Herefordshire People: Author Phil Rickman

PUBLISHED: 15:53 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:18 20 February 2013

Author Phil Rickman first appeared on my radar when word got around Garway, where I live, that someone had written a murder mystery based in the village. We all bought it or borrowed it, sending Phil's book sales up by, oh, 17 at least (well, it's...

Phil's Garway novel, The Fabric of Sin, was the ninth book in his series of Merrily Watkins mysteries - all set in Herefordshire and the Welsh Borders - and all featuring Merrily, the chainsmoking, self-doubting, single parent who also happens to be a Church of England Vicar and Deliverance Consultant (for that, read exorcist), for the Diocese of Hereford. Phil Rickman does crime thrillers with a cold waft of the paranormal. They defy categorisation. "I don't really like being thought of as a writer of "supernatural fiction", says Phil. "The Merrily Watkins series is listed as crime, and that's what it mainly is. Every story stands up as a psychological mystery. OK, there's usually something spooky but it's restrained. I don't do fantasy. When something happens I want you to believe it." The supernatural elements in Phil's plots are all the more chilling for being subtle. They are the strange figure standing on the edge of a field; the sense


of someone else being there with you in an inglenook, the possibility of a face at a window. Deliverance is a genuine aspect of the Church of England's work and he is in regular contact with one Deliverance minister and has contact with others to ensure accuracy in his writing. They work in teams which also contain psychologists, on the borderline between psychological illness and the inexplicable. The Merrily novels tend to go down well


with the clergy who rather like reading about a vicar with doubts and human failings who has to tussle with


"something a bit dark" as well as the politicking of the C of E. Merrily and this region now have a fan-base all over the world. The characters and places in the novels feel so authentic that people have been known to cross the Atlantic to try to visit Ledwardine, the black and white village where Merrily lives. The (say it quietly) fictional village is a composite of Weobley and Pembridge: "Just to confuse the issue, we've had a couple of rubber stamps made with the Ledwardine postmark to stamp envelopes and the internet Merrily Watkins discussion forum has become known as Greater Ledwardine." Rickman fans have done nothing if not get involved in the Merrily go-round. One reader from Lichfield instigated the production of T-shirts, another from Glasgow suggested the CD of songs, Songs from Lucy's Cottage, composed by Lol Robinson, Merrily's musician boyfriend. Yet another, John Mason, produces the infra-red photographs that go on the book covers. There's a whole Merrily world out there. Phil doesn't think it will result in open top bus tours like those around Morse's Oxford: "Hell, we'd have to move..." Phil Rickman is actually "from Off." He was born in Lancashire where he


started work as a reporter. He became fascinated with the Welsh border after reading The Old Straight Track by


Alfred Watkins. A job came up on the Mid-Wales Journal so he and his journalist wife Carol moved to Builth


Wells. Subsequently, he worked as mid- Wales reporter for BBC Wales. He'd always wanted to write novels but


the fun of doing TV and radio sidetracked him for a good few years. Then he and his wife suffered a serious car


crash: "We aquaplaned collecting multiple injuries between us, and something like that makes you realise how precarious life is, so I thought I'd give the writing one last shot." He then happened to interview the novelist Alice Thomas Ellis who asked to take a look at what he'd written. "I didn't realise at the time that she was fiction editor with the publishers Duckworth, who subsequently offered me a contract." When the novels took off Phil gave up his job in news but has carried on making general radio programmes like Phil the Shelf, his book review programme on BBC Radio Wales. He also covers the Hay Festival for the BBC. This all makes a welcome change from writerly seclusion. He and Carol live with two rescue donkeys, two pea-hens and a peacock


called Dave in a 15th century farmhouse near Hay-on-Wye. They've been there for 13 years now and Phil says it still needs a lot of work. "We'd need a couple of serious bestsellers to complete even half of it. The house contains the "padded cell" which is the little radio studio from which Phil broadcasts his radio show. He and Carol operate a cottage industry. "Carol edits all the books, ruthlessly - and we keep farmers' hours. I'm on a deadline, and for the past month I've been starting work around 6am. I clean out the donkeys' stable and then get into the book. We've been known to work 18 hour days towards the end of a book. People think being a writer is a piece of cake, but a 120,000 word novel with a complex, layered plot every year is, well, certainly the hardest job I've ever had. "What does help is the fact that nobody else at all, as far as I can see, is writing novels quite like this... or in this area. I can just walk into a small town or a village and dig up a story that hasn't been used before. Imagine trying to do that in London or Edinburgh." His story-finding means that Phil is steeped in the more mysterious elements of the border, its legends, its folk-lore and the weird happenings that still, it seems, go on. In response to readers who wanted to know about the background to his books, he has just published Merrily's


Border (Logaston Press), a guide to the legends, history and places behind his series of thrillers. Merrily's Border is full of the arcane knowledge of a borderland addict: the strange exorcism prayer on the wall of a church in Radnorshire; the story of the apparition (in the form of a bull) of the notorious Black Vaughan of Hergest


Court in a Kington Church; the link between Edward Elgar and Alfred Watkins of ley line fame; the present day


Bishop who witnessed the manifestation of a ghost - the book takes you under the border's goose-pimpled skin.


But for someone who has lived in this area for more than half his life and is so obviously suffused with the place, Phil Rickman still feels he's standing somewhat on the sidelines. He says it's a "journalist thing". He's much more likely, he says, to be the figure you see in Cascob, Credenhill or Cusop hanging around, looking shifty, making


notes."


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