Quite early on when we moved to West Green Road, my housemate went to an author reading at the Big Green Bookshop (remember those days?) and brought back the first book of the Rex Tracey series and gave it to me after he finished. I was immediately enthralled to find all these local roads and places from Haringey and the neighbourhood boroughs jumping off the pages. Being an ardent fan of crime fiction and tv didn't harm either.
The author MH Baylis and I have been Twitter friends for a while (flexing) and I finally decided I am "big enough" to ask him for an interview and he said yes and was really enthusiastic, too.
In this episode you will hear my pleas for a tv adaptation and what the future might hold.
As it is topical there is a longer section about Prince Philip, too (unrelated to Tottenham but a bit to Rex Tracey)
Matt's twitter: https://twitter.com/mhbaylis
Matt's blog: https://manbelongbooks.blogspot.com/
Want to buy the books and support our local bookshop? https://allgoodbookshop.co.uk/order-books-1/ols/search?keywords=baylis&sortOption=descend_by_match
pod instagram: https://www.instagram.com/anybodyeverybodytottenham/
pod website : https://www.anybodyeverybodytottenham.com/
pod twitter: https://twitter.com/AnybodyBody
If you fancy supporting my hobby - buy me a coffee :)
Hi I'm Jamila and anybody everybody Tottenham is a bi monthly podcast, introducing the good people of Tottenham to you. Hello people. Today I am talking to MH Baylis. And you will see how I'm a little bit of a fan girl. So here's the author of my favorite Tottenham trilogy. And I think I need to explain a little bit more because clearly not everyone is going to know this. So he wrote three books with the main character, Rex Tracy, and he is disheveled reporter for The WoodGreen Gazette, so there are three different crimes happening in Haringey in Ally pally, wood green shopping city and Finsbury Park, and he's solving them. And it's just so fantastic. Because you recognize all the street names and all the little details from your area, the shops, etc. Then he also wrote, but that was even before about an island where they worship Prince Philip. So because of the current situation, I thought it would be quite interesting to find out a little bit more about that. Okay, so these are the references that I'm making within our conversations. I hope that makes a bit more sense now. So I hope you enjoy. So today on the pod, I've got Matt Baylis, so a personal hero of mine, how do you describe yourself I put down journalist, screenwriter, novelist, editor, anything else or
No, that will do fine, thank you. I've done all those things. At the moment. I'm principally an editor. And that's what I do these days for my daily bread. And I also work a bit for the Met Police as well. But it's very hard to describe the job I do there. So it's sort of I'm what's called an assessor, which consists of doing some of the recruiting of new police officers, as a member of the public. The idea being that that will ensure that it's not the police who hired the police, it's the people that hire the police. So
so how have you come to Haringey, because you had quite a traveling life. So how come you ended up here?
Right? Yes, it's interesting. You asked that because it's almost because I had a sort of traveling life that I ended up in Haringey, I had a little flat that was right at the very bottom of green lanes that it was really like a bolt hole. And I didn't really sort of explore London much in those days. And I was away a lot. I went to lots of different countries. But eventually I came back in a roundabout, I'm guessing it will be about 2006/7 and I didn't want really to do much traveling anymore. I wanted to sort of put down some roots, and I started walking up and down green lanes. And for me, it seemed like the best of both worlds because it felt like being abroad. It reminded me of of you know, so many places I'd been particularly in particularly in Turkey and Greece, and in yet it was still home. So in much the way sort of people come to places like Highgate because it's a bit like the countryside and like the city it similarly for me sort of green lanes and that sort of area was like the the wonder of being away at the same time as being at home. And that's why really sort of that's what attracted me about it
Would you say Haringey has changed Tottenham?
