An anniversary I always remember…
Yesterday was the anniversary of my grandmother’s birth. She was born on 9th August 1892, which means that if she were still alive she would be 122 today. That is 164 days younger than the age attained by Jeanne Calment, the oldest verified person who ever lived, who died in 1997 (though a Bolivian man called Carmelo Flores Laura, still living, is reputedly 123). I like to think, therefore, that she could still be alive and vying with Signor Flores Laura for the distinction of being the oldest person in the world.
My grandmother actually died on 9th February 1979, when she was eighty-six and a half. She outlived all of the famous people who are listed as having been born on the same day as she except for one: Thomas Fasti Dinesen. I’ve never heard of him – I’m indebted to Wikipedia for this piece of information – but apparently he was a Danish recipient of the Victoria Cross who died on 10th March 1979, about a month later than my grandmother. Significant events that happened on her actual birthday include that it was the day that Thomas Edison was awarded a patent for a two-way telegraph and (of more interest to me and perhaps to readers of this blog) the first day of the trial of Lizzie Borden, the celebrated American murderess.
Every year when this date comes round, I pay a small, silent tribute to the strong, elegant and feisty woman that my grandmother was. She was in domestic service all her working life, a period which began when she was fourteen and did not end until she was seventy-four, with a very short break for the birth of my mother. She started her career, Tess of the d’Urbervilles fashion, as a poultry maid, working for an elderly lady in her native Kent. During the First World War, she trained as a nursery nurse at Bart’s Hospital and worked in London for more than a decade, looking after the two daughters (one was adopted and much younger than the other) of a Scottish diplomat. She then moved to South Lincolnshire to take up the post of housekeeper to Samuel Frear, the last of the great Lincolnshire sheep farmers. He lived at a large house called The Yews. It’s still standing, just off the main Spalding-Surfleet road. During the Second World War, after Mrs Frear’s death, she moved to Spalding to another housekeeping job, this time working for the Hearnshaw family. They lived in a substantial three-storey house in Pinchbeck Road. Her final post was as lady companion to a very old lady called Mrs James, who lived at The Laurels in Sutterton.
Sausage Hall, the house that features in the next DI Yates novel (to be published on 17th November) is partly based on The Laurels. I can remember visiting my grandmother there when I was a small child.
When Mrs James became too ill to be cared for at home, my grandmother finally retired, to 1 Stonegate in Spalding, one of three mews houses built in 1795. These houses have since been renovated, but when she lived there they had hardly changed since they were new: the toilet was at the end of the short back garden path and, although she had a bath, it had been installed in the kitchen: there was no bathroom as such.
This house (the one on the right of the three in this picture) suited her well, because it was a short walk from Spalding town centre and just over the road from Spalding Parish Church, which she attended several times during the week and up to three times on Sundays (always clad in hat, gloves and stockings, even on the hottest of days).
As it happens, I’m just reading Servants: a downstairs view of twentieth-century Britain, by Lucy Lethbridge. This is a meticulously-researched book. Although accessible, it is much more scholarly than many books I’ve read on the subject, which often fall into the trap of reading like a cross between Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.
Many of the things that Lethbridge describes remind me of my grandmother’s accounts of work in the world of domestic service, but with one exception: she clearly never found the work demeaning and, although she must have been respectful towards her employers, she certainly did not kowtow to them. In fact, she gave me the impression that, in her day, trained servants were in such short supply that she could pick and choose whom she worked for and certainly earn a respectable salary.
My guess is that this was not because Lethbridge (or, indeed, my grandmother) has exaggerated the nature of the employer-servant relationship, but because my grandmother generally worked in a stratum of society not much covered by Lethbridge’s book: that of the upper-middle classes. Thus my grandmother was neither subject to the rules and strictures that servants in the grand stately homes had to observe, nor was she obliged to suffer the petty tyrannies and hard labour imposed by a ‘jumped-up’ lower-middle class mistress who could afford only one servant. The people for whom she worked were kind, enlightened, appreciative and wealthy enough to be able to pay for charladies, gardeners, maids-of-all-work and outsourced laundry services.
This is not to say that my grandmother did not work hard; I’m certain that she did. I know, for example, that when she was working for the Hearnshaws, she was accustomed to cook Christmas dinner for sixteen people. But the work that she did was appreciated and she had time to devote to her own preferred leisure activities: reading (especially geography books, a passion with her), fine embroidery and Christian worship. Each year her employers enabled her to take an annual holiday, either at the seaside or walking on the Yorkshire Moors.
She lived a long and useful life and, I think, it was overall a happy one. Reading Lucy Lethbridge’s book (which I thoroughly recommend), I am grateful to those long-gone employers for the way that they treated her.
Christina James, happily hopping from one blog to another… #Mondayblogs
I have Jenny Lloyd to thank for nominating me for The Writing Process ‘blog hop’. (Why do I dislike this term? I’ve never liked the ugly sound of ‘blog’ and ‘hop’ has unfortunate ‘bunny’ associations – as if I’ve been given fluffy ears and a scut to bounce around in – hah!) Jenny is renowned as the author of Leap the Wild Water, a widely-acclaimed historical novel focusing upon the sufferings of women and the harsh conflicts and unbearable tensions between self and society in rural Wales two hundred years ago; she’s getting close to releasing a sequel to it, The Calling of the Raven, and is already working on the third book. Thanks, Jenny, for this opportunity to join The Writing Process and best wishes for The Raven! (Do visit her blog at http://jennylloydwriter.wordpress.com/, which for me has wonderfully sensitive insights into her homeland, its people and its history… wiv pitchers!)
So, here I go, with a bounce:
What am I working on?
