An Unwilling Alliance – coming in 2018

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Castle Rushen, on the Isle of Man

When Hugh Kelly left Mann aged 16 he expected never to return. His parents were both dead, the family farm repossessed and the navy seemed like a good option for a penniless lad with big ambitions and no prospects. Fourteen years later he returns as a Trafalgar veteran with a healthy amount of prize money and his own command in refit at Yarmouth. He is in search of land and a home and a wife to look after them when he goes back to sea.
Roseen Crellin is determined not to give in to her father’s efforts to find her a good husband. The man she wanted has sailed away and she has no interest in a marriage to a man who sees her a convenience rather than a woman.
It seems a courtship with little future but fate intervenes unexpectedly and as Hugh sets sail to join the Royal Navy on it’s way to Copenhagen he is forced to reassess his feelings towards the girl he had not bothered to get to know, while Roseen discovers a world beyond the hills and glens of her island home and a side to herself she had never known existed.
An Unwilling Alliance is the first of my books to be set partly on the Isle of Man where I live.  It is also the first set in the very different world of the Royal Navy.  I’ve been wanted to do a Manx setting for a long time, but since I write historical novels I needed to find the right time period.  I have considered, and am still considering, a novel set in the English Civil War but I haven’t studied that period since University and it will be a lot of work.

In the end I decided to stick with my current period, helped by reading the story of Captain John Quilliam, the Manxman who served with Nelson aboard the Victory.  This is not his story but there are parallels between his progress and that of Captain Hugh Kelly, and like Quilliam, Kelly comes home to his island with his pockets well-lined with prize money and in search of a home and a wife.

I hope that An Unwilling Alliance will be published early in 2018 and will be followed by An Untrustworthy Army, book five in the Peninsular War Saga.

Limping with Labradors – Guest blog by Toby

Blogging with Labradors

Toby

Welcome to blogging with labradors.

Hard to believe that this is called blogging with labradors and yet this is the first time I’ve been allowed my own blog post.  I mean, she’s very keen on posting ‘cute’ photos of us but do we get a say?  No.

Today she’s finally agreed to let me dictate my own post.  She can’t do anything else really.  I’m still recovering from my recent operation and while I’m lying around looking cute in her socks, she’ll let me get away with pretty much anything…

So, first a little about me.  My name is Toby, one of the two stars of Blogging with Labradors.  I’m thirteen and a black labrador, born on the Isle of Man up in Ballaugh although my Dad was an Irish show dog. She makes a lot of jokes about the Irish in me, but she’s laughing on the other side of her face at the moment since she just got back the result of her Ancestry DNA test and has discovered that she’s 11% Irish herself.  It explains nothing except the strange sense of humour and a somewhat dodgy taste for Irish folk music, but there you go.

I share the house with a family of four humans and another labrador called Joey who was adopted two and a half years after I arrived.  Joey is Manx and from a line of working dogs, which means he’s not as good-looking as me, although he’s not bad I suppose.  He used to be the energetic one, although he’s got so fat these days that his nickname is either Fattums or the King of Chins.  He’s supposed to be on a diet, but that’s a bit of a joke because he’s the most talented food thief I’ve ever met.  Generous too, he’s always willing to share what he gets down off the kitchen counters.

Joey the Labrador

My humans are all right really.  I like the young ones best.  They’re always willing to stop whatever they’re doing, especially if it’s homework, and get down on the floor to give me a bit of a hug or a tummy tickle.  They also make a lot less fuss about dog hairs than the older ones.

Both the senior humans do something called “working at home”.  This seems to involve endless hours sitting at desks staring at a computer screen although how much of it is work and how much is scrolling through cute dog photos on Facebook and twitter is anybody’s guess.  I don’t really mind, because since she started working at home, I’m never without company.  She’s moved our beds into the study with her and we pretty much spend our days in there while she mumbles rubbish about Wellington and the battle of Badajoz at the screen and piles up books on the floor because she’s run out of space on the desk.  Sometimes we go and lie on the books, just for a laugh, and pretty much every one of them has dog hairs in it and at least one muddy paw print…

We live in Douglas on the Isle of Man which is a great place to live as a dog since it’s full of beaches, glens, rivers and great smells.  At my age I don’t walk that far, I’ve got arthritis, but I do like to get out and have a mooch around and a good sniff.

During the past year, she’s started writing books.  To be honest, she’s been writing books for years but she’s started publishing them.  I have to say I mostly approve since it keeps her quiet and out of mischief and means she spends more time with us.  I also like the website and blog, since a bit of publicity never does a labrador any harm, and I’m glad she’s acknowledging how important we’ve been to her success so far.

The thing that has bothered me is that up to now none of these books seems to have had much of a canine element.  I mean I know they’re historical novels, but people have had dogs for a good few years now and I can’t believe she’s neglected this important aspect of the human condition.  It’s true that there is a brief mention of a hound in A Marcher Lord” but he barely gets a few lines and there’s no character development.  It’s a shocking omission.

A Redoubtable Citadel

The most recent book is called “A Redoubtable Citadel” (where does she get these titles from) and it is published today.  It’s the fourth book in a series set during the Peninsular War.  I don’t know much about war and I’ve never thought it made much sense when you can eat or sleep instead, but people seem to like these books.  However the crucial thing about book four is that she’s finally come to her senses and introduced a dog.  It’s early days yet, but I think this one has the potential to be an important historical figure.  He’s got a good military name and I think he’s going improve the lives of the main characters no end by scattering dog hairs all over their uniforms and leaving muddy paw prints all over the tent.  I can’t wait.  Although apparently a few other things happen in this book, like battles and whatnot…

Other than that, the only other excitement in life at the moment is regular visits to the vet.  I had an operation a few weeks ago to get rid of an annoying lump on my foot and they’re all kicking off because I keep chewing off the dressings.  I’m not sure what else they expected, those things are uncomfortable.  This sock does seem to be a better solution so far and I must say I’m enjoying making a fashion statement.  She’s got an endless selection of attractive socks for me to work my way through.

