Jo McMillan Reading

An Evening With Jo McMillan

By Tina Williams

Local author Jo McMillan addressed a packed Tamworth Town Hall on Monday evening, at the launch of her debut novel Motherland.

Jo, interviewed by LitFest Secretary Philip Hall, beguiled the audience, which included the Mayor of Tamworth, with her poignant, informative and often humorous recollections which inspired her to pen the partly autobiographical novel Motherland, which she touchingly described as ‘a love letter to my mum.’

Jo’s reminiscences drew on her experiences as the ‘only young communist in Tamworth’, her visits to East Germany whilst accompanying her mother, a passionate Communist Party member, and the profound personal impact the fall of the Berlin Wall had on her marriage, her relationship with her mother and her political beliefs.

As the novel is partly autobiographical part of Jo’s address focused on her own life experiences (the characters of Jess, the young girl in the novel and Jess’ mother Eleanor are based very much on Jo’ s own reminiscences). Moving to Tamworth from Hemel Hempstead with her mother in the 1970’s, Jo explained that she very much felt the outsider. She not only had to come to terms with a whole different vocabulary – ‘cobs’ instead of ‘rolls’ and ‘pumps’ instead of ‘plimsolls’, but more fundamentally had to contend with living where she was the only young communist in town.

School history lessons were particularly challenging, the version of the Cold War she was taught being at odds with the one championed by her beloved Communist Party. Whilst other girls in her year group entertained themselves by singing along to the latest hits from Top of the Pops, Jo regaled the audience with how she herself sang along to Communist Party songs from Nazi concentration camps and focused on how she might die heroically for the Revolutionary cause.

Jo McMillan
Jo McMillan – image courtesy of Rob Morgan

Keen to find kindred spirits, Jo explained how, through the pages of the Morning Star, she secured a number of pen pals from East Germany, one of whom she modelled the character of Martina on in Motherland (although as characters invariably do, Martina soon developed a will of her own as the plot unfolded).

Jo explained that Communism was in her family’s blood and that she joined the Young Communist League at a very young age, immediately being made Minute Secretary. She also attended the Communist Party Branch meetings in Tamworth, ran by her mother, meetings which were often so poorly supported that her own attendance was crucial in deeming them quorate.

Jo described her visits to East Germany, accompanying her mother who, at special invitation from the Ministry of Education, attended summer camps to teach German English teachers English. She remarked upon the beautiful surroundings of Potsdam and eating ice cream – to her, as a teenager Socialism seemed to have it all!

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was a profound shock to Jo and her mum and represented a major turning point in her life. Jo explained how it brought both her dreams of a career as a party official and her marriage to a Party member to an abrupt end. It also drove a wedge between her and her mum: whilst her mum stayed in Berlin, in denial at the collapse of Communism, a disillusioned Jo remained in London, embracing all that Capitalism had to offer. Jo stated that she drew on her experiences of disillusionment with the Communist ideology in Motherland, through the character of Jess, but that in the book this disenchantment and Jess’ own rift with her mother Eleanor occurred before the fall of Communism in 1989.

Feeling that she had been sold a false promise, Jo ignored politics for a couple of decades. It was not until 2009 (the year after the financial crash indicating perhaps that Capitalism too was not a perfect ideology), when Jo broached the subject of her past with her mother, a past which Jo describes as feeling ‘almost dreamlike’, that the rift between mother and daughter began to heal. Jo explained that she recorded these discussions and when she read the transcripts the story that was to become the novel Motherland took shape. The pain of the past dissipated and the distance between mother and daughter was breached, the book being poignantly described by Jo as ‘a love letter to my mum.

Jo delivered three separate readings to the audience: the first where Jess is tasked by the Young Communist League to think about who are the peasants and workers in Tamworth; the second where Peter, a Party member visiting the UK from the East, is given a guided tour of Tamworth by Eleanor, Jess’s mum and the third where Jess’s mum moves out of Tamworth and does her final sale of Morning Star newspapers

There were a number of questions from the audience which gave rise to a lively discussion on the following themes:

Jo’s experiences of visiting Berlin after the fall of Communism:

Jo explained that in 2009, when she first visited Berlin to research Motherland, she initially found it extremely difficult to cross into the East, as her past was so tied up in what it represented. Once there, Jo explained how she was able to ‘become’ Jess and tried to think and believe as a teenager would when entering Communist East Berlin. Jo stressed that she had to try to ignore the fact that Capitalism had replaced the Communist ideology and the physical changes this had brought, so that she could immerse herself in the character. Jo sated that after travelling back and forth to Berlin, she now lives there.