I’m just writing the concluding chapters to Sausage Hall, the third DI Yates novel. Like the first two novels in the Yates series, it is set mostly in Lincolnshire, though some of the action also takes place in Norfolk. Sausage Hall is the name that the locals give the house that is called Laurieston in the novel. It is situated in the village of Sutterton and based on an actual house, which really was nicknamed Sausage Hall, because it had been built by a butcher who’d gone bankrupt in the 1850s. My grandmother, having worked in domestic service all of her life, moved when she was sixty to Sutterton, which is about ten miles from Spalding and seven miles from Boston, to become companion to a very old lady who lived there. The old lady had been the wife of a gentleman farmer who was twenty years her senior, so he must have been born in the mid-nineteenth century. The house was frozen in a time warp. It was packed with quaint furnishings, but the most astounding thing about it (though as a child I just accepted it as normal) was that the walls were decorated with many sepia photographs of the old lady’s husband when he’d been on safari in Africa as a young man. These photographs must have been taken in the 1870s or 1880s and in many of them he was accompanied by several black women wearing very little except strings of beads. It has long been my intention to write about what I think might have happened in this house. When I began researching the period and the district, my plot was given a considerable boost when I discovered that someone very famous had lived nearby in the late nineteenth century. That person appears in the novel, too. The book is set in the present, but the characters and their actions are considerably influenced by what went on at Sausage Hall more than a century ago.
How does my work differ from others in this genre?
As is well-known (especially by those who organise creative writing courses!), the genre of crime fiction is usually divided into several sub-genres. I’m only interested in a few of these: primarily the psychological crime novel, with a slighter nod to the ‘woman at risk’ variant. Except tangentially – for I do try to get the facts right about policing, the law and the justice system – I’m not what is known as a ‘procedural’ crime writer. I don’t plod through all of the police action step by step, leaving no ‘i’ undotted or ‘t’ uncrossed. Nor do I seek to hold my readers’ attention or shock them with descriptions of excessive violence or bloody massacres. I don’t write action thrillers or spy novels. Conversely, I’m not a creator of what has been called ‘cosy’ crime: the type of novel that those of a nervous disposition can happily read in bed at night when in the house on their own. I like to think that, through careful characterisation and as much psychological insight as I can command, my novels explore some pretty gritty truths and moral dilemmas. I also try to flip the crime-writing conventions on their head in various ways: for example, I tend not to tie up all the loose ends (life’s just not like that) and, flying in the face of the notion of catharsis, I don’t always make it absolutely clear who the perpetrator is. I’ve been told by several reviewers that I’ve broken new ground in the crime genre, but I try not to stretch this too far. For example, I don’t think it works to try to mix genres and combine crime with Science Fiction or Fantasy – a few authors might be able to pull it off, but they’d have to be very skilful indeed. More prosaically, although my novels are set in the present, the town of Spalding in which most of the action in the Yates series occurs is the Spalding of my childhood, not the town as it is today. This gives me the advantage of being able to write about a finite, unchanging place that only I have access to, because it is locked in my memory (with all that that implies).
Why do I write what I do?
I’m not wedded always to being exclusively a crime writer. I’ve written novels and short stories which would certainly be pigeon-holed in the ‘literary fiction’ bracket by most publishers. However, although the quality of my writing was praised when I tried to publish some of these (others have not been and never will be shown to anyone!), I repeatedly received feedback that I needed to tighten up on the plot and make my work more accessible generally. I therefore decided to try writing crime fiction, because it requires a tight and carefully-constructed plot and the action itself keeps the novel moving on nicely. The constraints of the genre provide an excellent way of creating and maintaining self-discipline in the writing. I have to weed out the ‘purple passages’ when revising if I realise that they don’t contribute to the plot. Once I have a sound plot, I’m also less likely to get stuck or suffer from ‘writer’s block’ than when writing literary fiction. However, although I’m very happy writing crime fiction and shall continue to do so, I do have other plans in the pipeline as well.
How does my writing process work?
Following on from what I’ve said in the paragraph above, plot is very important in crime fiction. Once I have an idea for a novel, I work painstakingly on the plot, often during my long annual holiday in France, until I am satisfied that I can make it work. I will usually also draft a half-page outline for each chapter. I don’t always stick exactly to my original plot afterwards, but, if I change it, I make sure that the changes don’t create inconsistencies elsewhere in the novel. I don’t start out by conducting the research. Although I do research the background to my books thoroughly, I tend to do this as I go along. This works better for me than conducting the research at the outset, because, like most writers, I am easily seduced by reading. It’s very easy to spend several days on what you might like virtuously to term ‘research’ when what you’re actually doing is enjoying yourself by feeding a curiosity that far exceeds the requirements of the novel! I’m a firm believer in writing every day if possible, though I don’t set myself huge word targets. I’m satisfied with 1,000 words a day or a little more. I revise constantly – the first revision usually takes place on the same day as the original writing, and I’ll often revise it the next day before I start writing again. Thereafter, I revise in groups of chapters – every time I’ve completed, say, the next eight or ten chapters, I’ll revise this group as a single ‘chunk’ of writing. Often I do this on long train journeys. Finally, I revise the whole book all the way through, sometimes more than once, keeping a sharp look-out for inconsistencies and other solecisms and sharpening up the text. Then I hand the MS over to my husband for checking. He is an even fiercer critic of my work than I am and, as well as weeding out inconsistencies, will scrutinise the grammar, punctuation and syntax. Although I don’t always agree with his suggested revisions, his contribution is invaluable.
