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“Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED”

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

 

Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

I’ve found it fascinating watching ‘The Crimson Field’, having researched the same period for ‘We That are Left’. I’ve liked the way the characters personal lives are woven in as an integral part of the story, both bringing them to life, and bringing alive a society that was so different from our own, and yet isstill (just about) within living memory. My dad was born during WW1, and his memories and attitudes were shaped by the experience of a society that had gone through that trauma. They were the attitudes I rebelled against (as you do) as a teenager, but are still there somewhere deep inside as a part of me.

War isn’t just about blood and guts and physical suffering, however terrible they are. The real tragedy, both then and now, is the lives on both sides torn apart, never to be the same again. And then there are the huge changes brought about in a society itself as a consequence of the wider tragedy. Edwardian Britain was changing rapidly before the war. Servants were already preferring to leave service for work in factories where they at least had some kind of life of their own, and women were battling for independence and the right to education and the vote, but it was the war that crystallised these changes, so that the world of 1918 could never go back to that last Edwardian summer of 1913.

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I think my favourite character in ‘The Crimson Field’ has been Kitty, and I’m intrigued to know where they will take her next. It’s hard to remember sometimes that – even until comparatively recently – divorce was almost unthinkable. In Edwardian times it was almost impossible, especially if you were a woman.

This was a world of almost no contraception, and where women’s earning power was almost nothing, and respectability was everything. Add to that the fact that respectable young men and women were not permitted to alone if unmarried,  and  (especially if you were middle or upper class) very chaperoned. So there you were, around eighteen or so, expected to make the biggest decision of your life. One from which, for all intents and purposes, there was no way out. When I look back at myself at 18, the thought scares the living daylights out of me. For my working class grandmother, it would probably have been a question of making sure the young man she loved was responsible and wasn’t the sort to drink his wages away and make free with his fists. Hard to consider amongst all those raging hormones. And besides, people change. My grandfather didn’t drink, or use his fists, but he still left my grandmother in the most appalling position, one that led to her being determined her daughters (born in the 1920s) could earn a living, and has had ramifications down the family. But that’s another story…

For Kitty’s class, it was much the same. However brutal, abusive or manipulative your husband turned out to be, it was your duty to put up with it. Make it better. Keep the illusion that marriage was the happy bedrock of society, with the wise and protective man at its head, the supportive, meek little wife ready be there at the end of his day. One of the few ways of getting a divorce was proof of adultery (although women had to wait until 1923 before they could divorce an adulterous husband).

After the war, with wives and husbands changed beyond recognition by their experiences, many couples found they simply had nothing in common any more. And human beings being ingenious and generally cooperative, many couples all simply beat the system. The form was for the man to do the decent thing. Which meant being the cad and being seen in a hotel with a woman, along with a maid or porter who would testify that they had been in the same room together. Apparently it became such a farce there were even agencies who provided the room and the lady. Then all you had to do was sit there. Or, like Cousin Iris in ‘We That are Left’, while away the hours playing chess.

I’m sure there were many such genuine and rather sad cases as this one from the Liverpool Echo of a woman who had a baby while her husband was away in the war. Echoes of both the first and the second world wars, when the world was turned upside down and no one knew if the next moment might be their last.

(click on the images and they’ll take you to the original newspaper on the British Library Website)

(www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

 

Divorce 1918

Liverpool Echo, December 10th 1918 reproduced thanks to the British Library . Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED‘Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

 

But this one I love. She’s a barmaid who didn’t take to married life in 1904. In 1911, with no children and ‘not taking very kindly to household duties’ (clearly my kind of girl) she simply took matters into her own hands and did a moonlit flit while her husband was away on business, writing to him in 1911: ‘Don’t be foolish over this, because if I returned I would only have to tell you what I am telling you here. I am not returning. Please keep cool about it and say to yourself “she is not worth a thought”.’

And guess what? She sailed off to New York to become a nurse, last heard of in 1914. Divorced on the grounds of desertion from her marriage in 1915.

Now that’s a story for ‘The Crimson Field’!

