Wednesday 10 July 2024

In The St Hilda's Spotlight - David Whittle

 Name: - David Whittle

Job: - Author

Introduction: -

David Whittle is the biographer of Bruce Montgomery, who is better known to detective fiction readers (especially of the Golden Age era) as Edmund Crispin. He is a classically trained musician but is also involved in folk and big band music. He was the Director of Music for 32 years at Leicester Grammar School.


Current book? (This can either be the current book that you are reading or writing or both)

I am in the middle of the very informative Perry: A Drinker’s Guide by Adam Wells (I organize the cider and perry bar at my local CAMRA beer festival) and have just finished Midsummer Murder by Cecil Wills (I review for Mystery People). Mixing business with pleasure? No, just pleasure.

Favourite book:

There are too many. I have recently reminded myself how much I love The Bachelors (Les Celibataires) by Henry de Montherlant. It follows the decline of two elderly and impecunious members of the aristocracy who, like more or less everyone else in the book (and certainly members of their family) are disagreeably lazy, feckless, eccentric, mean, anxious, cantankerous, snobbish and malevolent, amongst many other unappealing yet somehow comic traits. How can you not take to the sort of characters who will, for instance, order a daily newspaper ‘with the sole intention of forcing this excellent man [the local postman] to walk sixteen kilometres daily from the post office to the château and back.’ As the novel memorably states about one character, an ageing count: ‘It was malevolence that kept him alive, for malevolence, like alcohol, is a preservative.’ Another French novel, Clochemerle by Gabriel Chevallier, detailing the comic repercussions from the mayor’s decision to build a public urinal in the village square, is also much loved. Appropriately, this year, I am a great admirer of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (I wrote one of my few fan letters to him about it). If all else fails it would have to be The Code of the Wooster’s by PG Wodehouse.

Which two musicians would you invite to dinner and why?

Just two seems a bit mean! One would have to be Bruce Montgomery (‘Edmund Crispin’) for the obvious reason that I’d like to see how accurate my portrait of him is in the biography, even if presumably he’d drink me out of house and home and I wouldn’t remember much as I’d be sloshed after half an hour. The other would-be JS Bach. For organists like me his music is a (the?) high point of the repertoire and I would enjoy telling him that I spent five years learning and performing all his surviving organ works (everyone else is fed up with me going on about it). There are one or two questions about performance practice that I would like to ask him before Montgomery gets going with the booze.

How do you relax?

I am a keen birdwatcher but like to have a good walk whilst doing so (I am not one of those who stands for hours in the same spot with a telescope), preferably near marshes as nothing beats a good swamp - that’s what coming from the Wash does for you. Most Saturdays in the season are taken up with football as I have a season ticket at Boston United, and also go to Derby County sometimes. And, of course, reading.

Which book do you wish you had written and why?

One of the ones I have listed above for the reason that I admire them.

What would you say to your younger self if you were just starting out as a writer.

Just get on with it. Ideas are all very well, but you have to put in the slog.

How would you describe your latest published book?

I have only one published book, although I have contributed to a number of others. The rather inelegantly titled Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books has sections examining the music which are a bit specialized, but they can always be skipped. I hope the biographical chapters and examinations of the novels keep the general reader entertained.

With A Dance to the Music of Crime: the artful crime to murder being the theme at St Hilda's this year, which are you three favourite albums?

Another impossible question, the answer to which varies almost from hour to hour, but here’s today’s list:

1] I am currently enjoying the complete chamber music of Gabriel Fauré.

2] The Atomic Mr Basie (a high point of big band jazz)

3] No Rush by Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham (they are not all by him, but nobody can write slow airs like Phil Cunningham).

If you were given the ability to join a band which, would it be and why?

I have had the fun of playing the piano with the Syd Lawrence Orchestra (only as a guest for a couple of numbers!), but I think I’d relish playing the piano with the wonderful Scottish group Session A9. They give traditional music a really good modern drive and it can be very exhilarating (they play lovely slow tunes too).

If you were to re-attend a concert which, would it be and why.

It would be the last UK appearance of the great Count Basie and his Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in 1982 (he died two years later). I was in my first job teaching at a boarding school on the Devon/Dorset border, so it was more or less impossible to get out during the week, particularly as I only had a 95cc motor bike. I managed, though, to get to it (not on the bike!) but my memory of the evening is now rather hazy. I would love to experience it again, even if only to take proper note of who the band members were.

What are you looking forward to at St Hilda's?

I have a lot to thank St Hilda’s for, as the first time I spoke about Crispin was there in 1994 when my research was in their relative infancy. I met a lot of people who encouraged me to keep going, so I am looking forward to meeting some of them again as well as meeting new like-minded people and hearing the other speakers. I am particularly looking forward to having a chat with Jake Lamar as I relished Viper’s Dream.

Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books by David Whittle (Taylor and Francis) Out Now

Under his real name, Bruce Montgomery (1921-1978) wrote concert music and the scores for almost 50 feature films, including some of the most enduring British comedies of the twentieth century, amongst them a number in the series started by Doctor in the House and the first six Carry On films. Under the pseudonym of Edmund Crispin, he enjoyed equal success as an author, writing nine highly acclaimed detective novels and a number of short crime stories, as well as compiling anthologies of science fiction which helped to increase the profile of the genre. A close friend of both Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, Montgomery did much to encourage their work. In this first biography of Montgomery, David Whittle draws on interviews with people who knew the writer and composer. These interviews, together with in-depth research, provide great insight into the development of Montgomery as a crime fiction writer and as a composer in the ever-demanding world of films. During the late 1950s and early '60s these demands were to prove too much for Montgomery. Alcoholism combined with the onset of osteoporosis and a retreat into a semi-reclusive lifestyle resulted in him writing and composing virtually nothing during the last 15 years of his life. 

Information about 2024 St Hilda's College Crime Fiction Weekend and how to book online tickets can be found here.

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