‘Ere, Valerie, your turn! Have some fluffy ears and a white fluffy tail and go hopping! I nominate Val Poore @vallypee for this excitement. She’s both a teacher of English for business and academic purposes and a historic bargee… sorry, she owns a historic live-aboard barge in Rotterdam and has turned her rich experiences in England, South Africa and The Netherlands into both funny and serious stories, both autobiographical and fictional. One, The Skipper’s Child, recently won the Wishing Shelf Silver Award. Respek! You’ll find her faring along the European canal system or simply soaking up the atmosphere of Oude Haven, here: http://wateryways.blogspot.co.uk/
Oh, as for blog-hopping, I don’t know quite how it happened, but Jenny’s nomination for today coincided with Bodicia’s very kind guest blog opportunity here. I had to use a bit of the same material for this post on my site, so I hope you will forgive me for that.
Bank on books and invest in public libraries – do it, David!
I know that some of the readers of this blog have been following my contribution to the ‘Save Lincolnshire Libraries’ campaign. I thought, therefore, that you might also be interested in an article that appeared in The Times last Thursday, which says:
“Economists have calculated the monetary value of sporting and cultural activities and found that going to the library frequently was – in satisfaction terms – worth the same as a pay rise of £1,359.”
Playing team sports came close behind – but still it was behind – at a value of £1,127.
Now, I’m not naïve enough to expect anyone to swallow this without a little pinch of salt. How do you put a monetary value on any activity? It could be taken to extreme limits: for example, I could estimate that the monetary value of my husband is £5,000 per annum, but only if he does the hoovering. If he doesn’t do the hoovering, it drops to -£5; and either figure would have to be offset by the amount that he ratchets up on my credit card buying stuff for his greenhouse. I jest, of course, though some of the assumptions made by the research team at the London School of Economics strike me as equally far-fetched. The article continues: “The authors … speculated that … the sort of person who went to a gym was probably already tired of life and unhappy with their lot.” I have no idea how they arrived at this conclusion. Most of the people I know who attend gyms are irritatingly bouncy, dripping their endorphins and their self-righteous early morning starts all over everyone else. I’m quite grateful for this observation, nevertheless, as it obviously lets me off ever setting foot in a gym again for the rest of my life.
But let me get back to the point. If libraries are worth so much to the well-being of the individual, you’d think that, by now, the government – and especially David Cameron, with his slightly suspect ‘well-being index’ – would have latched on to this and decided that it was a bad idea to keep on closing libraries and cutting their services. Just think how they could keep inflation down if every time someone asked for a pay-rise, they could be told that £1,359 of it would be paid in library benefits! By the by, the Prime Minister has responded to the splendid petition and letter given to him by ‘Save Lincolnshire Libraries’ campaigner Julie Harrison by passing them on to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, as being rather too hot to handle himself. He should realise just how much libraries mean to, especially rural, communities in the county of my birth and elsewhere and take a lead on this at least.
I know that the government is struggling to see the value of libraries in today’s society and that it can’t get away from the idea that they are ‘old hat’. In reply, I’d like to tell them to dust off their history books a little. Recently, I have been reading David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain. If you haven’t come across David Kynaston’s three books, which at present cover the years 1945 – 1959 (there are more in the pipeline), you should rush out and buy them immediately, because they are the most brilliant evocation of post-war society you are ever likely to come across. Austerity Britain chronicles the years 1945 – 1951 and, by chance also on Thursday, I reached the section on public libraries. Kynaston quotes some Mass Observation opinions on why public libraries were so little used in 1947 and why people preferred magazines:
–None of them subjects is interesting to me. All I like is gangster stories, though there’s precious much chance of reading here. Three rooms we got and three kids knocking around. No convenience, no water. I’m glad to get out of the house, I can tell you.
– Cos I ain’t got no interest in them [books] – they all apparently lead up to the same thing.
– I’m not very good at reading, I never was. I’ve never liked it some’ow.
– Too long. I have started books and I have to read through the first pages two or three times. I like to get stuck straight into a story – there’s too much preliminary, if you see what I mean.
You might have expected public libraries to be more appreciated at this time of austerity, when wages were low and almost everything was rationed. Apparently they weren’t. But ten years later, when the nation was back on the road to prosperity, public libraries were enjoying the start of their heyday. This lasted for at least three decades. When I started work as a young library supplier at the end of the 1970s, public libraries were still highly regarded and librarians enjoyed considerable prestige. They were also extremely well-supported by both local and national government.
Is there a moral here? I’d say that if the experience of the past can teach us anything, it is that people are more interested in culture, including cultural services, when their lives are financially stable. It makes sense, if you think about it, for people who are happy and settled in their jobs and home life to ‘make time’ to go to the library. It is also understandable if people who are unemployed and desperately looking for work don’t feel able to find space for using the free public library service. That is my take on it, anyway, and I think that the government should note the facts. If Mr Gove is as worried as he says he is about standards of literacy among the young, he should encourage his colleagues at the Culture Department to stick up for public libraries. There can be no cheaper or more effective way of encouraging high standards of literacy than to get children interested in books at an early age and to make as many books as they can read available to them, regardless of their social background.
When I was a child growing up in Spalding, the public library was on the ground floor of Ayscoughfee Hall. (It subsequently moved to a purpose-built building in Henrietta Street and it was while taking a gap year to work as an assistant at this library that my friend Mandy brought me the book about Jack the Ripper when I was working in the Chinese restaurant with the putatively murderous cook called Moon.) There were only a few shelves of children’s books, and I had exhausted these long before the end of my primary school years. The librarian there, a kindly lady, used her discretion and allowed me to join the adult section of the library, even though the rules stated that this was not possible for children under twelve. There exists a very stereotypical idea of librarians as mousy, unhumorous and devoted to regulations (especially ‘no talking’); I’m certain that this is unfair and that librarians like the one I knew in Spalding quietly go the extra mile all of the time in order to help people read and enjoy books. We should celebrate librarians as well as libraries: along with booksellers, they are the great unsung heroes and heroines of civilised society.
