Author MC Beaton's Cotswold life
PUBLISHED: 18:51 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:32 20 February 2013
A move to the Cotswolds brought about the birth of Agatha Raisin detective stories. Katie Jarvis talks to author MC Beaton about what local life means to her.
CIGARETTES and black coffee, an incisive wit, and a razor-sharp mind...
Hmm... The clues all point to MC Beaton, creator of the Agatha Raisin series of detective stories, set in the fictional Cotswolds village of Carsely.
Marion (as she's more familiarly known) created this eccentric detective, who delights in being so very non-pc, shortly after she moved to the Cotswolds herself, 16 years ago. She is also author of the Hamish Macbeth mysteries, and more than 100 Regency romances, written under a variety of names including Marion Chesney, Helen Crampton and Jennie Tremaine.
"I was always six characters in search of an author," she says. "The only thing I ever wanted to do was to tell stories."
Born in Glasgow, Marion began her working career as fiction buyer for a city bookshop. Her first writing job - as freelance theatre critic for a Glasgow newspaper - was the result of a chance encounter with the arts editor. "She said to me, 'I need a reporter. Have you ever had anything published?' 'Oh yes,' I said, 'though I can't go home just now to get the cuttings.' Of course, I was lying through my teeth."
Marion went on to secure a job as fashion editor of Scottish Field magazine - thanks to a stylish Beatle haircut (before even the Beatles had thought of it) and another false claim of impeccable shorthand. It was while working as a reporter for the Daily Express that she met her husband, the journalist Harry Scott Gibbons, then the paper's Middle East correspondent.
"I have seen life from every angle," Marion says. "When I was reporting in Glasgow, it was a high crime area - still gaslight, razor gangs, and the worst slums in Western Europe. When I came down to the Cotswolds, I remember being in Evesham and seeing the brass band down by the Abbey Gardens: men with knotted handkerchiefs; little children playing on the boats. I felt they didn't know how lucky they were.
"In the Cotswolds, some of the old values still exist: kindness, honestly, gallantry and decency."
Agatha Raisin is now a Radio 4 series starring Penelope Keith.
Where do you live and why?
I live in Blockley. When my son, Charlie, was due to finish at school in London, his housemaster, who had a cottage at Gretton, took us on a tour of the Cotswolds. He suggested that as Charlie would probably go to Oxford, it would be cheaper to rent in the Cotswolds than in London. Charlie went to Cambridge, but by that time we had bought the house two doors along from where we were renting.
Practical reasons aside, I fell in love with the Cotswolds because of the acceptance and kindness. We previously had a croft in a remote part of Scotland, where I think they burned witches for light relief. We came down here and people said hello to you, whether they knew you or not; the sheer contrast nearly reduced me to tears.
How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
For about 16 years; and it was 15 years ago that my first Agatha Raisin book, set in the Cotswolds, was published. I base my stories on places I've known and identified with. Hamish Macbeth is set in Sutherland, which has these weird twisted mountains and places where you see nothing made by man. The place where I set my book dictates my story. Hamish is the best of the Highlands; Agatha the worst of me.
In her first book, Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, Agatha had the same feeling as I did: that of a city person coming to the Cotswolds. You look up at the hills in winter when it's foggy, and you feel there's a splendid party going on to which you haven't been invited. And then you go up to London, and you don't fit in any more. Suddenly, you can't wait to get back on the train again. Going down into Blockley, there is a tunnel of trees, arching over the road, like plunging into a burrow: a feeling of protection. I've never known anything like it before.
What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
It would be to do no work at all and to cruise around the country roads with my husband, stopping here and there for a meal. I do work hard - I write two books a year - but the trouble is, I usually leave things to the last minute; I strangely find lots of other things that need doing. The good thing about journalist training is that I write quickly, with no drafts, because you get into the habit of editing as you go along. The books may seem effortless, but that's also to do with training. In my newspaper days, on the occasions when I filled in for the science correspondent, I'd have to write a story on a complicated subject that Mrs Bloggs from Streatham could read. It had to be lucid; it had to flow; it had to be coherent. That's what people like to read.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
Still in Blockley, but in a much bigger house. Ours is one of a Cotswold stone terrace, built in 1807, with two bedrooms and - fortunately - two bathrooms, which is a luxury. But it's piled floor to ceiling with books, and I also have two storage units full.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
I wouldn't like to live in one of the towns - say, Evesham or Cirencester. I do love cities: I live part-time in Paris; but I wouldn't want to live in a Cotswold town. For one thing, I'm fed up of soaring crime rates. After being brought up in Glasgow, I've had enough of that feeling of having to look behind you. I know I write about crime, but that's different - that's fantasy.
Where's the best pub in the area?
I like the Black Bear in Moreton-in-Marsh.
And the best place to eat?
The Coach and Horses is very good - the pub on the road to Stow, just after the Longborough turn.
Have you a favourite tearoom?
