Interview with John Barber

Published 2020-01-23.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in Camden Town North London. It was then a typically working class area where doors could be left open, you knew all your neighbours and shopkeepers by their first names. My father was a true cockney and my mothers family came from Chiswick, West London and were involved in the care of horses. I was born at the beginning of the post WW2 baby boom and for many of us it was the first time any member of the family had gone to university and with the passing of the 1944 Education Act, stayed on to study into the sixth form. I still consider myself a working class boy despite my education and exposure to all kinds of literature and other academic disciplines. As a consequence at least one character in my novels is based upon this working class but educated background and it manifests itself in speech patterns and attitudes towards the social welfare professions. It is a kind of inverted snobbery. I find that some readers find this confusing and hard to understand and have mentioned that there are sometimes too many English colloquialisms - possibly true but this is how working class educated people often speak. Its a kind of hybrid language of local slang, cockney rhyming slang and more than a passing use of quotations from famous books. My detectives would rather give a local villain a clip round the ear than refer him to a probation officer. They resent the new ways, preferring the old fashioned way of settling disputes with a punch up round the back of the bicycle shed along with the secret cigarette smokers.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
I have had a lot of articles published in mainstream magazines and newspapers. I thought that this experience would help me through the process of attracting the interest of publishers and then agents. I was wrong. It is a long and can be a demoralising process, the rejection slips just kept coming. However back in 2001 maybe earlier the concept of ebooks was to excuse the pun, quite novel. I had written a dark comedy based on my life in a small town called A Little Local Affair. I sent it to a ebook publishing company called Bookbooters.com. I was the only UK author on their books and one of the partners had lived in the same part of North London as myself. The book was published and sold quite well. Then tragically the other partner died in a canoeing accident and the surviving one found the work load too much so the company folded. However I realised the potential of ebooks and the painstaking and often fruitless pursuit of an agent or publisher. My full time job as Town Centre Manager took over my life and my writing took a back seat. However I stabbed away at the keyboard and started to write again in my free time as a way of releasing the stress of the job. Based on my knowledge of the industry it was an easy decision to make to prefer the indie route. Although you may get published you still have to work at your craft and at marketing so it is not as easy as it might seem if you wish to sell plenty of copies.
What are your most recent work(s)
Published in 2019 was the non-fiction title ‘The Mysterious Death of Sarah Stout’. This recounts the events of March 1699 when the daughter of an eminent Hertford brewer was found drowned in the River Lea. Suspicion immediately fell on Spencer Cowper, son of the local MP who was the last person to have been seen with her. I had a very personal interest in this case as Sarah was found in the river only a few yards away from where I live on Folly Island in the middle of Hertford. The murder trial was heard at Hertford Assizes and Cowper along with three of his friends were acquitted. Doubts have always remained over Cowper’s innocence. The trial became famous for many reasons. It illustrated the deep political divisions within Hertford at that time; damning medical evidence was given by doctors who belonged to the opposing political faction from Cowper and his family. The Cowpers were Whigs and held the parliamentary seat despite the overwhelming power of the Tories locally. The Stouts were also prominent Quakers who were a persecuted minority at that time in England. Debate raged as to whether Sarah was pregnant at the time of her death; a full autopsy which was extremely rare in the seventeenth century was inconclusive but rumours soon circulated about Sarah’s morals and social activities in society, quite at odds with Quaker beliefs. The trial heard conflicting evidence from leading medical men on the definition of drowning; was she dead when she fell in the water. The book traces the background of the Stout and Cowper families and with the help of local knowledge the movements of all the participants; along with many local sources, scientific papers and the actual trial records. I cannot offer a conclusive verdict on this case owing to the passing of time but do offer what I believe is a version of events which arrives at a very different conclusion from the history books.