(But before I get too eulogistic, I’d like to add that I’m now planning a future blog-post called Librarians I Have Known. I won’t pre-empt it by offering more than a glimpse here, but, suffice it to say, it will include tales of red shoes, prostitutes, Spirella corsets and Sanderson sofas. I may just have been lucky, but many of the librarians I’ve encountered have been very far removed from the stereotype.)
On my travels in other countries, some of the most evocative moments have been spent contemplating rivers. I’ve stood on O’Connell Bridge in Dublin and watched the (on that occasion very murky) waters of the Liffey and remember thinking, as I looked into its Guinness-coloured depths, that it must have been entirely James Joyce’s poetic imagination that produced such a beautiful name as Anna Livia Plurabelle. I’ve seen dhows swooping along the Nile, their single white sails bending gracefully to the breeze. I’ve marvelled at the massive businesslike barges speeding along the Danube, powerful and swift as crocodiles on the move. The bridges and embankments of the Seine are still vividly precious for their romance on our honeymoon. Closer to home, as I’ve written in a previous post, I’ve admired the spectacular night-time views from Waterloo Bridge in London as the Thames makes its sudden sweep to the East. And I still feel great affection for the dear, dirty River Welland that threads its way through the town of Spalding, much humbler than these great waterways, though still, in its day, a significant bringer of prosperity to the people who dwelt nearby, just like all the great rivers of the world.
Unsurprising then, that I should have been captivated by the magic of the great Yangtze, the fourth longest river in the world, as it pours itself at Shanghai into the East China Sea. Wide and fast-flowing, the Yangtze has brought traders to Shanghai for thousands of years, making it one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities long before the rest of China emerged from its self-imposed insularity.
Even the Yangtze’s much smaller tributary, the Huangpu River that cuts right through the city centre, is a majestic waterway, which I visited first on a cold but sunny Sunday afternoon when people were promenading along the Bund, the waterfront area opposite Pudong, on a built-up walkway that enables walkers to get close to the river’s banks and where festive street food stalls abound.
Two days later, on a bitterly frosty but fine, clear evening, I was taken to the Huangpu’s junction with the Yangtze. On both occasions I was able to watch barge after nimble barge (they are longer and slenderer than the ones on the Danube) power by, almost as if in convoy, while the waters displaced by their passage lapped energetically against the shore. The barges and other ships are lit up in the evening, as is the spectacular Shanghai skyline that forms a backdrop to the Yangtze. The result is a profusion of golden lights that disport themselves against the inky blackness of the waters. The scene is dynamic, full of energy and passion, the legacy of very many years of trade, hard-won prosperity, daring, risk and chance and, I’m certain, not a little skulduggery and murder. The effect is by no means cosy, but it is exhilarating! At the back of my mind lurked the half-remembered knowledge that, in years gone by, to be ‘Shanghaied’ meant to be kidnapped and forced to serve as a sailor on board one of the many ships that plied their trade to the East and, ultimately, to Shanghai. I could imagine someone creeping up on a strong young man as he stood, unsuspecting, and rendering him unconscious; imagine his anguish as he awoke, his head sore, far out at sea, unable to tell his family and friends what had befallen him… that he was on his way to China.
Every river has a personality, which I think was James Joyce’s point about the Liffey. The Yangtze’s is particularly complex: on the one hand, it courses past Shanghai, bearing its gift to this great city of enterprise and generations of toleration for many creeds and cultures; on the other, it penetrates deep into a country that until recent times was secret, withdrawn, enclosed and shut away from all outside influence.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
A happy afternoon in Hunstanton, with friends old and new…
On the platform
Yesterday was a real red-letter day for me. I had been invited to give one of two after-lunch talks at Soroptimist International King’s Lynn annual fund-raising lunch, which was held at the Best Western Le Strange Arms Hotel at Old Hunstanton. I was invited to speak by Sue Renwick, this year’s King’s Lynn Soroptimist President, and her colleague, June Muir. I discovered that my name had been suggested by two of my old school friends, Lyn Lord and Mandy North. Both have been enthusiastic promoters of my books and Mandy has attended both of the signing sessions held at Bookmark in Spalding. I was chosen because my books are set in Spalding – not too far away from King’s Lynn (in fact, my brother was born in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital there) – and the group particularly likes to listen to authors whose books have a local flavour.
This literary lunch was the fourth one held by the King’s Lynn Soroptimists. The speaker at last year’s event was Stella Rimington (who has a house in Norfolk), so I felt honoured indeed! The audience consisted of ninety-nine lunchers, mostly Soroptimists, with a sprinkling of husbands. The Worshipful the Mayor of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, Councillor Mrs Elizabeth Watson, was there, and I much enjoyed talking to her. I was privileged to be seated next to Sue Renwick’s husband and had a fascinating conversation with him about migrant workers in Norfolk (a topic in which I’m currently immersed as I write my third DI Yates novel). The local press was in attendance: I shall post links to their photographs when I have them.
I had heard of the Soroptimists before, but I didn’t know much about them until I received the invitation, when I made it my business to find out a little more. The first group was set up in the USA, quickly followed by others in the UK. The organisation is now worldwide. Its website explains its mission: We are committed to a world where women and girls together achieve their individual and collective potential, realise aspirations and have an equal voice in creating strong, peaceful communities worldwide. The fund-raising events support particular causes. The money raised from yesterday’s lunch will contribute to respite holidays for Norfolk’s young carers: heartbreakingly, there are children as young as seven looking after infirm or disabled parents.
