. It was, James told us ‘a real treat to teach them.’ Many went on to universities in the UK and elsewhere.
Paul spoke enthusiastically about the poems in The City that Moved, which memorably fixed in syllables elusive moments in a constantly changing tapestry. Paul likened some of James’ poems to Baudelaire’s early writings where he ‘attempted to capture the transient nature of a city.’
The importance of place was one key element of James’ poems in his anthologies, Paul felt. So was a focus on animals – was there a reason for this, or was it simply a spontaneous interest?
James spoke about the place of cats in his life – ‘When my wife was alive we always had lots of cats about the house. I like dogs as well, and I notice the wildlife in my garden.’ We can learn from cats, he told us. They know how to relax. They follow the sun round the room. ‘We shouldn’t cut ourselves off from animals,’ James urged. ‘We are diminishing ourselves if we don’t relate to them.’
Paul and James then had discussed the relationship between the essence of a poem and its form (see note below) and James concluded ‘Poems express my relationship with the world around me, what I see, what I hear, what I smell, touch because that’s where the world is, what we experience through the senses.’
Accidental crime novelist
Paul and James next discussed the latter’s series of crime novels, which began with The Body Under the Sands.
Why, Paul asked, had James chosen to write crime fiction? It was, James said, accidental. He had been researching newspaper articles from the 1920s looking for short story ideas and came across details of a crime which particularly interested him, and he explored it further. It concerned the murder of 17-year-old Irene Munro by two men, Jack Field and William Gray on the beach at The Crumbles, a shingle beach on the south coast of England. James has read the inquest report and the trial reports: the conviction of Filed and Gray was unquestionably sound. But what interested James was the way the prosecution went about proving their case with the resources available to them in the 1920s. ‘It could so easily have gone wrong!’
He then reimagined the case in The Body Under the Sands from the point of two other young men who had just come back from fighting in the trenches and found themselves accused of the murder of a young woman. We know that one of the young men – Bob, the narrator of the book – is innocent. The question is – how does he go about proving his innocence?
‘It’s really a serious novel which happens to have a crime in it,’ James said. It was accepted for publication by a crime publisher, who invited him to write sequels to it.
These sequels have equally perceptive themes. One, for instance, explores the theme of Conscientious Objection, which only became an issue in World War I as in earlier conflicts there had been no conscription. Could a Conscientious Objector, someone who had refused to take up arms because he was against killing be taken close enough to the psychological edge to be the murderer: that’s the intriguing question which James develops in The Riddle of the Dunes.
James and Paul discussed the predominant social issues of the 1920s: a decade of massive social transition in the aftermath of the War and the Russian Revolution. Paul asked how James had researched the background to his novels.
He read newspaper accounts, historical works, and autobiographies from the period, which, he says ‘tell you a great deal about personal life.’ In the second book, he has a character who is a servant, and prepared by reading accounts written by Edwardian servants describing their role in the great houses. In preparing to write the third work, he read books by and about Conscentious Ojbectors. He also read many detective stories of the 1920s which he says were very helpful. ‘They described the detective methods as they were accepted by the reading public at the time, and they influenced me to write with the inter-war years’ detective genre in mind.’
The detective in all four of James’s novels in Inspector Blades, who develops as the series progresses. In The Body Under the Sands, Blades is not the main character, but in the immediate sequel Death Waits for No Lady Blades has grown as a result of what he experienced in the first book, and he develops further in response to what he sees of the social changes and difficulties of the 1920s.
Plans for the future
James told us he is always writing poems, and had recently completed some about the lockdown experience. So a further collection may appear in due course!
He is now planning a contemporary crime novel based in Scotland. Currently mulling over the development of his characters and their personalities, he hasn’t yet thought through the political context of the story.
This was a fascinating event, in which both Paul and James triumphed over the technical issues which beset the link to James. What struck me most, perhaps, was James Andrew’s very professional approach to his work: that mastering of poetic forms, that detailed and thoughtful research which ensures a robust form within which the essence of his vision is seen to best advantage.
Paul and James discuss the place of form and essence in poetry.
Paul: Let’s think about poetic form for a moment. Do you start thinking about form, or does a particular form lend itself as you are working on the poem? Do you follow any verse forms, or patterning as a starting point? Or is it more organic?
James: Well, if you write a poem and its about 14 lines, you might like to try to re-write it as a sonnet. Or seek to express your thoughts in the form of a haiku. But generally speaking I have an idea, an image really, that I am following through in the poem, and the form will come later, it will come organically from the poem. It won’t come if you haven’t practised the mechanics of the different forms in the first place. You need to practice the forms of poetry until they come instinctively. But the essence of a poem is rhythm and image, and the essence transcends the form. The essence of the poem doesn’t lie in the sonnet structure, it is being expressed in the sonnet.
Paul: It’s a kind of marriage between the two, essence and form, I suppose? Rhythm is important, and helping to make a rhythm apparent can feed into line-breaks, syllables, all sorts of things…
James : Indeed. Your rhythm will come naturally as you’re writing, and you’ll become even more aware of it as you’re editing. A poem will shape itself into its final form. Even if a poem does fulfil the traditional structure of a form in metre, rhyme, and number of lines, that is still not the essence of the poem. The essence of it lies somewhere else, in its image, its rhythm, in the argument it makes
Paul: Alan Spense writes haikus, but he has never stuck to the 17 syllables He says if you have been working on it for a while you get a haiku rhythm. Haikus are a way of focussing on antimonies similar to those you managed to explore in the poems you read on the video, James. Images which displace one another but also contrast: light and darkness, that sort of juxtaposition, which seems to be one of the things poetry does, marries opposites.
James: Yes, you’re making sense of the world around and your relation to it, and there are an awful lot of opposites in the world around you. Poems express my relationship with the world around me, what I see, what I hear, what I smell, touch because that’s where the world is, what we experience through the senses.