The Writer’s Blog Tour – coming out of the attic to party….

blogI can be a real party pooper sometimes. I get asked to join in memes and round robin thingies and although I enjoy reading the blogs written by others I like to do it in my own time, and find out something I didn’t know already.  So although I was really pleased to be nominated for a large-scale writer’s blog tour by the inspirational Angela Buckley, (author of the fabulous ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes previously featured on my blog and master of Victorian detection over at victoriansupersleuth.com/) I was also worried about taking it on. Time, ideas etc are all very precious at the moment so I nearly said ‘thanks, but no thanks.’

But then I saw that I would be part of a growing international community of writers, working to introduce our blogs to a wider audience. Christine Findlay, Chair of Bookmark Blair in Perthshire, Scotland invited us to take part (see www.cfindlay.blogspot.com) The Writers’ Blog Tour is a great way to sample the work of new writers. It had already been round some writers I admire, and I was nominated alongside the lovely Rachel Hale over at The History Magpie and although I was tempted to stay in the kitchen with my head in a metaphorical box of cheap Chardonnay I decided to get out and mingle a bit.

So here I am – clutching a plate of nibbles somewhat nervously and clasping a tumbler in a shaky hand. Be nice to me and I promise I am not really a kill joy.

What am I working on?

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegAt the moment I am in that nervous period just before publication of my book Shell Shocked Britain: The legacy of the First World War for Britain’s mental health‘, when proofs are read and indices compiled and the marketing really starts to build. As well as Shell Shocked I am also commissioned by Pen & Sword History to write two more social histories – Death, Disease & Dissection; The life of a surgeon apothecary in the early 19th century and another on the artists of the Great War. Both should be out in 2016/17.

At the same time I dabble in fiction – ghost stories and cosy crime..

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm, a tough one this. As someone who has experienced mental ill-health, I do try to look with a fresh perspective on periods of history that would, if they happened today, cause widespread and lasting trauma. In Shell Shocked, the Great War is seen as an extraordinary and terrible period that left emotional scars on Britain as a whole, as well as causing thousands of individual tragedies. In Death etc I will look at how the horrors of 19th century medicine co-existed alongside a great Romantic movement and great advances in science. In Artists etc I will examine the work of great painters, sculptors, musicians and writers to see how it has affected our memories of the conflict. We are all different, and we respond to events in various ways. I always try to tell a story that encourages us to look back into our histories with compassion and greater understanding.

I suspect many of us would say the same, however.

Why do I write what I do?

See above. Some people’s stories just need to be heard and I am passionate about being their voice. I do such a lot of research that suggests that despite a mass of evidence provided by historical events, society as a whole simply does not learn.

Mickleden Valley, my Lake District space...

Mickleden Valley, my Lake District space…

How does my writing process work?

It frequently doesn’t! I can research forever, in primary and secondary sources, and enjoy it but actually writing? The demon procrastination is my nemesis. Sudden urges to wash up/water the garden/exercise (OK, not the last one…) frequently overwhelm me. I need to be somewhere well away from home and all its distractions. Writing Shell Shocked I dumped myself on in-laws and friends and took myself away to Cumbria (my spiritual home, I like to think) where I can just write and write…

Finally, I want to thank you for stopping here on the tour and introduce you to two other writers who I admire and encourage you to seek out their blogs and websites and learn a little more about their work.

Michelle J Holman

Based in London, Michelle is a researcher and freelance writer specialising in 18th century entertainment. She is the author of the Abraham Adcock blog at www.abrahamadcock.com, a short story, The Guinea Ghost, and a collection of poetry and prose focusing on living with mental illness entitled The Sea of Conscience. She is currently working on her first novel.