The integration between the West and East Berliners:

Jo stated that she was not there when Communism fell but that her mother’s reaction was to immerse herself ever more fully in life in the East. The impression that Jo gained from others was that whereas many of the young embraced the fall of the Wall and Capitalism, celebrating the opportunities it gave them, the older citizens felt a great sense of loss. Jo stated that her mother remained in East Germany until the end of the 1990’s, when it became clear that Communism there had gone, she returned to the UK.

What Jo is currently working on:

Apart from publicising Motherland, which Jo informed the audience is to be translated into German and launched there in 2016, Jo stated that she has plans for another book, with a similar protagonist to Jess from Motherland, which draws on her experience of living in China.

Images from the evening:

Ruth Rendell

By Philip Hall

Ruth Rendell - image courtesy of Wikimedia
Ruth Rendell – image courtesy of Wikimedia

Ruth Rendell, who died on 2 May aged 85, was the doyen of modern UK crime writers. Her work, while all in the thriller genre, far transcended that niche. Her most famous character was Chief Inspector Reg Wexford, in many ways an idealised policeman. Her Wexford novels were police procedurals showing Wexford as shrewd, tough but at the same time very humane and humorous.

However Rendell moved beyond the standard crime novel with a long series of thrillers which interspersed the Wexford novels. These dealt with very varied topics such as romantic obsession, communication breakdown, family secrets, hidden crimes, chance and co-incidence. All were written with great psychological insight. Some of these were written under the pen name of Barbara Vine.

Rendell won many awards for her work but most notably she was created a life peer as Baroness Rendell of Babergh. She was concerned with social issues such as racism, welfare dependency and domestic violence.

To refer to just one book, Simisola is about a missing black woman, an immigrant in domestic service. Wexford is deeply shocked to realise that he, who considers himself tolerant, makes casual assumptions about black people. He wrongly assumes that another missing black girl is the one he is seeking. While there are few black people in Wexford’s home town of Kingsmarkham, one at least is in an influential professional position as his doctor. The missing girl’s name is unknown and few cared about her (she was referred to as “sojourner” by Wexford and the police). In the last line of the book her name is poignantly revealed as Simisola, at last a significant person.

Kim Stanley Robinson and Red Mars

By Philip Hall

This long book by science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson is the first of his Mars trilogy which continues with Blue Mars and Green Mars. This first book deals with the setting up of a Mars colony, its expansion, the argument over terraforming and the eventual attempt by earth to enforce its views on the Martian colony leading to war and much destruction.

The colony is large, one hundred people, equally men and women to start with, and growing rapidly to many thousands. Before the colony is started a vast amount of assorted hardware is sent to Mars. While the technology is quite feasible the cost would be vast and certainly beyond anything plausible.

Red Mars - image via Wikimedia
Red Mars – image via Wikimedia

The story is essentially about the relationships within the first hundred, their intimate friendships, misunderstandings and disagreements.

The terraforming of Mars is presented in some detail right from early windmill efforts through genetically engineered lichens and the steering of asteroids onto the planet. The climate is presented in fairly realistic form. There is much discussion of Mars geography which appears true to the actuality. The geology is uncertain and less real. Robinson supposes that large amounts of underground water are found. As Mars warms with terraforming this produces monstrous floods.

The dispute with earth is presented as a result of largely mining disputes with transnational mining companies. This mining is only feasible with the construction of a space elevator which is a concept discussed among space travel aficionados, and which is theoretically feasible. It could provide very low cost travel from the planet surface into space. This elevator is destroyed in the Earth-Mars war. This destruction is a deliberate act by the colonists to reduce access to Mars.

Robinson indulges in much semi mystical speculation for example about human exploitation of resources. In particular he posits longevity treatment available to some on Mars but which leads to a population breakdown on earth.