this is what I find very interesting about it, which is that some areas definitely do. And I've not really witnessed anything about that area to have shifted or changed in any way it hasn't gone downhill. It hasn't gone up hill is still a sort of place of transit for people. It's a place where people arrive, and you know, stay and then usually make enough money to either go home wherever their home is, or they make enough money to move somewhere a bit further out. And it has a kind of a very exciting quality to it. I think because of that. It's a very young sort of place, I think and it's a very vibrant place. I don't mean in the kind of council brochure sort of meaning I mean that it's it's full of life and excitement. I'll give you an example to compare it with. I went back to Liverpool a couple of months ago with my son so I used to spend a lot of time in Liverpool. It's where I went to school and lots of my friends lived there and we were in Anfield where the Liverpool stadium is - my son likes football. So he wanted to have a look and Anfield in the streets around it. They were just as forlorn as they were in the 70s but even in the 70s there was more going on. There were actually businesses working. There were corner shops. There were young people there, there were people who worked. It now just looks so devastated. It's it made me want to weep really is so depressing. And I compare that to somewhere like Tottenham where, clearly Tottenham is a poor area. Clearly Tottenham is a place where people don't have a lot of money. It's a place where people face all sorts of problems related to deprivation and related to sort of being minorities in another society and all that kind of thing, but it's just got this incredible energy. You know, there are people there all the time trying to do stuff, open shops, or businesses, there's movement, things happening all the time, wheras the place where I'm from? There's just nothing, it is just ossified. It's, you know, it's one reason I could never go back is it's so sad, but obvious, but on the other hand, you know, that is why I think places like Tottenham are ACE, because they're just, you know, they're, they're just alive. And you know, that I think they always will be, but it hasn't sort of gone. It hasn't disappeared on its own fundament, you know, and it hasn't turned into a sourdough bakery every third, every third yard or, and I guess that's because people, it's probably something to do with the character of the place that people don't necessarily envisage themselves staying forever. And moving through.
I'm trying to look as well at the timings when you said because you have, you did write your, your first novel before? Was it in 2003? Or no, there was one before
There was one before there was one that came out in 1999. At that point, I was working on EastEnders, I was a storyliner on EastEnders, and but but the novel I'd sort of written in the years preceding that, yeah, so that came out, I now sort of think I'm kind of a little a bit embarrassed by it. Because, you know, I was I wrote it when I was quite young. And I don't feel in any sense the same person who, as the person who wrote that book, but I can sort of see within it, things that are carried on throughout my life, that sort of way of trying to talk about certain distinct areas, and, you know, and the people that those areas sort of are inhabited by and to some extent, the people that those areas create. And, you know, I was sort of sketchily trying to do that about sort of places like Fulham and South Kensington where I'd sort of lived and worked. But that was what I sort of really took on, you know, more fully when I started to write the the detective stories.
Because I was writing this actually is one of the things like all your novels and all your writing seems to have a very strong sense of place. That was like the first thing because even like Cambodia, East Africa, then I wrote Phillip Island, but it's not an actual Island. (Tanna Island) And the mixture of cultures as well. Like in all these places, that was not just one culture, but it was what happens when different cultures interact with each other. So that seems to be like one of the patterns in your in your books, et cetera. Okay, so you had like the novel background before? So how did Rex Tracy come about? Was it your idea was somebody saying, Oh, why don't you write ...
It was, it was sort of an I didn't have a plan to do that. I didn't have a plan to write that sort of thing. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. But I just on a personal level, read and watched huge amounts of crime. And, you know, I, obviously, as a sort of former storyliner, as well, I was kind of used to treating stories in a sort of deliberately kind of plotti way that you sort of considering very, very carefully what to reveal when to whom, you know, sort of get the most satisfying journey and outcome. So that was really what lay behind it, but, but also, for me, the type of crime fiction I started to really enjoy was exactly that same sort of place specific crime fiction. I'm not. And still now I'm not, I'm not fussed by, you know, the serial killer who's laying a trail of incredible clues for someone to sort of solve or any story that could just be happening in any city anywhere in the world. You know, for me, it's, it's got to be Oh, these are all about Athens, or these are all about a tiny village or that's to me seems absolutely integral. And I suppose maybe that even goes back to me. When I was at University I studied anthropology. And that's sort of been my always been my great love and, and the sort of style of anthropology that I studied back then was probably on its way out. And, you know, many reasons why it should have been too but what would generally happen is if you know someone was hopping off to East Africa to try and explain why a certain tribe has this peculiar witchcraft practice, or why another why another group seems to manage without having a king, whereas, you know, the some sort of have a massive hierarchy of nobles. And the anthropologists would pretty much always begin with the terrain, you're almost in a sort of geo geographical sense. If you're saying, well, it's like this, and it's hot and dry. And these are the things that they live on. And this is what the soils like. Because, you know, there's an understanding there that people are very, very much tied to their environment. And they are, to some extent, the products of their environment. We all just are, you know, there's, there's not. And that has always fascinated me, I come from a little town in the northwest of England, that's just north of Liverpool. It's called Southport. And I think on the face of it, you could, you could sort of dismiss it really as being just a sort of fairly boring English seaside town, you know, it's near to some big cities. And you know, it's full of care homes, because it's by the seaside, it was always where people used to go on holiday. So lots of old people there. But, you know, there too, there's such an enormous contribution to the way people see the world and talk and think that's all about the place, it's on the edge of the is on the edge of the land and the sea. But the sea hasn't come in for years, it was built to be a seaside resort, but then the sea retreated further and further and further, so it doesn't have a sea anymore. It's totally eclipsed by Blackpool at one end. And there's just all sorts of other truths that you might start to see when you look at it.