Beth Webb

Beth lives near Taunton in Somerset with two disreputable moggies who rule her life. She has published books for young children (Junkyard Dragon) and older children (The Dragons of Kilve and The Fleabag Stories), earning great reviews worldwide. She also teaches budding young writers and you can find out more about how she works on her website www.bethwebb.co.uk

 

Posted in Book, Books, Family History, First World War, Guest posts, History, Shell Shocked Britain, Work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Sinking of the RMS Tayleur – author Gill Hoffs on how Victorian corsetry contributed to a tragedy…

Sinking of RMS Tayleur - Gill Hoffs - hi res imageI have been really lucky with the books I have been asked to review in recent weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed The Real Sherlock Holmes by Angela Buckley and now can honestly say I have spent three sunny days gripped by “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic‘” by Gill Hoffs. (Pen & Sword, 2014) I can heartily recommend it for the detailed research Gill has done into the Victorian period,  combined with her skills as a true storyteller. It is a tragic tale, beautifully told, with a respect for the victims that doesn’t preclude a thrilling description of a horrific shipwreck.

So I am delighted to host a guest post from Gill on my blog today. As she researched the book, Gill was curious to find out why only three women and three children survived out of over 170 while more than half of the men on board managed to escape the sinking ship. Here she interviews one of the many people who helped her research 

Jennifer Garside

Jennifer Garside

When researching a particular period or person, it can be useful to find someone who’s essentially carried out the work for you in advance and has a passion for the subject. I needed to know about British clothing in the 1850s, and why the fashions of the day contributed to the deaths of at least a hundred women in one shipwreck alone. Luckily Jennifer Garside, a motorbike-riding, corset-wearing, broadsword-fighting businesswoman, runs Wyte Phantom Corsetry and Clothing (specialising in neo-Victorian designs) and agreed to help. Jennifer demonstrated to me using samples, contemporary accounts and illustrations, how heavy and restrictive the women’s outfits would have been on board the Tayleur, and how that influenced their survival when the ship wrecked. As is often the way, each answer led to yet more questions, including some about Jennifer herself.

What came first for you: the interest in sewing, history, or re-enactments? How did you get into re-enactments and corsetry?

I was always crafty as a child, my mother taught me to sew and use a sewing machine, and as far as I can remember I had a fascination with pretty historical dresses. My grandmother had a button tin with pictures of Victorian ladies round the outside; I loved to play with it both for the images on the tin and the amazing buttons inside. Re-enactment came later; it wasn’t until I was at university that I discovered a group and found it was something I could actually get involved in.

I blame my parents for the re-enactments. As a child, I loved to explore castles, and they took me to see a joust when I was about 8, and I decided I wanted to have a go! At University, I found both a re-enactment group, and a HEMA group (Historic European Martial Arts) and started to study swordsmanship. The corsetry was probably born out of my love of the beautiful hourglass Victorian dresses. I have always been small, but when I was about 18-20, I had a very boyish figure not the curves I wanted. I discovered corsetry and as I was a student and couldn’t afford to buy a good corset, thought I would try making them. It took a long time to teach myself as there weren’t the resources there are available now.

How do you source vintage designs?

Fashions of 1854

Fashions of 1854

There are a lot of good resources now for vintage patterning, you can still get hold of original patterns from the 1900s (I have some amazing 40s and 50s patterns that I picked up from ebay and junk shops!), as you get earlier, there are reprints of Victorian and Edwardian patterns from magazines that are reasonably easy to get hold of and lots of books available detailing construction. The earlier you get, the harder it is to find original material to study, but by studying pictures and the material that is available, it is possible to work out how these pieces were probably made. Where possible though, the best way I find to learn is to look at extant garments, most museums have the facility to let you study pieces in their collection if you contact them, and there is so much more you can learn by looking at something in person than by looking at a photo.

What are the hazards of your work?

CAD – Cat assisted design. My ginger mog has an annoying tendency to try to get involved at the most awkward times! Also, most of my work is carried out on a 1930’s Singer sewing machine that will sew through just about anything, including fingers as I have learnt the hard way.

Do you find you notice costuming over story and acting in period dramas?

Yes and no, if the story is good and I can lose myself in it, then I can forgive most things other than the totally glaringly obvious, but I will often find once I have noticed something I can’t concentrate on the plot as the error keeps niggling at me!