There is a wealth of imaginative detail in this intriguing book. At a time when robotic exploration of Mars is underway and realistic plans are being made for manned exploration of the planet it is interesting to speculate on how it might happen. Although certainly the reality will not be like this book it is, even so, immensely interesting and topical. As a work of imagination it is magnificent The technology is almost incidental to the human relationships particularly within the first hundred. The human characters are boldly sketched, not greatly detailed but believable. Nothing is imagined which is scientifically impossible, and a great deal of the detail is perfectly feasible.

Sue Grafton and the Alphabet Books

By Philip Hall

Sue Grafton is an American crime writer whose series of books all feature private detective Kinsey Millhone. Their titles are all lettered in sequence starting with A is for Alibi and now reaching nearly the end of the alphabet. Although there is slight sense of history moving on it moves much more slowly in the books. Kinsey is still the same thirtyish woman she always was and recent books are still set in the late eighties.

She lives in a tiny dwelling designed specifically for her by her landlord Henry. She and Henry are close. Henry is an old man in his eighties although Kinsey has been known to speculate that if he was much younger she would have married him. Henry is a strongly written character and his experience as a retired baker is a frequent source of comment.

Sue Grafton
Author Sue Grafton – image courtesy of Wikimedia

In fact Kinsey has been in two earlier failed marriages. The second ending abruptly when her husband left but later he is a character brought back to feature in a later book. Kinsey lives in the fictional southern California town of Santa Teresa, closely modelled upon real life Santa Barbara. Grafton makes use of the environment to create a strong sense of place. The books reflect Grafton’s exposure to American crime fiction with many features such as the location reflecting her fandom of earlier famed authors such as Ross Macdonald and John D MacDonald. Sue Grafton is the daughter of C W Grafton who was himself a thriller writer and she is steeped in the subject.

The character of Kinsey has suffered a traumatic childhood with her parents killed when she was five. She was raised by her strict Aunt Gin and this is reflected in her self reliant character. She pays little attention to her feminine attributes and generally deals with men at arms length. Henry is the man to whom she gives such affection as she can give. Henry has two older siblings one of whom marries Rosie, a rather comic character.

There are curious parallels between Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky who created a somewhat similar character in V I Warsawski also a female private detective. V I is based in Chicago and is a rather more gritty person. Her underdog bias reflects the authors views. V I also has a strong friendship with her landlord, again a much older man called Mr Contreras. In both cases the older man are strongly involved partly with the women as surrogate daughters but in small part as unrequited lovers.

For both Grafton and Paretsky the plots are ingenious, even thrilling. They are both in the American private eye tradition but with the twist that the private eye is a woman. While not overtly feminist there is a sub text of female empowerment. Although the plots require subtlety and determination from the protagonists neither is averse to occasional physical action.

Both authors major on their chosen characters, Grafton never stepping beyond and Paretsky only rarely.

Author Michael Connelly and His Character Harry Bosch

By Philip Hall

I’ve been given a rather unique privilege in receiving all 20 volumes of Michael Connelly’s books featuring detective Harry Bosch and reading them in sequence over several months. They were a prize in a publisher’s competition won by my wife who presented them to me. I had read a few previously but re-reading the sequence in order provides a new perspective.

The main character is Harry Bosch, a Los Angeles detective. Curiously we are never given a description of him although Connelly gives a short description of almost all people who appear. The series begins with Bosch, middle aged and a senior detective and goes to what we assume is his retirement. He is highly regarded by his colleagues and spontaneously applauded by them when he leaves.

His rather tangled home life proceeds through the books. In the latter volumes after the sudden death of his estranged wife he cares for his daughter, Madeleine. It is very clear he is devoted to her and he often agonises over his fairly frequent absences. However the main family member is Mickey Haller who he finds late in life is his half brother. Haller, a lawyer, is the protagonist in several books with Bosch only making a passing appearance. In only one book do Haller and Bosch work together. Haller also has a daughter by an estranged wife. Hayley is similar in age to her cousin who she meets in the final book. The Haller books feature courtroom scenes with a deal of comment on trial tactics. Connelly appears intimately familiar with US courtroom and legal procedure.

