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I have just come back from beautiful Pembrokeshire and the Narberth Book Fair, organised by fellow Honno Press Authors Judith Barrow and Thorne Moore.

Last year, the book fair was in Tenby, so it was exciting to meet in a new venue and a new location. Sadly, there was no sea, but Narberth turned out to be a vibrant place – and there’s even a ruined castle!

The fair itself was bustling, with such a varied selection of authors, including plenty of us representing Honno Press. I had great fun talking to readers and other writers, as well as helping Carol Lovekin celebrate the publication of Snow Sisters – and grabbing a signed copy into the bargain.

It was definitely inspirational to have a day buzzing with books, and to meet up with fellow authors afterwards for even more book talk! Writing is such a solitary business, it’s always great to have a get together and exchange ideas.

It’s a long drive from Snowdonia to Pembrokeshire, so my adventures did not end with the book fair. The following day I took refuge from the rain in the dome at the Botanical Gardens of Wales, with its fascinating collection of plants. Not a bad place to have a Greek Salad in Mediterranean surroundings, while the Welsh rain does its thing outside!

I couldn’t quite leave Pembrokeshire without going to Tenby. By the time I got to the B&B, the sun was shining, so I spent the evening wandering through the walled town and along the beach, watching the surfers as the tide came in and the harbour lights come up as the light faded.

The final morning was also clear and sunny, so I headed off to Colby Woodland Gardens, a little inland from Tenby, with its atmospheric walled garden and miles of woodland walks.

A book fair with good company, sea and gardens – I’m already looking forward to next year!

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As I now live in beautiful Snowdonia, in North Wales, I always feel a bit sad that conventional wisdom states that no one wants to read stories set in Wales. So I’m delighted that my alter ego, Heather Pardoe, currently has a historical serial set in Llandudno, just up the coast from me, and famous for its connection with Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland.

‘Together We Stand’, currently being serialised in ‘The People’s Friend’, the longest running weekly women’s magazine, is a serial that I (or rather Heather) had great fun writing, with a suffrage ladies’ tearoom, an intriguing inheritance and a touch of low-down skullduggery reaching back to the Crimean War.

The view from the pier

It’s funny where your ideas come from as a writer. I’d been toying with the idea of the picture wagon (an early mobile photographic studio that has been used by one of the first war journalist in the Crimean war) on and off for years. When I trained as a photographer in London, it was (I have to confess) before the days of digital, when we used studio cameras that had changed very little from 1904, when the serial is set, and it was darkrooms and chemicals and never being quite sure what you had taken until the print began to develop in front of your eyes.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my digital SLR, and I never go anywhere without my little compact camera in my bag, and I wouldn’t go back to using those eczema-inducing chemicals if you paid me. But it has left me with a fascination of just how such unwieldy cameras were used. So it’s no coincidence that Tanni, the heroine of ‘Together We Stand’ is left an inheritance that encourages her set to up as a studio photographer, just as Bea, the heroine of my novel ‘The White Camellia’ becomes one of the first female photojournalists, covering the campaigns of the suffrage movement in London.

Unlike Bea, Tanni doesn’t have to dodge the police when using her camera, as 1904 was before the more militant campaigns began. But she does have her own brush with danger, and an unknown foe who is determined to prevent her from succeeding, all against the backdrop of Llandudno and the Great Orme, which I had great fun in researching.

The other inspiration for ‘Together We Stand’ was a night I spent in one of the old hotels on the edges of Llandudno, where I’ve placed the guesthouse in the story. The hotel was old and atmospheric, and from my tiny room at the top I had a view of the bay. I’m usually dashing round Llandudno, or taking my dog for a walk round the Orme, so it was a real treat to simply be able to wander around in the evening, and parade along the pier, searching out the locations (including the pier) that play a vital role in ‘Together We Stand’. That night, there was a stunning full moon over the bay – a truly magical memory!

The view from my room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So now I’ve set historical serials in Coed y Brenin, famous for its cycling trails and its goldmine, in Conwy, famous for its medieval town wall and castle, and in Llandudno. Time, I think, to start looking for another great Welsh location.

Mind you, I had a wonderful time last year in picturesque Tenby

 

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When I first read Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, many years ago, it scared me witless. Watching the recent adaption for TV through my fingers, I’ve found it even more unnerving. After researching the conditions for women in Victorian and Edwardian England the world of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ feels all too recent and too real, and the rights women have won all too precarious.

But I’ve also learnt about an amazing heroine, and a courageous group of women who, although powerless, without even a legal existence of their own, fought the many injustices of such a system, and won.