This section was updated in late January 2020 so ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’ will have been published. I have had an interest in ufology since the 1970’s. This novel began as a vehicle to write about Men in Black. Not the Hollywood movie but real figures who dress entirely in black apart from a white shirt and come to intimidate ordinary men and women about their contact with UFOs and aliens. Men In Black are real. The novel is based upon real life accounts recorded by respected investigators. Then real life took over including my love for real ale and the loss of the established English local pub. I incorporated the theme of England’s lost breweries and their historic base in the fields of barley that used to surround small villages, now also disappearing. John Barleycorn must die is a traditional folk song. There are many versions, but all adhere to the original theme that John Barleycorn personifies the cyclical nature of barley; from planting, growing, harvesting and finally roasted into barley to brew beer. It reflects Nature and the cruel stages that new growth must endure to live again. The novel incorporates this, and a property scam involving Chinese businessmen. It begins with the unidentifiable body of a brewery executive and a burned out car on waste land. Some parts of this have been published before in ‘Colours of the Underground’ which has since been edited and re-published.
What's the story behind your latest book?
‘A Little Local Affair’ was originally published in 2002. For a few years it has been offered free and has ben downloaded thousands of time across all distributors. Criticism has been divided by those who enjoyed the mystery, small town life and the quirky humour, and those who found the book too parochial, the names of the characters bizarre and the language too colloquial (see above). The book was an attempt as a satire on life in a small English town. It began with the death of a local politician and businessman who was not much liked but many people preferred him alive than dead owing to a variety of reasons. Each chapter was intended to view the events that followed his death from the perspective of a different character whilst the detective team was left as strangers looking in. I have decided to re-write the book as a conventional police procedural type novel although maintaining my satirical look at town life. Owing to its reliance on a past project it will also be offered free when completed. Not even a working title yet but will certainly appear on Smashwords this year.
How has Smashwords contributed to your success?
I can honestly say that without Smashwords I may not have bothered to continue to write at all. It gives the indie a chance to open doors that were not there say even ten years ago. I have to admit that I do not sell a lot of copies on the site but the extensive distribution network and the support Smashwords gives to both authors and its distributors meant that I would never have been able to reach such a wide audience.
Who are your favorite authors?
Rather than describe the names from my groaning bookshelves it is easier to mention two authors that have had a big impact on me. The first was Jack London with tales of the Gold Rush and those with animals such as The Call of The Wild and White Fang. He knew how to tell a story. Very important as an author. The second is Arnold Bennett who wrote about the Potteries or Black Country in the MIdlands of UK. He wrote in a very simple and descriptive style and brought the area to life. He wrote a book called The Old Wives Tale for which the inspiration was an old bag lady at the end of her days. He wondered what she would have been like as a child and young woman; was she loved and so on. It's a valuable lesson for any author - be a people watcher. I used to sit with a local artist and watch the town go by. You learn a lot about people just by watching; or imagining what their lives were like.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome - a classic of mild and often understated English humour but often showing a insight into the human mind.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne - not a shaggy dog story as some critics have called it but a view of how we interact with each other, make mistakes because of the way we interpret what others say and how time makes us all prisoners.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tresell - a portrait of what it was like to be a working man in 1900 England, especially when work was in short supply and artisans had to take what was on offer. So many people, famous and ordinary have stated this this one book committed them to the cause of the working man.
Call of the Wild by Jack London - the love of a man for his dog and the loyalty and love of his dog to him.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning - working class life in mid 1960's England. How ordinary men lived and loved and fought against being machines even though working for the Raleigh bike factory where men were more accurate than machines.
What is your writing process?
I have a collection of eleven scrapbooks filled with news paper clippings. They have been the starting point for many articles and features that I have had published. They also provide a starting point for many of my plots. Such as Colours of the Underground - how does a dead man appear almost out of nowhere on top of a pile of coal. Once I have the idea I usually do nothing. I let the plot lines and characters build up in my mind such as when watching TV, or in the middle of the night when I can't sleep. I recently discovered that this is not a sleeping disorder but something known to a lot of people as Second Sleep Syndrome. You get an hour or two in between two good sleeps when you are awake and can think about all sorts of things. I use these times to write up notes. Eventually I have enough of the story to start writing and then I just write from line one, chapter one and onwards. I do not know how anyone ever wrote without a word processor! I now go back and forth adding characters, small sub plots, descriptions and so on. What starts as a linear trail becomes a sort of meandering river.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Creating my own universe. It's like an artist with a blank canvas. Once you start characters spring to life, towns and villages get populated and things happen. It's a place I can wander in to and mould whilst watching or not watching TV, or in the small hours when I can't get to sleep. My best plot lines usually come then.