I’m signing off now.  They’re cooking brunch and I’m hoping to cadge a bit of bacon if there’s any going but don’t worry I’ll be back soon on Blogging with Labradors with more musings on life with labradors…

Toby

Writing with Labradors Updates

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army

Writing with Labradors updates

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Writing with labradors has undergone a few changes this week which will hopefully make the site easier to follow.

One new feature is the freebies page which now includes the first chapter of all seven published books.  It also includes the first chapter of book 4 of the Peninsular War Saga.  A Redoubtable Citadel comes out next month and takes Paul van Daan and the 110th through the horror of Ciudad Rodrigo Badajoz and puts Anne in the worst peril of her adventurous life.  Read chapter one here.

A Redoubtable Citadel

In addition to the sample chapters, I intend to upload a few other freebies as I go along so watch this space for more Writing with Labradors updates and improvements.

I’m also intending to introduce a separate travel section for those of you who are interested in history and might be considering visiting some of the areas depicted in the books.

Thanks to all of you who are following both this site and the Facebook page, reading the books and taking the time to review and rate them on Amazon and Goodreads.

If you want regular updates, articles and information on history, travel, book reviews and a few freebies thrown in, you can now join the e-mail list here.

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Captain John Quilliam RN – a Manx hero

Captain John Quilliam by Henry Barber (Manx Museum)

 Captain John Quilliam RN was a Royal Navy officer who served as First Lieutenant on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.  The Isle of Man has a strong tradition of service in the Royal Navy and Quilliam is one of the best known local heroes.  In trying to come up with a Manx hero for my next book, the story of Quilliam seems like a good place to begin my reading.

Captain John Quilliam RN was born in Marown on the island on 29 September 1771 and died in Michael at the age of 58 after a long and distinguished career.  His parents, John Quilliam and Christian Clucas were farmers at Ballakelly and the young John was apprenticed to a stonemason and then worked as a labourer when he was picked up by a press gang in 1794 at the age of 23.

During the Napoleonic wars the press gang operated a number of times on the Isle of Man.  The Duke of Atholl was known to have offered financial incentives for men to volunteer for the navy in the island but there were still not enough recruits and Manx sailors were considered particularly valuable by the navy to such an extent that the press gang received an extra bonus for any Manxman taken.

The island was dependant upon its fishing industry and at times it was disrupted as the fleet did not dare to put to see for fear of being apprehended by warships looking for men.  In 1798 forty men were impressed in Port Erin bay despite protests from the Governor and the House of Keys to the Admiralty.  Another raid in 1811 by the warship Maria took twenty fishermen and a number of men of the Manx Volunteers in a violent attack.

In theory the press gang were only allowed to take those with seafaring experience between the ages of 18 and 55.  In times of severe shortage however these rules were relaxed and any man was at risk.  In 1810 the press gang invaded Onchan Parish School on the island, terrifying the children who fled from the school.  A boy of around 14 was seized by the gang but they were obliged to release him when a group of local women pelted them with stones.  On other occasion the gang would seized labourers, farm workers and shop boys on their way home and once aboard ship they listened to no excuse having heard a wide variety of them over the years.  Local young men would run for cover when the press gang was scouring the area and there were specially constructed shelters in the hills.  Apparently, a field next to Jurby Parish School called Ballaconney which was thickly covered in gorse was a popular refuge for local youths dodging impressment.  It is hard to blame them given that those taken would often not return for many years.

Once taken into service, a pressed man would usually be given the option of becoming a volunteer for which he would be paid a bonus.  If he chose not to do so his freedom would be very limited.  Desertion rates in the navy were so high that even volunteers were seldom allowed shore leave when in port.  Food, drink and women were ferried out to the ships to try to avoid losing half the crew every time the ship was in port.

In theory, landsmen and ‘gentlemen’ were exempt from impressment.  In practice this was sometimes ignored.  If a warship was particularly short handed, with the prospect of battle looming, it was not uncommon for a captain to turn a deaf ear to a pressed man claiming exemption from impressment.  Unlike in the army where there was a term of service, even when that was for life, sailors signed on to a ship for a particular campaign and once that was over they were discharged although they could sign on again.  Obviously during wartime, a campaign or commission could last for years, so for a pressed man without any way of returning to shore and his previous life, it might well have seemed best to make the most of his time at sea.

The hero of An Unconventional Officer, Paul van Daan, was the son of a gentleman, a wealthy ship owner, who was almost fifteen when he was pressed into the Royal Navy.  The circumstances were unusual.  The ship on which he had been serving an apprenticeship had gone down in a storm and Paul and a few of the crew had made it to shore on Antigua when a press gang picked them up.  In the middle of a group of sailors, the young Paul would have looked no different and an unscrupulous press gang with a quota to fill did not care.  Back in England with the formal process of magistrates and paperwork it is unlikely that Paul’s naval service would have lasted much beyond a few days but the exigencies of war in far flung places and the desperation of some captains to crew their ships meant that it was convenient occasionally to turn a deaf ear to protests.

Captain John Quilliam RN was another man who should not have been eligible for impressment as a farmer and labourer, although we do not know very much about his early life or the circumstances of his impressment.  Many Manxmen with land based jobs were also part time fishermen and there is no reason to suppose that Quilliam had no experience at sea when he was seized; he might well have been an experienced sailor.  With only vague details about the circumstances of his joining the navy, it is not certain if he was pressed or volunteered although local legend is in favour of the impressment story.

