As writers, my guests and I make stories up from our imagination, but we also very often pull parts of them from our own lives. As a reader, I love nothing more than when a mystery novel is grounded in real life. It gives such depth and richness to a novel.
Peter Bartram is an author who has worked as a journalist for decades. He has brought that experience, and the experience of living and working in the seaside town in the south of England called Brighton, to his series of mystery novels. Peter’s series involves main character, and cunning journalist, Colin Crampton, his beautiful girlfriend Shirley the Sheila, and a host of other characters who are entirely fictional, but as Peter says, are influenced by his time on the news desk.
I learned some things I didn’t know during this interview, which always pleases me, including a bit about how newspaper type was set before the age of computers.
You can find out more about Peter and his Colin Crampton series on his website ColinCrampton.com. And as with so many of my guests, Peter has a book available for free. It is a prequel to the series and you can find it here.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcript of Interview with Peter Bartram
Alexandra: Hi everyone, this is It’s a Mystery podcast, I’m Alexandra Amor and I’m here with Pete Bartram. Hi Peter.
Peter: Good morning, Alexandra.
Alexandra: How are you today?
Peter: I am very well and how about yourself?
Alexandra: I’m good. Yeah, a little soggy here in Vancouver today, but otherwise doing well.
Let me introduce you to our listeners.
Peter Bartram brings years of experience as a journalist to his Crampton of the Chronicle Crime Mystery series. Which features crime reporter Colin Crampton in 1960s Brighton, England. Peter’s novels are fast-paced and humorous. The action is matched by the laughs.
Peter began his career as a reporter on the Worthing Herald newspaper in the U.K. before working as a journalist and editor in London and finally becoming freelance. He has done most things in journalism, from door stepping for quotes to writing serious editorials. He’s pursued stories in locations as diverse as 700 feet down a coal mine and the courtier’s chamber at the Buckingham Palace.
Peter has written 21 non-fiction books, including five ghost-written, in areas such as biographies, current affairs and how-to titles before turning to crime and penning “Headline Murder,” the first novel in the Crampton of the Chronicle series.
I want to start back at the beginning and ask you what prompted you to make the switch from non-fiction to fiction after such a long career in non-fiction.
Peter: Well, I’ve always wanted to do it. A basic problem wretched me, I thought, “No money in it.” That may ultimately prove to be wrong, only time will tell.
The fact of the matter is, I’ve worked all my career as a journalist. I was a freelance journalist from 1974 onwards. When you’re a freelance journalist and you’re earning your living from it, you have to keep your nose to the grindstone writing features and stories and commissioned non-fiction books at the time. And it was only in recent years that I have had a chance to do this, which is something that I always wanted to do.
Alexandra: Colin and the stories that are set in Brighton.
You specifically chose to set them in the 1960s. So why is that?
Peter: Well, the 1960s is a great fun decade. It’s the Swinging 60s, its only one of two decades during the twentieth century that had its own name with capital letters, so there’s the Swinging 60s and the Roaring 20s.
The other reason was that I began my journalistic career in the 1960s. And so I was familiar with what newspaper newsrooms were like in those days and how news gathering went about. And it was very different from the way in which it’s done today. There were no computers, no mobile phones. The newspapers were set in hot metal, literally hot lead which was cooled, and it was a totally different process.
When you went out on story, there was no question of you phoning in from your mobile phone, you had to go find a phone box somewhere to do it.
Peter: Sometimes by fair means or foul. So this struck me as being a fun decade to set this newspaper story in.
Alexandra: Yes, and it’s set in Brighton.
Do you live in Brighton?
Peter: I lived in Brighton for 30 years. I now live about six miles to the west of Brighton on the Sussex coast. I lived and worked in Brighton for 30 years, so I now this city very, very well indeed.
Alexandra: Yes and I think it was on your website I saw that you had described the city. It’s this mix of a lovely seaside resort combined with a lot of nefarious activity, racketeers and all that kind of stuff.
Explain to us what was going on at that time in Brighton.
Peter: Well, let me just give you a kind of potted history of Brighton. It started off in medieval times as a little fishing village, and then it came to prominence during the 18th-century when a local doctor suggested that sea-bathing would be very beneficial for your health. The town was then patronized by the Prince Regent who went on to become King George IV. And it became very fashionable and it grew.
And then in the 19th century, the railway from London to Brighton was built. Thousands of people came to visit Brighton very quickly every weekend. And you develop this kind of louche image… you’ve heard of the phrase ‘the dirty weekend,’ right?
It’s the home of the dirty weekend. And it’s the home of all sorts of nefarious characters. It’s also been the place that many writers and actors have lived. People like Terrance Rattigan, Lawrence Olivier, Vivian Lee, all sorts of people like this have lived in Brighton.
So it’s a very, very colorful place in which to set crime mysteries. And of course, other writers have done so as well.
Alexandra: Yes, so tell us a little bit about Colin. I noticed he’s 28 when the series starts, and he’s a reporter.
How close is he in temperament to you?
Peter: Well, Colin, I think, is an aggregate of all sorts of journalists and reporters that I have known over the years. A little bit of that person over there and a little bit of that person over there and few bits of other people and I put them together to make Colin.
He’s, like many journalists, he’s after the truth a lot of the time, but he doesn’t really care how he gets it. And when I was thinking of the character of Colin, I was thinking of something that Nicholas told me, a very famous journalist in the UK, once said about journalism. He said, “To be an excellent journalist you need three qualities. First of all, a personable manner. Second, a little literary ability. And thirdly, a rat-like cunning.” Colin has got all three of those qualities.
Alexandra: Oh, okay, and what I loved was that on your website, you’ve got a little character sketch of the main characters in the books with actual drawing. How did that come about?
Peter: Well, during my journalist career, I visited various newspapers and magazines, and during part of that time I was working with a very talented artist called Caroline Duffy. When it came to doing the Colin Crampton books, I thought it would be a wonderful idea to have some sketches of these main characters. And Caroline did these and they’re absolutely superb. They’ve been a great value in each series.
Alexandra: Yeah, I was just blown away because I think that’s the first time I have ever seen a sketch of a character on an author’s website. And so often as readers we have to imagine what the character looks like based on the author’s description, but this is just fantastic. So Shirley is there, Colin’s on-again, off-again girlfriend that we’ll talk about more in a minute. And then his boss…
Peter: Frank Figgis?
Alexandra: Frank Figgis, with a cigarette, of course, in his mouth. And then Ted Wilson, the local constable.
Peter: Yeah, he’s a Detective Inspector.
Alexandra: Oh, he is a DI, okay.
Peter: The books are set in Brighton in the 1960s and you mentioned earlier. In those days, Brighton had its own police force. That was all changed in 1968 when police forces in the United Kingdom were completely reorganized. But up to 1968, Brighton had its own police force.
But also, the Brighton police force was notably corrupt. Ted Wilson is one of the few honest cops in the Brighton police force and therefore, he’s one of Colin’s contacts there.
Alexandra: Where did the corruption come from?
Peter: Well, it was all sorts of backstairs deals. You must remember that Brighton was a very louche town with all sorts of cash industries, like amusement arcades and restaurants and all that sort of thing, and many of which required licenses. So there was all sorts of opportunities for backhanded deals. I mean we’re not talking about major international corruption of the kind that you get these days with tax evasion and the rest of it. You’re talking about small time stuff, but you know, a lot of it went on.
Alexandra: Yes, so let’s touch on Shirley just briefly and then I want to ask you about the research that you’ve done. I love the description on the website with Shirley’s little sketch that she looks like a supermodel, but when roused she’s got a mouth like a trucker.
Peter: That’s right.
Alexandra: And so she’s working her way around the world which I thought was kind of interesting. She is young, she is 23.
For someone in those days, she was kind of at the crest of that world travelling generation, I think.
Peter: Oh well, that is right, but I mean a lot of them used to do it in those days. Particularly Australians and New Zealanders. Most of them used to congregate in London, particularly in the Earl’s Court part of London. And when I first went to work in London in Fleet Street on newspapers in the late 1960s I met quite a number of them up there.
But I thought as I’m setting Brighton, it would be good for Shirley to turn up in Brighton, and she turns up in Brighton and features in the first book of the series, “Headline Murder.”
Alexandra: She sounds like quite a character. I’m looking forward to reading the book. You should mention too that, let me see, so there’s a novella that is free on your website, Murder in Capital Letters.
Peter: Murder in Capital Letters, is free on the website and it’s effectively a prequel to Headline Murder. So if you want to know what happens in the month before Headline Murder, when Colin has only just met Shirley and she helps him in his first big case, go to my website where you can download Murder in Capital Letters absolutely free. It doesn’t cost you a penny or a cent.
Alexandra: Right, that’s it exactly. I will put a link to that in the show notes so people will know where to go and they can try the book out. And, I’m going to try it myself for sure.
Let’s talk about research. So you were a journalist in the 60s and you were there with your feet on the ground.
Do you find that you have to do a bit of research when you’re writing the stories or do you just go from memory?
Peter: Well, the answer to both questions is yes and yes. The best kind of research is actually having been there and seen it because you can pick up more of the subtle detail in the atmosphere, the culture of something by actually having been there and done it.
But at the same time, you know, there are obviously times you need to research the details, you know things, specific little bits of information that you need from the 1960s. For example, I’m notoriously bad at knowing which pop songs were in vogue in the 1960s even though I was there. So, if I’m going to mention a pop song in the 1960s I have to go on to the internet and there are plenty of sites where you can type in a date and they’ll give you the top 10 or top 20 in the U.K. or the U.S. in that particular week or particular year.
But what I tend to do is I don’t do a lot of research before I start writing. Because I go along, if I suddenly realize that I need to know a little bit of information about this part of town, I’ll go and do a little bit of research about it. It is a bit like the way in which journalists write in fact. We don’t go around doing long unnecessary research. What we do is the research we need for the…what we’re going to write in our stories.
Alexandra: Kind of on the fly, on the go, as the need comes up.
Peter: That’s right. Hitting the deadline, getting the copy out.
Alex: That’s right, yeah.
And so because of your experience as a journalist, do you find that you write quite quickly?
Peter: Yeah, on the whole, I do write quite quickly. There are obviously moments where you sit back and think what’s going to happen next. My approach to writing is to think the whole book out in scenes. I plan the whole book in scenes. So I’m just planning the third full-length novel in the Crampton of the Chronicle series, and I’ve already planned that, that’s 73 scenes.
I know what’s going to happen each scene, but I don’t always know exactly how it’s going to happen in each scene. I’ve got a road map, but I have also left myself plenty of opportunity to introduce new elements by how things happen.
Alexandra: You’ve got a new book coming out Stop Press Murder.
Peter: Stop Press Murder comes out in August, yes.
Alexandra: First of August, 2016 as we record this. And that’s a full length novel as well?
Peter: That is a full length novel as well, yes. That’s the second in the series, so Headline Murder takes place in the summer of 1962, and Stop Press Murder takes place in summer of 1963.
Alexandra: Okay, so you are moving them along chronologically.
Peter: Each one, one year later.
Alexandra: Yes, great.
The one you mentioned that you’re outlining now, that’s your 2017 title?
Peter: That’s my 2017 title and that takes place in the week leading up to Christmas 1964.
Peter: A very interesting thing happened in the week leading up to Christmas in 1964 to do with crime in the U.K. because it was the week in which Parliament passed the bill to abolish hanging in the U.K.
Alexandra: Oh really? Wow.
Peter: So that’s…not many people know that.
Peter: I thought that would be a very good background to a crime novel.
Have you been in a newspaper office lately? I’m just wondering how much they have changed since the 60s and since you were there.
Peter: Well, I freelance now, and with the Internet and laptop computers and all the rest of it, we tend to do our work from where we are. If I want to talk to people, I often talk to people on Skype in our offices.
But I have been in modern newspaper offices and it’s all computers now. There is not a lot of paper running around the place, you proof the pages on screens, on huge screens. You don’t have the hot metal, newspaper not set in hot metal type as it used to be in my day, line by line.
Each line was called a slug, and so if there was a mistake in a line, like a letter out of place, the whole line had to be reset. So this was a pretty time consuming activity putting newspapers together in those days.
Alexandra: I’ve always wondered about that, and weren’t the letters put in backwards?
Peter: They were upside down certainly. So what happened was you typed your copy on an old fashioned typewriters, and it would then go to a copy editor, subeditor, who would subedit it. You type your copy on copy paper which was kind of thin like that so you never type more than two short paragraphs on each short page.
So if the subeditors wanted to reorder the information you had given them, they could just shuffle the pages. This is what you did before cut and paste, you reshuffled bits of paper.
It was then sent to compositors, people who were called compositors who sat at linotype machines, and these were huge machines which had a QWERTY keyboard, but were linked up to a magazine… I don’t mean a magazine like… but a thing that holds things, which held letters, little models for letters.
So when you typed the letter ‘a,’ a little letter ‘a’ would come rattling down and place itself in a little tray by the side of the machine. And then you would set a line, just one line, then press a button and that would go off and then hot metal, molten lead, would squirted into it and then it would go to through water so the lead would settle very quickly. And that line would go into another tray and the other lines would build up on top of it so that you got a column of type.
And you would have dozens of these machines in a national newspaper doing this all the time. So when you got the column of type, that would go away and someone would roll some ink over the top of it and put a piece of paper on top of it and roll the paper, and then you’ve got a proof.
When all the columns were made, you take them away and they’ve all been proofed or corrected. I mean that’s the cut down version of how it all worked.
Alexandra: Good heavens.
Peter: You need, at a national newspaper, thousands of people to do that and it was a very time consuming business because you had to do it very, very quickly. And yet, on for example, London Evening newspapers, using that system they would bring out eight editions a day between 9:00 o’clock in the morning and 6:00 o’clock at night.
Alexandra: Oh my God, I can’t believe it. Amazing, really. And so it must be so different now, even just in the description on your website you mention the newsroom is full of cigarette smoke, for example.
Peter: It was certainly full of cigarette smoke in those days.
Alexandra: In the 60s, yeah, exactly.
Peter: In the 60s. But it won’t be full of cigarette smoke in the U.K. now because smoking is banned in the all workplaces and public buildings. I don’t know what the situation is in Canada.
Alexandra: Yeah, same here.
It must have been a smoky, loud place.
Peter: Smokey and loud and it was exciting and it was enormous fun.
Alexandra: It must be fun for you to then revisit it via Colin and Shirley?
Peter: Absolutely, yes. And I can make Colin do some things that I didn’t get around to doing. They weren’t many things that I didn’t get around to doing, but there were a few and Colin is doing them.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s great. Well, thanks so much for being with me today, Peter. So we’ll look forward to your new book on August 1st, 2016. Why don’t you tell listeners where they can find out more about Colin and his mates?
Peter: Right, well, you can find about Colin and his mates by going to www.colincrampton.com. That’s colincrampton.com.
Thank you very much indeed Alexandra. It’s been huge fun.
Alexandra: Thank you very much for being with me today. Take care.
Peter: Thank you, goodbye.