Jan Newton

Jan Newton, author, significantly, of Rather To Be Pitied, writes about the joys(?) of being married to a crime writer.

He doesn’t complain, well not about the writing at any rate. To be fair, he doesn’t complain about very much at all, not even the housework, or rather the abject lack of it. He puts up stoically with the fact that we can completely run out of food and that it takes me a minute or two, once I’ve reached a juncture when I can be disturbed from my scribblings, to realise that I’m not actually in a siege situation in the middle of Manchester, and it’s well past teatime. Mervyn has always been completely supportive of whatever I’ve wanted to do.

He’s learned to tolerate the aged horse (who, he says, tries to bite him when he brings her in). He’s been heard (but denies) having long conversations with my pygmy goat, and he’s even sat through, or possibly slept through, dozens of brass band concerts, offering to carry my euphonium and, when I was band librarian, helping to sort mountains of pieces of music into the twenty-five parts (plus percussion) of standard brass band formation. But it’s my entanglement with writing that has really made me appreciate his extraordinary tolerance levels.

I began writing very tentatively, by signing up for an Open University course entitled ‘Start Writing Fiction’ in 2008. It was the first time in my long career with the OU that we had used online forums. I met some wonderful people on this first course, including a stern vet from north Wales, who used to tell me ‘you can do much better than this’, every time I submitted a piece of work. Merv’s ability to talk me down was the only reason I didn’t capitulate completely in the face of the vet’s unerring criticism, and instead went on to do the two ‘proper’ creative writing modules which completed my degree. He egged me on to follow it with a Masters at Swansea University (saw the funny side when I was mistaken for a tutor on the first day) and insisted that I visit the Freshers’ Week marquees. I came away with a lurid orange ‘Off Campus’ tee shirt, but only after I’d been told in no uncertain terms that they were ‘only for students, not parents’. Looking back, after that amazing experience at Swansea, the vet from Rhos on Sea was absolutely right.

I suppose it came home to me for the first time a couple of months ago, how difficult it might be, to be married to a crime writer. I’ve always done the acutely embarrassing people-watching and eavesdropping thing in cafes and shopping centres, and I’ve dragged Merv hither and yon, across several counties, to look at perfect locations. He’s read short stories, radio plays and nature-writing essays, designed bookmarks and posters and never turned a hair at any of it. It was only the other day, when the young lad from the computer shop was asking nervously if Merv wanted his browsing history deleted, that I detected a slight look of what can only be described as terror in Merv’s eyes. ‘She’s a crime writer,’ he said. They exchanged a knowing look. The browsing history includes information on handguns available in Poland in the 1950s, how to tie someone up in the most efficient fashion, and the decomposition rates of flaccid, maggot-laden skin.

I can’t go anywhere without seeing a perfect location for a spectacular or unexpected death. We wandered round the Elan Valley reservoirs a couple of weeks ago, revelling in the premature spring sunshine. Merv peered through the engine-house windows at turbines and dials and switches, and pondered the remarkable feat of moving water from mid Wales to Birmingham using only gravity, while I pondered a gravity problem of my own. I was wondering how agile you would have to be to clamber out onto the central wall of the dam way above us, and, if you were to jump (or be pushed), whether you would hit the stonework on the way down. As I asked what he thought, and we both gazed up at the parapet, shading our eyes against the sunshine, an elderly couple edged their way round us. She whispered something to him and they both looked back at us. I imagine them scouring the local paper for foul deeds in the Elan Valley. Yesterday, I didn’t even have to explain when I asked him to stop the car at the junction of a railway bridge on a particularly nasty bend over a fast-flowing river. I took my photographs and got back into the car and not a word was said.

It’s been a tricky few years, and yet none of it has blunted Merv’s enthusiasm for my writing. He’s sold my book to other patients in hospital waiting rooms – and his latest piece de resistance was selling a copy to a radiologist while he was in an MRI scanner. As I write, he’s busy with the logistics for the launch of my second book in a couple of weeks. He’s much happier to blow my trumpet than I am blowing my own.

I honestly don’t think I could have done any of it without him. If I could only explain to him that, when I’m writing furiously, his ‘are you disturbable’ is never a good move. Although the wry smile that always goes with it makes it far less of a crime.

Remember No More by Jan Newton

19th April 2019

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