Certainly both Quilliam and my fictional character, unlike most impressed sailors, decided to make the most of their chances in the navy.  Paul van Daan only served for two years before his wealthy father realised he was alive and brought him home but in that time he had risen to be a petty officer, the naval equivalent of an NCO in the army.  John Quilliam served for longer and rose rapidly.  He is first recorded in 1797 when he would have been twenty six and three years at sea and he was made a Lieutenant at the Battle of Camperdown by Admiral Duncan.

In 1799 Quilliam took part in the capture of the Spanish treasure ship Thetis and received prize money of over £5000.  He fought at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 as First Lieutenant on HMS Amazon.  The design of the Amazon meant she was able to get close under the shore batteries, an important but very hazardous undertaking which led to every one of the higher-ranking officers beingkilled leaving Quilliam in command of the badly damaged ship.  His gallantry and calmness under fire and the way he took command was rewarded with being made First Lieutenant on HMS Victory by Horatio Nelson.

HMSVictory (photo by Ballista)

Captain John Quilliam RN was a talented and accomplished officer during his time on the Victory and helped to steer her into action at Trafalgar. A contemporary report stated:

“Just as she (the Victory) had got about 500 yards of the larboard beam of the Bucentaure the Victory’s mizzen-topmast was shot away, about two-thirds up. A shot also struck and knocked to pieces the wheel; and the ship was obliged to be steered from the gun room, the First Lieutenant John Quilliam and master Thomas Atkinson, relieving each other at the duty.” (James’s Naval History of Great Britain)

The Battle of Trafalgar by Turner

After Trafalgar,  Quilliam was promoted to Captain and placed in command of HMS Ildefonso, a Spanish ship which needed refitting at Gibraltar.  He did not arrive back in England until 1806.  In 1808 he captained Admiral Stopford’s flagship, HMS Spencer and then in 1812 he was captain of HMS Crescent on the Newfoundland Station and remained there until Napoleon’s defeat in 1815.  His exploits included the capture of the 14 gun American privateer schooner the Elbridge Gerry together with her crew of 66 men.

Quilliam was elected to a seat in the Manx Parliament, the House of Keys in 1807 even though he was then still an active serving officer.  At the end of the war he returned to the Isle of Man, investing his considerable wealth in  properties, including the Balcony House in Castletown which was built for him as a town house and continuing his career in politics.  He was re-elected a Member of the House of Keys in 1817, and on December 21 of that year he married Margaret Stevenson at Castletown.  The couple had no children.

Balcony House Castletown (photo by Richard Hoare)

In 1826 Captain Quilliam was instrumental along with Sir William Hillary in the formation on the Isle of Man of a District Association of the Royal National Institution of the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck.  He also served as Chairman of the Committee for Shipwrecked Seamen.

Captain John Qulliam RN died on October 10, 1829. He was buried in the Stevenson family vault in the graveyard at Kirk Arbory with the following inscription on his tombstone.

Tomb of Captain John Quilliam (Photo by Kevin Rothwell)

“Sacred to the memory of John Quilliam, Esq., Captain in the Royal Navy. In his early service he was appointed by Adml. Lord Duncan to act as lieutenant at the Battle of Camperdown; after the victory was achieved, this appointment was confirmed. His gallantry and professional skill at the Battle of Copenhagen attracted the notice of Lord Nelson, who subsequently sought for his services on board his own ship, and as his lordship’s first lieut. he steered the Victory into action at the Battle of Trafalgar. By the example of Duncan and Nelson he learned to conquer. By his own merit he rose to command: above all this he was an honest man, the noblest work of God. After many years of honourable and distinguished professional service, he retired to this land of his affectionate solicitude and birth, where in his public station as a member of the House of Keys, and in private life, he was in arduous times the uncompromising defender of the rights and privileges of his countrymen, and the zealous and able supporter of every measure tending to promote the welfare and the best interests of his country. He departed this life on 10 October 1829 in the 59th year of his age. This monument is erected by Margaret C. Quilliam to the memory of her beloved husband.”

In looking at a Manx hero as the subject of a new book, John Quilliam’s story is an inspiration.  He is an example of a man who might have lived a fairly undistinguished life as a stonemason, a farmer or a fisherman.  Taken by force from his family and his home he was thrown into an unfamiliar life, and he seized it with both hands and more than made the best of it.

Captain John Quilliam RN and Petty Officer Paul van Daan were contemporaries and served in the navy at the same time although Quilliam was ten years older than my fictional hero and remained with the navy while Paul moved on to the army.  By the time Paul was pressed in Antigua in 1796, Quilliam was about to receive his first commission.  I’m looking forward to a new area of research and finding out more about the navy and the Manx role within it.

Watch this space…

 

Writing with Labradors – the first six months

Stars of Blogging with Labradors

It feels like a good time to celebrate Writing with Labradors – the first six months.

Toby and Joey

I published my first e-book, a Respectable Woman, on Amazon kindle on 22 February which is actually rather less than six months ago.  I feel like celebrating today, though.  I’ve just received a parcel with several author’s copies of the first of my books to be published in paperback and there is something amazing about actually holding a copy in my hand.

I dreamed of being a writer when I was a teenager but back then it didn’t seem like a possibility at all.  Over the years I’ve written more words than I can remember and I made numerous attempts to find an agent or a publisher for my novels.  I often wonder how many people actually read any of what I’d written.  What is clear to me is how many people have read what I’ve written now.

Since publishing A Respectable Woman back in February, things have gone better than I ever imagined.  I’ve sold books, I’ve received reviews and ratings, most of which have been good, and I’ve had a lot of messages from readers telling me how much they’ve enjoyed the books.  I’ve set up a website and written a blog and an author Facebook page.  I’ve joined Twitter, which is something I never thought likely and I’ve begun to learn, by tiny steps, about marketing and selling books as well as about writing them.

