‘I’ve always been fascinated by the possibility of giving voices to those who have been ignored throughout history, especially the women.’
A Proper Person to be Detained
By Catherine Czerkawska
Published by Contraband
Your new book, A Proper Person to be Detained, has such an intriguing back story to it. Could you tell us how you came to write this book?
I knew only that there had been a murder in my Leeds Irish family in 1881 and that the victim had been my great, great uncle John Manley, my great grandmother’s young brother, who had been stabbed in the street on Christmas Day. The story in the family was that the murderer had ‘got away with it’ – something that turned out to be only partly true. When I began to research the crime and its terrible aftermath, I discovered a story that was both fascinating and harrowing. One of the biggest surprises for me was that part of the tale took place in Glasgow. We moved to Scotland when I was twelve. My biochemist father got a job here and we made our home in Ayrshire, but I had no idea that the family had any previous connection with Scotland.
How did you find the experience of writing about your own family? Was it harder to switch off from this project than your previous books?
It was certainly harder, but also more rewarding because it filled in a number of gaps in my family history. I had to tell the truth about those long ago events, but I also had to do it from a position of involvement. It might have been more difficult if I didn’t have a background in social history. (I have a Masters in Folk Life Studies from Leeds University.)
However, I don’t think even I knew the full extent of the poverty and hardship that Irish migrants to the industrial cities of Britain had to cope with. I went through many months where every new fact unearthed, every new certificate or document that landed in my inbox, seemed to contain some dreadful tragedy. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a miserable book. These were strong people, especially the women, and they were survivors. They overcame so much that I wanted to celebrate them.
Did you ever think you would tackle the genre of true crime as a writer?
I don’t think I would have tackled this if it hadn’t been uniquely personal. I’m as fascinated as the next person by true crime. I think all writers want to know what makes people tick, want to try to understand why these things happen, but I don’t think as a writer I’m heading in that direction. The book turned out to be as much about the aftermath of the crime both for my family and to some extent for the murderer’s family as anything else.
Crime is an excellent genre for writers to tackle issues of social and political importance, and your book becomes more than an investigation into a family tragedy. Could you tell us a little bit about what you found?
I’ve always been fascinated by the possibility of giving voices to those who have been ignored throughout history, especially the women. Elizabeth Manley, my great great aunt, was the murdered man’s sister and it seemed to me as though her life was curtailed by the crime as surely as the victim’s. It just took a little longer. Viewed from a 21st century perspective, I could understand that she must have been traumatised by witnessing her brother’s violent death, but at the time, very few people, if any, would have understood that, nor the part it might have played in her state of mind and future behaviour. Her story moved me beyond belief.
Your book is set in the late 19th century. How do you think it relates to what’s happening in the UK right now?
There is a very definite relevance. We are inclined to demonise the ‘other’ and so often that means immigrants. In the 19th century, that meant the incoming Irish, fleeing famine. They took jobs that nobody else wanted to do, but were blamed for it anyway. There’s some evidence, for example, that Irish migrants worked in flax rather than cotton mills. 19th century cotton mills were no picnic, but conditions in flax mills were significantly worse. The Irish were damned for working and damned for not working. I like to think of it as Schrödinger’s migrant: being a layabout and stealing jobs simultaneously. It’s not hard to see parallels with Brexit and the hostility towards central and eastern European workers in particular. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to take the story forward into my own childhood. My father was a postwar Polish refugee. He fought for the allies at Monte Cassino and was resettled in Yorkshire where he met and married my mother. He experienced a certain amount of prejudice, and continued to experience it throughout his working life in particular. Much as I loved him, I’m glad he isn’t around to see what’s happening now.
You’ve often written about the past. What is it about the lives that went before us that inspires you as a writer?