My fellow-speaker was Elly Griffiths, whom I had already met earlier this year at a very successful literary festival event held at Watton Library. Elly spoke first. I know her to be a witty and eloquent speaker (and therefore a tough act to follow!). She told the audience how she came to create her academic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway, and read an excerpt from the next Ruth Galloway novel. She said that the inspiration for these books had come from her husband, who exchanged a high-profile, lucrative career as a city ‘suit’ to become an archaeologist. The Galloway novels are set in Norfolk because Elly’s aunt lives there and Elly spent holidays there as a child; she also pointed out that Norfolk is full of bones!
My brief asked me how I came to develop the characters in the DI Yates novels. I’ve reproduced some of what I said here in the hope that it may interest readers of this blog, as several of you have asked me similar questions.
When I was thinking about where to set the novels, I revisited the Spalding of my childhood (and incidentally some of my most memorable holidays as a girl were spent in Hunstanton). DI Yates’ Spalding is therefore a ‘perfect’ place in the sense that it exists only in my memory and imagination. Among the many riches that Spalding and the Fens offer to me as a writer is their wonderful place-names – Pode Hole, Quadring Eaudyke, Gosberton Risegate, Pinchbeck: I know that many readers are intrigued by the promise of romance and mystery implicit in the names of these villages.
None of the characters is entirely based on people I know or have known, though they have been influenced by traits I saw in certain individuals or by real events and customs. For example, my great uncle kept a general shop in in Spalding, in Westlode Street. It was the family business for many years: he’d inherited it from his father. My grandmother – my father’s mother – acted as his housekeeper. More or less accurately, this is the shop in which Doris Atkins is murdered in In the Family. Her daughter-in-law, Dorothy Atkins, also known as Tirzah, is convicted of the crime. But Doris Atkins is not a portrayal of my grandmother, nor is Dorothy a portrayal of my mother. Uncle Colin, the hunchback who keeps the shop, is a little more closely based on my own great-uncle, but only in the physical sense: my great-uncle did indeed suffer from curvature of the spine. He did make forays on a grocer’s bicycle to collect cigarettes and bananas to sell in the shop. He did wear a long shopman’s coat and a trilby. But Colin’s character is not his character. (Just as well, considering what Colin gets up to in the novel!)
Moving on to Almost Love, I talked about Alex Tarrant and her role in the novel. Alex is the secretary of the Archaeological Society, a prestigious institution very loosely modelled on Spalding Gentlemen’s Society. Some of my readers have told me that they feel that the Archaeological Society is almost like another character in this novel. The story begins with the unexplained disappearance of a famous archaeologist. Several murders take place during the course of the novel and, although she isn’t involved in them directly, Alex is inadvertently the person who provides the links between the various perpetrators; this is in part because she embarks upon an ill-considered affair. I was interested in exploring the disintegration of character of Edmund Baker, the County Heritage Officer and the instigator of this illicit alliance, as he undoubtedly suffers the guilt of betraying his wife.
I also spoke about my grandmothers and the extraordinary houses they lived in. I’ve already mentioned the shop at Westlode Street where my father’s mother lived. My mother’s mother was employed in domestic service from the age of fourteen to seventy-four, at first (a bit like Hardy’s Tess!) as a poultry maid. Her second employer sent her to Bart’s Hospital to train as a nursery nurse and from this she worked her way up to become housekeeper to Samuel Frear, last of the great Lincolnshire sheep farmers. She was widowed young, so my mother grew up at The Yews, the Frear family home at Surfleet. Just after I was born, my grandmother, now aged sixty, moved to Sutterton, to become companion to a very old lady who lived at a substantial house called The Laurels. She had been the wife of a gentleman farmer who was twenty years her senior, so he must have been born in the mid-nineteenth century.
Like Westlode Street, The Laurels was packed with quaint furnishings, but the most astounding thing about it (though as a child I just accepted it as normal) was that the walls were decorated with many sepia photographs of the old lady’s husband when he’d been on safari in Africa as a young man. These photographs must have been taken in the 1870s or 1880s and in many of them he was accompanied by several black women wearing very little except strings of beads. The book I’m working on now is set in this house. When I began writing it, I had also just discovered that a very famous person was living in the area at the same time, which helped me to construct the plot. It’s about a murder that happens in the present, but is strongly influenced by what happened in the house in the past.
I think that both our talks were well-received: many of the Soroptimists came and spoke to us with great warmth and enthusiasm afterwards, and they were extremely generous in their purchases of our books. We were each presented with a pen in a beautifully crafted wooden box that Sue Renwick had made herself – an unexpected and delightful kindness.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank most sincerely all of those present for a wonderful day. I shall certainly take a very close interest in all that they do from now on and hope perhaps to be able to help them, both as a writer and a professional woman, in the future. I hope too that they will come to visit here and perhaps comment, too.
Perhaps sadly, Uggle wasn’t…
I’ve written several times about the importance of place in my novels and how much I admire writers who can evoke a specific place (whether real or fictional) and imbue it with its own particular character and atmosphere. Fictional places that I love include Margaret Mitchell’s Tara, Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead and Gerald Durrell’s Corfu (the last perhaps not strictly speaking fictional, but still, I’m certain, an embroidered and selective portrayal of the island as it existed when he moved there with his family).
Towns, villages and hamlets in the area of South Lincolnshire where I grew up have some wonderful names: Spalding itself (named after a sixth century Anglian tribe called the Spaldingas), Whaplode, Quadring Eaudyke, Gosberton Risegate, and, perhaps the one I like best, Pode Hole (which, apparently, is Anglo-Saxon for ‘the place of the toad’). Today Pode Hole is a very small village, best known for the pumping station which was opened in 1965 and is already a Grade II listed building. It connects two waterways to Vernatt’s Drain, an astonishing feat of late seventeenth century engineering which began the long, slow process of draining the Fens. (I’ve read that Vernatt’s real name was Baron Philibert Vernatti, and that he was ‘an adventurer’. I’d certainly like to have met him!)