The Gateway Tearoom in Evesham: the last of its kind; low rafters, lovely cakes, nice snacks.
I've always had an affection for the English teashop because in Glasgow places tend to be dark and functional. Here, there's clutter and horse brasses; ornaments and pictures: I love it.
What would you do for a special occasion?
I would invite my son, Charlie, down for the day. He lives in London Docklands, which I thought looked the perfect place for a murder. But as he's six-foot, with a shaven head, he says he's not too worried. He has just sent his first book to my agent - a fantasy - which he wrote while out in El Salvador for a year. Charlie specialised in physics and maths at school, before going to Cambridge to get a degree in natural sciences; but funnily enough, his housemaster always said: That boy can twist and turn but one of these days he's going to turn out to be a writer.
What's the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The people - generally very kind and courteous.
... and the worst?
I suppose the way new houses are eating up the countryside; but, then, we've all got to live somewhere and nothing lasts forever.
Which shop could you not live without?
The Honeypot in Stow-on-the-Wold. Downstairs is very much for chocolate addicts. Upstairs, shop owner and masseur, Richard Rasdall, has his treatment room. He helped me to get over cancer.
What's the most under-rated thing about the Cotswolds?
I wish people who protest about farmers and landowners would realise that if it weren't for them, there would be no countryside to admire or drive through.
What is a person from the Cotswolds called?
A last-time buyer.
What would be a three course Cotswold meal?
Vegetable soup made from local vegetables; roast pheasant with apple and chestnut stuffing, roast parsnips and potatoes, served with redcurrant jelly; and sticky toffee pudding. I don't bake myself. In fact, the idea for Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death came about when Charlie's housemaster was raising money for the Vietnamese Boat People. He said to me, 'We'd love some of your home baking to sell', so I bought a quiche from Waitrose and put my own wrappings on it - it was a great success. Unfortunately, when Agatha cheats in a local cooking competition, one of the judges drops dead after eating 'her' quiche.
What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
From the top of Fish Hill, overlooking the Vale of Evesham, right over to the Malvern Hills.
What's your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
My quintessential Cotswold village would be Stow-on-the Wold. It has so many interesting little individual shops and some beautiful old buildings.
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds...
The beautiful mellow stone of the cottages; the exquisite gardens; and the kindness of the people.
What's your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
The church at Blockley. It's built on Saxon foundations and has an air of peace and permanence.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
I'd never, ever litter in the Cotwolds - anywhere, anyhow.
Starter homes or executive properties?
This is a difficult one. Not so long ago, a couple getting married had no hope of buying anything anywhere. They rented somewhere cheap and, if they were lucky, they finally saved enough to own a place of their own. The only way to stop executive properties is to ask the villagers to stop selling to outsiders and I can't see them doing that.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
Blessed if I know. I know the Cotswolds covers an area the size of Tokyo, stretching all the way from Bath to Stratford-upon-Avon.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
A Cotswold calendar of photographs. As I said, I do live part-time in France. After I had cancer, my husband said, 'You've always wanted a flat in Paris. Let's just go for it!' We couldn't afford to buy so we rented unfurnished and got flat-pack furniture. While I lay on the sofa saying, 'Oh, how nice!', he slaved away, putting everything together. My husband's a great home-maker and very outgoing. If it weren't for him, I might be a recluse.
What's the first piece of advice you'd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
The usual: where to find a doctor; where to shop; times the rubbish goes out - that sort of thing.
And which book should they read?
Perhaps one by Alexander McCall Smith. He made niceness fashionable again. Before his books, it seemed you always had to write about the dark side of life: it was a bit of inverted snobbery. The heroine had to be gang raped in the first chapter and become lesbian in the second, or no one would publish it. Alexander McCall Smith reversed that trend. I'm a voracious reader myself. The brain is like a computer: you can only get out what you put in.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
I don't walk anywhere unless I am shopping. I'm very lazy, and it's rather dangerous to walk round the country roads because the locals come round corners at 60 miles per hour.
Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?
I suppose the Dover Hill games. (Robert Dover's Cotswold Olympick Games at Chipping Campden; this year on Friday, June 1, from 6.15pm in the High Street, and from 7.30pm on The Hill).
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I'd probably rob as many banks as I could and buy a bigger house.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
I don't know about memorials. The memorials that do exist to fallen soldiers are the best that come to mind. But perhaps the land owners. They considered it their duty to help the local people. I think it was the values they were brought up with. The new land owners are not like that - they just consider it a job.
The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt?
Both. That's what gives it its character.
What attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?
I think I've covered this: kindness.
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
I'd like to have cider with Joanna Trollope. I am a great admirer of her writing. Her books are readable, and you always know the people she's writing about. I credit her with the rebirth of the English novel.
- The latest in the Agatha Raisin series, Love, Lies and Liquor (Robinson, 5.99), is now in paperback. The new Agatha hardback, Kissing Christmas Goodbye, will be out in October.