Let's go back to Rex Tracy, tell me, how did you come up with the person? Was that the starting point? Or what was the starting point?
Yeah, I mean, the starting point for me was I wanted to tell a story about the area. And one of the sort of one of the real seeds of it for me was when I just moved in to I had a little house in turnpike Lane, the first morning, it was a sort of mini Heatwave, but then I had all the windows open, because it was very hot. And I could just hear this incredible sort of rumbling noise. It sounded familiar at the same time it was different. And I realized, eventually, when I went to the window, that it was the noise of luggage. And the reason I recognized it was because of all the time I'd sort of spent in airports and things like that, but this was luggage being sort of wheeled along pavements. And it was going in two directions, it was sort of heading towards the tube station and the bus station and probably, you know, towards an airport of some kind, or arriving. And it just, it just struck me like this is the sort of the theme tune of the area, almost, it's sort of a place where people are continually arriving and leaving. And I instantly sort of found that very exciting. And that was really what that was really the sort of whole germ of the idea, you know, then sort of getting more and more interested in the place and who was there, sort of strange things like the looking at the rubbish, like the cigarette packets, you could sort of gage who was coming and who was going by the cigarette packets, you know, the different languages and, you know, the health warnings. That just just seemed to be very interesting. It sort of to me, it felt like perhaps what, you know, New York might have felt like in the 1880s or something, it was still it was a very exciting time, really, and had lots of you know, lots of sort of former Eastern former sort of Eastern Bloc nations that now joined the EU so that they were all coming over here. So there was a sort of incredible mingling of people that hadn't really happened before. I just found that fascinating. So that was really what what started it, but everything else in terms of the, you know, the character and the newspaper. I mean, probably the biggest influence on me in terms of the the newspaper was, I don't know, if you ever came across it, it was a, an 80s and early 90s Police show called Hill Street Blues, it was sort of very, it was groundbreaking in its day, because it was actually very critical of government policy, a US government policy in the inner cities. And but what it absolutely excelled at portraying was that in amongst the sort of hell of the capitalism gone wrong of American cities in the 70s, there was a place that probably wouldn't have sounded very inviting. It was a police station, and yet it was full of people who liked each other, and sometimes didn't like each other, but who basically cared. And the opening credits, I think you should look it up on YouTube, the opening credits are kind of I think, nowadays, they would probably be seen as incredibly unsubtle and indeed they are. But it's just a series of jump cuts from scenes of urban deprivation. You know, there's a young mother walking down a road that doesn't seem to have a pavement with with two small children in the midst of sleet and I think they filmed it all in Chicago.Then cutting to shots of the various characters in the police station. And everyone's smiling. And the whole point of that sort of show was the sort of camaraderie between the people who work there, and also that their concern for the community that they lived in, and that they policed. And I loved that I as a teenager, I absolutely adored that. And it's been sort of, incidentally, or coincidentally, much later in life that I've realized that it's something that has been missing in my life, for a lot of it, certainly my working life, because it's always been very solitary. And that's one of the reasons I work for the police, because it's partly a part of a team. And it's, you know, I really enjoy that. So I wanted to portray something of that. I wanted to sort of a group of people who were all very different, and didn't necessarily always get on and they had all their different tensions, but yet there was still underlying it a sense of unity and loyalty. Sort of like a sort of village atmosphere in the midst of this sort of, you know, urban grim.