Place names in South Yorkshire are also evocative. There is Silkstone (which sounds beautiful, but was once quite a grim mining village); Hoylandswaine, which reads like the name of a bucolic lover but more prosaically means ‘a spur of land jutting out from a hill’; Durkar (which means ‘grit marsh’, but to me has always sounded Asian: a rather exotic cross between ‘durbar’ and ‘gurkha’) and Goldthorpe and Grimethorpe (the Danish ‘thorp’ referring to a small new settlement next to a larger village).
Many of these Yorkshire place-names are Norse or Danish in origin. There is an even greater concentration of such Scandinavian names on the East coast, particularly in the Scarborough – Robin Hood’s Bay area and its hinterland. My all-time favourite is Ugglebarnby.
As a family, we’ve passed through Ugglebarnby many times on our way to a day out at the coast. Knowing that ‘-by’ is the Norse suffix for ‘the place of’, we’ve always assumed that Ugglebarnby meant ‘the place of Uggle’s barn’. We’ve had fun speculating about Uggle: we’ve discussed how he probably came storming inland, straight off his dragon-prowed longboat, saw a likely-looking Saxon barn and laid claim to it and the adjoining village, thereafter fighting off all challengers and making it quite clear to whom the barn belonged by emphatically slapping his name on it. My husband and son, both tall and red-haired, and with ancestors in the female line whose surname was definitely of Norse origins, like to imagine themselves as modern incarnations of fierce manly Vikings – sailing the oceans, whirling sharp battleaxes and certainly getting their own way (the desire to do this is still a pronounced family trait) in claiming new territories. They’ve therefore always felt a strong affinity with Uggle. Perhaps because of my own Saxon origins, I’ve imagined him as quite a sinister character, probably reclusive, a hulking, brooding giant emerging like a Rottweiler from his homestead (plus barn) to defend it against all comers.
Today I’ve disappointed myself a little, therefore, by looking up Ugglebarnby in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, only to discover that its meaning is ‘the owl at Bardi’s place’. Now Bardi might have been just as bloodthirsty and truculent as Uggle, but somehow I doubt it: he was obviously nice to owls, and whether or not he had a barn is not recorded. A bit of a let-down!
We could have looked up the name years ago – The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names was left to my husband by his first boss, who died at some point in the 1980s – but I’m glad that we didn’t. If we had, all those fantastical conversations on the way to the coast would never have happened. But one crucial thing hasn’t changed: Ugglebarnby is still a peerless place-name!
[Click on photographs to enlarge them.]
Perhaps you have your own favourite place names; if so, I should very much like to hear of them.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
Faster food and fashion… This irks!
I’ve not had a gripe about words and their usage for some time. However, last night an old irritation re-emerged as I was preparing dinner.
I hate colloquial abbreviations that turn a perfectly serviceable – and sometimes quite beautiful – word or phrase into a much more humdrum, not to say unintelligent, expression. This is an irk (I’ve just made a noun of that!) that goes way back into my childhood. I grew up in an era when the relative affluence of the 1960s was taking consumerism to new levels and my mother frequently sent me on errands to our local shop, which (even then) belonged to Spar. As part of the independent retailer drive against the supermarket chains which, even in towns like Spalding, were just beginning to take hold (my Uncle David, who also kept a shop and didn’t belong to any kind of co-operative, was always railing against them), the shop usually displayed a few items marked ‘special offer’. As a nine-year-old or thereabouts (I admit that I was probably an insufferable little prig!), I remember the strong sense of semantic outrage that I felt on the first occasion that I heard the shopkeeper describe one of these as ‘on offer’. Now, of course, this is such a familiar term that ‘special offer’ has almost disappeared from usage; many retailers even use the term ‘offer’ without a preposition.
Since then, many similar slimmed-down inventions have offended my ear. The term ‘Brussels sprouts’ is a case in point. My father frequently abbreviated this to ‘Brussels’, which I felt gave the vegetable, although it provided good, solid English fare, a hint of continental exoticism. I was not so delighted when I came to live in Yorkshire and found that the locals always call them ‘sprouts’ – a less attractive word I could hardly conceive of!
Then there were ‘high heels’, those potent rites of passage into womanhood that girls aspired to and were once not allowed to wear until well into their teens. I’m not quite sure when this happened – possibly longer ago than I realise – but I note that now they are always called ‘heels’. Ugh! If you’d used this word to my grandmother, who was not particularly enamoured of the male sex, she would immediately have understood that you were referring to a couple of less-than-satisfactory men, not a pair of glamorous shoes.
And, while we’re on the subject, what about ‘mains’, as in ‘main course’? It’s another one that’s crept up on me. When was the second word dropped? Did restaurants not have enough space on menus and billboards to write the whole phrase? It sounds like an apology for a waterworks.
And now – wait for it! – as I discovered yesterday evening, Sainsbury’s is describing its garlic ciabatta bread as ‘a classic and Italian side’. A classic and Italian side of what? Of course, I know that it refers to ‘side dish’, or, as the Americans would say, something to be presented or eaten ‘on the side’. But why not say so? Why mangle the language in this way and diminish both the magic of the words and their sense?
Perhaps I’ve now become an insufferable much older prig… or perhaps I have a point.
The ticking of time…
Today, August 9th, was my grandmother’s birthday. Already an old lady in my first memories of her, she was born in 1892. If she were still alive today, she would be 121, making her only slightly younger than Jeanne Calment, the longest-lived woman ever (reliably) recorded. I always remember the date of her birth when it comes round, partly because it is only a few days after my own birthday.
