So Very British... By Ruth Dugdall
By jeanettehewitt78, Apr 13 2016 04:24PM
So Very British….
What does it even mean? Britishness. Is it liking tea with milk and vinegar with chips? Or is it our renowned skill at moaning, our ability to talk about the weather. Stereotypes they may be, but there’s nothing guaranteed to make you feel British more than a move abroad, nothing to make you feel a foreigner like being given coffee-creamer with your tea, or mayo with your chips.
Yup, it’s those day to day encounters that we only think about when we are somewhere else, and things are done differently. When we are surrounded by people from other countries, we can see the cultural differences writ large. We are good at queuing and complaining. “Bolshy Brit” was a phrase I heard more than once. And my favourite quote was from an American who, when approaching group of Brits heard one say, “On no, it’s the yanks. Quick, look happy.” This idea that we are good at being miserable is something that makes me smile in recognition. When I was with fellow Brits we really enjoyed having a good moan.
I’ve been pondering Brutishness, especially in relation to crime writing, for the past two and a half years. You see as a British crime writer transplanted into the heart of continental Europe I was anxious to know if my brand of writing would be appreciated there. In Blightly, I’d already established a comfortable reputation as a mid-list crime author, and I enjoyed the weekly talks I gave to various Rotary groups and WIs. I’d published three books, all of them set in Suffolk, and had found an audience.
So when I moved to Luxembourg all of this felt in jeopardy. In addition, my publisher had commissioned a two book deal, one of which was to be set in Luxembourg. Yikes!
I’ve always believed that a writer is best not to think about the audience until after the book is done. Concerns about readers can inhibit, and the story should be master and commander. So I began writing a novel about a kidnapping in Luxembourg, of a British school girl. Inspired by real events, research took me into a darker part of the city in which I lived, both physically and imaginatively. Through speaking with police officers, social workers and prisoners, I was able to compare their stories, their attitudes, to those I was very familiar with from my previous work as a probation officer.
British crime drama is different, because we are different. The British police liaise with the media in a way that the Europeans consider obscene, and there are certainly examples that would make anyone shudder, such as the way the sad death of Jamie Bulger was handled by the press, the subsequent vilification of two ten year olds, or the murder of Joanna Yates which led to the terrible hounding of Christopher Jefferies, an innocent man whose only crime was to look eccentric. But, to balance this, are the times when the press has been instrumental in the investigation of cases, such as the Operation Yew tree, giving many victims a platform and forcing the British public to re-think their beliefs about sexual abuse. So British crime features journalists, frequently, and other professionals too. We are less hierarchical in our view of who could hold the key to a crime.
Another consequence of the way crime is reported in Britain means that, as readers, we are already fairly knowledgeable. We don’t like to be patronised, and we will already be guessing the outcome, so this keeps the writer on their toes.
Another difference; in Britain we don’t have Criminal Justice `personalities` in the way Americans are used to. Crown prosecutors aren’t local celebrities, neither are local law enforcement chiefs, we can’t even name or recognise them. This makes our crime dramas more relatable; the legal teams, the police, are all real people with real problems. They don’t have the same gloss as in American dramas.
My Britishness undoubtedly meant that I looked at the cases of kidnapping around Luxembourg in a different way. I wanted to make a risk assessment, I wanted more information, and it frustrated me when none was forthcoming. I was an outsider, and I was ignorant; the only way forward was for me to ask questions.
Nowhere Girl was published in November 2015. Launched at the British Embassy in Luxembourg, I was terrified of the response from locals. I had depicted a girl being taken from their annual fair, and Luxembourg is very prickly about the idea that there is crime within its (mediaeval and partly preserved) walls.
I was wrong.
At the launch, and to my astonishment, the British Ambassador had invited all the professionals in Luxembourg who worked with children and vulnerable people. They had, as a collective, put together a booklet on managing risk.
She told the crowd that this had all resulted from the moment when I had asked her, whilst researching for Nowhere Girl, “What would happen if a British child was kidnapped in Luxembourg?”
And she didn’t have an answer.
After the speeches, as we milled around the room drinking Cremant (the local champagne, and ubiquitous), I was approached by several people, who said it was about time things like crime and refugees and prostitution (all subjects in my book) was discussed openly.
One person, a local Chaplain, mused, “Maybe it had to be an outsider who would start this.”
Later, a Luxembourger I had befriended added in my ear, “And maybe only a Bolshy Brit would have the balls.”
NOWHERE GIRL is on sale for just 99p http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nowhere-Girl-Ruth-Dugdall-ebook/dp/B00WQWT59C/ref
I've read that even in the UK it's nigh on impossible for crime writers to.get information about kidnapping from the specialist unit in Scotland Yard that deals with it, as they don't want information on how to go about successfully kidnapping into the public domain, as it could give criminals ideas. So perhaps being foreign wasn't the only obstacle. I'd like to read and review this for my blog; I recently read Humber Boy B, and greatly enjoyed it - I'm just getting round to reviewing it (I'm always a tad behind on reviews!) I think Luxembourg would be rather nice - do hope you like it there!
Thank you for your comment, Crime Worm! I'll ensure that Ruth sees it!
Hi Crime Worm, You know, I was really bowled over by how generous the Luxembourgers were with their time and information, and I think it helped that I was an outsider. But also I felt they had a genuine desire to get information into the public arena. The social workers especially wanted to speak about something they perceived as being `hidden`. And Luxembourg is a really beautiful place. Now I'm home, I miss it hugely.