Interview with Jasper Blackwood
One of the stars of The Clearwater Mysteries written by Jackson Marsh
The Clearwater Mysteries are set between 1888 and 1890. Viscount Clearwater is a philanthropist who fell in love with Silas Hawkins, a street-rat renter, and is the fifth richest titled man in the country. He is also extremely liberal, and because of his wealth and way of life, he often finds himself the victim of blackmail, attempted assassination, and other dangerous situations. Through the series, he gathers a ‘crew’, some gay, some not, but all loyal, and each with their own skills. By the time we meet Jasper Blackwood, Clearwater has unmasked the East End Ripper, and between them, his crew has prevented murder, conducted rescues, and cracked a series of twisted mysteries. Jasper’s contribution to the crew is his incredible musical talent, a talent that will come to the fore in the tenth book in the series.
First a short introduction – where do we first meet Jasper, a quick background.
We first meet Jasper Blackwood on page 164 of ‘Artful Deception’, book six in The Clearwater Mystery Series. James Wright revisits Kingsclere House, and the back door is opened ‘by a youth with a black eye.’ James thinks him no more than 15 years old, when in fact, he is seventeen. Jasper, like other servants at Kingsclere, suffers at the bullying hands of the Earl.
At the end of ‘Artful Deception’, James has arranged for Jasper and another servant from Kingsclere to come and work at Clearwater House, thus rescuing him from a hellish existence. Jasper started out as a minor character there to highlight the evils of a bullying master but quickly worked his way into my heart to such an extent that he is one of the principal ‘Clearwater Crew from book seven onwards.’ In fact, he is one of the heroes of the final book in the series, ‘The Clearwater Inheritance’, due out later in 2021.
What is your full name? Do you have a nickname?
My full name is Jasper Blackwood, and I knew no other until I came to Clearwater House. There, Mr Andrej, the coachman, calls me ‘Pianino’ because he gives everyone nicknames. He is from Ukraine and tells me that Pianino means ‘little piano.’ He calls me that because I am not very tall and I play the piano. Now, just about everyone, including Lord Clearwater, call me Pianino, and I like it because it shows that they like me.
Where and when were you born?
I didn’t know where or when I was born until Lord Clearwater investigated my one possession, a book of Old English folksongs that I have always had. It turned out I was born in Paris in 1871 to English parents. I don’t remember any of that, of course, and I always believed I was born in a workhouse because that was where I was brought up before I was taken into service at Kingsclere House.
Where do you live now, and with whom?
I am now a member of Lord Clearwater’s staff. This means, when I am needed in London, I live at Clearwater House, and when he is living at his country house, I move there, and so I also live at Larkspur Hall, near Bodmin in Cornwall. His Lordship likes to keep his ‘crew’, his core staff, nearby, so I have to travel with them, which I don’t mind at all. I am lucky enough to have my own room (with its own bathroom and a piano!) at Clearwater House, and this is opposite Billy, my ‘special friend.’
Things are different at Larkspur Hall, and we can’t be so close. Both houses are big and grand, but the Hall is massive with 16 bedrooms and their suites, and over 50 rooms in the main house alone. Because of the way His Lordship likes his houses run, I spend some time above stairs as he and Mr Payne have given me a responsible job.
What is your occupation?
I am His Lordship’s assistant housekeeper. I know it is a very unusual job for a man to do, but he says I am so precise in my work that I would be wasted as a hall boy, which is what I was, or even as a footman. (A hall boy is like a servant to the servants.) My job, with Mrs Norwood in London and Mrs Baker at Larkspur, is to keep the house running. We supervise the maids, the laundry, the cleaning and house-care, and sometimes help the cooks.
Looking back into the past, how would you describe your childhood?
I was brought up in a workhouse, first in Lambeth and later in Kingsclere (Hampshire). For some reason, I was well looked after by the Master who ran both workhouses, and so I got some schooling. It was mainly a busy life with some school and lots of work, and we didn’t get much time to play or be away from the workhouse. I was taken to church every week, and I didn’t mind that because I got to sit and listen to the music. It was there that I first played the church organ, and after that, when I went to work at Kingsclere House when I was about eight, the housekeeper, Mrs Jenkins, taught me to play the piano. She was very kind to me, and so was Mr Holt the footman. These were my only two friends until I came to Clearwater House when I was nearly 18. The workhouse was hard at times, but Kingsclere House was harder still, with lots of dirty work and beatings from the master when anyone did anything wrong. I was pleased to leave there.
What do you consider the most important event of your life so far? Can you pinpoint a defining moment?
Gosh, that was clearly the day I came to work at Clearwater House. As soon as we got there, Harvey (that’s Mr Holt) and I were measured up for uniforms and then taken upstairs because His Lordship wanted us all to have lunch together. I mean, I was a hall boy, but there I was, invited into the dining room to meet the men and sit down to eat with them. I didn’t know what to do, so Mr Hawkins had to show me, and I was so hungry and tired, I fainted. Luckily, Mr Wright caught me, and His Lordship was worried, not angry. After that, he gave me this important job with a proper wage, and soon after that, he investigated my book of songs and somehow worked out who my parents were. I think, though, the defining moment was when I met Sir Arthur Sullivan, and he agreed to be my piano tutor.
Something a little more personal, when did you have your first kiss, and who with?
Um, well… I shouldn’t talk about this, but I trust you, so I can tell you. My first real kiss was with Billy, behind the stables at Clearwater House. We were both 18, and neither of us knew what to do, so it was a bit messy. He’s got a soft moustache which made my top lip tickle, and we were so desperate to kiss each other, we nearly knocked each others’ teeth out.
Who has had the most influence on you?