 

If you’d asked me a few years ago about Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the suffrage movement in the UK, and now the first woman to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square in 2018, I wouldn’t have had a clue. I’d vaguely heard the name, but until I began researching for ‘The White Camellia’ I’d never (to my shame) thought to find out more about her, or even the difference between the suffrage movement and the suffragettes. Although main story of ‘The White Camellia’ centres on a crumbling mansion in Cornwall, and a feud that has torn two families apart, one of the characters becomes an early female photojournalist who finds herself inadvertently drawn into the transition point between the suffragists and the suffragettes.

It was when I began researching the background for Bea’s story that this new and riveting story of the suffragists had me transfixed. It’s a history that’s barely noted, but it is one of women (many proudly supported by the men in their lives) successfully outwitting, out-arguing, and out-manoeuvring politicians to establish so many of the rights we take for granted today.

What is even more remarkable is that when they began their campaign, around the 1860s, these women had no legal existence whatsoever. They were the property of fathers, then husbands. Even the richest woman lost any rights over her money and property once married, and even after a divorce, all her earnings still went to her husband, whose only obligation was to keep her out of the poorhouse (as in, the responsibility of the state).

 

It’s a long and fascinating story, of working-class girls risking everything to fight for a living wage for their work, for education and training. Of middle class women fighting for the right to take a degree and follow a profession, and proving such things didn’t send them mad or shrink their wombs to nothingness. Of the right for a woman to keep her children after a divorce, instead of being forced to flee abroad or lose contact with them forever. Of a recognition that prostitution was not a means of idly living in luxury, but rather a result of desperation and abuse, and of pitiful pay that forced even fully employed and skilled women to resort to the most desperate of measures to survive.

The suffragists were supported by many leading figures of the day, including Florence Nightingale (whose pioneering use of statistics to prove a point was adopted by many of the suffragist campaigns), Josephine Butler, and pioneering doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

And then there was the question of the vote, as underlying the position of women as rational human beings, rather than as being childlike, in need of guidance and protection. Again, I had no idea that, until the 1860s, very few men had the vote, or that the battle was such a long-fought one for both sexes, with the argument only finally won in 1928, when all men and all women achieved the vote. That’s a long time ago – but still within living memory, which, in the context of all of human history, is no time at all.

Single women (the only women subject to paying tax) braved the bailiffs being sent in, under the banner ‘No Taxation without Representation’, and the campaign gradually moved the idea of women voting from being laughable to MPs (all male, voted in by men) voting twice for women to have the vote, the first being passed by 100 votes, and the second private member’s bill in 1911 by 255 for to 88 against. Okay, so both times the democratic process was overturned, but that also puts quite a different slant on the direct action of the suffragettes. Women didn’t start their campaign for the vote by throwing stones and chaining themselves to railings, but such actions (along with the destruction of property) were the furious response to the democratic process being denied. Whether you agree with direct action or not, men have been known to have a similar reaction, too – and no one ever called them a bunch of raving hormonal hysterics whose real motive rested in being too ugly/old/clever to find love!

So hurrah for Millicent Fawcett, and the many and varied battles of the suffrage campaign battling to be the ones to walk in the sun, rather than as mere handmaids to their overlords. As a woman with a degree, who can vote and earn her own living, take part in sport, walk down the street unchaperoned, and live a fulfilled and independent life, I shall be cheering as loud as can be when that statue to my heroine, Millicent Fawcett, goes up in Parliament Square next year.

A woman Doctor. Now there’s a thought … 🙂

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It has been a cold spring this year, here in Snowdonia. I’ve been keeping my head down, getting on with the next book. Okay, wrestling with the dratted tome. It’s got to that point, just before it all falls into place, when it feels like nothing will ever make sense, and why did I start the thing in the first place, why did I ever think it was a good idea, but it’s too late to back out now. ARG!  Having been through this before, I should know this always happens, and you just keep plodding on until it works, but somehow, this point in the process  never seems to get easier!

Then, over the last few days, spring has burst into flower. It’s been so sudden and unexpected (I think we’d all given up), it’s been a magical experience. A real reminder of just what a miracle it is. The green of leaves has grown brighter and fresher, changing day by day, and my garden is growing more colourful every time I look. Finally, my baby beetroot and the broccoli, the peas, beans and salad leaves have been set out on their journey in my veg patch and the polytunnel, and the vine is showing signs of life.

Just before I did my back in with too much enthusiastic digging and weeding (okay, mega-procrastination), I snuck away from the computer and the dratted tome and went up to the coast with friends to visit one of my favourite places, Bondant Garden.

The last time I was there, it was autumn, when there were red and crimson maples and the final glory of the year. This time, it was all about the vibrant, wonderfully clashing colours of azaleas and camellias  – including some beautiful white camellias, to celebrate my rebellious Edwardian ladies’ tearooms of ‘The White Camellia’ , with Millicent Fawcett’s suffrage movement battling for equal pay for equal work, women’s right to education and financial independence, along the dignity of all men and women having the vote.