What is the one key issue you think researchers need to bear in mind when thinking about clothing in the past?

I think you have to understand somewhat the culture, mindset and conditions people were living in. It is only relatively recently that we have had mass production and global communication, therefore in the past although there would be fashions, there would be a lot more geographical variation in styles and each garment would be individually made. Clothes in any period of history say something about the wearer, be that status, profession or any of a myriad of other things.

How has engaging in broadsword fighting and similar activities improved your understanding of the practical requirements of outfits throughout history?

It’s not just the fighting, by wearing the clothes of a certain period you get a better understanding of how a person could move and how they would stand or sit. This may seem unimportant, but if you want to really understand the past I think this really gives you an insight. A simple example would be the footwork when learning to use the smallsword, the weapon itself looks similar to a modern fencing blade, but looking at the original treatises the steps and lunges tend to be much smaller than in modern fencing, you discover the probable reason why when you try fencing in period footwear with smooth leather soles!

Who are your favourite female fighters?

Jennifer Garside 2This is a difficult one too. All throughout history there are examples of often unnamed women fighting alongside their male counterparts, normally only uncovered as women after death or injury. I could list hundreds of inspirational female fighters, but I’ll limit myself to two from two historical extremes. The earliest known European fencing treatise is Royal Armouries MS.I.33 or the Tower Manuscript, this dates from about 1300 and shows a system of combat with sword and buckler (a small round shield). In the latter part of the manuscript, in place of one of the two male figures we see earlier in the text, we have a female figure referred to as Walpurgis. While there is still debate as to why a female figure is used in the text, I feel that her presence maybe indicates that females fighting wasn’t such an unusual occurrence as we might otherwise believe. Travelling forwards 600 years we have Edith Garrud, trained in Bartitsu (probably one of the first ‘mixed martial arts’), she in turn trained The Bodyguard, a group of about 25 women whose task it was to keep the leaders of the militant Suffragette movement out of the hands of the police. She is immortalised in a lovely 1910 Punch cartoon showing her fighting off a group of policemen.

Thank you for all your help with my research, and for sharing so much information about your enviable life!

And thank you Gill – it is a great book and I hope to be there at one of your entertaining talks before too long!

The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: the Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen and Sword, 2014), is out now – see http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/ for further details. Contact Gill at gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk, @GillHoffs or through http://gillhoffs.wordpress.com.
For more information about Wyte Phantom Corsetry and Clothing, visit http://www.rosenkavalier.co.uk/wytephantom/wytephantom4.htm, call 0774 686 4354, or email wyte_phantom@hotmail.com.

 

Posted in Author interviews, Book, Books, Family History, Guest posts, History, Reading, Victorians, Work | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shell shock on film: myth or reality?

shell shockWhen I began researching and writing Shell Shocked Britain I watched the grainy, black and white film footage of shell shocked soldiers readily found on YouTube. They show a number of British soldiers filmed whilst undergoing treatment at The Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley , near Southampton or at Seale Hayne Hospital in Devon. In one episode of Jeremy Paxman’s documentary series Britain’s Great War a brief extract was used as he spoke, briefly, on the subject outside Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland (which doesn’t actually feature in any of the footage). Entitled War Neurosis 1917, the film was shot over a period of eight months and is the only surviving footage of the effect of shell shock on British soldiers in the Great War.

Arthur Hurst

Arthur Hurst

The films were directed by Major Arthur Hurst, who had volunteered for service with the Royal Army Medical Corps having established a neurology department at Guy’s Hospital in London. He went to France to see the work doctors there were doing with men diagnosed as suffering from ‘hysteria’ and was able to travel on to witness the horrors at Gallipoli, before coming back to England to put new treatments he had learned into practice.

Pathé cameramen were used to film at both hospitals and the work they highlighted led to Hurst being lauded as a miracle worker in the press. But was he simply a good self-publicist who hid himself away in the Devon countryside to ensure his methods were difficult to verify? As I delved deeper and spoke to 21st century experts in military psychiatry, I began to view the films very differently.