My grandmother was eighty-seven when she died. Although she was nine when Edward VII (whom she saw when he visited King’s Lynn shortly after his coronation) came to the throne, she remained a Victorian all her life. She dressed in high-necked blouses and ankle-length skirts. She never bought an article of clothing from a chain store; instead, she was fitted by a dressmaker twice a year for a new summer dress or a new winter dress, for ‘best’, plus two or three more of the almost-identical perennial skirts and blouses. Every few seasons, there would also be a new coat and a hat to match. She always wore a hat and gloves in the street and kept the hat on if she were visiting someone’s house. People in Spalding used to say to me, ‘Is your grandmother that old lady who’s always so beautifully dressed?’ Her shoes were handmade, too. She went to church several times a week and always twice on Sundays. She had standards.
You’d almost think that the twentieth century was an irrelevance to her, yet she was a bystander at some of its most significant events. Aged nine, she was lying in bed with rheumatic fever when her mother came in and said, ‘The Queen’s dead.’ (She meant Queen Victoria). She was working as a nursery nurse in London when her upper middle class employers told her in hushed tones of horror of the murder of the Russian royal family. Like many other young women, she knew young men who never returned from the trenches. She witnessed one of the Zeppelin raids on London, and was still living and working there during the General Strike. She remembered the suffragette processions and was flattered when she was told that she looked like Nancy Astor, the first woman MP. After she moved to Spalding (to be near her ageing parents) in the mid-1930s, she watched a rally held there in the marketplace by Oswald Mosely and his blackshirts. She and my mother were making a bed together towards the end of the Second World War when a doodlebug immediately overhead stopped buzzing; they each froze and waited, but thankfully it fell in Bourne Woods, some fifteen miles away.
These are just some of the reminiscences that she shared with me when I was a child (and I was always spellbound by her memories, never bored by them). Today, I thought it would be interesting to find out a few of the other things that happened in the year that she was born. It turned out that 1892 was a very eventful year… and, to list just a few of the significant happenings I’ve discovered that happened in that year:
- Thomas Edison received a patent for the two-way telegraph.
- Ellis Island began accommodating immigrants to the United States.
- Rudolf Diesel applied for a patent for the petrol ignition engine.
- The General Electric Company was founded.
- The Dalton Gang was apprehended by local townspeople and most of its members shot dead.
- An anarchist’s bomb killed six people in Paris.
- The Nutcracker ballet was premiered in St Petersburg.
- Andrew Carnegie (later a huge benefactor of English and Scottish libraries) amalgamated his six companies into one business and gained monopoly of the American steel industry.
- The father and mother of the suspected murderess Lizzie Borden were found dead in their Massachusetts home. It was one of the first murders to arouse widespread public interest.
- Conan Doyle published The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
- It was the birth year also of Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy), Haile Selassie, Pearl S. Buck, Vita Sackville-West and Hugh MacDiarmid. Hugh MacDiarmid was my grandmother’s very close contemporary: he was born just two days after her and died five months to the day before she did.
The story that this miscellaneous list of facts tells is that the seeds of the twentieth century – scientific, cultural, literary and political – were being sown by the beginning of the 1890s. There can be no period of time that has seen greater changes than the years that my grandmother’s life (1892 – 1979) spanned. When she was born, motor-cars were in their infancy and girls waited impatiently to be allowed to ‘put their hair up’; when she died, it was already eighteen years since Yuri Gagarin had been launched into space and Flower Power, The Beatles and the mini-skirt had been and gone. Yet she was not impervious to these events; rather, she seemed to take them in her stride. In the meantime, she carried on wearing long skirts, visiting her dressmaker and attending church, confident, I have no doubt, that one day the world would wake up from its madness and proper decorum would be restored.
All, apart from my memories, that I have of her are a few presents that I treasure; they include a brass carriage clock of hers, which, as it stood on her mantelpiece, and now stands on mine, seems a symbolic link of time to a bygone age of which she was very much a part.
A significant writer, with flair: M.R. Hall, @MRHall_books
I bought The Flight and The Disappeared, by M.R. Hall, from Bookmark in Spalding and took them with me on holiday to read. I had not heard of the author before, but Christine Hanson, the proprietor of Bookmark, had mounted a display of them in the shop and had also read The Flight, which she said was excellent. I was certainly prepared to accept her judgment.
To confess the exact truth, I started The Flight, which is the later novel, first, and didn’t much like it. It deals with an air crash, and the first fifty pages or so reminded me very much of those disaster movies that were so popular in the 1980s, which had a very thin storyline and depended on the histrionics of the disaster itself to maintain interest. This was compounded by an amazing amount of technical detail that, although I dislike segregating books into ‘men’s reads’ and ‘women’s reads’, struck me as having more of a male than a female appeal.
I therefore put The Flight aside and embarked upon The Disappeared. Upon picking it up, I thought immediately that it would be much more to my taste. The story is about the disappearance of two Muslim teenagers and how Jenny Cooper, the Severn Vale District Coroner, mounts an investigation into the cause of their deaths (as they have officially been declared dead, but no bodies found) seven years afterwards, at the request of the mother of one of them. The novel deals with several topical and sensitive issues, including Muslim extremism and the activities, sometimes of dubious legality, of the security services. All this is riveting, and beautifully written. What engaged me most of all, however, was the detailed and delicate portrayal of states of mind that can perhaps be described as hyper-sensitive, but by no means indicate madness or irrationality, and how those suffering from them can be persecuted by unscrupulous people trying to serve their own unethical purposes by discounting them or even bringing them into disrepute by suggesting that they are unreliable. Fine parallels are drawn between Jenny’s own mental state and that of Amira Jamal, the mother of one of the missing youths. Both need professional help for their mental conditions, yet each is perceptive and intelligent, with an intuitive understanding of the forces that are really at work, despite being disbelieved and ‘rubbished’ by others and, to differing extents, cowed by this. Yet, in both instances, the reader is left in some lingering doubt about their powers of judgment. A particularly good example of this occurs when Jenny’s sulky teenage son (with whom a more mentally robust mother would have had a straightforward conversation, setting out a few home truths) enlists the help of her smug ex-husband to move out of her house. While the son is packing, the husband explains that one of the reasons that the son is going is that Jenny is not fit to look after him, citing the fact that there is never any food in the house. From what has gone before, the reader knows that this statement, if exaggerated, has on several occasions been true (there are further occasions when the son has selfishly demolished all the food). It is left to the reader to reflect that a son in his last year at college should not be as helpless as this one appears to be, but it is a manifestation of the author’s considerable talent that Hall demonstrates that there are faults on both sides. It is from such balanced depiction of human relationships, and how they fray and chafe against each other, that the book gains distinction. The taut relationship between Jenny Cooper and her ex-policewoman clerk, Alison Trent, is also particularly well-drawn.