We were lucky, it was a clear day, with bright sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. In the end, we walked for miles, between the azaleas, and down to the dell, following the river and around the pond to the wilder part of the gardens, with banks of wild garlic, and then back past bluebells.

Finally, there was the trip to the garden centre, where I did my best to be restrained. (ahem)

My plan to spend the evening deep in wrestling my characters into submission didn’t quite work, I was far too relaxed to get the brain back into gear. But the next morning, I was fired up and raring to go. I hadn’t thought I’d been thinking about the tome while I was in Bodnant, I’d been too busy enjoying the sights and the scents and time relaxing with friends. But strangely, the bits that had been bothering me began to fall into place. The possible became possible. And that ginormous hole in the plot that had snuck up on me without me noticing (as they do) had a perfectly sensible solution, the facepalm, why didn’t I think of that before, kind of solution.

The trouble with wrestling, as I should know by now, is that the characters always win (it’s their story, after all), and you just end up going around in circles getting crosser and crosser until you can’t see a way out.

There’s nothing like a bit of perspective to make the impossible work, and beautiful gardens in springtime are the best way.

Well, that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it. And those rebellious characters of mine had better agree, or else …

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The range at the Squatters’ Cottage in Blists Hill

I loved the BBC’s ‘The Victorian Slum’. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a reality TV series in which a group of twenty-first century families and individuals were sent to live the lives of the inhabitants of a Victorian Slum, in the conditions of the 1860s to 1900.

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The Squatters’ Cottage

I was initially interested because of my research for ‘The White Camellia’, which included the campaigns to improve the lives and working conditions for women, which was part of the suffrage movement’s struggle for women to have the vote. I’ve also been researching the Victorian period for the book I’m working on at the moment. It’s all very well reading about conditions, and the struggle to pay the rent each week in a system stacked against you however skilled and hardworking you might be, but watching the struggles – and the anger – of people you get to know as they live the reality week by week really brought home what it must have been like.

A domestic cooking range from New York Cottages Museum, Penmaenmawr

A domestic cooking range from New York Cottages Museum, Penmaenmawr

 

It also reminded me of the inspiration for my own fascination with history, which came from stories of my Victorian great-grandmother, forced, like so many, from a rural life to the industrial heartland of Lye in the Black Country near Birmingham, and who rocked the cradle with her foot while hammering nails to keep the family afloat. This wasn’t a side of history I’d heard from anywhere else, and brought home vividly the realities of women’s complex lives and complex roles at the centre of a family’s survival. Ever since, I’ve loved visiting living history museums like Blists Hill in Ironbridge, and the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, where I stepped inside a nail-making workshop just like my great-grandmother’s, where women supplemented the family income, being paid half the rate men were paid for making exactly the same nails (unless you could say they were made by the men, of course). You can see the nail shop HERE

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The pantry of the Squatters’ Cottage

Like the inhabitants of the Victorian Slum, this wasn’t the unfair practice stacked against my ancestors, paid the lowest possible piece-rates, so that however skilled, and however hard you worked, you could never make any more than the rent and, if you were lucky, enough to eat. Even in the 1920s, when my father started work at 14, he wore his mother’s shoes, as there were no others.

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The bedroom of the Squatters’ Cottage

Like many such families, mine survived against the odds, and with the help of campaigners, libraries and adult education (not to mention the protection of the welfare state), broke free of the tyranny of the weekly rent. To be honest, I spent much of ‘The Victorian Slum’ in tears, at the unfairness and the total lack of understanding by many of the prosperous, made rich by perpetuating grinding poverty in one of the richest countries in the world. It also gave me added respect for social campaigners like Josephine Butler, who gathered the facts to prove that the true price of cheap hats was paid by the milliners who, even on a 70 hour week, could not make enough to survive, and were forced into part-time prostitution to keep a roof over their heads.

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Blists Hill

Most of all, ‘The Victorian Slum’ brought home the strength of family and community to overcome the odds. It reminded me of my mother’s family, the nail-making side, centred around my aunts, and the slightly eccentric great-aunts who lived in the house with the nail-making workshop at the bottom of the garden until they died.

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The garden of the Squatters’ Cottage

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The pigsty

Many of my memories as a child are sitting in a garden while the menfolk tinkered with their cars and their vegetable patches, and the women ‘gossiped’. What I only began to understand later was that this exchange of conversation between a group of closely-knit women was, as it had always been, the invisible and unheralded glue that held the centre together. And they were making sure that we, the next generation (even the girls), were part of the small percentage at that time who got to university, so we would never dread the rentman’s knock on the door.

 

The Victorian Slum can feel like ancient history, but it’s not. The grandmother who held me in her arms was the baby rocked in that cradle as her mother hammered nails to survive. That close.