Bosch is presented as a hard working cop who has as his slogan “everybody counts or nobody counts”. His approach is even obsessive and he is known as an abrasive person. Although he is often at odds with his management the cliché of the rogue loner is avoided as he sometimes gets along well with his supervisors. Generally he has problems with his partners through acting alone and keeping them in the dark. The exception is in the final book when he is mentoring a young lady detective who he admires and believes to have his own obsessive approach.

Connelly clearly has an intimate knowledge of police procedures and some details of things like police slang are explained. While there isn’t an overwhelming sense of place Connelly does always give great detail about routes driven by Bosch. Presumably these routes are accurate and the traffic density and jams are conveyed.

Relationships are not explored in detail with women. Bosch marries early in the series, parts from his wife and has a few isolated relationships thereafter. The one he starts then finishes with Rachel Walling becomes a continued very minor theme through the books. The impression left is that Bosch regrets losing Rachel but her main role in later books is as a minor character and as an FBI agent to bring that organisation into plots.

These are plot driven thrillers. Some are genuinely thrilling with surprising twists. However the impression is left that Connelly is declining and some later work is more routine police procedural. Having said that the books are well above the general run and are deservedly popular.

Connelly does write other books although generally set in the Los Angeles area and in the thriller genre.

Gravitational slingshots and Interstellar, the Movie

By Philip Hall

The major motion picture Interstellar has had one of the most eminent scientists of our generation, Kip Thorne, as advisor. He classifies the science of Interstellar in three ways, known, barely feasible, but based on known science, and speculative. This makes Interstellar that unusual creature, a science fiction story which is science based. Most so-called science fiction is more properly science fantasy introducing elements which we are rather sure are impossible in reality.

Much of the fantasy genre is based on unexplained magical techniques. However we have to allow the creative imagination of the writer to flow. It was eminent science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke who said “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. However the boundary between science fiction and science fantasy may be drawn in a rather blurred way between those which don’t contradict known laws and those which ignore them.

One of the features employed in the film is gravitational slingshots. This is a phenomenon actually employed in space missions. Space is very, very big. Even the solar system is huge and interstellar distances are vast. The distances are so large that they are often measured in relation to the time taken by light to traverse them. Thus the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is about 4.22 light years away ie. at the massive speed of 186,000 miles per second it would take light 4.22 years to cover the distance. It is convenient to label the speed of light c, and nothing can travel faster. Mars is about 15 light minutes from Earth.

The distances even within the solar system are so large that rockets simply cannot carry enough fuel to travel fast enough to cover the distance in a reasonable time. The solution is to use gravitational assistance. As planets orbit around the sun they have massive kinetic energy. The spacecraft is directed behind the planet at an angle so it is pulled by the planets gravity speeding it up but sending it off an angle to the original direction. Effectively a minute part of the planet’s kinetic energy is passed to the spacecraft.

This technique was employed for the first time with the Voyager missions to explore the outer planets. The mathematics was developed in time to take advantage of this complex manoeuvre and the planets were aligned in the right configuration. Voyager ( there were two ) was not intended to slow but to fly by the outer planets. Voyager is about to pass out of the solar system into deep space. Thorne illustrates the gravitational slingshot by the later Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn. Cassini flew by Earth once, Venus twice and Jupiter once on its way to Saturn and then slowed by a slingshot around Saturn’s moon Io. The illustration below is taken from the book Thorne has written about Interstellar.

Cassini Interplanetary Trajectory – Image courtesy of NASA – http://www.nasa.gov

These craft were far too slow for interstellar travel. Even at c/3 the journey takes 12.5 years. To reach this colossal speed Thorne postulates a slingshot around a black hole. A black hole has such massive gravity that even light cannot escape hence it is black. By comparison the gravity of a planet is puny. A slingshot around such a gigantic gravity could provide the spacecraft with the energy to achieve interstellar speed. On arrival it would need another black hole slingshot to slow down.

This method suggested by Thorne and used in the film, while speculative, is based on physical reality. This, and much other advanced science, is detailed by Thorne in his book “The Science of Interstellar”.