There have been so many good things during these months that I’m a bit overwhelmed.  People have been incredibly supportive and I’m so grateful to all of you who read and comment and encourage me.

So far, all the books I’ve published were already written when I made the decision to publish independently on kindle.  This weekend I am publishing the first book which I’ve written from scratch since then and it’s a regency romance.  I have a few books floating around in my head at present, and before I started this, I admit that I wouldn’t have thought the next book I wrote would be another regency.  This decision was based purely on the success of the previous regency, The Reluctant Debutante which has proved the most popular of all my books so far.

When I began to get ratings and even a few reviews for the books I was very excited.  There is something fairly astonishing that complete strangers are reading my books and apparently enjoying them.  There was also the unpleasant shock of a bad review.  I’ve had a couple, not too many, and I now understand why experienced writers recommend that you try not to read the reviews.  It’s difficult to avoid when you’re independently published; you want to know something about what your readers think and it’s very tempting.  I am trying not to now.  I can’t change the way I write because one or two people don’t like it.  The books are selling and people are buying more than one of them which I’m guessing means they enjoyed them, so I am going to try to stay away from the reviews.  A bad review is painful; a good one feels great.  I’ve decided to leave them alone and just write.

Still, going by sales alone, a second regency makes a lot of sense.  I really enjoyed writing this one.  It was good to come up with some new characters and good to research a subject I knew very little about.  I have written a slightly different kind of heroine this time and I hope my readers like her because I really do.

My next published book is likely to be the fourth in the Peninsular war saga, which is already written although needs some revising.  A Redoubtable Citadel is the most difficult book I’ve written so far, a very emotional one for me.  I am also planning on a book with a Manx theme but there is a fair bit of research involved in that.  I have a children’s story which I want to finish, and I’ve got an idea for a sequel to one of my original books.  I also need to get on with book five which is about half way through.

It’s been an amazing first six months and I’m looking forward to more in the future.  Thank you to everyone buying the books, sending me messages, engaging on the Facebook page and writing reviews and ratings – even the bad ones, since they remind me to keep getting better.

I hear the sounds of barking labradors in the distance which reminds me that it’s breakfast time.  I couldn’t have done this without all of you.  I also couldn’t have done it without Toby and Joey, my constant companions, who never forget to remind me to stop work for a meal time.

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Jewish Museum in Berlin

Jewish Museum Berlin

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Jewish Museum in Berlin, August 2017 – a review by Lynn Bryant

The Jewish Museum in Berlin was one of a list of places we wanted to visit while we’re here, and it just happened to be the first we picked.  We had several other places on that day’s itinerary and we made it to none of those because the Jewish Museum kept us going all day long.

The buildings themselves are fascinating.  The entrance is in the Collegienhaus, the last baroque palace in the Friedrichstadt area of Berlin, a protected building in it’s own right.  Once inside, the permanent exhibitions are housed in the Libeskind  building, which zigzags with a titanium zinc facade and is open to interpretation as to what Daniel Libeskind, the American architect intended to represent.

I found the building itself slightly disturbing.  For some reason I felt at times as though I had become caught in an Escher maze with a bewildering variety of levels, sloping floors and unexpected corners.  The building itself seems to be part of the exhibitions, demonstrating the sense of displacement and confusion of the history of Jewish people in Berlin.  But it isn’t the building that I will remember in years to come.  It is the variety, the depth and the sheer volume of the information contained in the exhibitions.

The various galleries take the visitor through the history of the Jews in Germany from earliest mentions through to thriving communities in towns and cities.  All to often these were disrupted by violent pogroms where people were killed, tortured and driven into exile.  The impressive thing about the German Jewish community, looking at some of the episodes in it’s history, is that it survived as well as it did coming into the twentieth century.

How many people know about Gluckel of Hameln who was a Jewish businesswoman and diarist in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century?  Anyone?  I certainly didn’t, but the section devoted to her is completely amazing, with maps showing not only her business interests but the way she married off her many children to advantage.  Her story is definitely on my list to read, she is a woman I could write about.

The story of the rise of Hitler, the holocaust and the subsequent fate of the Jews in Europe is very well known.  Married to a Jewish man, I always find exhibitions like this very moving and at times quite distressing.  This one covered not only the events of the war but some of the war crimes trials which followed it.  Most of this was already known to me which did not make it any less interesting or emotional.

What I didn’t know was very much about the history of German anti-Semitism through the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.  Reading the long list of events and acts against Jewish inclusion into German society I was slightly shocked.  At the same time, I felt as though it put the rise of the Nazis into perspective for me as nothing else had.  Suddenly it became very clear how Hitler was able to tap in to this traditional suspicion of the Jews to create the scapegoat he needed.

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This museum hid nothing and excused nothing and held nothing back and I have an enormous respect for it’s honesty.  There is so much there, we quickly gave up any idea of moving on to other museums, went for a break in the cafe and then returned to do the rest of the exhibition properly and it was well worthwhile.  Everything is translated into English, films and visual exhibits have English subtitles and there is a very good audio guide which can be borrowed.  I came away with a strong sense of having learned a lot about a subject that I thought I knew fairly well and that is always the sign of a good museum for me.

A bonus was the temporary exhibition entitled Cherchez la Femme which presented a wide range of ideas and views regarding women’s head and body coverings in both a religious and secular context.  The exhibition looked at historic and modern day attitudes in various religions and gave a balanced and often provocative view of how much choice a woman has over how she dresses depending on where and how she lives.  It was completely fascinating and one of the highlights of the museum, genuinely causing me to rethink some of my own positions on this.