Divorce 1 1915

Edinburgh Evening News, June 12th 1915. Reproduced thanks to the British Library.  Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED‘Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

 

All Images reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

 

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When I was first trying to get a feel for the world in 1914, I returned to the beautiful Glynllifon Estate, near Caernarfon. I hadn’t been there for years, and it was just as I remembered it, green and magical. The grounds had been created as a miniature world in themselves. There are woodland walks past rushing streams, a secret cave, and even a hermit’s grotto. It was easy to imagine the Victorian and Edwardian inhabitants of the grand house rambling through this secret, fantasy version of a wilderness, lying beneath the shadow of the vast, and in those days, dangerous and inaccessible wilderness, of the mountains of Snowdonia.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile I was catching up with the first episode of ‘The Crimson Field’ this week, I was reminded of Glynllifon. It was this protected, settled world that those three new VAD recruits, like so many of the young women on the front line, had left behind when they set off to face the horrors of the Great War. Okay, maybe not always so grand as Glynllifon, but the with the same opulence and order that had probably changed very little since medieval times. The same protected confidence that the world could be managed through money, status and force of will. The same pre-Raphaelite, daring-do, heroic idealism that had sent their brothers into the trenches to save the world.

The slate amphitheatre

Of course, there were other women, too. Many of them older women of intelligence, energy and ambition, who- like their Victorian mothers – were not content to stay idle and look decorous at dinner parties. These were the women who, behind closed doors and under the safe guise of ‘charity’, had set up, staffed and ran hospitals for the poor – fighting the legacy of extreme poverty and disease among so many of the inhabitants of a rich nation, that was only generally recognised when so many men were found to be unfit to fight.

It was this experience that took many of these women out to use their skills and experience on the front line, including setting up and running their own field hospitals, often in the face of prejudice and non-cooperation. When women first set up an women’s ambulance corps, they were simply laughed at.

 

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I was thinking of all those women, as I returned to the entrance of the Glynllifon estate, and how their lives were changed forever. The grand house is not a museum piece, the nearest you come to it is ‘Yr Iard’, the yard, which houses some of the tools belonging to the vast army of workers who built, maintained and fed this opulence. Theirs is also a story of lives changed forever.

It was this photograph, taken at harvest time 1913, that had me stopping in my tracks.

 

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The last harvest of a world that, on the day the photograph was taken, must have seemed to have lasted forever, and would never end. The last harvest of a lost world. There were terrible injustices and inequalities in that world, and, as a woman, I have no hankering to live there – particularly as my ancestors would have been in the yard rather than the house, and my life would most probably have been one of daily physical drudgery and perilous childbearing, accompanied by the pain of watching many of my children die. But it was – and still is – haunting to look into the eyes of a lost world. And to know, as none of them could have ever foreseen in their darkest nightmares, the fields where the men would be by the time of the next harvest, and the courage and resilience those girls would need to do – as women always do – to pick up the pieces and forge a new world, one that would never be the same again.

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So what does a girl do after finishing the draft of a novel? My garden needed weeding, my house needed hovering and my office need sorting. So I painted the outside of my house.

This is not quite a daunting as it sounds. I live in a stone cottage that has only one upstairs room, which is a tiny ‘crog’ loft under the eaves where I do my writing, so most of it can be reached without even the help of my little stepladder. But I’m still a woman in my mid-fifties, who’s not supposed to embark on such a thing.

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My cottage as it was

Says who?

The thing about writers is that we are creative, used to thinking outside the box, forever coming up with solutions, and as bone-headedly, do-or-die stubborn as they come, or we’d have given up years ago. Besides, there was a cheap offer of masonary paint in a local store, and the existing colour was too dark and doing my head in. Anyhow, it wouldn’t look good in publicity photos, so it was really to do with writing. Unlike cleaning the bathroom and tackling the filing, of course.