Have you written any non-fiction work
I posted most of my published articles on my web site. Some were concerned with local tourism and variety artists. I was contacted by email by a man who asked me that as I knew so much about Camden Town, what did I know about the Camden Town Murder. I replied that I knew nothing. His great uncle was the victim's common law husband and he was preparing a family history. I soon read up the case - a famous murder in 1907 of a part time prostitute in what was then called St Pauls Road. It later transpired that when my parents married in 1940 they moved in to No.10 Agar Grove (which is the current name of St Pauls Road) and almost directly opposite the house where the murder took place.
My account started life as a short article for the local county magazine as the victim was born in Hertfordshire. It grew to a small self published booklet which I sold in the local Museum , Tourist Office, Library and independent book shop. It was on my web site and people sent me information. The research grew until there was more than enough for a book. I approached a publisher and it was accepted. It was published in hardback, a revised edition with more material as a paperback and last year released as a ebook. It is not available through Smashwords as it was published by a mainstream old fashioned bricks and mortar publisher. They are not that big but they obviously had some faith in me.
You can find success outside of the indie world and I consider myself fortunate to find a supportive editor and publisher. I became good friends with the person that contacted me, I have given presentations on the case to the Metropolitan Police History Society and the Whitechapel Society. The latter are the Jack the Ripper club devoted to all research surrounding the whitechapel murders. At the time I was first contacted Patricia Cornwell had published her book on the Ripper and named Walter Sickert as Jack and as the obvious suspect in the Camden Town Murder as well. I also appeared in a BBC TV documentary. I named one man as the killer and subsequent research has done nothing to change my view, more in confirmation.
So the book has been good to me. The idea of self publishing was given to me by a past Mayor of the town and I suspect that if I could not have found a publisher and Smashwords were around at the time, here is where it would have found a home.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author or publisher.

Latest books by This Author

John Barleycorn Must Die
Series: Inspector Winwood Mysteries. Price: $2.99 $1.50 USD. (50% off until July 31!) Words: 60,310. Language: English. Published: January 24, 2020. Categories: Fiction » Mystery & detective » Traditional British, Fiction » Science fiction » General
DCI Steve Winwood is brought out of retirement to locate a missing MI5 agent. The driver of a car burned in an explosion is thought to be the agent in question. A Chinese businessman reports a property scam fronted by the same man. Winwood encounters the mysterious Men In Black and finally discovers who and what the Underground represent and the terrible secret they are hiding.
The Mysterious Death of Sarah Stout
Price: $2.99 $1.50 USD. (50% off until July 31!) Words: 38,060. Language: British English. Published: November 1, 2018. Categories: Nonfiction » True Crime » Murder, Nonfiction » History » Modern / 17th Century
Murder, Suicide or Accident? What really happened to Sarah Stout on the night of Monday 13th March 1699? One thing is known; she was discovered drowned in the River Lea, Hertford the following morning. Other facts surrounding her disappearance and discovery are shrouded in mystery and local gossip. What is the truth? This book with trial notes will help you decide who was really guilty.
The Naked Cellist
Series: Inspector Winwood Mysteries. Price: $2.99 $1.50 USD. (50% off until July 31!) Words: 55,580. Language: British English. Published: January 21, 2017. Categories: Fiction » Mystery & detective » Traditional British, Fiction » Humor & comedy » Satire
What could possibly go wrong at an Arts Festival? It is not long before the first body is found sitting at a table beneath a painting of a naked cellist. Two more strange deaths occur against a festival backdrop of strange, bizarre, unusual and totally experimental acts. Winwood’s nose for suspecting that dark forces are at work has never let him down before and this case is no different.