This was one of the best museum visits I’ve had in a very long time.  I’ve now got a long list of new subjects to research and read about and a lot of new ideas burbling around in my brain.  And it was only day one of our trip.  I was worried I’d be exhausted by day three…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time Management for Authors

Time Management for Labradors
Time management demonstrated by labradors
Labradors exercising time management skills

Time management for authors is a subject close to my heart.  When I decided to embark on a writing career I had the naive view that it was all about writing the books I love and then launching them on an unsuspecting and hopefully appreciative world.

Being an indie author is a somewhat different proposition.  I find myself hopping from one activity to another like a somewhat manic flea at times, trying to fit in writing, revising, researching, marketing and cooking the occasional meal and doing the laundry.

I’ve come to the conclusion that organisation is the key and that starting to plan my days better would be a big help in getting things done and also ring fencing my writing time while keeping up to date with all the other things I’m trying to do.  Naturally halfway through writing this paragraph I thought of three other jobs, completely essential, which I needed to go and complete before I finished this blog post.  Like I said, it’s a work in progress.

However, I’ve been doing this for a few months now and I do think I’ve developed some idea of how to manage time better.  This is obviously within the context of the other things we need to do.  My other job is part time, running a dance school, so I need to fit in around that.  I also have a home and family and one or two voluntary activities that I’d like to find time for.  Some of you will be fitting in everything around a full time job.  I’ve done that and it led to far too many three am writing sessions leaving me bleary eyed the next day, so I’m lost in admiration of people managing that one.

My guide, based purely on my own experiences, would run something like this.

  • Make a list of the roles you play.  You’re going to want to allocate some time to each of them.  They are not all equal and they will change.  For example, my roles would include dance school owner, writer, mother, home manager, publicity and marketing person etc etc.  Ten years ago the role of mother would have needed a bigger chunk of time than it does now.
  • Use lists.  Even if you don’t do everything on the list, it helps to have a guide.
  • Don’t take on too much.  Listen to me on this one.  I am an expert at ignoring my own advice.
  • Let people help you.  I’m so bad at this, it’s untrue.
  • Ring fence writing time.  If you’re working at home you need to make sure people know that it is still working.  And that can be hard.
  • Have time off.  Writing might be the most fun you have all week but there is still a world out there and no job should be 24/7 or 365 days a year.  Even if you’d like it to be.
  • Keep a diary or calendar.  You will forget important things.  I just lost my diary, I left it at one of our dance halls and it has vanished.  I now need to put all my vital information into a new diary and I’m totally bewildered until I do that.  Most normal people use an online diary but I’m strange and I like paper, whatever the disadvantages…
  • Set deadlines but make them realistic or you’ll die of stress.  If you’re having deadlines set by other people, argue if you think they’re unrealistic.  It’s worth it.
  • Don’t panic if you’re feeling overwhelmed.  Take a deep breath and just do one thing.  The rest will follow.
  • Keep computer use under control.  The temptation to keep checking social media or e-mails is overwhelming.  It wastes hours of the day.  Give yourself a set amount of time and try to stick to it.
  • Use a timer.  I got this idea a few years ago from an online home organisation site called Flylady.  I have to say this site makes me laugh in places.  There’s so much stuff on it that it’s mad and it’s all very cosy and very sweet and not always my sort of thing.  BUT if you’re feeling overwhelmed and not sure how to get moving, I think it can be great.  I still use some of the techniques I learned from it and the best one, if I’ve got too much to do and am about to explode, is using a timer and setting myself short bursts of activity.
  • Enjoy what you’re doing.  If you’re a writer, you’ve got the most fun job in the world.  Try to appreciate that…

High School Prom – a history and a personal experience

High School Prom
Prom princesses

I’ve just had a very odd experience.  My fifteen year old daughter has just attended her year 11 high school prom and I found myself, for a short time, turning into ‘prom Mum’.  It’s astonishing how much time and energy can go into preparing a daughter for this one event, lasting a few hours only.  I’m not sure that I was looking forward to it but in the end it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected.

It wasn’t the first prom in the family.  My son went through the process a couple of years ago but on that occasion my only involvement was to admire him in his suit and make sure the corsage matched his date’s dress.  There was little else for me to do.

It’s different with a daughter, especially one like mine who does not conform to most teenage norms.  I was frankly surprised that she wanted to do prom at all.  Given her ambivalence, we rather left the whole shopping thing to the last minute, so we ended up travelling to buy the dress.  Make up and hair needed to be decided and the location of the pre-prom and after-prom events took some arranging.  But my child is fearsomely independent and apart from buying the dress I had less to do than many parents.

The high school prom is a custom which began in the United States but has been exported in recent years to the United Kingdom and Canada, probably because of the popularity of the prom in films and TV shows over the years.  A rite of passage for high school students it has become an important ritual in the UK and most schools now have a version of it.

Susan Ford, who held her prom at the White House
1950s High School Prom
Prom in the 1950s

In the early days of prom in the United States, the dance was a bit like a debutante ball.  It was considered the first adult social event for many teenagers and the first real occasion to dress up.  Initially nothing more than an end of year dance, it gradually became an iconic episode in high school life and during the 1950s proms became more extravagant and elaborate.  Original proms took place at the school but gradually it became more common to use hotels or country clubs.  One lucky girl, whose father happened to be a President, held her prom at the White House.

The high school prom arrived in the UK during the 2000s.  Before then schools often held a summer ball or end of year disco to celebrate the end of formal schooling but this did not have the significance of the US style prom.  However, the increasing influence of US TV shows and movies changed the nature of these events and most schools now hold a year 11 prom and a year 13 prom to celebrate the end of schooling for these two year groups.

There is something reminiscent of a wedding about preparing for high school prom.  Boys wear suits, girls wear evening gowns and there is a tradition of wearing a buttonhole or corsage of flowers.  Traditionally students have attended in couples although it is increasingly common for groups of friends to attend together.  There are formal photographs, parents often gather for pre-prom events and there is often an ‘after prom’ party which might be organized and supervised but is frequently not, in which case alcohol plays a part.

