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Hot Club of Cowtown – music for pure lovers

I crawled out of the Louisiana swamp brushing aside the detritus of decades that swirled around my head, hauled myself up through the cotton plants and rinsed away the crawfish and crab, lifted my neck and stared at the spartan stage at Lowdham Civic Hall. Surprisingly, there was no swinging orchestra, no line dancers, no night club jazz players – just three remarkable artists on guitar, violin and a big old double bass. Hot Club Of Cowtown were in the Nottinghamshire village.
Many have tried to describe their music. I’d suggest Creole Country with a heavy influence of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli jazz, tender, precise ballads, and overriding Country & Western. But it’s so much more than that.
Elana Jones is centre stage with flashing eyes and a perfect, embracing smile, framed by blonde hair that wanted to have a fresh life of its own. She is a truly accomplished songwriter and singer with a cheeky vocal delivery. Jones is the de facto group leader and lead singer, but it is her violin that takes centre stage. Soaring through the country style, she evokes images of 19th century America better than a painting. One self-penned number displayed her talent for making the violin ‘talk’. We heard the neighing of wild horses, the clatter of their hooves and the bass and guitar joined in as the animals galloped freely across the Mongolian desert.
Whit Smith is simply stunning. Any guitarist will attest to the sometimes impossible width of the instrument’s neck; Smith must be an alien. His span would cross the River Trent in flood; his precision and accuracy made me gasp in admiration; he didn’t play that guitar, it actually became part of him. The intricate note-picking of the country-style numbers gave way to melody, and a particularly evocative ‘The Continental’ that took us back to the 1930s and days of Noel Coward.
His digits envelope immaculate country and western style Django Reinhardt jazz. He could be a grown-up Harry Potter with a carefully tuned guitar instead of a magic wand. His songwriting skills display a breadth of musical genres that fascinated and enthralled a packed audience.
Jake Erwin exemplifies what the group have evolved into over the last 22 years. He makes the double bass a fulcrum of power and rhythm. That big old slapper is much loved. Erwin’s hands moved effortless over a neck that’s filled out with age; and, woomph, down swoops his right hand and smacks her nether regions. She growls and moans in ecstasy as the strings of her heart are plucked, and his fingers deftly caress. She responds with a power that far surpasses the tenderness with which she’s been plucked and stroked.
Finally a finale, but first a violin string broke. This was no disaster; it was a heaven-sent message that these three musicians were actually human, even if they did have superhuman powers. The last number was the ultimate ‘conversation’ between violin, guitar and bass. This was music in a storm. Music flowed through a wide, pulsing pipe and burst out with ground-shaking power. The torrent took shape as it poured out and carried everything before it: fast, light streams were formed; frothing rapids were crossed; and the culmination was a release, and calm.
Who would I recommend Hot Club Of Cowtown to? Anyone who wants that odd feeling when you hear and see music played so brilliantly that it stops you breathing, but you keep smiling.

Lose the bodies, and find the plots – Derbyshire crime fiction

Derbyshire has a reputation for producing some of the most exciting crime fiction by authors who live there or use the county as their central location. The big question is – why?
Perhaps there will be answers on August 17 at Chesterfield Library at the very first Derbyshire Noir Festival. It’s a long overdue event, but ferociously welcome. These authors know where the bodies are buried and how they got there.
Derbyshire is a cauldron. There’s mining and mills; high peaks, bleak moorland, deep, dark valleys and subterranean caverns; derelict hovels and some of the country’s most elegant and wealthy country homes and palaces; and a literary heritage that includes Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, DH Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe – and that’s before the present crop kicks in. Politically, we have landed gentry, left wing firebrands and right wing Tories, and middle-of-the-roaders. Industrially and commercially, there’s Rolls-Royce making aero engines, and a warehouse full of zero hours contract workers. Yes. Derbyshire does extremes.
Choosing the right location for a crime novel will capture and hold readers; if it then uses these environments to add drama and emotion then even better, and Derbyshire has them everywhere.
Real life is a good starting point for fiction. If death is your menu choice, Derbyshire will cook up an exotic array. Children were forced to work, and die, in Litton Mill in the north; coal miners in the north, east and south have been crushed in pursuit of a living wage; and in recent memory ‘Mad Axeman’ Billy Hughes created terror and committed appalling murders.