Several people. Lord Clearwater, because he has shown me what it means to be valued and trusted. Mr Wright, because he has become like a big brother and looks after everyone. Mrs Norwood, because she has taught me housekeeping and how to be myself. Sir Arthur because he guides my piano playing. I suppose I should say all of His Lordship’s crew because we all work together and have a shared understanding of ‘one for all.’
What is your biggest secret? Does anyone else know about this?
I have two, but I can’t tell you one of them (the identity of my real parents) because I swore I never would. The other, I can trust you with as I have already told you. I am in love with Billy Barnett and, when we are at Clearwater House, we kind of live together, and we sleep together. This, of course, is against the law, but no-one knows outside of the house, and no-one suspects, and even if they did, His Lordship would sort them out because he knows my secret and cares about us. Obviously, Billy’s parents don’t know about us, and nor do many of the staff at Larkspur Hall, but that is fine. We don’t make a fuss about it, and we hide our affection when in public. Behind closed doors, however… Well, I leave that to your imagination.
Who is the most important person in your life, why?
Billy, obviously. Why? Because with him, I can be myself. We are opposites, really. Billy is what they call a Cockney, or at last, he pretends to be, and he is really good at building things and mending things. He invents things as well. Mainly, he talks with a bit of a rough tongue and swears a lot, even with His Lordship (but only because that is how he is). I am quieter, and my head is usually filled with music and laundry orders. I am more gentle than he is as well, but if anyone tried to harm him, I would leap on them and batter them with something. That would likely be a book of Bach preludes or something, but I am prepared to fight for my man as much as I am for any of our ‘crew.’
Have you ever been in love?
Oh, dear. Well, I first fell in love with one of the stable hands at Kingsclere House when I was about sixteen, but that came to nothing because I didn’t dare do anything about it. When I was nearly 18 and I came to Clearwater House, Mrs Norwood arranged for someone to take me to church so I could hear the music, and this young man, my age, turned up one Sunday morning. I answered the back door and took him by surprise. He was raising his bowler hat but tripped on the step like a comedy turn and made me laugh. Billy was always falling over things, though he’s getting better at not doing that now. He sings beautifully, which is in marked contrast to the way he speaks, and… Well, I don’t know what it was, but as we listened to the music in church, I knew there was something special about him when I heard him sing.
It was difficult to start with because neither of us dared say anything, but when we were finally able to say what we felt, well… That was it, really. We’ve only been together a few months, but because of how we are treated by Lord Clearwater, we have lots of time together, and everything is as wonderful now as it was when we first kissed.
What makes you laugh?
Billy when he comes out with something inappropriate. For example, recently, Lord Clearwater asked him if he could mend a chair because something had happened, and one of the legs was wobbly. His Lordship said that if someone sat on it too heavily, the seat might break, and the person would end up being stabbed by the chair leg. Billy said, ‘Blimey, Sir, that would really bugger a man up,’ and His Lordship said, ‘Which is exactly what we want to avoid, Barnett.’ Billy said, ‘I don’t know, Sir. I don’t mind a bit of buggery,’ and His Lordship spat out his coffee.
We can only speak like that around His Lordship when the time is appropriate, but that’s a rule Billy never seems to remember. Mr Andrej also makes me laugh because he suffers no fools and says what he feels, but really, I don’t laugh much. I am too busy thinking of my music and what cleaning materials we need to replace.
How do you think others would describe you?
I’ve been described in all kinds of words. Lord Clearwater calls me ‘An intense bundle of talent,’ whatever that means. Mrs Norwood says I am too finickity for my own good because I like things just so, but that’s good for the housekeeping and for my music. Billy says I’m ‘away with the fairies’ half the time, but also ‘Bloody handsome with a gorgeous kipper, big muttons and bottles that stick out’ just the way he likes. Translated, that means I’ve got a nice kipper and plaice (face), big mutton pies (eyes), and my ears stick out (bottle of beer, ear). Often, I find it easier to understand a Chopin étude than I do Billy Barnett.
And some fun questions so finish off, what is your most treasured possession?
My music. Mainly, a songbook I was given when I was born and that was looked after by the Master at the workhouse and later, Mrs Jenkins, the housekeeper at Kingsclere. It was this book that interested Lord Clearwater and led him to discover who my parents are. I no longer play from it, but I keep it in my room in a special place. I have other music now, and that I keep in a leather music case that Billy gave me on my 18th birthday. That is my second most treasured possession, and it goes everywhere with me.
What in on your nightstand?
At the moment, I have a copy of Liebesträume by Liszt because I am working on the pieces with Sir Arthur. I read music before I go to sleep because I have the ability to memorise it. Mr Hawkins says I have a memory like a camera, and maybe that’s true, but I have always been able to hear a piece and reproduce it from memory. It’s like my brain conducts sound to my fingers without me having to think too much. I am also working on Liebesträume because it means ‘Dreams of Love’, and that’s what I do on nights when Billy isn’t snoring beside me.
Who would you most like to spend an evening with?
At Clearwater House, I spend my evenings with the people I have come to think of as my family. Mr Andrej and his lady, Mrs Roberts, our cook, are usually there in the servants’ hall. Billy, of course, and Harvey who is, I suppose, my oldest friend. Mrs Norwood used to be a teacher, and she helps me with my reading and writing, and sometimes, on the best nights, Mr Wright and Mr Hawkins come down from upstairs and tell us what cases they are investigating. These evenings are the best, though we’re also working at the table, and Harvey disappears to dress His Lordship, Mr Andrej has to take the carriage out, and Mrs Roberts is usually swearing in the kitchen, but it is the closest I come to time with a family. It would only be improved if someone like Mozart was able to join us, but I imagine the language would be a problem, as none of us speaks German.