One of the traditions of prom is the election of a prom queen and king, voted in by the other students.  Not all schools hold to this tradition and there has been some concern that it can lead to jealousy and spite but it has proved popular in many schools.

I was worried about the high school prom for my girl.  I thought she might feel slightly out of place in the glitter and self absorption of the whole event.  That says more about my view of prom than hers; I’ll admit to being a bit of a prom snob.  To me it was an American invention wrapped up with teenage rivalry, too much make up and the prom king and queen being the two kids one would least want to spend an evening with.  Clearly I watched too much American teen TV and movies over the past twenty years.

As so often happens, I was wrong.  Prom queen and king were a couple whom my daughter declares to be totally sweet.  She was nominated herself which she found hilarious.  She had a date; a good friend of hers but most of her friends went as a group and there was no sense of rivalry or teenage angst at the pre-prom gathering.  They were all happy, all enjoying dressing up in glamorous clothes and all delighted to be together.

Astonishingly I felt very emotional.  I’ve known a lot of these kids since they were skinny little eleven year olds and they looked truly beautiful.  According to my daughter, the evening was great, she danced until her feet hurt and so did everybody else.  She got bored with the incessant photographs but was tolerant of them.  She enjoyed herself at a good party where she got to dress up like a princess and be with her friends.

I don’t know if high school prom is always like this, but if it is, I’m a convert.  I’m glad that my daughter had this rite of passage at the end of her compulsory education and I’m happy for her to do it again at the end of sixth form.  It turned out that it wasn’t a popularity contest.

Prom girls
High School prom girls

The thing I really liked is that not once have I heard a single criticism or spiteful remark about anybody else.  Nobody picked at each others hair or dress or make up.  The kids I talked to seemed to have a genuine joy in being together for one last time before they separate to take their different paths.  For my daughter it’s back to school for A levels; some are going to college or into work or apprenticeships.  But on this evening they were all united and having a good time.

We here so much negative stuff about teenagers today.  But this group, on this evening, at this prom, were a bunch of kids I’m delighted to know.  Good luck to them all in whatever they do next.  And just for one evening, I was a very very proud prom Mum…

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bethnal Green Tube Disaster – a little piece of family history

The Bethnal Green Tube Disaster happened on 3rd March 1943.  173 people died; men, women and children while trying to hurry down the steep steps to the station which was being used as an air raid shelter.  Growing up in East London with a mother who lived through the Blitz as a child, I can’t remember ever not knowing about this tragedy.  The story was told through my family and with grisly curiosity I can remember being quite young and asking about it time and time again as my mother insisted on holding my hand going down those steps on our way to the underground.  So it was something as a shock to me to discover as an adult how many people in Britain have never heard of it at all.

The story, for me, follows on from my previous post about my childhood in London.  There were endless stories of wartime Britain from my parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles.  I’ve often wondered about the accuracy of some of them given how memories change over time.  My mother is gone now as are all her brothers and sisters so I can’t ask for more detail and I wish I’d done it while I could.  But the story of the tragedy in March 1943 was very real.

The winter of 1940-41 was a nightmare for Londoners, with the bombing pounding their city.  On one occasion, London was hit for 57 nights in a row.  In December firebombs hit the city.  Air raid sirens were a constant background to daily life although there were many false alarms, but a lot of Londoners used to go into the shelters for the night just in case.  Many had Anderson or Morrison shelters in their back gardens but they were cramped with no light, little air and no toilet other than a chamber pot.  A lot of people preferred to use the Underground.

Bethnal Green was a new station as the Central Line had been extended from Liverpool Street in 1936, but work had been interrupted by the outbreak of War.  With the track not yet laid, there was plenty of room with up to 5000 bunks.  There was a sense of community with singing, laughter, tea urns and even a library and with bombs falling around them it must have given many a sense of security to be with their neighbours and friends.

Bombing was not as bad as it had been in previous years but on 3rd March 1943 it was expected to get worse as the RAF had  bombed Berlin quite heavily two nights earlier and people were expecting reprisals. With the sound of the Siren and the closure of the cinema, 3 buses had just stopped nearby and their passengers dashed for the shelter. A woman carrying a baby tripped and fell as she went down the steps to the platform. A man tripped over her and a domino effect started. At the top of the stairs came shouted warning of bombs falling and when a new and loud sound was heard people thought it was a new kind of bomb although it was actually a  new anti-aircraft rocket battery being tested in Victoria Park near by.

People panicked and pushed into the shelter unaware of the horror unfolding below them in the dark. The way was blocked but still people poured down. There were no handrails in the middle, no white edgings on the steps and no police on duty. It was dark and the steps were slippery from the rain. Around 300 people were wedged into the stairway – an area measuring approximately 15 x 11 feet. By the time they were pulled out, 27 men, 84 women and 62 children were crushed to death while 60 survivors needed hospital treatment.  In a horrible irony there was no air raid or bombs dropped that night in the East End.

There was a government enquiry although it’s findings were not published until the end of the war to avoid propaganda for the enemy and damage to British morale.  The entrance was poorly lit, with no central handrail and apparently the local council had asked permission to alter the entrance and put in a central handrail, but had been refused the funds by the Government of the day.  After the tragedy new handrails were installed on the steps down to the station. Each step was marked with white paint.