Hurst’s film, whilst supposedly offering itself as a tool for training other clinical staff, is a masterpiece of promotion and marketing. One can watch it as a piece of social history, but as documentary evidence of medical treatment it seems exploitative and disturbing. Among the men filmed was Private Percy Meek, a 23-year-old man from Norfolk, who joined the army in 1913. First wounded in the thigh in May 1915, he was treated and returned to the Front later that year and served without further incident until February 1916. Hurst’s lengthy report on Meek’s case explains that the young man was stationed in a trench subjected to a period of continuous bombardment by German mortars. As the noise and anxiety became overwhelming, Meek’s comrades had to prevent him from going ‘over the top’ in panic, to attack the German position.

We first see Meek sitting, like a baby, in a straight-backed, wooden wheelchair undergoing an examination of his rigid ankles for the benefit of the camera. Yet over a period of months his voice and understanding gradually returned, and, after transferring to Seale Hayne in April 1918, his physical recovery quickened and the film shows a much healthier looking Private Meek, wearing the uniform hospital blues and running up and down the steps in front of the building. The film shows his recovery to be so nearly perfect that by June 1918 we see him supervising fellow patients in a basket weaving shop at the hospital.

Other patients include Private Preston, aged 19, who reacts to the word ‘bombs’ by running for cover under his hospital bed. Private Ross Smith has a facial spasm affecting his ears and head with violent twitches, which disappear under hypnosis, only to return with renewed violence when he wakes. Private Reid, aged 32, was buried by debris from an exploding shell and, though without physical wounds, he has become unable to move; the film shows him returned to full mobility and able to work on the hospital farm.

The simple peace of the rolling Devon countryside offered solace to the damaged men. Unlike some other hospitals, the staff at Seale Hayne refused to bully a patient into submitting to the will of the doctor and the army. Hurst was keen to ensure the dignity of the men was maintained, with no pressure to get them back to the Front at all costs. In some respects his treatments resemble present day treatments for moderate depression and anxiety. But to the frustration of his peers, Hurst would never elaborate on his methods and there were few witnesses to his successful treatment.

hurstbookHurst only detailed his methods as the Second World War entered its final stages, in his book Medical Diseases of War:

Directly the patient is admitted the sister encourages him to believe that he will be cured as soon as the doctor has time to see him…The medical officer …tells him as a matter of course he will be cured the next day. The patient is made to understand that any treatment he has already received has prepared the way, so that nothing now remains but a properly directed effort on his part for a complete recovery to take place.

This now appears to be a deception, a practice widely used as a ‘cure’ for shell shock and it was not considered an unethical practice. Fake operations to cure deafness were staged, going so far as to anaesthetise and cut patients who had been told the procedure would cure them. Frederick Mott at the Maudsley Hospital recognised that, as the war progressed towards a conclusion, the best ‘cure’ was to assure a patient that they would never be sent back to the Front.

It is hard to assess which parts of Hurst’s film are what would now be termed a ‘reconstruction’ and which are genuine. He certainly never tells the viewer. The facts of Private Meek’s trauma are undisputed, but the film, shot in just eight months, documents a recovery that took over two years. It was a similar situation with other patients on screen. Men had been asked to re-enact their symptoms, which, as they were apparently lacking a proper consciousness as they experienced them for real is worrying. Audiences, still unused to seeing ‘moving pictures’ would have taken them at face value. People still do.

Reports in the press, from ‘honest’ witnesses describe how Hurst’s cures could take just a few minutes. The descriptions of a paralysed and dumb man being ‘cured’ within 10 minutes, to the point where, simply by coughing, he can be encouraged to sing the whole of ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’, appear somewhat suspicious. Hurst and his team claimed that in 100 consecutive, successful treatments, they were curing, within days, men who had on average been treated in other hospitals for 11 months prior to admission. Ninety-six per cent were treated and cured in just one sitting, at an average of 54 minutes per patient. Of the four cases that required longer, all took less than four weeks. Despite these claims, it is almost impossible to establish what percentage of the men treated later relapsed.

