The Identity Games

Pippa McCathie in her study

A portrait of novelist Pippa McCathie

by publisher, Erik Empson

Pippa McCathie is the tender age of twenty-three. One might not believe it by looking at this author, with her wide eyes, sun-weathered face, and shock of white hair, whom at first glance one might place at late sixties or early seventies at most. But in her twenty-three years she has had the experience of a lifetime, and eagerly awaits more.

Born just after the war to an Essex vicar and slightly overbearing but ridiculously talented artist mother, at the age of four she, along with her siblings, was whisked off to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Still part of the British Empire, there she grew up speaking a confused alphabet soup of her native English, Marsellais-accented French, and Creole. And with this her fascination for words grew.

As I regard with poorly concealed envy her floor-to-ceiling shelf of lexigraphical tomes – a reverse dictionary meets my eye, plus an edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable specifically geared to London – it is clear that understanding words and their origins is a near obsession. Yet origins are a difficult subject for Pippa.

After her family returned to the colder waters of the British Isles and installed themselves in Guernsey, where she met her engineer husband Niall, she moved on to Haringey, Enfield, South Africa, and then settled in Wales with a brief sojourn – could you call it that? – in Iran just as the country was beset by the revolution.

It is perhaps natural that all her books are set in places she knows to the core, and that her main series – the first book of which, Murder in the Valleys, introduces ex-police superintendent Fabia Havard – is based in a part of the world she is most fond of, Wales, and in particular Swansea and the western valleys, where her two eldest children were born and raised. I see the sense of remorse as Pippa describes how, in the mid-eighties following her husband’s work commitments she once again upped sticks, yet this time with a small platoon of children in tow, and returned to Guernsey.

Her main protagonist, the youthful Fabia, is a retired detective and one cannot help but think there is something of Pippa in her. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but plays an active part in her south Wales community in the imaginary town of Pontygwyn, which has more than its fair share of them. With the aim of putting her past behind her and settling into a new career as an artist and book illustrator, the ex-cop can’t quite help getting involved when criminal goings-on upset the small town. Fabia has difficulty adjusting to playing second fiddle to DI Matt Lambert who was once her junior, yet manages not to gloat when her instincts prove right.

I am torn away from the straining bookshelves and Pippa shows me some of the preparation work for her next novel. My is she a planner! Each character has their own photo and description. Pippa draws up maps of the locations in her novels, complete with houses, street names, post boxes. You name it, it’s there. The attention to detail is near fastidious.

It strikes me that having had such an itinerant life, a sense of identity and place must be manufactured rather than taken for granted. Pippa has a host of friends and associates around the world whom she draws on to ensure she gets every detail right. And woe betide them if they don’t. I’m not spared opprobrium for illustrating her romance set in Guernsey with the wrong type of boat. But it is a gentle ribbing and I survive unscathed.

Identity is a moveable feast. And the surer one is of it, often the more particular and precarious it becomes. Some Welsh readers will announce with certainty that a given term would never be used by them, yet across the hill in another valley it most certainly will. What is lush in Cardiff, might not be in Swansea, cariad. And that – partly the beauty of the human cultural experience – is also its danger. Nothing is absolute, if it were, nothing would ever change or progress; nothing is truly authentic – if it is, it is ossified. Dead.

As the son of an English father and German mother, I’ve inevitably regarded nationalism with a high degree of circumspection. And when I have participated in its strange game of meaning, more often than not it has been a mode of differentiation rather than identification. As a kid I wore Union Jack shorts when visiting a Berlin lake, now as an adult I wear a Müller national football top whenever England are playing their arch rivals. Yes, never growing up and living dangerously, I know.

Is Pippa English, Mauritian, Welsh or from Guernsey? Who can say? What does it matter? Although her eldest children wear their Welsh identity with pride, Pippa is more likely to say she is Mauritian than anything. With her darker complexion, she can pull this off, but no doubt upsets the set of accompanying prejudices with her home counties intonation and received pronunciation.

Growing up on one island, and subsequently living on another, especially one as isolated as Mauritius or as close-knit as Guernsey, creates a strong sense of boundaries, and in this author’s case the urge to break them. Indeed Pippa doesn’t disguise her mischievous streak well. When her family was recently defrauded by online tricksters she immediately got her own back by deciding to top off a scammer on the first page of her forthcoming book, the fifth novel in the Fabia Havard and Matt Lambert detective series.

Alongside her two more romance centred novels, Liberation Day and The Island Brief, set in Guernsey and Mauritius respectively, and a number of published poems with all the right accolades, she has developed quite a portfolio of work. Our conversation ranges from semi-colons to Napoleonic forts, the two old dears that were her neighbours in a draughty Swansea house, whom she remembers fondly, to her appreciation of Penderyn whiskey – perhaps less clear – and a host of other things.

Although twenty-three, going on seventy-five, Pippa is lithe and energetic. As she talks, she hugs her knee, and on impulse jumps to her feet to fetch a book or photo in order to illustrate a point. Before me is a writer who has always put her family, friends and wider community first, and her own interests second. And that has meant her writing has come later to the party – but what an entrance it has made! A rich life lived for others is now delivering for her, and touching readers the world over with its nuanced characters, cheeky rapports and devilish plots. Patriarchs, scammers, bullies, nationalist thugs are all felled by her willowy wand – one senses there are quite a few more in line – and it doesn’t give too much away to say that the good guys win out in the end. It is fiction, after all.

Having in the last year moved once again, this time to Hampshire to be near her grandchildren, I get the impression that Pippa still has itchy feet. But what a blessing that, when her age finally catches up with her, and she hits her thirties, she’ll have a wealth of experiences and a depth of imagination to draw on to continue to entertain readers.

Once again I leave with more than I arrived: lemon drizzle cake skilfully baked by her doting and admiring husband, tomato jam – a Channel Island thing, I’m told – and other homemade preserves for the larder. As I depart, we look at the towering oaks sheltering her house, older than both of us put together, and some. They sway gently in the late summer breeze, knowing no nation, race or clan – yet unmistakeably happy, expressive and real.

MURDER IN THE VALLEYS is the first book in Pippa’s Welsh crime series. For a full list of her books, click here.

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