The official statement by the Ministry of Home Security states:

“According to accounts so far received, shortly after the air-raid Alert sounded, substantial numbers of people were making their way as usual towards the shelter entrance. There were nearly 2000 in the shelter, including several hundred who had arrived after the Alert, when a middle-aged woman, burdened with a bundle and a baby, tripped near the foot of a flight of 19 steps which leads down from the street. This flight of steps terminates on a landing. Her fall tripped an elderly man behind her and he fell similarly. Their bodies again tripped up those behind them, and within a few seconds a large number were lying on the lower steps and the landing, completely blocking the stairway. Those coming in from the street could not see what had taken place and continued to press down the steps, so that within a minute there were about 300 people crushed together and lying on top of one another covering the landing and the lower steps.
“By the time it was possible to extricate the bodies it was found that a total at present estimated at 178 had died and that a further 60 were in need of hospital treatment. Statements from a large number of eye-witnesses and members of the police and Civil Defence services make it clear that there was no sign of panic before the accident on the stairs. No bombs fell anywhere in this district during the evening. Preliminary reports received by the Home Secretary and Minister of Home Security indicate that police, wardens, soldiers, W.V.S. and civilians worked hard and well to rescue the victims. Mr. Morrison has instituted the fullest inquiries to establish in greater detail what took place and to see whether any structural or administrative weaknesses have been brought to light”

The injured were taken to hospital in Whitechapel and the dead were taken to the mortuary there on carts and buses.  When it became overcrowded the bodies were stored in St John’s Church opposite the tube station.  Many of the victims were later buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery, which was cleared by members of the Drapers Company with help from the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery in time for the 60th anniversary. Others are buried in Manor Park Cemetery and a few elsewhere.

Because of the government’s desire to keep the tragedy quiet while war was still going on, those involved were told to keep quiet and not say what had happened.  A report was filed by Eric Linden with the Daily Mail, who witnessed it but it never ran. The story which was reported instead was that there had been a direct hit by a German bomb. The results of the official investigation were not released until 1946.  Everybody in the East End knew the truth but in the days without the internet and social media it did not filter out to the country as a whole.  The press were silenced. There was no counselling in those days and PTSD wasn’t recognised.  People were told to just get on with their life.

There is a list of the dead on the memorial website, and one of them was a twelve year old boy called James William Taylor.  Jimmy was my mother’s first cousin, living within a few minutes of her and in the close knit community of the East End he attended Bonner Street School with her and her brothers and was a close part of her extended family.  My mother and her brothers heard about the disaster from some other children on their way to school and were told that the bodies were being taken out and laid out on the pavement waiting to be transferred.  With the grisly curiosity of wartime children they took a detour to see them.  Only later did they find out that one of the hastily covered bodies laid out beside the road was their cousin Jimmy.

Thinking about this tragedy in light of the recent horrible events in London has made me realise how much times have changed.  It is inconceivable to us that families, including children like my mother, were allowed – in fact expected – to cope with the reality of a tragedy like this without help or counselling or even without financial support.  Women who lost their breadwinner in the tragedy faced hard times with their children.

Surprisingly my mother used to tell me that she remembered surprisingly little sense of outrage or anger at the government either for the disaster or the cover up.  Perhaps that was because she was a child but also it was wartime and everybody had been taught that ‘careless talk costs lives’.  There were no internet groups on Facebook to stir up anger and resentment and animosity, there was just the local community which offered comfort and support and practical help to those in need.  What blame there was landed upon the local council since they were not allowed to publish their requests for funding to improve the entrance, given the number of people using it.  But in wartime London, protests were fairly muted.  People had other things on their minds and it was not until after the war that the full truth gradually emerged and public anger grew including a number of court cases.

For many years the only memorial was a small plaque on the stairway, the one which used to spark my curiosity as a child but in 2007 local residents, including many who had lost family in the tragedy and one or two survivors, formed a charity for a proper memorial to the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War.  Their web page is well worth a look, as it tells the story in far more detail including very moving accounts of survivors.

The memorial, called A Stairway to Heaven is finally being unveiled on Sunday 17 December 2017.  More than 70 years after the tragedy, those 173 people, including my first cousin once removed, are being remembered.  Most of those who survived the disaster are gone now, but those who remain have never forgotten.

My mother didn’t spend all her childhood in London, she had two spells of evacuation, but she had vivid memories of the time she was there and she was a good storyteller.  I’m going to write them down and perhaps get my sister and cousins to dredge up their memories of their parents’ stories.  It’s very easy to think there is plenty of time.  I wish I’d asked both my parents a lot more and written it down so that I could remember it more clearly.

As a history graduate and historical novelist, perhaps it should be my job to record the family history as well so that all our children can benefit from it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner - Tower Bridge, London
Tower Bridge, London

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner was played at my mother’s funeral a few years back.  It was very appropriate for her, because although for the last few years of her life she moved to the Isle of Man to be near us, she saw herself as very much a Londoner.  She was fiercely proud of it, would defend London as the best city in the world – in fact the best place in the world – against anybody.

A cat called Monty
Monty the Cat

I was in London myself recently for a few days, cat sitting for a friend of my sisters and getting some quiet time after the complete madness of the past few months.  It was as hot as Hades and I spent a few days with my sister catching up, being a tourist and getting sore feet after which she went home and I was alone and peaceful with Monty the cat.  My intention wasto catch up on a lot of admin jobs that I’ve left for too long and then to get a really good way into my new Regency novel.  It was a lovely flat with a balcony and the temptation to doze in the sun with Monty was huge, although I did try to resist.

It’s always odd being back in London.  I’m not so familiar with this part, but we took a bus out through the East End where I grew up, to Stratford and then went on to Canary Wharf and had lunch by the river.  In my childhood, Stratford was our local shopping centre and Canary Wharf was a place we simply didn’t go – it consisted of rotting and boarded up warehouses with a few dingy businesses still struggling on.  I’ve watched the evolution of docklands through my life and it’s been a fascinating process.