I’m not sure I’d have had the stamina to live through the conditions of ‘The Victorian Slum’, and I have the greatest admiration for those who did. And I shall be keeping the DVD at hand in case I ever feel my life is uncertain or hard as a reminder – along with the Victorian nail found when my cottage was being repaired, and which still gives me goose-bumps.

Squatters cottage 2 small

 

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I love Bodnant Garden, near Llandudno on the North Wales coast. It’s the kind of place you can spend all day, and never grow tired of revisiting. There are winding paths through different plantings, formal gardens, wilderness gardens, and a steep dell with a lake and a river below.

 

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Living so near, it’s easy to not make a special time to visit, and so to miss the changing of the seasons. I’d been meaning to go with a couple of friends for weeks, but you know how it is, with three busy jobs, busy studying and busy lives. Then, this Monday we all happened to be able tobodnant-trees-5-small take the day off. So rain or shine, this was it.

At it turned out, we were incredibly lucky. The day dawned with perfect autumn sunshine, and stayed that way all day, while the late summer flowers were still going strong, and the trees were at their most spectacular. Because it was so unexpected, it was a truly magical day. We wandered around for hours, exploring this way and that, chatting and catching up with news and gossip, and pausing to talk to complete strangers who, like us, were marvelling at the vivid red of the leaves, and bodnant-trees-2-smallthe beauty brought out by the sunshine. And of course I couldn’t resist the opportunity of having a few author pictures taken in such lovely light and glorious surroundings.

 

It was only looking back at the photos afterwards that I realised just how relaxed we’d been, and how great it had been to take time out from our lives and have fun. I didn’t get a thing done on the next book that evening, the intentions didn’t last beyond a cup of tea and falling asleep in the chair, much to Phoebe the collie’s disgust (related to lack of squeaky duck action, rather bodnant-4than her human finishing the next chapter). But then the next morning, that particularly knotty bit in the middle of the soggy middle of the next book (ha!) that I’d been bashing away at for days, de-knotted itself without fuss and neatly fell into place as if it had always been there. Which just goes to show.

bodnant-2-smallI shall definitely be making my way back to Bodnant before long to enjoy another changing of the seasons, to return refreshed and invigorated, and ready to go. Here’s to precious autumn days, good friends, and the deep creative power of sharing the beauty of our world, and pure, unadulterated, fun.

 

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Bodnant Magnolia

Spring is in the air – let the sunshine and the publicity begin!

Over the past few days, I’ve emerged bleary-eyed from editing ‘The White Camellia’, blinking at bright sun that has suddenly appeared amidst the rain (don’t mention rain), with banks of primroses in my garden, and the frogs boldly chirruping in my pond.

Camellia 1

It was clearly time to get out from behind the desk, and back into the world again. Writing, and especially editing, is an all-consuming business, which I love, but I also always have to remind myself the importance of taking time off afterwards, and letting the jumbled, scrunched, and tumble-dried brain take in some much-needed stimulation that has nothing to do with words at all. Taking publicity photographs is a perfect way of coming down from the editing intensity without that empty feeling of having nothing to do (housework, however dire the post-editing house, doesn’t count).

White Camellia in Bodnant

My first mission was to hunt down as many camellias as I could find while it was still the blooming season –which given the oddities of this winter in the UK, was definitely urgent.

So on the first fine day, I twisted a friend’s arm, and away we headed to Bodnant Gardens in the Conwy Valley. It was the last few days of dogs being allowed in every day for a while, so Phoebe, and her elderly collie friend, Lucy, could come with us, on best behaviour, of course.

Bodnant gardens

I love Bodnant Gardens. There are formal bits, and a valley with a lake and a rushing stream, and whatever time of year, there’s always something to see. Being sheltered and near the sea, it’s sometimes hard to believe it’s north of Snowdonia, except for the snow capped mountains in the distance. I’d gone to photograph any camellias I could find, but there were also snowdrops, banks of daffodils about to flower, pretty irises and crocuses, and so many different varieties of hellebore it seemed there was another delight around every corner.

Hellebore

It was a wonderful surprise to be reminded of just how much life there is out there, even at this time of year, and, with the azaleas about to bloom, with a promise of more delights to come.

I love my own garden, but I could never grow the variety of plants, or the sweeps of snowdrops under the trees. It was an unforgettable day, wandering in the (sometimes) warm sunshine, watching new life begin to unfurl.

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I have a feeling that I shall have to go back on the next fine day, to see how it has all progressed. For the purposes of publicity, of course. Or, with the next book brewing, a little research…

Stop press: ‘We That are Left’ is currently on Amazon UK for £0.98! 

Amazon US at $1.36

 

 

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