So was Dr Hurst actually ‘a bit of a fraud’, as he has been described to me by a psychiatrist? Watch the film and see what you think. He was not a man who inflicted unnecessary pain on his patients, as other doctors did, and men responded well to the environment around the hospital. But these films are so often shown as ‘fact’ that his contribution to the study of the subject must be questioned.

Arthur Hurst has offered us a glimpse of the physical symptoms the shell shocked of the Great War experienced. But more than that? How far does the knowledge that he asked men to live through the horrors again affect our views of his work? His work was not miraculous and certainly flawed – but fraudulent? I am still unsure….

Posted in Book, Books, First World War, Mental health, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Who needs Glastonbury? The Keats House Festival 2014

keatshseAs many of those who read my blog regularly will know, I am a Londoner born and bred, not moving away from the city until I was 25 and and retaining my love of my roots even as I live now in Somerset, which I reached via Brighton, sometimes referred to as ‘London by the Sea’. I return to central London regularly for research trips or events, but rarely find myself as far out as the North London suburbs which I remember so well from childhood.

I was not a rebellious teenager, far from it. As I have recently written for The Wordsworth Trust blog, I fell in love with the words of a dead poet when my friends were finding more to identify with in the lyrics of Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet, or Boy George.  John Keats may have been little more than five feet tall, but his personality was as large and vibrant as any new romantic.

So it is with a sense of deep frustration at my inability to attend that I alert you to a wonderful festival that is taking place in Hampstead, London from this Saturday, 7th June, until the 15th. Keats House (which I always think of as Wentworth Place) is celebrating the 200 years since Keats wrote his first poem, as a teenager studying to be an apothecary.

Although the weather does not promise to be kind, for this weekend at least, the House and garden will host a range of events for adults and children to inspire and delight. There will be writing workshops and family fun days and the terrific actors  Simon Russell Beale and Dame Janet Suzman will read a selection of Keats’s poetry (although I do wish they would have younger actors reading his words, to capture something of his own voice).

Daljit Nagra, the latest Keats House poet in residence.

Daljit Nagra, the latest Keats House poet in residence.

Keats House has a poet-in-residence, and the wonderful Jo Shapcott will be handing over the baton to Daljit Nagra and both will take workshops during the week to help you find your own poetic inspiration. It isn’t all about Keats; there is dancing, screenwriting, censorship and ‘Poeticabotanica’. And afternoon tea with Keats. Bliss.

I would have been particularly keen to attend ‘Writing the Frontiers of Life, Death and Sickness’ on the 11th,  where Sam Guglani, Jo Shapcott, and award-winning poet, novelist and playwright Philip Gross ‘explore and celebrate the interactions between poetry and medicine today’. This is a subject that fascinates me. To ignore the influence of Keats’s long study of medicine on his poetry is to miss so much of what was important to him, and what traumatised him and changed his perspective on what it meant to be alive.

So I can’t be there, but if you are in London over the next few days why don’t you take a look at the website The Keats Festival 2014 and see if there are any tickets available? You can doff your cap to the great man for me and learn a little more about his lasting legacy to us all.

 

Posted in Art, Books, History, Keats, London, Music, Poetry, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

‘There are more things in heaven & earth…’a response to my piece on Spiritualism in the Great War

mediumdoyle

Today I welcome a post from Ian Stevenson, who contacted me following my recent post about spiritualism and the First World War, a subject I cover in Shell Shocked Britain.  Ian is a counsellor and a member of the Scientific and Medical Network with expertise in the history of the period and a long standing interest in the subject. He offers the view that some of those offering support to the bereaved could have had a genuine gift. Is he right?  Is it true that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…..’? I would love to hear your views…

I would like to give another side to the idea that people were taken in by frauds which is what links on Wikipedia and other internet sites relating to spiritualism during and after the First World War, suggest.

