Bill Rogers captures the darker side of Manchester in his crime novels. We met at the Portico Library and he told me about the inspiration he draws from Manchester and how he has found success as a self-published author. Interview date: October 2015.
Aidan O’Rourke: Tell me about your connection with Manchester.
Bill Rogers: My connection with Manchester started in 1963. I had been born in London within the sound of Bow bells, and had spent all my life in and around London, but in 1963 at Saint Mary’s College Twickenham, I met a Lancashire Lass from Tyldesley, and later that year headed North to meet her family.
I stepped out of the station in Manchester into a smoggy, grimy, dark, almost foreboding city. The car wended its way past Mosley Common Pit where her uncle was the manager, and into Tyldesley with its five working mines and cathedral-like red brick cotton mills. it was a world I had only glimpsed in Charles Dickens’ novels.
It was massive culture shock, but I immediately fell in love with the people, and with the food! It was Christmas time, and as we went from terraced house to terraced house I found myself plied with strange yet enticing delicacies such as meat and potato pie, Lancashire hot pot, black pudding, and fried Lancashire cheese with bacon.
No surprise then, that when we finished college we bought a house in Standish, Wigan, behind a slag heap. before moving to Bolton. I have now lived in Greater Manchester for 43 years.
Angel Meadow ‘ Location in the crime novels of Bill Rogers
Aidan O’Rourke: And your career was in education?
Bill Rogers: Yes. I taught in London briefly, in Chorley, and in Wigan. My subjects were English and History, Games and PE. I was a Senior Pastoral Tutor at a St John Rigby Sixth Form College in Orrel, Wigan. I was Deputy Head and Head of Sixth Form at Saint Mary’s RC High School, Astley.
After 22 years of teaching I went into the Inspectorate in Manchester as a District Inspector, and over the course of the next 18 years I worked across the whole of the City of Manchester, ultimately as Principal Inspector and the Head of the School Improvement Service. My work took me to every part of the city. I think I’ve been into every school and educational establishment in every part of the city, from pre school to University, and everything in between.
That’s one of the ways in which I came to appreciate the city, came to know it intimately, the people as well as the places.
Aidan O’Rourke: Tell me about your connection with the police service.
Gorton Monastery ‘ Location in the crime novels of Bill Rogers
Bill Rogers: I’m steeped in the police service. I come from four generations of Metropolitan police officers. My great grandfather came over from Kerry and ended up as a Station Sergeant in the East End. My grandfather was a founder member and Head of the Flying Squad. He was at the siege of Sidney Street as Winston Churchill’s bodyguard. My father was a PC during the war in London and my sister was a WPC in London. You could say that I was the one that got away!
How are you inspired by Manchester and how does that manifest itself in the books and stories?
They say you should write about places you know and people you know, and I came to really love Manchester as a city. I was born in a city, I love London and still do, but Manchester is where I’ve lived for the bulk of my life, and I’ve been inspired by the way in which the city has changed. I taught Economic History and so I understood about the Industrial Revolution and the part that Manchester, and Greater Manchester played in all of that. The evidence is all around you. I was fascinated by the industrial archaeology of it.
But more than that, it was the way in which the city has transformed itself that has fascinated me. When I started working in Manchester we had a very left-wing administration. I lived and worked through the way in which the administration changed, whilst managing to stayed true to its socialist principles. It has grasped the potential of the New, and remodelled this city, physically, culturally, and economically. In the main it’s been successful, Manchester is rightly regarded as The UK’s second city.
In that time I’ve seen many changes. The Crescents in Hulme for example were infested with drugs, crime and poverty, and immediately post the Moss Side riots I visited schools and parents who felt isolated and under threat. As in much of the city demolition and regeneration has changed the physical and emotional landscape. Largely, but not exclusively, for the better. Being part of these changes inevitably provided ideas and inspiration for my novels.
During those 18 years I worked very closely with Greater Manchester police and the Chief Constable on initiatives to do with combating crime affecting young people, in particular knife crime, street robbery, drugs and gang membership. We introduced the first Police Schools Liaison Officers in the country. An initiative that is still going, and which lot of places have copied. I’m proud of that.
