Edinburgh Book Festival: "Afternoon Tea with Sue Lawrence - Mouthwatering Mysteries", Review

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Sue Lawrence with Jenny Brown in the chair
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This special event, in the Charlotte Square Garden Spiegeltent, was preceded by an excellent afternoon with tea (or coffee) and an individual platter of sandwiches, a scone with strawberry jam and cream, an éclair and two chocolates - which few were expecting! One should pay tribute to the staff who kept the tea and coffee cups well filled and provided excellent service. There was even a 'top-up time' in the middle of the discussion period and some Dundee cake for us all at the end!

As a winner of the 'Master Chef' title, Sue Lawrence, was already a celebrity in her own right, but she combines a passion for cooking with a love of writing. As Jenny Brown, who introduced her said, she is almost a veteran of the Book Festival having appeared first some twenty five years ago. She has already published several books on baking and made her début last year as a novel writer. She has followed this up with her new historical fiction novel 'The Night He Left'. The event covered food and baking in the first half and then picked up on the new Lawrence novel in the remaining time.

Jenny Brown asked Lawrence if she had seen much change in British attitudes, accepting that we probably live in the one country which has perhaps one of the best larders in the world. Sue Lawrence commented on this by suggesting that we now travel very much more and the one time obsession with food had become very much more international in nature. There was much more variety today and we were constantly looking at different ways of cooking having seen these while travelling.

Asked about the programme 'Master Chef' she felt that it had become much more professional - which was good in some ways - but it still needed, she felt, to be seen as a programme for the amateurs. She felt that cooking was 'sharing' and so is no need to eat everything on offer therefore worries about sugar levels really should not trouble the individual.

She described baking as being a family thing where the children could be involved too. Reference was made also to all the various local traditional delicacies and she commented that in the past we used a lot of spices in our cooking. Lawrence added that she was a great supporter of the adage that, 'a little of what you fancy does you good'!

As a final comment she said that when growing up she had never been offered a traditional Dundee cake, anyway she revealed the one in front of her - which she had prepared - inviting us all to have a slice. It was lovely and moist, quite delicious!

To Fiction

Jenny Brown brought us back from food to fiction and asked Sue Lawrence about the background to her new novel. Lawrence said that she had grown up with the history of the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879. She had lived in Dundee all her life, looking at the bridge and had often wondered what had happened on that train. Everyone in the city at the time had known someone on the train.

As an 'appetizer', Lawrence gave us a reading from the book which described how the woman, Anne, watched the train come on to the bridge as the storm raged. On the train was meant to be her husband coming home to be with the family. Her children were beside, her clinging to her for fear of the storm when they suddenly saw the train dive from the track and plunge into the water. It was a very enticing extract and certainly tempted one to read more.

Jenny Brown asked what research Lawrence had to make and the author said she had spent some time at the National Library on George IV Bridge and had seen all the local media stories of the day. At that time it had been as big a disaster as the loss of the Titanic or 9/11.

She had also seen autopsies of similar events which she described as 'fascinating'!

She had also visited the two memorials to the those who had died and there were fifty nine names on each. In those days, Dundee was very much a whaling centre and the whaling crewmen said that they would not expect to see bodies until about a week afterwards; this proved to be the case. On day eight, some thirty three bodies were found.

What was interesting was that the mailbags had been secured so well that some of the letters were still legible.

Lawrence also spoke of an incident where a man had been travelling in a first class and was to be met by a carriage when the train got to Leuchars. However, it was not at the station so the man was preparing to get on the train again when the carriage arrived. He did not get on the train again which saved his life.

Looking briefly at the other plot in the book, we were told that a woman wakes up in the night to find her husband has gone. To her horror she finds that he has taken his passport with him and then she sees the envelope. Of course, it contains a letter which says that "he will always love her" but he had to make a break. There are many twists and turns but it promises to be an enthralling read.

This was an excellent session and Sue Lawrence was a real star.

The Night He Left (Apr 2016) by Sue Lawrence, is published by Freight Books.