The Great War of 1914-18 created a number of revolutions; political, technical and social. One of them was the growing interest in non-Christian religions and the decline in church attendance. The huge number of war dead meant many families were in mourning and looking for comfort and answers. Spiritualism attracted a wide range of followers although it is probably true to say that women played a greater part than in most other churches and most members were ‘working class’. The church and the scientific world largely dismissed or ridiculed it. After all, they knew best.

PC3-00bOne of its chief supporters was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known for Sherlock Holmes, who wrote a book  ‘
The Land of Mist’ in which a young reporter (who first appeared in the story “The Lost World” ) and his female friend investigate Spiritualism. Doyle included a number of incidents which had a factual basis. In one chapter he has them going to the laboratory of a French investigator who he admits in the notes at the end, is based on Professor Richet, the Nobel Prize winner (he was a physiologist who worked on allergies among other things) who was involved in psychic research for thirty years.

In his book, Doyle has a character that pretends to be a medium and is portrayed as a ‘bad guy’. His brother in the story, a real medium, is sentenced to a term in prison for fortune telling. This is the other side of the coin. A friend recently told me told me that as a little girl she had to watch out for policemen when her mother was having a séance. Those attending a middle class séance had no such worries.

There is little doubt that many people did-and do- attain comfort from the Spiritualist churches which tend to be informal and welcoming. We need to distinguish between them and the ‘sole trader’ medium or clairvoyant who takes money. The years after 1918 were hard for many people and some may have tried to cash in, the ‘frauds’ referred to. However, I have come across many people who go to a medium and are given facts which are correct and often obscure.

Some skeptics might dispute this, claiming that this is cold reading. Dr. Gary Schwartz, a professor of Psychology and Psychiatry in Arizona, arranged a series of experiments where the mediums could not see or hear the sitters (they could hear a yes/no response in some of the early experiments and in a second part  could ask for feedback) The amount of accurate information is impressive. Schwartz invited stage magician ‘cold readers’ to try to duplicate the work of the mediums in the same conditions. None even tried.

Harry Houdini claimed to expose frauds but he seems to have been on a bit of a mission. I saw a few of his ‘exposures’ recreated on TV and was not convinced. He did talk about ‘genuine mediums’ which suggests a belief in an afterlife. His wife certainly did and there is a signed and witnessed document which says Houdini communicated a code word to her after his death.

Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge

Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge

The accusation often made is that grieving people or those who would like it to be true, have low standards of investigation or are gullible, at least in this respect. The Rev. Drayton Thomas investigated Mrs Osborne Leonard (who sat with Sir Oliver Lodge and Coonan Doyle)as did Lady Troubridge. They didn’t just turn up for an evening or two; they sat with her for years and made meticulous notes and she was never accused of fraud. Mrs Piper, in the USA with whom she is often compared, was investigated for some years by William James, the founder of the modern discipline of Psychology in that country, before he assented to her genuine ability. Wikipedia accounts tend to be hostile and sceptics (Skeptics in the US) tend to write the pages. Sir Oliver Lodge was a Fellow of the Royal Society and not just an ivory tower theoretician. He probably sent the first radio transmission a year before Marconi.

raymondThe Wiki page says ‘sceptics have analysed the mediumship of Mrs Leonard… and auto suggestion was used.’ Having read Raymond (the book written by Sir Oliver Lodge) I find it an amazing suggestion. Read the third section of the book by Sir Oliver in which he deals with questions of scientific method, theology and philosophy, you will see that a charlatan medium impressing her ideas on him and all his family is hardly worth considering. The assertion ‘Raymond’ could not remember the names of the officers with whom he had served, is refuted by looking in the book.

The astronaut Edgar Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic (new) Sciences. The chief Scientist is Dean Radin who got so tired of people saying ‘show me the evidence for the spiritual/ supernatural/paranormal and then maybe I’ll believe it,’ that he complied a list of formal experiments, trials and studies. Google ‘Radin /evidence’ and you will find nine pages of mainly recent peer-reviewed studies. If you want to have an informed debate, this might be a place to start.