Manchester Bootle St Police Station Oct 2004
Aidan O’Rourke: What’s the name of your main character and where did he come from?
Bill Rogers: DCI Tom Caton. He is probably the police officer I would have been if I’d followed the rest of my family into the Police. There is a lot of me in him. He is accused of being too politically correct, but that’s what I had to be in Manchester. In a way, I would have been like that by choice. He finds it difficult to an extent, being a straight copper. He isn’t Rebus. He isn’t drunk and disillusioned and miserable and depressed. He is in quite a good place now that he’s married, and has a child. He’s got a lovely team around him, and I quite admire him!
Aidan O’Rourke: Which are the most important locations in the books?
Bill Rogers: All of them are important. Let’s take The Cleansing, which was the first DCI Tom Caton novel, published in 2009. That begins in St Johns Gardens at the back of Deansgate. And all of the subsequent settings in the city, like New Broom Street and the New Broom sculpture in the Northern Quarter, the Gay Village, Manchester Town Hall are of particular significance within the city. They also have a special meaning for the perpetrator, and also in relation to the way in which the city has developed.
Chinatown features very very strongly in the Tiger’s Cave, which is about Chinese gangs,Triads, working within the city. Castlefield figures partly because it’s where Tom Caton had his first apartment at the beginning of the series, and partly because there are a couple of crime scenes and other developments in the area. Salford Quays figures in several of the novels, The Head Case in particular. The Monastery and Friary of Saint Francis in Gorton figures quite strongly in one of the novels. I could just go on and on. In every part of the city you could mention, there is going to be a crime scene, which I have then put in the book of walks around the city, based on the novels.
Castlefield ‘ Location in the crime novels of Bill Rogers
Aidan O’Rourke: And how important is the Manchester setting for your readers?
Bill Rogers: It was really important for me personally. I felt the books had to be anchored by a deep sense of place. I am relieved and delighted to discover that the majority of people who read all of my books do so partly because they love reading about the city, about the settings, especially those who used to live in Manchester and no longer do. Expats in Australia, Canada, America, even Europe, even Scandinavia will email me and say ‘I love the way you wrote about Moss Side” or Hulme or Gorton or Wythenshawe or north Manchester or Middleton’ ‘I remember going to the Rylands Library when I was young” So yes, it’s very important. The city is another character in my novels, as important as the protagonist.
Aidan O’Rourke: You are very successful as a self-published author. Do you think there are advantages to self-publishing in comparison to traditional publishing?
Bill Rogers: There are clear advantages. The most significant is that you have total freedom in terms of what you write and how you publish it. On the other hand, You have to take responsibility for editing, proofreading and so on. But you have the freedom to write what you want to write, when you want to write, to conclude when you want to conclude, to start again when you want to, and not be driven by timetables. I don’t have to pay 15% to an agent; I don’t have to pay a publisher; I get all of the royalties that I’m entitled to without anybody taking a slice. And yes, I love the freedom.
But on the other hand, I have just received an offer from a major publisher who has asked me to write a spin off series for them, whilst continuing to self-publish the DCI Caton series myself. If I accept, I know that I will have to make sure that the constraints of the publisher’s timetable do not begin to impact on my freedom and my creativity. You have to balance those out.
Aidan O’Rourke: You have made a success of being an independent, self-published author and you are earning royalties though your creative work?
Bill Rogers: Yes, I have, and I’m earning considerably more than the average writer in Britain, and more than some published authors, and I feel very very lucky and quite privileged. But I’ve worked hard.
Bill Rogers ‘ Caton’s Manchester book cover
Aidan O’Rourke: How many books are there in the series, now?
Bill Rogers: Thirteen now, ten of them in the DCI Tom Caton series. Nine of them are complete, and the tenth is underway at the moment. And I’ve written another one in the spin-off series the publisher requested.
Aidan O’Rourke: How long will you keep writing?
Bill Rogers: For as long as I am still able to and people continue to tell me that that they enjoy reading what I write. I’ve discovered that creativity is a kind of addiction. But like all addictions it has to be controlled, and my Lancashire Lass and I have another life firmly rooted in reality!