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Queen of the Macabre: Catharine Arnold.

John Baird
Fri 8 Dec, 2017

Crime, sex, and a fascination with the macabre: meet the Nottingham City Councillor and University Lecturer who also happens to be one of our most successful authors.

Catharine Arnold grew up in Nottingham where she began writing at the age of twelve. Her Nottingham education paved a path to Cambridge University where she read English Literature. By 1987 Arnold had won a Betty Trask award for her first published novel, the literary Lost Time. Following the release of her second book, Changeling, the author returned to Nottingham (from London) and has lived here ever since, initially working on the Nottingham Evening Post.

It was Arnold’s next book that established her as a purveyor of dark history, spawning a popular series of non-fiction centred around death, sex, madness, crime and punishment. Necropolis: London and its Dead began as a biography of Highgate Cemetery and became a 2,000-year study of death in London. Readers were immediately captivated by London’s grisly past. Then came Bedlam: London and its Mad, a history of London’s mentally ill, including how differently the causes of mental illness have been viewed and ‘treated’. Attention turned to London’s sex-industry underbelly - of prostitutes working streets, specialist brothels, trafficking and exploitation - in City of Sin: London and its Vices, which also showed the capital as a venue for those in search of personal sexual liberation. The final book in the quartet Underworld London: Crime and Punishment focused on the history of criminality and retribution, recounting shocking tales of children being executed, innocent men and women being sent to the gallows and gruesome punishments, as well as the stories of those committing evil acts.

The quartet combined history, geography and psychology with individual stories, telling London’s dark histories in a style of which Arnold has said: “On one level, I like to think I’m ‘School of Ackroyd’ working in the field that was pioneered in his London, A Biography. On another, I’m quite content to refer to my books as Horrible Histories for grown-ups!”

“people have said to me ‘oh, why do you always write about death?’ but it’s not a morbid obsession, more of a fascination with a side of life so long ignored during the twentieth century”

The author’s dark side was formed in Nottingham as she has explained: “I grew up in a very Gothic old house, near a cemetery, surrounded by Victoriana and eccentrics, and that’s given me a lifelong fascination with the macabre. Occasionally people have said to me ‘oh, why do you always write about death?’ but it’s not a morbid obsession, more of a fascination with a side of life so long ignored during the twentieth century.”

After digging in London’s dark side, Arnold turned her attention to the story of the building of the first Globe theatre. Globe: Life in Shakespeare's London delved into the events of the late 16th century that made it all possible and casts an eye on Shakespeare’s link with the city. In writing the book, Arnold took advantage of there being so few Shakespeare ‘facts’ by bringing the Bard to life through both his work and the development of Elizabethan theatre.

2017 saw the release of Edward VII: The Prince of Wales and the Women He Loved. It’s the tale of the lifelong womanizer and his lovers, a line of beautiful, spirited, society women who embraced a wide field of occupations. Arnold has undertaken a number of roles herself. The author and lecturer has served as a Nottingham City Councillor for Basford since 2007 and she has been on the boards of Nottingham Playhouse and the National Justice Museum; and she was the city council representative on the Nottingham City of Literature board. The author remains passionate about Nottingham as a literary land and lists Lord Byron, Miranda Seymour and Niki Valentine as her favourite Notts writers.

The next of her titles is due out in Britain on January the 25th, with a talk at Nottingham Waterstones pencilled in for the following day. The book, Pandemic 1918 The Year of Spanish Flu, was particularly demanding to complete. Arnold said: “It’s been a tough book to write, very upsetting. I wanted to tell the story of the Pandemic – such a horrific tragedy – through hundreds of personal testimonies. Only that way can the true horror be brought to life. Also, my father’s parents both died in the epidemic. His bereavement left him with a lifelong depression and a need for reassurance nobody could ever give. I was fascinated, if that’s the word, about how trauma can linger through the generations.”

Psychological themes seem to run through all of Arnold’s books, perhaps not surprising given her interest in the subject in which she has a degree. This will no doubt continue as plans for a return to publishing fiction are also in motion with a stand-alone psychological thriller, entitled From Out of Nowhere, due with her agent in the New Year. She’s also hoping to revisit a ‘Nottingham’ novel from the 1980s plus other unpublished thrillers from the Noughties. 2018 promises to be another busy year.  


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catherine arnold nottingham pandemic writers

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