Peter James: Meeting heroes, selfies with Sir Alan Ayckbourn and my love for Scarborough


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Bestselling crime writer Peter James talks us through his gastronomic adventures and keeps us abreast of everything relating to his fictional detective, Roy Grace

They say you should never meet your heroes. In 1974 I made a cigarette commercial with erratic and unpredictable Peter Sellers, probably my biggest childhood hero. He was being paid a record amount of money for an actor for one day’s work, but then refused to light up because he had decided he was against smoking! I met Laurie Lee a while before he died, and told him Cider With Rosie was one of my all-time favourite books. He shrugged, grunted and turned away. I met Orson Welles when I was 19 and at film school, and had recently fallen in love with Citizen Kane. But I was too tongue-tied to say a word!

During the coming weeks I’m doing bookstore and supermarket signings for my latest Roy Grace novel, Love You Dead. I’ll be on the lookout for lovely readers who have emailed, Tweeted or messaged me on Facebook telling me they are my No 1 fan, and cannot wait to meet me. I’ll be able to recognise them – they’ll be the ones in the queue standing totally tongue-tied, barely able to whisper the name they want inscribed in the book… And I’ll be trying hard to put them at ease! Just like last week when I was put at ease by another of my great heroes, Sir Alan Ayckbourn.

A Chorus Of Disapproval, Relatively Speaking and so many others of his plays have made me laugh – and think – more perhaps than any other dramatist. We were up in Scarborough to talk at a crime festival, and he and his delightful wife Heather invited us to tea at his glorious home, with its stunning view across the bay. Lara and I had two hours of almost continual laughter with them as he regaled us with a fund of stories; the most bizarre of all was the man who plonked himself down, uninvited, pint in hand, next to Sir Alan and Harold Pinter in a pub, where they were working on a project, and confessed that he had just pushed his mother-in-law up a chimney and thought she was probably dead…

Ayckbourn has such a youthful sense of fun – we even took the selfie above! We discussed whether as writers we unconsciously attracted the weird and bizarre, and we decided that, fortunately, we do!

I love Scarborough, because it is in many ways like a bonsai version of Brighton – a mixture of breathtaking beauty, elegance, and old-fashioned seaside tackiness. We stayed in the Crescent Hotel, a beautiful, Georgian terraced building with luxurious rooms and delightful staff.

From there I went to prison. I’ve been to Lewes Prison on a number of occasions, interviewing some of their residents – most recently a career burglar, who has inspired a character in my new book. I’ve given talks in their library, and many other prison libraries around the country. One charity I support is the Reading Agency, which tries to raise the standard of literacy in our nation. It’s a sad statistic that the average reading age in a UK prison is currently equivalent to that of a nine-year-old child.

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My most recent visit was to see the work of another amazing charity, KeepOut. Founded by a lifer nearing the end of his sentence, KeepOut has convicted prisoners, currently serving sentences, try to help steer youngsters at risk of entering the criminal justice system away from a life of crime. I was enormously impressed by their aims and how they go about it.

Leaving any prison makes me look forward to a drink, and I’ve discovered, through the kind gift of a recent dinner party guest, an absolute gem: the Bolney Estate, Foxhole Vineyard Bacchus 2014. It has all the qualities of a great Sauvignon Blanc but with a very faint hint of sweetness that turns it into something which had Lara and I murmuring all kinds of superlatives. This will be the aperitif-de-choix in the James household for this summer.

An occasional pleasure as a food critic is to eat one’s words. Last month I was harsh on famous restaurant spin-offs. Recently I’ve been to two Ivy spin-offs – one in Kensington, as the guest of an old friend, Angela Ripon. The other in Marylebone with my old school pal, David Thompson, who went on to produce stellar movies such as Shadowlands (written by brilliantly talented Sussex screenwriter and novelist Bill Nicholson) Billy Elliot and more recently, a film I loved, Mandela. Both restaurants are superb, providing what the Ivy mothership has always been renowned for: a wide menu at sane prices, with almost seamless, unobtrusive service. The one in Kensington, close to my London flat, has what must be the prettiest outdoor dining space in all of London. A recidivist is someone who habitually reoffends and becomes what the police call a revolving door prisoner. I’m thinking of a suitable name for someone who keeps returning to a favourite restaurant, because that’s likely to be me this summer, at the Ivy, Kensington. I’d love to hear about readers’ favourite Sussex outdoor eateries. Riddle and Finns on the Beach, in Brighton? The Kennels at Goodwood? A signed copy of Love You Dead awaits my favourite!

Peter James’s next Roy Grace novel Love You Dead, is currently in bookstores. The paperback of his ghost story, The House On Cold Hill is out on 16 June. His first non-fiction book Death Comes Knocking – Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton, which was co-written with Graham Bartlett, former Commander of Brighton and Hove Police, will be out on 14 July. He is donating his fee for this column to the charity KeepOut.

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