Was there a wood green gazette?
no, no, but there was a, there is a similar thing called the Camden New journal, which I'm not even sure if it's still running, but that was an attempt to be like a serious local newspaper. So not just for the church fates, and people selling a brass bedstead, but actually rooting out proper issues to talk about, so that there was such a thing in the past. And then I suppose the final factor was, was Rex himself, I guess. And I probably didn't put an awful lot of effort into that, to be honest. I mean, he's basically me, and I didn't really, I didn't really bother about sort of giving him an enormous backstory, or, you know, having him sort of motivated to do X, Y, and Zed. You know, the reason he's named as he is, is because my, when my son was born, he had his mother's name, because we hadn't married at that point. His mother's name, surname was Tracy. So and we just, we had a number of experiences when he was very, very small, of going, you know, you always end up sitting in waiting rooms with small babies, you know, hospital checkups, and things that you're worried about and stuff like that. On a couple of occasions, a nurse would sort of come out and say, Rex Tracy, and everyone in the waiting room would have sort of, because it just sort of, I think one lady said, Oh, it sounds like a movie star that does. And then sort of a day later, someone said he ought to be a detective. It just sort of, yeah, it's sort of coalesced, really. And I just thought, yeah, that would be a bloody good name for a detective actually, particularly if he's not at all like a sort of, you know, glamorous detective in any way. So that was why that was why he got that name.
So that's your son's name.
Yeah his name is Rex. Yeah, he's not Rex Tracy anymore. That's it. And he's also he's got a middle name, which comes from the island of Tanna, where I spent some time, years before. A little girl was born while I was there. They have a tradition there that if there's a visitor, they'll name a child after them. So there's a little girl called Matthew wandering. She's not little, I guess she must be quite big. Actually. Now, she's probably a bit, must be probably a year or two older than my son. So she's probably about 16/17. But so in in response to that my son has the name of the chief, who was the chief at the time I was there. So he's called Rex niver, Baylis,
Because I was wondering, does it come from King? Rex? Or?
Yeah, yeah, that's the that's the origin. Yeah, I think so. It used to be sort of quite popular British name in the 20s.
So this is how it started. And then the different story like backstories of it, I enjoyed the Hasidic Jewish community.
I mean, I was always fascinated with them for a long time, but but I think I probably got a sort of wider fascination with any kind of messianic sort of people who live their lives in expectation of something - I think, is fascinating. Well, I think what's really interesting about them is that there aren't really in London, any other enclaves that are quite so distinct. I think, you know, yes, you can go to South Hall. And there's obviously a very large Asian community, and you'll see shops and but you'll nonetheless see a great deal of other people there, too. It doesn't ever feel like this is you really entered the area, which is X, Y, and Z. It sort of feels more like something you might experience in New York or something where there's a really distinct character to a borough or an
America in general is much more segregated. And you're just like this is so strange coming from London because you don't really find that even in Stamford Hill it is still mixed you know, you have an overall overall sense, but America is a bit different.
We are incredibly lucky to live here. I think particularly particularly in London, I think it's a very tolerant and accepting society compared to a lot of places around the world. And it really is. You certainly shouldn't take it for granted.
The Rex Tracy trilogy? Did you always intended to be a trilogy? Or?
No? No. I mean, I sort of intended it to be one with the potential to write more, that's all. And then we did three. And, you know, at that point, my editor, who is actually now my boss said, well, let's leave it there for now
And we did. Yeah, we did. So and I do have, I do have ideas, but at the moment, I just, I'm just, I'm just trying to pay the bills. So it's, I think, hopefully, you know, within within a year or twos time, I might have carved out a bit of, a bit of spare time for myself and be able to return to it.
