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Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

Squatters cottage 5 small

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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bodnant-mill-small

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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Keyboard

This is my keyboard. Or rather, my ex-keyboard, as, after years of faithfully being bashed to within an inch of its life on almost a daily basis, it finally gave up the ghost. Well, at least the comma did, which, for a writer, is a state of terminal decline.

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So there was nothing for it, but to change it for a shiny new white keyboard to take over being-bashed-to-within-and-inch-of-its-life duties. I know it’s an inanimate object, but it was still quite sad removing it. This keyboard has seen numerous versions of three (and a bit) novels, and more tweets, Facebook postings and blog posts than I could possibly remember. It filled out my application form for my Literature Wales Writers’ Bursary (lots of them, in fact, before the successful one for ‘We That are Left’). It’s bashed its way through my day job as a freelance proofreader and enough emails to sink a battleship. And it was upon these stained-beyond-cleaning keys that I was scowling ferociously when my email pinged,and I looked up to learn that Honno Press were going to publish ‘Eden’s Garden’, and that my life had changed.

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And so farewell little keyboard. And I would have buried you under a rose bush with a tenderly inscribed headstone, if your demise hadn’t caused quite such an upheaval. I’m no Luddite, and I love my iMac, which, after my house and car, is my most expensive possession. But it is now classed as old. So fitting a new keyboard meant first upgrading to Snow Leopard, which then meant upgrading my browser, at which point Twitter had a nervous breakdown and Facebook lost the plot, and my old (but still perfectly functioning) laser printer (even after upgrading its software) has decided to print only every other page, and the scanner has gone terminally AWOL.

I know a writer will seize on any excuse to procrastinate, but this is ridiculous!

Dandelion

Hey ho. Everything will get slowly sorted out, and it has been a reminder of just what amazing, miraculous, mind-bendingly wonderful things computers are. Although I am frustrated at the built-in obsolescence when, for this particular machine at least, all I want is to type with as few interruptions as possible. Nothing fancy. Just bashing the keys and letting the imagination flow.

The new keyboard has been warned …🙂

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Garden 1

There’s a pond in there somewhere…

I’ve always been independent. I’m that sort of curmudgeonly so-and-so who will never ask for help.

Garden 2

Overgrown!

But last autumn I admitted defeat. Keeping together a large garden (technically two as my cottage is two cottages knocked into one) while promoting one book and writing the next, not to mention keeping up with the day job, and that thing called life, can leave a girl frazzled (and one dog seriously narked at the lack of collie-sized long walks in interesting places).

So I took a deep breath, lost my preciousness over my beloved garden being touched by any other hands than mine, and called in the gardeners. It was the best thing I’ve done. Some expertise, assisted by a bit of young muscle, and a miracle has happened.

Garden 3

Why I needed help to remove the stranglehold of montbretia!

Garden 4

The new lining for the overgrown pond goes in.

Because I work from home with my day job as a proofreader, as well as my real job as a writer, my garden is not just a luxury. It’s where I escape from my desk for a cup of tea and a lunch break, however huddled up I might be in the bit out of the wind that’s a suntrap. It’s where I catch up with my reading and any research that doesn’t need the Internet. It’s where I meet up with friends, and in the summer months it’s the most wonderful place to have laid-back parties, enjoying the evening light and the night-time darkness with very little light pollution and just my solar fairy lights. It’s the place to be when there’s a meteor shower expected. And it’s the place I can work out my plots without passersby worrying about me staring into space for apparently no reason at all, accompanied by occasional mutterings.

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Spinach flourishing in my polytunnel

With a bit of help with the bits that would have half-killed me, I’ve managed to do the rest. Well, not all of it. That’s been the other lesson. I can’t do it all in one go, and the rest will keep until next year. Meanwhile, I’ve got my spinach and lettuce and sweet peas in on time and I’m loving doing bits and pieces when the sun comes out.

I think a garden might just have to appear in the next book …..

New Garden 1

The garden today – waiting for the grass to grow.

New Garden 2

The new pond. Many a book will be read here!

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Letters safe small

There are always two sides to a story. The arrival of Valentine’s Day reminded me of these love letters, sent between my parents when my mum was seventeen and my dad was in his early twenties.

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On the one hand they are wonderfully idealistic and romantic letters, sent between a couple who were to be together for over sixty years. They are also the story of two people born into utter poverty in the first decades of the twentieth century (my dad had to borrow his mother’s shoes for his first day at work at fourteen), who against all odds got themselves an education and made a good life for themselves, able to travel and do the things their own parents could not have dreamed of.

On the other hand, they are terrifying. Why? Look at the postmark. August 14th 1939.

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Within weeks of these letters, my dad would be watching the barrage balloons go up over London, and know that war had been declared. Far away near Paris, a teenage girl would be setting off on her own in a desperate attempt to get to Calais and a boat to safety, waitisc000e0c54ng for trains carrying troops to pass, watching the families goodbye for the last time, as a country imploded into the inhuman horrors of war that the older generation remembered so well.

My mother made it safely back, but only just. I still have the postcard hastily written in pencil reassuring everyone that she was safe after a nightmare journey and her ship being stalked by a German submarine as it crossed the Channel.

It’s often the smallest things that tell the largest stories. I love these letters, but I still get the chills when I look at that postmark, not only for my own family, but for all those, in all countries, who were both with, or far away, from their loved ones that day.

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Christmas Blog Hop party

This Christmas party is one with a difference. It was held on Christmas Day 1914 for Belgium refugees living in England after their villages had been overrun by the invading German army.