The Mystery Professor
Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 6,110. Language: American English. Published: May 24, 2016. Categories: Nonfiction » True Crime » White-collar crime, Nonfiction » Biography » Criminals & outlaws
Peter H Pearse, Professor of Economics at Millersville University Pennsylvania was arrested on 21 March 1983 and charged with false identity. The subsequent investigation discovered that this was not his real name and he taught different subjects in at least five other Universities and had over 34 identities. This is a true story of how his deception was uncovered and his true identity revealed.
When the Dead Rise Up
Series: Inspector Winwood Mysteries, Book 7. Price: $2.99 $1.50 USD. (50% off until July 31!) Words: 40,330. Language: British English. Published: April 21, 2016. Categories: Fiction » Mystery & detective » Traditional British, Fiction » Mystery & detective » Cozy
A black plastic bag found in a gas company trench and containing the skeleton of a Cavalier from the English Civil War is no more than a distraction from the daily grind for Chief Inspector Steve Winwood. But another skeleton discovered amongst the water pipes servicing the town square fountain means that a case of a villain’s disappearance from thirty years previous has to be re-opened.
The Book of Life
Series: Inspector Winwood Mysteries, Book 6. Price: $2.99 $1.50 USD. (50% off until July 31!) Words: 45,170. Language: British English. Published: October 23, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Mystery & detective » Traditional British
Chief Inspector Steve Winwood is called out to the Football Club when one of the directors is found in the supporters bar with his head almost severed from his body. The other directors at the Board meeting saw or heard nothing of an intruder. To solve the case Winwood has to dig deep into the history of its founder and the very strange rules by which the Club is run.
Murder at the Fleetwood
Series: Inspector Winwood Mysteries, Book 5. Price: $2.99 $1.50 USD. (50% off until July 31!) Words: 55,760. Language: British English. Published: June 3, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Mystery & detective » Traditional British, Fiction » Mystery & detective » Cozy
The Murder Mystery Weekend at the Fleetwood Arms Hotel is thrown into chaos when one of the guests is murdered. The guests are members of an amateur dramatic society and they all have solid alibis. Two guests had switched rooms and maybe the dead person was not the intended victim. The investigation switches from one to the other and uncovers the sexual relationships between members of the club.
The Lost Traveller
Price: Free! Words: 7,560. Language: British English. Published: February 18, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Romance » Short stories, Fiction » Romance » Contemporary
When J’s car breaks down outside the village pub Ruth the landlady has no reason to disbelieve his explanation that he was just passing through. They have an instant attraction to the other. Whilst he waits for his car to be repaired J tells Ruth of his career and background. Then the details of his job begin to change and Ruth starts to wonder if J has another reason for staying in the village.
Death, Dying and Disappearing During the 1980's
Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 11,890. Language: British English. Published: September 23, 2014. Categories: Nonfiction » Social Science » Death & Dying, Nonfiction » General reference » Curiosities & wonders
This is a collection of news stories about death and dying. They were assembled by the author from scrapbooks maintained during he 1980’s. They are all true stories however bizarre they may appear. There are tales of death by design, by unfortunate accident, death in the animal world, wills, ghosts and the loss of once common or everyday items. A book to dip into, rather than a long read.
The Fordhamton Trilogy
Series: The Fordhamton Trilogy, Book 4. Price: $4.99 $2.50 USD. (50% off until July 31!) Words: 203,990. Language: British English. Published: September 11, 2014. Categories: Fiction » Mystery & detective » Traditional British, Fiction » Humor & comedy » Black comedy
“Did you hear that, the third most boring town in Britain. This from a place that was covered in green paint, private investigators found dead, sex perverts serving on the council, a plague of vampire bats, sex parlours, mad women going around stabbing cross dressers with hatpins and a man on the loose who became England’s most wanted criminal. I would hate to serve in the town that came first.”
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