But as a screenwriter, because I am convinced it would make a fantastic mini series, like each of the books, please, you know, because I would just love it. You know,
I think on a practical level, it would, if I sort of had my production hat on, I think I could understand why people would not want to do it, because each book has a distinct backstory that usually goes into the past and or goes to another country. So when when you're just, you know, purely thinking about the the money, that makes something very expensive, because it's not just all going to be filmed in Tottenham, you've got to then have the costumes and the cars and whatever,
You can creatively do this differently. One of the people could do a project for school where they're learning about this and telling the story. You don't need, you don't need this.
I think they want the visual matter, though. That's the thing. I think they do. But I mean, yeah, I always felt sort of a bit, sort of, I mean, I've tried my best, I sent it to lots of people. But what I really wanted to get across was, I don't know if you've seen any of the adaptations of the number one, ladies detective agency.
Oh no but I loved reading them as well. Yeah, they're very nice.
They're very nice. And what they did that what those books did, and also what they did with the TV adaptations, was they, they did what we weren't expecting, you know, they showed Africa not as a sort of a forlorn fly bitten place of, you know, rebels and diamond mines and sort of nastiness, but you know, warmth and love and respect and kindness and, and even just on a visual sense, they captured, you know, everything, the wildlife, the sun. And I always thought that would be the real challenge to do that about places like Tottenham, because it is there, just, you know, just as in every other place on earth, people come out of their front door some days, and they look at the sky, and they hear the smell the blossom and see, you know, hear the birds and they say, oh, Isn't it lovely? Because it is, it can be. It does sort of depress me that how, you know, everything's got to be sort of, you know, it's got to be a bit urban and a bit gritty and a bit grimy. And, you know, had lots of people sort of saying, oh, you know, it's all just, it's all a bit too nice. But I don't know, I've kind of had enough of things being nasty.
We are in a time of mourning. And you have a special connection, connection to the royal family through Philip. So, because I read somewhere in an article that you had a poster of Philip, when you grew up
How strange were you as a child?
Yes, I was a little bit strange. I certainly didn't have the standard interests. But, you know, I didn't I mean, I went my own way. And I was, I was fine about it. Yes, I was a great fan of Prince Philip. I think it was partly because I sort of, I think kids are very obsessed with fairness, that's a big thing with them, you know, like everyone's got to be treated equally at something. I think they probably perceive reasonably, that they're not necessarily treated that fairly themselves. And I sort of realized, once I started to find out about him that people weren't sort of terribly fair towards him. It was just sort of even, you know, in the 70s and 80s. It was just oh, he's just a you know, reactionary, all buffoon who happens to be married to the Queen, and you know, he's an idiot, and he's stupid, and he's racist. And it just, I think it rankled with me because I sort of as I think I spent quite a lot of my childhood being sort of seen as something else than I was. So I think it was partly a sort of sympathy with him. And I had to be honest, you know, I know you can sort of say, Well, why would you be sympathetic towards a man who lived in incredible luxury or whatever? Well, because that doesn't really feature that's not really the point is it? It feels ... You know, anyone can feel anyone can be hurt. And I sort of, yes, I kind of felt like we'd be friends. (laughs) me and Prince Philip. And then later I went to study anthropology and one of the things they always teach you in in sort of first year anthropology is about these so called cargo cults, which were sort of movements that began in the late 19th century persisted through the 20th. Something to do with contact between white people and black people in various parts of the world. And also something to do with deep rooted beliefs in those societies also coming up against messianic and other types of beliefs in our society. And I just remember that the lecturer once just very casually saying, oh, yeah, Tanner is the real place to go, because there's one that worships America. And there's another one that worships Prince Philip. And I just thought, Wow, that's amazing, you know, and I tried to find out more, and there really wasn't much about it, you know, that sort of the journalism was sort of very scathing, if not actually openly, scathing towards the people on the island. And they were sort of seen as dupes or sort of, you know, weak minded idiots who had been manipulated, the narrative just all seem very skewed, couldn't see any attempt on the part of anyone to explain what it really was, and what it why it had come about. And I nurtured various ambitions of going there one day, and just it just happened. At some point, I had some spare cash. So I did.
So where about is this island?
It's an island in the South Pacific. It's part of a an archipelago of islands, which are grouped together in the country known as Vanuatu. Now, it used to be called the New Hebrides, and it was jointly run, or rather not run at all by Britain and France.