You can get some perspective on the past, whereas it’s much harder to get a real perspective on the present. I would have no idea where to begin to write about what’s going on in the UK now, for example. Even a decade makes a difference. I wrote a play about Chernobyl (Wormwood) for the Traverse Theatre in 1996, but it would have been much more difficult to tackle it in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Watching the recent wonderful drama about Chernobyl, I found it fascinating to see how distance in time had lent Craig Mazin an even better perspective on what had happened. I think you need a willingness to acknowledge the truth, alongside the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. That said, I do get irritated by a tendency in fiction to revise historical attitudes to suit our present day perspectives and preoccupations. When I wrote about Jean Armour (another strong woman) in The Jewel, people often asked me if I would have fallen for Robert Burns, and seemed disappointed when I said ‘of course!’ Simple honesty comes into play. Which of us can say, hand on heart, that we haven’t fancied unsuitable people? But more to the point, back then, his combination of charm, good looks and a certain ‘bad lad’ reputation would have made him irresistible to all but the most staid. His promiscuity would have been fairly commonplace, but his ability to make and keep female friends was unusual for a man of his time. As the great Hilary Mantel says, you really can’t make people in historical fiction think things that they never would think. Even if that upsets people.
You’ve also written many books about how women’s lives are shaped by events around them. Are you pleased to see the upsurge in books that shine a light on women’s stories over the centuries? Are there more stories of the unsung that you’d like to see (or write about!)?
I’m very pleased that women’s stories are being told, and pleased too to see initiatives like the West Yorkshire Archives/Huddersfield University History to Herstory project (http://www.historytoherstory.org.uk/) as well as excellent projects in Scotland such as the Glasgow Women’s Library. (https://womenslibrary.org.uk/)
In my own writing, I tend to tackle something that fires my imagination rather than a particular issue, although I do think older women are badly served in both fiction and drama. For once, I have no idea what I’m going to write next. Or, indeed, if. I have a non fiction project with a Burns connection to finish which I’m enjoying very much, but after that, I don’t know. I may go and ‘live alone in a bee loud glade’.
Are there other writers of historical books that you would recommend?
I grew up reading Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Renault. Two books that have stuck with me for years and that could loosely be called historical are The Owl Service and Red Shift, both by Alan Garner, books in which ancient and modern history are intertwined in extraordinary ways.
I dramatised Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona for BBC R4 in ten hour-long episodes, and still love both books. Alan Breck is probably my favourite fictional hero (or should that be anti-hero?) of all time. Not so much a historical novel as a remarkable novel of its time is The Annals of the Parish by John Galt. I read it when I was researching The Jewel, and was struck by how insightful, funny and affectionate it was, but also how little has changed in small lowland Scottish towns and villages over 200 years.
Another novel I read recently was Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge. It is, essentially, a historical novel, set at the time of the anti Catholic Gordon riots, about which I’m ashamed to say I knew very little. The account of the riots is so vivid and precise that Dickens must surely have spoken to somebody who had witnessed them in the previous century.
What are you reading now?
I always have several books on the go at once. I’m just finishing Douglas Skelton’s Thunder Bay which I’ve enjoyed enormously – classy, elegant prose. Beautifully written. Then I’ll probably go back to Dickens. He was my late mum’s favourite writer and there are a few of his novels I’ve still to read. If I had to name one favourite contemporary author it would be China Mieville. Of course there are parallels with Dickens: the way he creates whole worlds that hang together, no matter how fantastic, the richness of his imagination, the equal richness of his language, the way he can write about cities with a combination of love and terror that is unsurpassed. One of the most frightening and absorbing novels I’ve ever read is his The City & The City. It’s a murder investigation, but so much more than that. It intrigued me and filled my dreams. I always want to tell young writers, or ‘beginning’ writers (I hate that term ‘budding’!) to read Mieville before they prune their prose out of existence. When I was starting out, a writer told me to ‘stop watering my Dylan Thomas adjectives and watching them grow’ – and he was right. But I often think the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Writers and would-be writers need to free their spirits and let them soar. Mieville does it to perfection.
A Proper Person to be Detained by Catherine Czerkawska is published by Contraband, priced £9.99