First of all today, a brief personal shout-out for Tim Pigott-Smith, RIP, an extraordinary actor, who probably wasn't halfway well enough known in the USA. He was also a one of the nicest men whose path I've ever crossed. I met him twice, years ago, in the course of my work as a theatre critic and arts journalist, and found him one of the most genuine and charming members of his profession that it was ever my good fortune to encounter.
On the first occasion, he had just stepped into the driving seat of a highly respected touring theatre company; they were opening a production at a theatre I regularly covered for my local newspaper, and he naturally wanted some coverage. We had lunch together, and though the conversation did stray far enough towards the company and what he hoped to achieve to result in the feature I needed to write, for the most part we talked about our kids, who, it turned out, were much of an age, and the flaws in the exam system in state schools, which said kids were embroiled in at the time – no grandstanding, or look-at-me, just two parents with a lot of views in common.
The production he was directing was pretty damn good too. He died a few days ago, far too soon, and he will be missed. Whom the gods love...
That's my first why? Why do thoroughly nice people at the top of their game die early? Last year Alan Rickman and Victoria Wood, among others; now Tim Pigott-Smith.
Why? is a question I've been asking all my life. It's the reason I didn't study science (well, aside from getting higher grades in arts subjects, and being rubbish at maths, and not really enjoying science lessons at school.) I kept asking why? Why does electricity do what it does? Why does mixing these two chemicals produce an explosion? Why do potatoes turn green if you leave them in sunlight? I guess I never really grew out of that phase most kids go through at about three years old, and the teachers grew as impatient as my parents had. And mostly, at least at the school stage of science lessons, there are no answers: it is because it is was the best those teachers could offer. And, like a parent bellowing Because I say so!, that doesn't make any kind of sense of the world.
Arts subjects on the other hand, especially English and even more especially fiction, offer resolution. A properly crafted plot offers reasons, no matter how tricky the question or convoluted the route to arrive at them. And that's probably why, in adulthood, I naturally gravitated towards crime fiction.
I'm still asking why?, and will probably never stop; to the big questions, which change every day (like why Brexit?, and why Trump?), there don't appear to be any satisfying answers, whatever the pundits say. At the moment, my own big question is why is real life so rubbish sometimes, and why is one heap of rubbish inevitably followed by another, so that we finish up dealing with a rubbish mountain all at once? (You really don't want to know about the individual heaps which make up my present mountain – I wish I didn't have to know!) So, in answer to the question why do I read? (which is a question I've never asked, never would ask, but is occasionally asked of me) – it's simple: I read in order to escape for a while, to a place where things eventually make sense. I suppose, boiled down to basics, I read for reassurance that somewhere, at some time, such a place could exist.
That's something crime fiction offers in bucketloads. There are other requirements, of course: it has to be well written; there must be characters I can connect with; and, for me, it shouldn't be too graphic or gory. And, of course, there absolutely has to be the kind of story that grabs me and hauls me away.
Some people don't get it. My mother dismisses crime fiction as 'whodunits', delivering the word with a curl of the lip and a roll of the eyes. Needless to say, she's never read any, and has no idea what she's been missing; the best crime fiction stands up with the best of any kind of fiction, and outstrips and outsmarts most 'literary' fiction by a country mile and a half. But some people still don't get it.
And I have no idea why.