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Finding Tilly

October 10, 2019

Several years ago, shortly after its publication, I set up a Facebook group called “I Have Read Unethical Practices” and invited the dozen or so friends who’d bought a copy of the novel to join, which they did. I’m not sure what the point was of setting up the group. A large element I’m sure was “Look at me! I’ve got a book!” If I was expecting the hundreds of thousands (ha!) of other readers to find and join the group, they didn’t. It sat dormant for a while before someone used it to post a recommendation of another novel.

That soon became the main purpose of the group: Friends who love to read sharing recommendations. The name of the group came to seem inappropriate, so the name was changed. The new name of the group (which I’m pretty sure I did not create, although I can’t think who did) still isn’t all that great (not least because there are now lots of friends of friends whom I do not know), but so far no one’s come up with another idea.

Anyway, there have recently been two recommendations which have meant a great deal to me.

The first was from my friend Jane who wrote something along the lines of” “Given that I’m Scottish, I don’t know how I’ve only just discovered Denise Mina.” There followed a glowing review of Mina’s Garnethill trilogy.

I’d heard of Mina, but, like Jane, had never read any of her novels. A Google search revealed that Mina has written a number of mystery series, along with numerous standalone novels and a lot more besides.

A search of the local library website revealed that none of the Garnethill books were available, but there were books in two of the other series: Alex Morrow, a Glasgow detective sergeant, and Paddy Meehan, a Glasgow journalist. I ordered the first books in both series. The Alex Morrow one was fine, but she’ll never become my favourite fictional Scottish cop. Even though he’s now retired, that role will always be filled by Rebus.

The first Paddy Meehan, on the other hand, sucked me in from the get go. Set in the 1980s, young Paddy Meehan works for a daily newspaper in Glasgow. I never worked for a daily paper, but in the 1980s I did work for a weekly news magazine. Although Paddy is in Glasgow and I was in London, so much of the story took me back to my days in journalism – not least the sordidness of the Press Bar. We, too, had an NUJ bar. It stank, your feet stuck to the carpet, the décor (if you could even flatter it with the word décor) was abysmal. The only thing it had going for it, like Paddy’s Press bar, was the subsidised prices of the beer and spirits. (Wine? Don’t be a poof.)

In the first novel Paddy is an eighteen-year-old copyboy (yes, even though she’s female, she was still a copyboy – no such thing as a copygirl) with a nose for news. In the second she’s in her early twenties and has graduated to the night shift, which involves driving around in a car with a police radio and rushing to the scenes of accidents and pub fights. In the third, which I finished last night, she’s in her late twenties and is now a columnist renowned for taking the piss out of and crapping all over politicians and other establishment figures. God, I thought, when I read this development, no fair, Denise Mina, that is the job I’ve always wanted. I can’t think of anything I’d love more than to be paid a decent salary to rant about the world. (Okay, for a couple of years I did get to rant once a month in my local paper, but it’s not the same thing.)

Annoyingly, the third novel is currently the last in this series. C’mon, Mina, enough with Alex Morrow and John Constantine (whoever he is – haven’t read any of these), get back to Paddy Meehan. I need more of her.

The second important recent recommendation was from my friend Irmani, who’d just finished reading In Extremis, a biography of Marie Colvin written by Lindsey Hilsum.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Marie Colvin was a highly respected was correspondent for the Sunday Times.

I’d never heard of Colvin when I was sitting here in 1997 writing what would become the first draft of Unethical Practices and created my character Tilly Arbuthnot. Before the events in the novel, Tilly’d had a successful career as a foreign correspondent. By the time the reader meets her, she’d been benched for some unspecified reason. That reason and much else about Tilly’s past was meant to be revealed in future novels about her. Sadly for the readers of the world (and even more sadly for me), although a couple of these novels have made it as far as a chapter or two, none have been completed.

The past I’d envisaged for Tilly had been gleaned to a large extent from the writings of Martha Gellhorn and from Caroline Moorehead’s excellent biography of her. (Irmani – If you’re reading this, I do highly recommend this as a follow up.) Reading In Extremis was a lot like reading the life story of Tilly, pretty much exactly as I’d always imagined it.

Colvin, of course, was never benched. (Although, as the book reveals, she probably should have been for her own sake.) She soldiered on, minus the eye she lost to the Sri Lankan army, right up until the moment she was blown up by a Syrian army missile. She gave away quite a bit of herself in her articles, most of which have been published in On the Front Line. Colvin, like the Tilly of my imagination, didn’t believe there were always two sides to every story. Sometimes there really were heroes and villains and she was prepared to call bullshit on the latter. What reading Hilsum’s biography has given me is a wonderful insight into the woman behind the reports.

On the Front Line has never made it to my bookshelves. It’s been living (along with Janine Di Giovanni’s books, Madness Visible and The Quick and the Dead, about the 1990s Balkan wars and Kate Adie’s autobiography) in the pile of books behind the pile of books beside my bed. These books are sitting there waiting to be reread if and when I’m finally ready to get back to Tilly. In Extremis is going to be added to that pile.

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2 Comments
  1. krysross permalink

    Ooh, too bad you can’t get the Garnet Hill books. I liked them lots more than Alex Morrow. Haven’t tried the Paddy ones yet. Am currently reading a stand alone–The Long Drop. Good so far.

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