So, having enjoyed The Disappeared immensely and devoured it impatiently to the last page, I decided to give The Flight another try. To any other reader who, like me, finds the first eighth or so of this book daunting, I’d like to say that it’s well worth persevering with. It’s true that there is a lot of technical detail throughout (and I can only applaud the author’s obvious mastery of it; I’m sure that a huge amount of research must have gone into the crafting of this novel), but the reason for it becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses. M.R. Hall has constructed an intricate but worryingly believable plot which, even more than in The Disappeared, entrances as it unfolds. Jenny’s personal story is also developed well in this later work: she is released from some of her demons, but manages to create others in their place; and her dealings with Alison are even more fraught than in its predecessor.
I’m delighted to have discovered M.R. Hall, especially through one of my favourite bookshops, and look forward with impatience to the next Jenny Cooper story. In the meantime, I believe that there are a couple of others in the series that I have yet to read. Do I have any reservations at all? Only one comparatively minor one. It concerns the character of Jenny herself. Hall has been much praised for getting inside the head of a woman with such sympathy and understanding. I’d say that 95% of the time this praise is well-deserved, but sometimes Jenny is just a bit too snivelly and self-pitying for my taste, though she soon snaps out of it. Hall should perhaps consider that resourceful women who live alone never (in my experience) behave like this. They know that the knight in shining armour won’t come rushing to their aid and adopt a pragmatic approach accordingly – as Jenny always does, after her odd lapses. But, as I’ve said, this is a minor personal niggle, and possibly it’s unfair even to mention it.
A fair bit of nostalgia…
As a child I always visited the circuses and funfairs that came to Spalding, because my great-uncle, who kept a shop, was given free tickets or tokens for rides in return for placing advertising posters in the shop windows. I was never very keen on circuses – the captured animals forced to perform tricks, their eyes sad and defeated, troubled me even then. But I loved the funfairs! Yesterday, I stumbled upon one completely unexpectedly when stopping to walk in a small picturesque village when out for a drive.
I hadn’t been to a funfair for many years. The last time that I can recall was during a holiday in France, when my family and I were passing through the handsome old Roman town of Saintes and saw that it was en fête. The main street of the town, which is shady because of the plane trees lining it on either side, had been cordoned off and a modern funfair set up adjacent to the ancient manège (roundabout) that always seems to be there when we visit. I remember that fair especially for its mingled scents of hot metal, warm sugar and cooking meats.
Yesterday’s fair presented me with a similar surge of aromas. The heated metal and candyfloss smells were particularly pervasive in the warm sunshine. What also fascinated was the very dated appearance of the rides – dodgems, cakewalks, giant rocking-boats, one of those terrifying cylindrical rides that depends on centrifugal force not to tip its occupants onto the tarmac as it bends and tilts and, for the younger children, bobbing yellow plastic ducks to ‘catch’ with magnetised canes as they swim endlessly round tiny artificial rivers and a small roundabout of aeroplanes fitted with joysticks for their infant pilots to manipulate them up and down – all standard fairground machinery, perhaps, but, extraordinarily, existing as if in a 1950s time-warp. Each piece was painted and decorated in the same way as those of the fairs that I remember in Spalding as a very small child: there were pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Laurel and Hardy; the cylindrical ride was even topped with a figurine of Elvis Presley.
What transported me back into the past yet more vividly was the wonderful carnival atmosphere that the fair brought with it. Whole families had gathered and were chatting, happy and relaxed, in the streets. Children danced giddily off the rides and played next to them with their friends or tugged at their parents for the cash to buy another go. Fathers pushed buggies and women congregated in groups, sipping coffee or nibbling ice-creams. A local café was selling half-pizzas. Hot dogs, hamburgers, candyfloss and giant sweets proclaiming ‘I love you’ together gave off their distinctive mingled scents. There wasn’t a mobile phone or an iPad in sight. For a couple of hours, it seemed as if I had stepped through the looking-glass into an era of lost innocence and almost forgotten leisure, when it was OK to while away the afternoon doing not much in the company of others doing the same.
Of course, being a crime novelist with more than my fair (!) share of cynicism, I still had my eyes open to the possibility that the opportunity for some nefarious deed might be lurking below the holiday surface. The killing of a young girl on a fairground ride featured in a televised crime programme not so long ago; though she apparently just fell from the ride, she had in fact been stabbed. My eyes turned to the giant fan-belts that powered the more terrifying of the machines; they, too, belonged to a bygone age, an age that depended on a mechanical rather than an electronic infrastructure. What if they had not been inspected with sufficient rigour when the fair was erected? What if a madman were to interfere with them and bring horror to the happy scene? Please don’t worry about me; it’s all just a bit of internal fiction… and I did have a wonderfully nostalgic time!