Like many women of the time, Elen, the heroine of ‘We That are Left’ had watched the men march proudly away in the summer of 1914 to rescue gallant little Belgium. By Christmas 1914 it was beginning to sink in that this was not going to be so simple, and the world would never be the same again – not least for women like Elen, taking over work they had once been considered to frail to even attempt, and embarking on a journey of self-discovery from which there was no return….

So come and join the Belgium refugees, who have lost everything, being taken to the hearts of their hosts in an English moat house for a Christmas of joy and tears.

And if you want to join in their celebrations, there’s nothing better than the legendary WW1 Seed Cake from ‘We That are Left’ – delicious at all times of the year!
  You can find the recipe HERE

Seed cake

And I’m giving away a signed copy of ‘We That are Left’. Leave a comment on this post to be entered into the draw – winners to be announced on Monday 23rd.

A Christmas Day reunion at the Moat House for Belgium Refugees – Christmas 1914

By a happy inspiration it was decided to extend an invitation to Belgians resident in the Borough who have passed through the Moat House Reigate, to partake of dinner at the Moat House on Christmas Day. A happy party numbering about 24 were enabled to respond to the invitation so kindly given and no efforts were spared to give them a right good time. Their happiness was contributed to in every way and everything possible was done to obliterate the sorrows of the past in the kindly hospitality lavishly dispensed. The Moat House was appropriately decorated for the occasion and the reunion proved of a most happy character. A Christmas dinner of good old English fare was served about 5 o’clock.

 

 

 

 

 

You can find a copy of ‘We That are Left’  published by Honno Press here:

UK     US

We that are left

 

Thank you for joining our party
now follow on to the next enjoyable entertainment…

 

1. Helen Hollick : You are Cordially Invited to a Ball
http://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/you-are-invited-to-party_17.html?

2. Alison Morton : Saturnalia surprise – a winter party tale
http://alison-morton.com/2014/12/20/saturnalia-surprise-a-winter-party-tale-and-giveaway/

3. Andrea Zuvich : No Christmas For You! The Holiday Under Cromwell http://www.andreazuvich.com/history/no-christmas-for-you-the-holiday-under-cromwell/

4. Ann Swinfen : Christmas 1586 – Burbage’s Company of Players Celebrates http://annswinfen.com/2014/12/christmas-party/

5. Anna Belfrage : All I want for Christmas
https://annabelfrage.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/all-i-want-for-christmas-the-christmas-party-blog-hop/

6. Carol Cooper : How To Be A Party Animal http://pillsandpillowtalk.com/2014/12/19/how-to-be-a-party-animal/

7. Clare Flynn : A German American Christmas http://www.clareflynn.co.uk/blog/a-german-american-christmas

8. Debbie Young : Good Christmas Housekeeping http://authordebbieyoung.com/2014/12/20/christmas/

9. Derek Birks : The Lord of Misrule – A Medieval Christmas Recipe for Trouble https://dodgingarrows.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/christmas-blog-hop-the-lord-of-misrule-a-medieval-christmas-recipe-for-trouble/

10. Edward James : An Accidental Virgin and An Uninvited Guest https://busywords.wordpress.com/an-accidental-virgin/
and https://busywords.wordpress.com/the-birthday-party/

11. Fenella J. Miller : Christmas on the Home front http://fenellamiller.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/christmas-on-home-front-and-giveaway.html

12. J. L. Oakley : Christmas Time in the Mountains 1907 https://historyweaver.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/christmas-time-in-the-mountains-1907/

13. Jude Knight : Christmas at Avery Hall in the Year of Our Lord 1804
http://judeknightauthor.com/2014/12/20/christmas-at-avery-hall-in-the-year-of-our-lord-1804/

14. Julian Stockwin: Join the Party http://julianstockwin.com/christmas-bloghop-join-the-party/

15. Lauren Johnson : Farewell Advent, Christmas is come” – Early Tudor Festive Feasts http://laurenjohnson1.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/farewell-advent-christmas-is-come-early-tudor-festive-feasting-christmas-party-blog-hop/

16. Lucienne Boyce : A Victory Celebration – http://francesca-scriblerus.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/a-victory-celebration.html

17. Nancy Bilyeau : Christmas After the Priory http://nancybilyeau.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/blog-hop-christmas-after-priory.html

18. Nicola Moxey : The Feast of the Epiphany, 1182 http://nickymoxey.com/2014/12/19/the-feast-of-the-epiphany-1182/

19. Peter St John: Dummy’s Birthday http://jennospot.blogspot.fr/2014/12/dummys-party.html

20. Regina Jeffers : Celebrating a Regency Christmas http://reginajeffers.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/celebrating-a-regency-era-christmas/

21. Richard Abbott : The Hunt – Feasting at Ugarit http://richardabbott.authorsxpress.com/2014/12/19/the-hunt-feasting-at-ugarit/

22. Saralee Etter : Christmas Pudding — Part of the Christmas Feast http://saraleeetter.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/christmas-pudding-part-of-the-christmas-feast/

23. Stephen Oram : Living in your dystopia: you need a festival of enhancement… http://stephenoram.wordpress.com/2014/12/19/living-in-your-dystopia-13-you-need-a-festival-of-enhancement/

24. Suzanne Adair: The British Legion Parties Down for Yule 1780 http://www.suzanneadair.net/2014/12/19/the-british-legion-parties-down-for-yule-1780/

25. Lindsay Downs http://lindsaydowns-romanceauthor.weebly.com/lindsay-downs-romance-author/o-christmas-tree-o-christmas-tree

Thank you for joining us

Happy Christmas! Nadolig Llawen! 

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