The paint was delivered, mixed with a darker colour to give it a bit more warmth, and I began. A bit at a time, pausing for dog walks and lots of cups of tea and the odd piece of cake, naturally. I brushed down the walls but didn’t do masses of preparation. I was aiming for the overall effect, not perfection. You see, my cottage doesn’t do perfection. As the brush swept over the rendering, I thought quite a bit about the people who built my cottage in the 1840s or so. It was originally a row of quarrymen’s houses. Six of them in all, along a slate-paved little street. One has been knocked down, and of the five remaining, three have made one house, and my cottage is two knocked into one. My living room (large but not huge) is one entire cottage. As late as the 1960s, there were no bathrooms, not even running water, but a standpipe for each cottage and a toilet at the bottom of the garden. The gardens were long strips, not for pleasure but to grow as much as the families could on the thin soil to supplement their earnings. True subsistence.

The thick walls of my cottage are built of stone because it was the material at hand. And free. The fact that I could reach to the eaves from the ground is down to that being just enough height for a room. No scaffolding. So in the same spirit, when it came to the one bit I couldn’t reach, I tied two brooms together with a paintbrush on the end. Not perfect, but it worked.

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Finished! (well, almost)

I had a whale of a time painting my house. I proved to myself I could do it and the colour sets off my beloved garden to perfection. My house will never be picture-postcard pretty, but I like it like that. The best thing about it was seeing the transformation in front of my eyes. It’s so hard to see the finished product when writing a book. You go over it again and again, and then again, trying to achieve something that you are never quite sure is there, and your readers are going to see in quite a different light in any case. By the time you finish the edits and the copy edits you never want to see the wretched again, and are already thinking of the next book. Of course you fall in love with it all over again when it appears gleaming and new in your hot little hands. But if you are like me, the first thought is – blimey, did I do that? Can I ever do it again? Supposing they all hate it? Can I run away now?

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My new little party area, all ready for good company!

When I’d finished painting my house, I just sat and looked at it. It wasn’t perfect, there are still bits to be done, but it looked wonderful. All ready for garden parties. And that huge boost of satisfaction sent me back with renewed enthusiasm to the next lot of edits.

So here’s to everyone who built and lived in my little cottage over the past 150 years or so, creatively making the most of what little they had. You’ve given me my mojo back, my friends.

Mind you, if you don’t mind, Wisteria might be a bit grand, but I am considering planting Virginia Creeper any time now…. 🙂

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Bodnant Pool 2013

On May 1st I shall be starting my three month Writers’ Bursary from Literature Wales. Three months in which I will be paid to write. I still have to pinch myself.

Now, I love what I do in my day job. I’ve written before on this blog about  ways my work can inspire and add to my writing. In fact, it was reading an unpublished diary of a young doctor from a local village, as part of  an oral history project on the First World War, that was one of the inspirations for my current book.

It wasn’t the work of a poet, or even meant to be read outside the family. It didn’t even describe the horrors of the trenches. The immediacy came from the entries made as a young man who had never been outside his locality, let alone Wales, setting off to England for his training, and then over to France. There’s the excitement of new places and new experiences, of people cheering them on and of crossing the English Channel for the first time. Then on a summer’s day, walking through French fields, the grenades begin to fall. As part of the project we were working on, we recorded the diary for the Talking Newspaper for the Blind. The descriptions are factual, restrained. There is no attempt to create a picture or create an atmosphere, or even to comment on the horror. By the time my colleague had finished reading, we were in tears.

I don’t want to shut myself in an ivory tower (or ‘crog’ loft, in my case), but I am so looking forward to a few months of not having to fight myself for the time – and most importantly of all –  the headspace in which to write.

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The Bursary is such an extraordinary privilege, I’ve been busily planning everything I’m going to get done in the time. Sitting by my pond last night, watching the newts and the tadpoles and things that looked like wood lice having a right old tussle, I remembered that there was one thing I’d forgotten in all that scheduling. A few things, actually. Meeting up with friends.Tending my poor struggling veg patch (a brain needs spinach, and a heart does nicely on garlic, after all). Getting out and absorbing all the life going on around me. And sitting in any sun going to read. For pleasure. For being so totally absorbed in a story I don’t want it to end. That thing called life. The bit I so often forget about, or feel guilty about doing, or simply put off until another day – and then wonder if my inspiration and enthusiasm flags.

So here’s to life and fiction and inspiration and everything I am going to learn over the next three months.

Let it begin!

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