Despite being born and raised in the East End, I’m not really a city person.  I don’t mind small towns; Douglas is about right for me.  But I love the countryside and the coast, the feeling of fewer people and wider spaces and not feeling trapped.  I don’t think I’d ever choose to live full time in a city again, especially a city as overcrowded as London now is.

Nevertheless – and maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner – I actually do still love London.  It’s the place of my birth and my childhood.  I love the history and the parks and the odd little corners that many people never visit.  I was so lucky as a child to have parents who adored both history and walking.  Every Sunday, unless the rain was torrential, we were dragged out to the number 8 bus stop at the end of the road, to “go for a walk”.  This did not mean a twenty minute stroll through a park.  It meant a four or five hour marathon through parts of London I would never have known existed.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner: Wellington Statue
Wellington statue in London

We walked through the City and listened to my mother’s stories of the blitz and of her first jobs in old fashioned offices, learning the switchboard and typing on an old fashioned typewriter.  We wandered through the Inns of Court and the world of legal London, with my Dad stopping to read every plaque on every wall.  We discovered hidden gems like the Museum of the Order of St John and Postman’s Park.  On wet days we did every museum in London including ones I’ve forgotten even existed.  We went into obscure but beautiful churches which were always open to visitors back then, and if it was late enough in the day we would stay for evensong before getting the bus home.  When people ask me why I write historical novels rather than any other kind, I find it hard to answer apart from to say I always loved history.  But I know that this is why.  At times, wandering through the ancient streets, I would whinge about the fact that my friends from school were all off ice skating or swimming or just hanging out in the street.  But Mum was adamant that unless there was a genuine reason not to (like a broken leg – arms didn’t count, I once saw her scale the cliffs at Hastings with her arm in a sling) we would all go out together on Sundays.  Church, Sunday lunch, walk or other outing and then home for tea and whichever series was on TV on Sundays.  Saturdays were ours; on Sundays we belonged to her.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner: Tower of London
Tower of London

As I grew older the rule relaxed, but by then she didn’t have to nag me, I was hooked.  At secondary school by then, I visited exhibitions relevant to whatever I was studying, sometimes with the school but sometimes on my own.  I would think nothing – and still don’t – about taking myself off to the British Museum on a free day.  A boat trip down to Hampton Court or Greenwich was a joy.  I loved the Cutty Sark and the Tower of London – just wandering around outside them was enough.  And I adored – and will always adore – the River Thames, where my parents did a lot of their courting.

All of this came from a family with very little.  We lived, for the first thirteen years of my life, in an old rented house with no bathroom or indoor toilet.  We washed in the kitchen sink and bathed in an old fashioned tin bath by the oil stove in the kitchen because there was no central heating.  We ate healthily but with few luxuries on a daily basis although it made a meal out for a birthday or the extra treats at Christmas incredibly special.

When we moved to a council maisonette when I was thirteen, it was luxury.  I can remember squabbling over who would be the first to use the new bath until we realised my mother was already in it.  Curiously, we missed our old fashioned house; the new place had no garden.  My parents were good managers and saved for their old age but we didn’t have that much stuff.

What we did have was experiences.  We had one week’s holiday every year, always in the UK but always somewhere special.  When we were small we went to holiday camps a lot as they were cheap and there was entertainment but as we got older we rented cottages and we explored Devon and Cornwall, the Lakes and Yorkshire, the Isle of Wight and parts of Scotland.  We did it all by coach and bus and train; they had no car.

We went to the cinema to see every good new film going.  We went to the London Palladium to see the Pantomime every Christmas.  If there was a school trip to anywhere, they would find the money for us to go.  My love of music came from endless school trips to concerts, the opera, and to hear Gilbert and Sullivan.  My love of good plays and literature came from school trips to the Young Vic and Stratford upon Avon.  They had never been abroad, but I went to Russia at sixteen with the school because my Dad did overtime to pay for it.

George and Iris Bryant
My parents, George and Iris Bryant

I’m aware as an adult of everything they did for us and everything they sacrificed so that we could absorb as many different experiences as they could afford to give us.  It’s not that surprising that we both did so well.  But I don’t think they thought it was that much of a sacrifice, I think they loved doing all these things with us, enjoyed introducing us to the city they both loved.

They were poor when we were young, got more comfortable as we grew up and travelled a bit more, spent more on themselves although they still never had a car or bought a house.  They ate out a lot, discovered different cuisines and enjoyed it.  They both still walked until arthritis and old age prevented them.  But they never resented poverty or saw themselves as victims.  They were never angry.  They simply worked out what was important to them and what they could easily do without and if they needed more they worked a bit harder to get it.

They weren’t political although they never failed to vote, but they both voted on issues rather than blind loyalty to a party so at different times they voted for all three main parties.  My mother voted for Margaret Thatcher simply on the grounds that it was time there was a woman in charge.  She was a feminist without ever knowing what the word meant, or caring.  My father voted Labour that year.  Neither of them cared what anybody else voted.  Their friends and family could be Labour or Tory or Liberal or nothing at all.  It was considered rude to get personal about such matters as religion or politics.  They were old enough to appreciate the welfare state, the NHS and any help they were given.  They were gracious about it, didn’t see it as a right, said thank you when help was given.  During the IRA bombings they continued to take us to all the same places, do all the same things.  We missed the Ideal Home Exhibition bomb by a few minutes only, but there was no sense of anxiety.  We were in London and that city belonged to us, not the bombers.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner.  But when I’m back here, no matter how much it has changed, no matter how much I know that I’d never come back to live here now, I still feel a very primitive sense of belonging.  This is my city, my home, my childhood.  I feel an enormous sense of familiarity and of love and gratitude both to the people who raised me and the city that shaped all of us.  I’ve lived in many places now and loved a fair few of them.  But when I come back to London, I know I’ve come home.