If one starts from the view there is no afterlife-like Clodd- then there are only two explanations; one is that the medium is misinterpreting what they see, hear or feel (and may have even good motives) or they out to deceive. As it’s impossible, good results MUST be fraud. In most twentieth century science not only acknowledged matter and energy but quantum physics and dark matter and dark energy have shown the limits of what we thought we knew. There is evidence that consciousness may exist beyond the brain e.g. near death experiences. If we are open-minded it may be that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in some people’s philosophy.

Ian Stevenson

Ian Stevenson

My thanks to Ian, as I am always keen to offer the opportunity to reply to posts I have written. It feels uncomfortable, looking back, to judge whether those drawn to the Spiritualist Church during and after the Great War were duped. After all, for many electricity was still a mystery and radio waves impossible to fathom. Do please comment if you have a view. Ian will be happy to respond.

Posted in Book, Books, First World War, Guest posts, History, Mental health, Reading, Religion, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

What shapes us ~ nature, nurture or experience? A novelist’s view

square peg

Today on No Wriggling I am lucky enough to host a guest post from author Vivienne Tuffnell. Vivienne, who wrote for (and inspired the title of) my book, Dandelions & Bad Hair Days, talks here of family history in the broadest sense, and of the process of writing via the characters in her latest novel Square Peg, which offers the wonderful line ‘She’d seen faces like that before, but on the television, in films and in the history books. The faces of fanatics, cold and blind to all reason staring back at her….’ 

It’s a great debate, nature or nurture, when it comes to who we think we are. While we may think we are our own person, that person is shaped both by upbringing and genetics and the experiences we go through in life. As a novelist, the shaping of characters is a curious process, half unconscious and half deliberate and I’d like to think that the fusion of the two has meant I’ve created some memorable folks amid the pages of my novels.

I was asked recently (several times) if Chloe’s grandmother in Square Peg is based on my own grandmother. My answer is that she’s not based on anyone(as such) but she’s probably how I’d like to be seen when I am granny-aged. I’ve also been asked how much of Chloe is me (just as I was asked how much of Isobel in Away With The Fairies is me) and I’d answer that question in the same way: a good deal of me is in her.

Yet Chloe’s Gran and her unconventional upbringing shaped her and brought her to the uncomfortable place she’s in at the start of the novel. Gran was one of those free-spirited women who blazed trails through history yet get almost no acknowledgements for the work they did. Trained as a doctor, she chose to spend her working life amid the poor, oppressed and marginalised people around the world, travelling and finding new challenges in a risky life. At some stage, she met and fell in love with someone whose child she came back to England with. She never saw him again, and returning to her home town and parents, people assumed she’d married while abroad but kept her maiden name for professional reasons. A generation before it would have been a massive scandal and a generation later, something fairly unremarkable, yet at the time the birth of a son out of wedlock was something she needed to keep private. As soon as her son was independent, she left to return to the work she loved, only returning when her son lost his wife in an accident.

In the intervening years, she visited her family and sent presents home, usually gifts that reflected the community she was living in. Chloe and her sister are sent a colourful Pendleton blanket, packed with white sage, suggesting that Gran was living among Native Americans, perhaps acting as doctor on a reservation. The battered sandalwood Buddha that sits on the hearth is another such fixture in Chloe’s home.

Like so many women called upon to care for those who need it, Chloe’s grandmother reluctantly returned but never fully settled into a life of a suburban general practitioner and her restlessness was only assuaged by working with the fringe communities, like Romanies and other travellers. Chloe spent enough time as a child among these communities that she grew to identify unconsciously with the marginalised and the outcasts and not with respectable middle class values of those more expected to be her peer group. She also learned a lot of very dubious skills, like how to fight and use a shotgun. Combined with her plain-speaking grandmother’s influence, who taught tolerance for differences of faith, ideology and race but resistance to blind convention and mealy-mouthed maintenance of a status quo of injustice, Chloe arrives in a place where she’ll be tested to her limits simply to survive without going under or losing integrity by acquiescing to the kind of hypocrisy that would make her grandmother spin in her too-recent grave.