While location is important, murders are not committed by places, but by people, and Derbyshire harbours a rich gamut of characters who find their way into some of the most intriguing and enthralling crime fiction. I spent seven years at school in Buxton and later, seven years as a reporter in Derby and Ilkeston covering the county. I have met murderers, drug dealers, robbers, burglars, rapists, but mostly their victims (not the murdered, though). What stands out is the diversity and isolation. For the good people of Glossop looking down on Manchester, the natives of Shardlow and its canal and river are in a foreign land.
Derbyshire’s Peak District gets acres in print, but there is so much more. Repton was a large Viking settlement and they knew a thing or two about violent death; and at the other end of the county is Hayfield, often home to Agatha Christie. It is a beautiful, disparate county. When torrential rain washes the blood of the latest victim from the Peak District into the River Wye, children in Darley Park, Derby, can be swimming in the sunshine-dappled river Derwent unaware of the bodies that have floated downstream – mostly in fiction.
From the southern edges of Saddleworth Moor, infamous for its link to the Moors Murders by Brady and Hindley, to the northernmost reaches of the National Forest, overlooking the National Arboretum Memorial where so many tragic deaths are remembered, Derbyshire is a fount of plots and stories, of evil deeds and courageous heroes. It’s really no wonder that great crime writers allow their imaginations full rein in this remarkable county.

References. if required:
Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventure of the Priory School an d The Man With The Twisted Lip. Plus, his publisher, George Newnes, came from Matlock Bath.
Jane Austen: “No finer county in England than Derbyshire,” she said. And Pride and Prejudice was filmed in the county.
Agatha Christie: Brother-in-law James Watts lived in Cheshire and owned land in the Peak District. She stayed, and write, at Upper House on the Kinder Estate.
D H Lawrence: Lived near Wirksworth for a while (after he and his wife Frieda had to leave Cornwall because she was accused of spying – she was German and a cousin of Baron von Richtofen), and Women in Love was filmed partly at Elvaston Hall.
Alan Sillitoe: Always associated with Nottingham, but many of his books – including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, see his characters escaping the city to go fishing and seducing near where the M1 motorway divides the counties.

The joy and pain of beta-reading

A ‘Beta Reader’ is the very first person to be handed a manuscript and asked to read it with a critical eye. There are often two problems: 1. The author is relinquishing their ‘baby’, a creation that mustn’t be touched; and 2. The reader has a tremendous responsibility and must disassociate themselves from any personal feelings.
The result can be an unmitigated disaster and the death of a friendship, or it could be the cement that seals a personal relationship with trust and respect.
As a reader, how do I tell the author that a character needs to be filled out and given a much bigger role? How do you look at a timescale, scratch your head, and have the temerity to tell the writer that it simply doesn’t work?
Beta readers are not professional editors, nor are they simply proof-readers: both of which require separate and additional skills. My belief is that the beta reader must stand back and see the bigger picture, a la that famous Rolf Harris comment: ‘Can you tell what it is yet?’
My crime thrillers under the name Tony R Cox, are beta-read and part-edited by Tony Moss, my former boss as Chief Sub-Editor at the Nottingham Evening Post. Tony is a long-time friend and a dedicated, proven and successful professional in the newspaper and magazine world. Most of the time friendship is the prime mover; with my books, his professional skills come top. Tony is encouraging and helpful, often amusing, as well as being eagle-eyed and incisive. He likes a complete book to ‘attack’.
I have just finished beta-reading a close friend’s novel. We met five years ago when I went to his debut novel’s launch in a bookshop – and coincidentally won a copy of his book, Heartman. I read it, was astounded by the quality of the work and the different slant he took in a literary world of police procedurals. Gradually we realised that my comments were constructive as well as lightly critical. His fourth in the series is the manuscript I have just finished, chapter by chapter – which suits me as a reader and allows me to home in on a few thousand words, not be faced with 350 pages.
It has been a remarkable few months. Mark Wright is one of the most lucid authors writing today. He grasps the importance of action but also gets deep into the mind of the reader so that they are led, encouraged and almost physically tossed into a maelstrom. Such a stream of consciousness, no matter how controlled and managed, is bound to incur mistakes: I see my role as highlighting those, perhaps offering simple solutions, and ensuring that each character remains three-dimensional.
It has been an honour. He says he owes me a pint; I say it’s the other way round. The satisfaction of ‘Job Done’ is shared.
I believe that no manuscript should be submitted to a literary agent or a publisher unless it has been beta-read. As with a work of art, which it is, get as near to perfection as possible before you set it free.

What a gay day! – Fiction now based on real life 50 years ago

I write historical crime thrillers set in the 1970s and one of the key factors is balancing today’s accepted norms with those from nearly 50 years ago. No mobile phones, no internet, no personal computers and a reliance on personal contact are among them.
One key factor, especially when writing about the world of entertainment, is the way in which homosexuality has become a normal part of life. It is now fully understood – by intelligent people – that no-one chooses to be gay or bisexual, no-one decides their sexuality, and there is no ‘cure’ for something that isn’t an illness. But this wasn’t always the belief.
Take religion, for example, for nearly two thousand years all the world’s major religions, whilst offering moral guidance and even political direction, stated that homosexuality was a sin. Fifty or sixty years ago the reality of being gay began to be accepted. That’s nearly two thousand years of denial and steadfast teaching to be switched, volte-face, at almost a stroke. No wonder it’s difficult to accept.
I was a teenager in the 1960s and I can vividly remember the jibes and insults, even bullying, at a time when boys were going through the difficult stage of puberty. They’d had parental and possibly sibling love; they’d made deep and emotionally binding friendships with other boys; and then came the series of thunderbolts that shook the very foundation of their souls … girls. It was difficult for everyone, but a lot easier for people like me, who were attracted to girls for their shape and animal allure. How horrendously awful must it have been for boys who did not have those feelings and found that they were sexually aroused by maybe one or two other boys.
How did we – who were lumped together as heterosexual, even if we didn’t know what that meant – react? By joining in the sniping and bullying, of course: we were teenagers. That’s what we did.
Now, as I rapidly approach my three score and ten, I am writing about an era and environment that has to accept those attitudes were wrong, almost criminally wrong.
I was, in retrospect, lucky. I frequented nightclubs where some of the great rock bands played before they became stadium and festival bands, and in those clubs we, lovers of music, encountered all sorts of different people. Among them I knew gay guys and, while lesbianism was not commonly mentioned (apart from the wonderful Dusty Springfield, and even that some years down the line), gay girls. What drew us together was music, not the animal wish to sleep together.
In First Dead Body, my self-published debut under my pen name of Tony R Cox, a key character is semi aggressively queer, and he is based on someone I knew. A Fatal Drug hints at perversity, and Vinyl Junkie is a full-blooded look at teenage abuse as well as a more nuanced and understanding expose of broad homosexuality as a fact of life, just as heterosexuality is.
The dichotomy, as a novelist, is writing for the time in which the book is set as well as accepting today’s standards. I’m lucky. I’ve always felt fine with people who have different directions for their sexual lives. It’s not a conscious thing: it’s just realising that my persuasion – which happened then and now to be girls – are just that … mine, no-one else’s.
So read on. Straight, gay, bi-sexual or confused. Crime thrillers are for everyone.

Great rock music and the Simon Jardine thriller series

One of the most respected Book Bloggers, Matt Keyes who blogs under the name It’s an Indie Book Blog, asked me to write as a guest on his sight about the influence of music on my Simon Jardine crime thriller series. It got me thinking …
Rock music: It’s more important than life and death

The late, great Bill Shankly said about football: ‘It’s not a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that.’ For me, music is the same with my writing and it’s rock – pub rock, folk rock, prog rock, just make it rock.
Bands of the late 60s and early 70s played a massive role in my life. I’d got a job as a reporter on a regional newspaper and, within a very few weeks, a jazz drummer and sub-editor spotted my talent for hailing great music from little-known groups. A year or so later, Derby’s Saturday Page was stated by Tony Stratton-Smith, founder of Charisma Records, to be the best regional music page in the country. (They had to widen the doors to fit my head after that.)
The amazing clubs, where approaching the dance floor was like treading across gluey treacle without the sweetness, were the centres of life for young people. They brought together the good, the very bad, the nervously unattractive, and some of the most impossibly beautiful people.
The era was cataclysmic. The Pill was swiftly moving into rustic market towns offering girls the chance to control their own bodies. Alcohol was no real detriment to any physical activity, including, I admit, driving. Drugs had made their way from the US and London out to the provinces, and I can state quite categorically that some of the best joints ever rolled were by accomplished musicians, who were also very generous.
Some forty years after I’d left the music scene – a wife and family required cash, not late nights, early starts, and loud lead guitar riffs – I met up with a former radio reporter who suggested I pen a memoir of what we used to get up to. Two thousand words later I stared at a wonderful piece of libel. I’m fortunate in many ways, particularly with a publisher who is supportive and honest. All publishers will say they like the authors’ choice of art, music etc.; Fahrenheit Press shares a near obsession with rock and punk. In abbreviated parlance: when it comes to crime fiction and music, Fahrenheit ‘gets it’, and in spades.
Musicians, writers, artists are all creative people and it is hardly surprising that so many autobiographies (a lot with historically tweaked facts) have been written. In the early 70s two guys I knew well – a bassman and songwriter, and the chief roadie were on one of those endless tours of America. To pass the time they had Scrabble competitions … very rock ‘n roll. In general, and unlike the stories bandied about, being in a successful band was a bit like being in the army, at war. Long, long periods of hard work practising, writing and travelling interrupted by brief bursts of frenetic energy.
My Simon Jardine series, starting with the self-published First Dead Body, then, with Fahrenheit Press, A Fatal Drug and Vinyl Junkie, has a thread of rock music and clubs running through, and Vinyl Junkie is a fairly excoriating and fictitious expose of record companies, but the central themes are based around an era, an extended epiphany, and rock music, bands and the clubs they played in serve the storyline.
For the future, rock music will be a foundation. There is no better location for seedy characters, gang bosses and their acolytes to meet innocence. My reporter, Simon Jardine will always be bounced between justice and naivety to the sound a pounding electric bass line.