I’ve been taking a bit of time out from crime fiction lately – reading it that is. This doesn’t signal any sort of end to my insatiable desire for death and destruction, I just do this from time to time. It’s a bit like having a kind of a mental holiday. ‘Oh, where did you go to get away from it all, Barbara?’ ‘Well generic person out there in the ether, I went to non-fiction and romance.’
Now don’t get me wrong, romance is really not where I’m at at all and so it has to be pretty special and a bit quirky to grab my attention. But I have really enjoyed ‘Middle Watch’ by Loretta Proctor – largely because of its unusual setting – in the world of lighthouses and their keepers. When I was a kid I was fascinated by lighthouses. Although I am as old as teak, manned lighthouses were being phased out when I was a child even though we were still taught about them at school. We were also still shown pictures of farms that featured working horses. The first time I went to the countryside I was ever so disappointed. No-one had prepared me for the horror that was my first tractor.
‘Middle Watch’ is set mainly in the 1950s when lighthouse keepers were still sent to some of the wildest and most remote corners of the UK to live for months on end with only two other men for company. The job was hard, dangerous and you had to be very good at running up and down stairs. It could also be, according to Loretta Proctor, oddly addictive too. Of course sometimes it was lethal – a fact that was gruesomely illustrated by the case of the Smalls Lighthouse, in Pembrokeshire, Wales at the end of the 18th century. Back then lighthouses where only manned by a team of two. In this instance the men in question were called Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith. It was known that the two men didn’t get on, so when Griffith died in a freak accident, Howell became obsessed with the idea that he might be accused of his murder. In order, he thought, to prove he hadn’t killed Griffith, he decided to keep his body as evidence. But he still had months left to be on Smalls and so of course, after a while, the body began to smell. To help with this problem, Howell built a makeshift coffin and put it on a shelf outside the light. But the high winds blew the coffin apart leaving Griffith’s rotting corpse to hang in front of the lighthouse, one skeletal hand, apparently moving as if beckoning. By the time Howell was relieved he’d, not surprisingly, lost his mind. But from then on it became law (1801) that lighthouses could only be manned by 3 keepers at the very least. So ‘Middle Watch’ – a romance with a definite dangerous element.
The other book I’ve been tearing through is ‘The Sugar Girls’ by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi. This details the lives of women who worked at the old Tate and Lyle sugar factory in Silvertown, London in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. This is home territory for me as I grew up, like most sons and daughters of the London Borough of Newham, hearing stories about what happened when the factory was hit by a bomb in the Blitz. Rivers of hot molten sugar ran in the streets and down into the drains. Kids like my dad at the time chipped it off the pavements and roads once it had cooled and stuffed it into their hungry mouths. For them it was as if all their sweet fantasies had come true at once.
However by far and away the most famous stories about Tate and Lyle were about the girls who worked there. Compared to most east end employers Tate’s paid well and so the Tate and Lyle girls were famous for their sharp dressing, their make up and posh hair-dos. The company had an excellent sports and social club as well as on site medical facilities and even a dedicated convalescent home for employees in Weston-super-Mare. So the Tate and Lyle girls, although they had to work hard, were very fortunate too. Glamorous and often fiercely ambitious they played hard too and men were irresistibly drawn to them. My father, just a child, was terrified of them. They had confidence, cheek and they could give as good as they got. ‘The Sugar Girls’ details the lives of just a few sugar girls and is both a great history of a long gone way of life as well as an account of the struggles inherent in the lives of east end women. For me it was like going home.
However, having dipped my toe in the fresh water of non crime fiction literature, I now find that I am gagging to get back to it again. But then that’s the thing about crime, it’s always with us.