I haven’t had many male guests on this feature, so I’m delighted today to welcome Stevyn Colgan to my blog. And what a fascinating collection of photographs and stories he has to share! I’ve loved browsing through these pictures and reading the background to them, and I’m sure you will, too.
This is me (left) and my two brothers, Si and Andy, taken at Botallack in 1968. Growing up in Cornwall made a big impact on me as an artist and as a writer. I was surrounded by stunning scenery and more artists than you can shake a stick at. The complexity of village life where everyone knows everyone else (and everyone else’s business!) always fascinated me and has become a staple ingredient of my comic novels. There’s a dark side to Cornwall too; what the tourists rarely see is that it’s the poorest county in the UK with high unemployment outside of the holiday season. The winters can be very bleak for many families. Comedy and tragedy are the staples of all good drama.
This is my dad, Michael, in 1990. It’s the very last photo I took of him. He died unexpectedly in 1991 at the ridiculously young age of 51 due to a heart condition he wasn’t aware of. Dad was a big inspiration to me; he was a career homicide detective but he loved books and writing and he passed that passion on to me. He wrote many articles for magazines and newspapers but, at the time of his death, he was part way through writing his first novel. He knew Dame Daphne Du Maurier and had been encouraged to write a historical murder-mystery. He only got to complete four chapters. While tempted to complete the book for him, I simply can’t as I don’t have enough knowledge of the plot and where he intended the book to go. But I was able to include some of his writing in my novel A Murder To Die For; every time one of my characters reads an extract from one of fictitious author Agnes Crabbe’s books, it’s actually Dad’s writing. So I have ensured that at least some of his novel got into print. He’d have liked that.
Meeting your Heroes
People say ‘Never meet your heroes’. To that I say ‘Rubbish!’ Through working as a London police officer and later as a writer I’ve met everyone from Freddie Mercury to Buzz Aldrin, Kenneth Williams to Carrie Fisher. I’ve been lucky to meet, and occasionally work with, some amazing writers including Brian Aldiss, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams and many more. And through my work with QI I’ve worked with the cream of British comics. I’ve learned so much by watching how writers and comedians work. I love this shot of a tipsy Sandi Toksvig leaning on me for support while we’re being photobombed by Jason Manford. The photo sums up the kind of atmosphere that exists backstage – it’s a very cosy show with almost a family feel. There are no divas or egos involved. It’s a joy to work on. Meet your heroes if you can – it’s worth it!
I had to include one photo of me during my policing days as they took up three decades of my life. This one dates from 1985 shortly after I’d passed my driving courses. Being a police officer is not a career for the faint-hearted. Unlike TV cop shows it’s unglamorous, there’s a lot of red tape and admin, and most investigations are rather tedious consisting of endless interviews and intelligence gathering. There’s a lot of death and injury to contend with – you need a strong stomach. And it’s dangerous at times. But the rewards are great; I have a lifetime of stories to plunder and memories of a thousand fascinating people upon which to base my characters. You learn a lot about human nature – the good and the bad – in a job like this.
I’ll finish with this photo of the Cottage Bookshop in Penn village, very near to where I live in Buckinghamshire. The shop opened in 1951 and shut recently in June to the dismay of all who loved it. Imagine a detached 18th century three bedroomed cottage with an extension on the back where every room has been gutted and then filled floor to ceiling with second-hand books. Most of the books on sale were priced from 50p to a tenner, depending on age and rarity. The owners – three generations of the same family – were never overly concerned about profit. Most of the 65,000 books that were out on sale were donated for free and as long as the owners made enough to cover the running costs and staff wages they were happy. It was the best bookshop I’ve ever known and I visited at least once a week for over twenty years and always found something to buy. I took my kids there. I took my grandkids there. Midsomer Murders filmed there twice. So did the Chuckle Brothers. And Terry Pratchett – a local man – visited regularly and based his fictional Discworld library on it (and my profile photo was taken in there on its last day of opening). Which is why it’s such a tragedy that it has now shut. The current owner is in his eighties and wants to retire and realise the equity in the property. His children don’t want to take it on and it makes such a small profit that no one will buy it as a going business. I’m very sad to see it go. We need to look after our bookshops (especially the small indie shops) and our libraries. It’s places like these that keep the magic of reading going for generation after generation. Sadly, deep discounts and the ease of online sales are killing them off. It saddens me and and I’ve dedicated my next book to the shop and its staff.
Thank you so much, Stevyn, for such an interesting post. Very sad news about the bookshop, I agree. We need more of these places, not fewer. Such a shame and I can imagine your community felt its loss deeply. I love the fact that you’ve included your dad’s writing in your own book. What a lovely tribute! Very impressed with your QI career, too!
Stevyn Colgan is the author of eight books and is a popular speaker at UK and international events and festivals. He has appeared on numerous podcasts and radio shows including Freakonomics, Saturday Live, Do The Right Thing, Ex Libris, No Such Thing As A Fish, Josie Long’s Short Cuts and many more. For thirty years he was a police officer in London. And for more than a decade he was one of the ‘elves’ that research and write the multi award-winning TV series QI. He was also part of the writing team that won the Rose D’Or for BBC Radio 4’s The Museum of Curiosity. His first novel, A Murder to Die For, was shortlisted for the Dead Good Readers’ Awards and longlisted for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize 2018. His next comic novel, The Diabolical Club, is currently being funded by the award-winning and innovative publishing house Unbound and will hit the shops in 2019. https://unbound.com/books/the-diabolical-club/
You can buy A Murder to Die For here.