This How did you get there? How far is it?
It's a long way, it's probably about one of the furthest places you can go. You go to Australia, and then you get a flight from Sydney, to the capital, the main island Port Villa, and then you get a flight or a boat to the small island, and then you get a truck to take you up into the mountains. So yeah, it was a lot of a lot of travel involved a lot of organization.
Did you go once or you returned later?
Once, I would love to go back. But hasn't happened.
Yeah, you gotta take Rex.
Yes, exactly. I know. Yeah, very important.
And can you summarize what you found? Or we have to buy the book?
It would always help. But I think what I discovered was that it had far more to do with them, beliefs they've held for 1000s of years than it had anything to do with us. You know, there's always a tendency, and that is negating them as individuals capable of arriving at their own solution. And I found the same sort of attitude about the book sort of earnest people telling me that, you know, I shouldn't have gone there, and they should be left to their own devices. And, you know, I'm just poking my nose in and, and they're ignoring the fact that it absolutely fundamental part of the belief on Tanna is that they are an immensely significant nation within the world of nations, and that they are drawing people to the island with their particular version of spiritual power. And that by doing so, and forging relationships with people from abroad, they are helping to repair a sort of a rift in creation. And that's a very deeply held long standing belief, and it goes back I'm certain, a long way before Christianity, I think it goes back to essentially the business of surviving in the environments of the South Pacific, where you've got tiny, scattered communities separated in some cases by 1000s of miles worth of sea. So what you've got is an absolute premium placed upon bonds and relationships across large distances is and that's essentially what will underlying the whole business with Prince Philip, you know, it's like, lots of people forged quite meaningful relationships with the Americans in the 1940s, when they came over and used the area as a sort of gigantic airbase. But on Tanna, in that part of Tanna in particular, they thought, well, we're gonna go one better than that. So you've got your, you know, imaginary American airman that you worship? Well, we've got this guy and he's real, and he sends us letters.
Yeah, he's sent them letters. And they've, you know, there's been a continuous there was a continual exchange of, of correspondence and gifts over the years. Yeah. And, you know, that for them really is about, it's about a sort of action on several levels. It's about trying to repair something that's wrong in the whole of creation. And that also adds to their status and prestige on the island, which is a very, very important thing. You know, individual communities are sort of always vying with each other for who has the most clout, who is the most important village and then also in a practical level, something that brings in tourists, journalists, worldwide attention never hurts, you know, there's a sort of a very, very practical element to it, too. You know, it's I think it's not entirely wrong for some people to have seen it. as really a form of local politics. So I think it is partly.
Are you ready for some top tips?
The thing I like to do best is - I mean for me it's a sort of a - it involves going downhill and going back up hill which is a bit awkward but if you are lucky enough to live down on the plains, then it's it's a sort of easier journey but my sort of great treat over a weekend particularly nice sort of just on the verge of autumn weekend's like now is to go off down green lanes and get yourself a picnic. You know, there's some marvelous you know, huge kind of continental grocery stores where you can find you know, stuff from all over the globe. Get yourself some nice flatbread, get yourself some of that lovely bayas paneer white cheese and a can get some nice sausages, whatever Lithuanian beer, take yourself up up to ally pally and look down on the on the scene. I think that's, you know, one of the nicest things you can do for for a Haringey weekend.
An autumnal picnic. Okay, then thank you very much for this interview.
Yeah, well, thanks very much. I really enjoyed it. I'm so glad to finally meet you.
I hope you enjoyed that. So I didn't realize before we started talking that his background is in anthropology. And now it all makes so much more sense and it's really interesting to have this different perspective on the books and in general on his writing. So he is, Matt is not very active anymore on Twitter, he said he finds it a bit depressing but I still link it but he also has a very funny blog, which I will link as well. So with this conversation, I feel like we have kicked off season two and I will be back in October with two episodes which I already recorded. I hope you enjoyed this start to the season and I will speak to you soon. Bye. I hope you enjoyed today's episode, learned something new and let that Tottenham love grow. Take care. And until next time, byyyyye
Rex Tracey, Tottenham detective stories