It’s not only her grandmother’s influence that has brought her to this turning point in her life. Her childhood and her student days shaped a woman who is combative and uncompromising, yet her choice of husband has also changed her. Clifford has not tamed her, but rather has seen her wildness as something to cherish. He sees her plain speaking as a virtue; not as the college wives do, as rudeness and a lack of community spirit. He’s not the kind of ordinand who wants or expects his wife to be a stereotypical help-meet, organising prayer groups and baking scones; it would bore him senseless and the spark he has with Chloe would gutter and die if she became meek and conventional.

Chloe isn’t someone who needs a horde of friends, but she does need kindred spirits to keep her from sliding into despair, and she’s lucky to find one in her first year of college who keeps her from the darkness of total isolation. But it’s not until their final year when the anarchic Isobel arrived with her ordinand husband Mickey, and a bond is formed between two square pegs that will endure some terrible times. Isobel is someone better able to walk the line between being outrageous and acceptable. She’s had a bit more practise, swapping from a degree chosen to placate her father to a degree in art to please herself, and somehow keeping it secret long enough to produce work her father can see is potentially a career builder. She’s also able to accept some compromise, cutting off her dreadlocks and removing her piercings before she and Mickey start at college. She sees them as peripherals and not really that important to her identity; she can go ‘plain clothes’ for the duration and not see it as infringing on her core identity. She makes the perfect mole.

Authors sometimes talk about back story, of knowing who your characters are, and how vital that is even if little of the background appears directly on the page. It’s about knowing marrow-deep precisely who they are and how they came to be that way. Chloe inherits her grandmother’s not-inconsiderable intelligence, her red hair and her questioning nature, but perhaps not her tough and resilient hide, impervious to the opinions of most other people. Her time growing up with such a role model taught her not to suffer fools gladly but it’s only experience that teaches how to spot rogues and frauds, and only experience that can teach self preservation in impossible situations.

There’s a saying that the secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go, and that’s the one secret that Chloe’s Gran really needed to have taught her.

Vivienne Tuffnell

Vivienne Tuffnell

My sincere thanks to Viv for this post. To read more of her wonderful writing, go to her blog, Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking. Square Peg, as well as her other novels The Bet, Away with the Fairies and Strangers & Pilgrims, and short story collections The Moth’s Kiss and The Wild Hunt are available from Amazon by following the link.

Posted in Book, Books, Dandelions and Bad Hair Days, Family, Family History, Guest posts, Mental health, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

In which I write a ‘Romantic reading’ of Keats for The Wordsworth Trust…

Screenshot 2014-05-24 17.25.36(2)Just a quick post to show off  let you know that I have been given what I consider to be a huge honour – a place on The Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog on the fabulous Wordsworth Trust website. As part of the ‘Romantic Readings’ series I write about ‘When I have fears…’, a sonnet that has meant much to me ever since I first discovered my love of John Keats’s writing as twelve year old.

Apparently it has gone down well, and judging by some of the discussions on twitter people have been encouraged to think about their own favourite Keats, and why he still has the power to move us almost 200 years on.

Do go over to the website and if you are interested, read my post and then take a look at the others on the site; I feel really proud to be amongst them.  Over the coming weeks there will be a wide variety of other posts by enthusiasts of the Romantic period, discussing the poets, writers and artists who made the decades of the late 18th and early 19th century ones of sublime creativity. You can also follow the blog via the twitter feed @Wordsworthians.

And I have been invited to write another for later in the year. I can’t wait!

P.S. Do comment with your own favourite Keats, either on the site or on here. I always love to hear from fellow Keats admirers…

Posted in History, Keats, Poetry, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment