Maim a marauder, mummy By Jan Needle

Authors Electric's Jan Needle
‘Bash a burglar’ is the latest cry from the men and women who run our country, which raises some interesting questions for a man who’s just finished writing a thriller about a  violent robbery at a country house. I can’t imagine that even Theresa May or Christopher Grayling would have encouraged my innocent victims to have fought back against three bloody madmen, but who can tell? Maybe I should go back and do a re-write. At the very least the body count would go up. Hamlet, anyone?

It does raise some interesting moral questions, though. In the past I’ve been accused by one MP of insulting his constituents by suggesting a certain sort of murder was even possible in a certain part of Manchester, and generally of making violence seem ‘almost normal’. But Mr Grayling’s exhortation seems far more likely to make things worse than anything I can do. If you indicate that it’s all right to attack people with ‘unreasonable force’ for breaking into your house, might it not lead burglars to go armed, just in case? Or householders to use ‘unreasonable force’ just for the hell of it? If someone attacks your home or family, the emotional response, let’s face it, can be understandably murderous. Which is where the rules evolved from, clearly.

They evolved very slowly, too. And in the fifteen years up to 2005, only seven people were actually prosecuted for attacking household intruders. One of the cases involved a man who lay in wait for a burglar and then beat him, threw him into a pit and set him alight. Happens all the time! Three years ago, on the other hand, a man who stabbed two teenage intruders, killing one of them, had the charges against him dropped. What more do you want, Mr G? Crocodiles in moats?

I think the trouble is that most crime books – like Mr Grayling and Ms May – don’t go in for moral ambiguity. Lord Peter Wimsey may have let off a young revolutionary who shot him because he was his sister’s ex-fiance and Wimsey couldn’t see the point in making matters worse, but generally speaking black and white’s the rule – victims good, criminals bad. By extension, law good, law-breakers bad. Or further, policemen good, anyone assumed to be transgressing, bad. Shall I go on? Invading Iraq good, terrorist responses bad. Guantanamo Bay good, and…oh dear. A moral swamp. When I heard Theresa’s suggestion that victims should be allowed to choose the punishment to be inflicted on the perpetrator, I could feel my moral compass do the twist.

My problem as a writer – one of my problems! – is that I’ve always felt the need to examine things from more than one angle, especially where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are involved. Even with my work for children I can’t break myself of the ‘habit’. Mrs Thatcher’s government famously tried to ban A Game of Soldiers, my TV serial about the Falklands conflict, because it showed the British in a less than rosy light. My Mate Shofiq was about naked racism by those in authority in our society, and in Albeson and the Germans a grubby little school vandaliser became feted as a hero.

(If you think all this sounds like holier than thou boasting, here’s another of my problems, though. My son Wilf, who used to idolise Anthony Horowitz’s children’s books, once got me to provide an address so that he could write to him. He proudly showed me the letter, which said: “Dear Mr Horowitz, I’m your absolutely greatest fan and I love your books. My dad also writes kids’ books, but his are crap.” And he bummed the stamp off me!)

The book I’ve just finished, provisionally called It Came By Night, has no ambiguities with its villains. They are genuinely appalling, and are in fact versions of people I have known and worried over for years. The difficulties lie in the aftermath of the crime, as the police struggle to come to terms with the complexities they’re faced with. There is no lack of circumstantial evidence, which points towards a group of travellers, and their assumed ‘villainy’ is all too easily seized on by the investigators. The female protagonist is a journalist called Rosanna Nixon. A journalist. A woman. No chance of any prejudice against her, then! And sure enough, she is soon under attack, both sexually and on moral grounds.

Rosanna Nixon was also joint protagonist of my first big thriller, which I published as an Ebook earlier this year. That is called Kicking Off, and is similarly steeped in the ambiguities of ‘law and order.’ It hopes to link crime and violence to a prison system that is certainly not ‘fit for purpose,’ and a chain of denial and corruption in high places that can only make things worse. A review in IEBR said it ‘offers a unique perspective on the social ills of our country and an uncomfortable insight into the powderkeg that is our prison system, all delivered at break neck speed with an uncompromising hardness that reflects the seriousness of the subject matter.’

Violence is a difficult area, especially to write about. A long time ago I did a TV series called Truckers, about the life and times of the men, and women, who make their livings in the hard and unforgiving world of long-distance road transport. I had several arguments (some of which I won) with various directors of episodes who had what I considered to be a romantic view of violence. It’s all too easy to have people brawling and punching each other all over the place, but I don’t like it. If it’s gratuitous it should not be there.

It’s a hypocrisy we’ve all got to be on guard against, I think. Bashing a Burglar, to use the Sun’s headline last week, sounds quite cosy. Good call, Mr Grayling. But how about Maiming a Marauder? And Mr Cameron used to Hug Hoodies, didn’t he? What now? Hang them? Oh, and btw, more than 31 thousand criminal injuries claimants are due to lose their money soon, or have it drastically reduced. You’ll be allowed to Thrash a Thug now, though – unless he gets you first.

In the meantime, I expect I’ll go on being criticised for some of the things I write about, and probably in some cases rightly so. But at least I don’t see violence as a simple way of getting sales (or votes). My intention, and my hope, is that my books take it very seriously. And as a postscript, I’ve just noticed that my Killing Time at Catterick, which is about the violence visited on young recruits as a matter of course and culture, has been knocked down to two stars on Kindle. One five star, five one stars – and they all claim to be soldiers or ex soldiers. Should I be pleased or devastated? (Or suspicious?)

Kicking Off:

Killing Time at Catterick:

Iraq abuse ‘whitewash’


Albeson and the Germans


Game of S Youtube


Jan Needle said…
please everyone, it wasn't me! i don't know how it got up there, and i don't know how to get it down again. it's due on monday. by which time i'll probably have shot myself!
Hi Jan, don't worry, it is early doors Monday now, technically!
Been Googling you, not for the first time...noticing more than ever this time that your "Wiki" page emphasizes that you're a writer who's encountered controversy A LOT in the past, and for all the best reasons.
(Though not for your penning of any Count Duckula episodes!)
Truckers had a great cast I see...Phillip Davis played Cowboy in it...and this is THE Phil Davis from QUADROPHENIA, who played "Yeti" in THE FIRM with Gary Oldman. Kenneth Cope (ghostly Marty Hopkirk from RANDALL AND HOPKIRK(DECEASED) was in there too I see...)
The thing about violence in TV, film, or fiction, for me, is a bit like "the thing" about sex, but even more so...where the rule seems to be that once you cross the line into just presenting violence for people to "get off on" (the romance of violence), then, yes, we enter the area of "junk" story.
Coincidentally, I just watched a 1979 Aussie war film tonight, THE ODD ANGRY SHOT, which certainly shows the reality and consequences of violence.
Nothing there to "get off on" or excited about.
I've seen the barrage on Amazon for Killing Time at Catterick.
I think it's just the same controversy you've faced down before. The group who disagree strongly with the book have found it first.
That powerful reaction is a sign that the book is strong medicine.
I know you just found out about the barrage this week too, and it will have been a shock.
But give this a month, or a year, time for others to find the book?
It could end up being a very interesting Amazon page indeed, as this almost "taboo" subject (especially in a time of active military deployment) is debated perhaps.
And you, after all, are still Jan-No-Stranger-To-Controversy-Needle!
You must expect these adventures...
Jan Needle said…
Thanks, John. Yes, Truckers did have some terrific people in the cast, the wonderful and unassuming Phil Davis (Lonesome Cowboy, not just Cowboy, was his handle) being one of the loveliest to know. It did cause lots of rows in the Beeb, however, and the second series was cancelled not long before filming was due to start. The official reason was that it was too expensive (it was for me!), and only attracted seven plus million viewers. It was known, however, that the drama boss man (Jonathan Powell from memory, but that might be libel) had complained several times that it was 'too working class.' And one of the directors (female) complained that it was sexist, because the lorry drivers had bad attitudes towards women. No comment on that one.

As to Wikipedia, I've looked at it, and am quite interested in some of the things they've got wrong (although the controversy stuff's pretty well spot on). I should be glad someone took the trouble to put me in, though, I suppose. I'm told you can emend things, but life's too short.

And Killing Time at Catterick. Well, I knew I was cruising for a bruising with that one. Even my main source made me promise I'd never reveal his name in case any of his former comrades wanted to engage in literary discussions about it! And the reaction on the 'squaddies website' AARSE when it was originally serialised on OpenDemocracy (and in the comments section after every episode) was amazing. Paintstripper with added nitric acid.

The Kindle star system is a bit painful soemtimes, though, because the sound of axes being ground is probably invisible to people looking for a book to read. (Do I mean inaudible? Discuss.)

For anyone confused about my incomprehensible witter above John's piece, however - I wrote it after this post mistakenly went up two days early and I thought I needed to apologise. Then Sue Price (who hates telephones) accepted a call from a gibbering Jan, and put it all right for me. Except that my comment is still there. Sue also put the picture of me in. While it's a charming shot, and will undoubtedly earn me many anonymous billets doux, it's not something I'd have done myself. My favourite pic of me is the one on my Facebook page. Although I really ought to get that tooth extracted!
Lee said…
In light of at least one of the Amazon comments on Catterick, I have a general question about slang which has been plaguing me lately. Right off, I'd best state that my interest has to do with a short story I'm writing at the moment as well as general concerns, especially with regard to writing YA fiction, and is not meant as negative criticism of your novel, Jan, since I've only had a look at the first few preview pages.

I'm never quite sure when slang is necessary for a character's authenticity (cringe, another buzzword) and when it becomes overdone and reads like a middle-aged writer (OK, I'm slowly approaching the other side of middle age, but you get my point) who's trying too hard. Thoughts, anyone?
CallyPhillips said…
Jan, I watched Truckers, I remember. Liked it. Probably enough on its own to get it taken off after one series!

As re 'slang' I'd have thought that if a person uses slang they use it relatively consistently (as with swear words) and therefore it's part of a characterisation. If we start saying you can only use slang so many times we turn into the 'corps' who count the number of swear words in an episode. Not sure I'm interpreting Lee's definition of 'slang' here though so shall go look at the source to see if I'm talking through a hole in my head or making an apposite point. Slang. What is it? (Good for) Absolutely nothing (that was a SONG parody btw!)
CallyPhillips said…
the slang that is used is unreadable, is the comment Lee refers to? 'slang' in the dictionary just seems to mean informal language (specific to some subculture/group I suppose) Informal language is what we all use when speaking and therefore dialogue is bound to use it. If Lee's issue is 'inappropriate' eg if I use the word 'cool' or 'out there' or 'sorted' or something too much then is this bad - but then this could be a part of characterisation too? I know 30somethings who still say 'well cool' and it seems a bit sad. I know 50 somethings who say 'hip' and we laugh, but if I drawing a character who was a somewhat risible 50something and they either kept saying 'hip' or using a sort of malapropism of 'young' slang it might be (should be) for a reason - to bring depth to the character. If however, one gives one's characters the sort of 'slang' which would never be used by them in their subculture then obviously that's just bad writing. So - slang appropriate to writers overall intentionality in creating character good - hardened squaddies saying 'groovy chick' all the time probably not - I'm sure that Jan's 'slang' was appropriate as I'm sure he kens a lot more about writing technique than the 'reviewers' dissing him do! Just a hunch. I mean, who would write: the slang that is used is unreadable. That's not a sentence I find particularly 'readable'!
Jan Needle said…
Not going to get into a slang debate, either, but Killing Time at Catterick falls into another problem area for writers. I don't see it as YA, or children's, or even adults - it just is. I understand people's discomfort with 'bad' language, but I don't share it. (Having said which, I don't use swearwords etc in my books aimed directly at children. Some people dislike/fear their realism so much that they have actually complained to my publishers about words which aren't in the books! True)
I have five children, all of whom grew up surrounded by liberally non-deleted expletives. One of them - the female - swears like a trooper, one of the males doesn't swear at all, the others are just like ordinary people. It's a mystery to me, too.
But my friend the late Mike Stott (Funny Peculiar, among other plays) once wrote a TV play called Soldiers Talking Cleanly (I think) in which the squaddies did not swear until the last five minutes, which were bleeped. It made the point brilliantly, as well as being very funny.
Lee said…
Cally, I agree that the Amazon reviewer ought to have been clearer about what he meant by 'unreadable' slang: inauthentic? incomprehensible? too much of a good thing? While a word count is obviously silly, there's some merit to the admittedly overused precept of 'less is more' - something I'm only slowly learning!

Not using slang when it might be expected is also an effective tool. (I've been reading J. Robert Lennon's Castle in which the narrator's voice is often deliberately formal.)

A pity you don't want to talk slang, Jan, because it's an area I find difficult to negotiate, or at least negotiate well. And don't get me started on the problems of translation!

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

A writer's guide to Christmas newsletters - Roz Morris

Margery Allingham and ... knitting? Casting on a summer’s mystery -- by Julia Jones

Irresistably Drawn to the Faustian Pact: Griselda Heppel Channels her Inner Witch for World Book Day 2024.

Got Some Book Tokens? -- by Susan Price