Bertha banging her own drum

A photo of Bertha banging her own drum? Nah, nah, nah, it ain’t ’er, I tell yeh...

A good number of reviews for Octopus have come in from LibraryThing Early Reviewers who are new to my work, and I am truly gratified and not just a little relieved to see that most seem to have taken young Gooseberry to their hearts. To quote just some of my favourites:

For those who hanker for a whodunit played out in the streets of Victorian England, this is a must read. Follow the footsteps of protagonist Octavius through the narrow lanes that harbour cut throats, confidence men, thieves and just plain odd characters that sport Dickensian names.

I love Victorian mysteries in general and Sherlock Holmes in particular…Gooseberry could perfectly be the leader of the “irregulars” of Baker Street.

Historical fact is deftly combined with fiction that makes Octavius’s world a new form of old London that I am eager to visit again. Pour some tea or a wee dram, put your feet up, and enjoy cover to cover.

You’ll find these reviews in full in Octopus Reviews, plus many, many more besides. While people have clearly fallen under Gooseberry’s spell, you may be not be surprised to learn that Bertha regularly merits a mention too. Here’s what some of my new readers have said of her:

I particularly enjoyed the cross dressing flower seller, Bertha, who is treated as just another character and not made to be a caricature.”

I especially appreciated the inclusion of Bertha and the narrator’s complete acceptance of his/her gender identity. You don’t often find books set in contemporary times where that is the case so it was especially refreshing to see such acceptance and support in Victorian London.

But perhaps my personal favourite is this:

I LOVED Bertha/Bertram. I wanted to be her friend.”

And what a great friend I think she’d make! Bertha is generous, resourceful, and quite the dab hand at soup-making. She can be surprisingly prudish or really quite salty in equal measure, and you can never be sure which one will come out. She has highly developed mothering instincts and will fight tooth and claw for those she sees as family. Money is important to her—money is important to everybody, but more so to her, for she has known times of real hardship—so I was pleased to have been able to give her both prestige and financial security by the end of book 2 (though—and this is not really a spoiler—the start of book 3 finds her temporarily strapped for cash). She was even nominated for Villain of the Year in a book-award competition on Facebook by a reader with a very wry sense of humour (hint: she was not the book’s villain). And she made it through to the final round of voting! But where did she spring from exactly? How did I come to create her? Here is the very first mention of her in Gooseberry, the forerunner to Octopus:

‘Of course, I could be wrong,’ Mrs Merridew admitted, ‘but I honestly don’t think that I am. You see, although I couldn’t say why exactly, I was truly fascinated by the creature. There was something utterly compelling about her that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.’
A picture was already beginning to form in my mind. ‘What colour was her hair?’ I asked. ‘And how was she dressed?’
‘Coarse, dark brown shoulder-length hair, parted in the middle and pulled back into a bun,’ the aunt reeled the description off excitedly, her distrust of me temporarily forgotten. ‘Yellow cap and ribbons instead of the usual headscarf affair. A light-grey blouse, which hung from her shoulders like a sack, and a tattered, dark-grey skirt. A filthy red shawl, one end of which she held across her mouth, I imagine to try to hide her scars.’
‘I remember the shawl,’ Mrs Blake agreed, her nose wrinkling up at the thought. ‘I wouldn’t put it anywhere near my lips.’
‘Broad-shouldered? Arms like hams?’
‘Why, yes, Gooseberry; that’s right.’
‘And softly spoken?’
‘So softly spoken I could hardly make out anything she said,’ Mrs Blake replied. ‘Aunt Merridew had to ask the price of the posy several times.’
The old lady nodded in agreement.
‘She kept her eyes averted? Never once looked at you directly?’
‘Gooseberry? Do you know her?’

And it turns out that Gooseberry does. It is, of course, Bertha, whom he knows to be a man. Bertha is one of the most endearing and beloved characters I’ve ever had the pleasure to write—and believe me, writing her is a pleasure. I sit slumped at the keyboard with my eyes narrowed, adopting a faintly puzzled, mistrustful expression; my voice drops by about an octave and takes on the Cockney accent of one of my friends...and out flows Bertha. I can barely type fast enough to keep up. Although it seems unthinkable to me now, I originally planned on having someone very different fill the role, a role that I imagined would be a very minor one: villain Johnny Knight’s girlfriend, who still pops up, but now as the girl selling pencils in the Thames Tunnel.

It would have happened, too, were I not in the habit of having a glass or two of wine in the evenings while I reflected on the day’s work. I had just finished writing the opening chapter of Gooseberry (which was written and published week by week on the fly without the benefit of a predetermined plot), and suddenly the thought came to me, why not make her a man? Another glass, and the idea seemed slightly less ridiculous. Though it still felt like a risk, the whole venture was risky. On the upside, it gave me a character of my own to develop and nurture (many of the characters, including Gooseberry, were taken from Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone), someone with a bit of heft who could come to the aid of the boy detective when necessary. And so Bertha was born.

My team at the launch party for Octopus

Writers often create back-stories for their characters, a lot of which may never make it on to the page, but is useful for determining how they will react in certain situations. So what can I tell you about Bertha that you don’t yet know? She’s somewhere in the vicinity of forty years old; she was born to elderly parents; she and her mother suffered abuse at the hand of her father; her father disappeared in mysterious circumstances the year Bertha turned fifteen; I think her mother is still alive; her father is most definitely not.

Is Bertha based on a particular person? No, although I have borrowed certain mannerisms and qualities from various acquaintances of mine, both men and women, none of whom are cross dressers as far as I’m aware. Which leaves one tantalizing question to be answered: who do I see playing her on the big screen? I found myself watching Great Expectations with the wonderful Gillian Anderson again recently, and suddenly there she was, Bertha, fully formed, in the guise of the British actor Ray Winstone, who is usually cast as East End villains and hard men. I think he would be ideal in the role, don’t you?

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