The BBC, the Great War & being part of the ‘bandwagon’…?

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From the jacket of Shell Shocked Britain

First of all, thank you to all those who chatted to me, on and off-line following my Introducing ‘Shell Shocked Britain post. It was really heartening to find out so many are interested in the legacy of the Great War for the mental health of the nation and I have worked hard to do the subject justice; but the next six months are not so much about writing as marketing and I want to approach that properly as well.

However, I am aware of the first rumblings and grumblings about the coverage of the centenary so far. ‘There is SO much on the television’ said one friend ‘that it is hard to see how it can continue’. Another drew attention to the fact, one hundred years ago,  the war had not even started; yet the BBC (and it is almost wholly an issue for the BBC Coverage) is offering television and radio programmes on a daily basis. Radio 4 is awash with adverts not just for its own programming, but for Radio 2 and the television channels too. ‘Every presenter seems to want to jump on the Great War bandwagon…’ they said ‘I am feeling rather ambivalent about the seeming glorification of the war’. This is not really the response one would want for the centenary of one of the great turning points in British history. What we have today, we owe to those who fought in, and lived through, a conflict that sent out those first shoots that grew into ‘modern’ Britain.

I have been gripped by many of the programmes broadcast so far, but I have a lot of sympathy with these concerns, most particularly because it is another six months until Shell Shocked Britain hits the shelves. Although it is hardly possible to comprehend, people may be jaded and less interested in hearing about the First World War by October. And aren’t I doing exactly the same thing as the BBC by publicising the book so far in advance of the launch date? I want to make sure everyone who may be interested in the book knows it is there. But will anyone still be listening?

paxoThe subject matter of Shell Shocked Britain is so different from most of the programmes aired thus far. Jeremy Paxman in Britain’s Great War touched on some of the issues I aim to highlight, but without making some of the links I think are necessary – how the trauma experienced by combatants and civilians, adults and children alike affected the mental health of the nation. How behaviours, responses and attitudes in the post war period resulted in an approach to mental illness that resonates even into the twenty-first century. It is an important subject that I hope will find an audience. I want that audience ready to listen. I want it to be there.

Is anyone out there privy to the workings of the television and radio scheduler’s mind? Has the BBC a formal programme of events across the next four years? Are we to have programmes covering each of the battles? At what point does something become, in a programme maker’s eyes, ‘worthy’ of a documentary? Is the output original, or a re-hash of things we have seen before? Is this deluge of documentaries respecting the history of the period or exploiting it? So many questions.  Can this frenzy of programme making last four years?

Over the next few weeks I am going to be posting some pieces on topics I cover in Shell Shocked. These will include The First Blitz, the outbreak of Spanish influenza, Eugenics, and the fascination with spiritualism that saw a resurgence during and after the conflict. I will also tell you some of the sad stories that have materialised during my long trawls through the newspaper archives – stories that mirror that of my great-uncle Alfred Hardiman, who killed his ex girlfriend and then himself in 1922. They highlight how the strain of dealing with trauma experienced during the war could lead even the gentlest soul to commit shocking acts, often years after the Armistice.

Is it possible to make too much of such an important subject?

So what do you think? Is there too much too soon? Is this early festival of remembrance from the BBC the best way to remember and to honour those that lived through those years?

Posted in Book, Books, Family History, History, Mental health, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rattling the Bones of Detective Caminada

Jerome Caminada

Jerome Caminada from The Greater Manchester Police Museum and Archives

Today I am thrilled to be hosting Guest Blogger Angela Buckley, whose new book, The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada will have its official launch in London next week. She has taken time out on a hectic blog tour to tell us here of a dilemma many of us, as researchers, face – how to ensure we deal with the stories of the dead in a sensitive fashion and why she believes Detective Caminada’s story must be told.

The first time I visited the grave of Jerome Caminada in Southern Cemetery, Manchester, I had mixed emotions. I was excited at the prospect of uncovering the story of this exceptional detective, which had remained hidden for almost a century, but at the same time I wondered if I was doing the right thing. Is it fair to rattle bones that have been long since buried and bring the dead back to life?

Jerome Caminada was born in Manchester in 1844 to immigrant parents. A child of the slums, he overcame staggering odds to become one of the city’s finest police officers, reaching the lofty heights of Detective Superintendent. He was an extraordinary man: a fearsome law enforcer who was never afraid to tackle the most daring and desperate of criminals, but also a man with a compassion for others and a deep sense of social justice. I began my journey into his past with his memoirs, published at the end of his 30-year-long career.

Nineteenth century police memoirs are essentially work histories, rather than accounts of domestic life, and Twenty-Five Years of Detective Life by Jerome Caminada is no exception. In this weighty tome, he recounts ‘over fifty stories, dealing with all manner of crime and criminals’. I used contemporary newspapers and court records to reconstruct his cases, and although the accounts often differed, I was able to re-discover his adventures as he tackled thieves, pickpockets, cunning swindlers and even cold-blooded murderers, on the streets of his city. But it wasn’t until I dug deeper into his personal circumstances that I really began to bring Detective Caminada truly back to life.

SlumsJerome’s parents were Francis and Mary Caminada. His father was a cabinetmaker of Italian descent and his mother was an illiterate textiles worker, with her roots in Ireland. Both families had been among the masses of workers who had migrated into the city of Manchester in the wake of the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the nineteenth century. Their meagre existence was totally precarious and when Jerome was just three years old, his father died of heart disease, leaving his mother alone with the surviving four of her six children. There was still worse to come and the family was forced to move into one of the worst rookeries in Victorian Manchester, later described by Jerome as ‘a very hot-bed of social iniquity and vice’. It was in these crime-infested streets that Detective Caminada developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the shady characters and nefarious criminals who lived there, which would become one of his most effective weapons in fighting crime.

GraveThe terrible suffering of his family, who experienced further devastating losses and grinding poverty, instilled in Jerome great empathy for others and kindness to those less fortunate than himself. Throughout his career, he never failed to help individuals in genuine need and to plead their cause, whatever they had done. His faith and hope in humanity kept him going in the most difficult of circumstances, in both his professional and personal life. It has been a challenge to bring Detective Caminada back to life but now that his story is ready to be heard once again after a century of silence, I am proud to have rattled his bones!

angelaMy sincere thanks to Angela. The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada by Angela Buckley is published by Pen and Sword Books. For more details see her blog, http://victoriansupersleuth.com

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Talking Books on why we should all want ‘Little Creative Days’ for our children

What are seasons but children’s soft dreams, and
Sunrise, their opening eyes?
Seeing at a glance
The days and years open…waiting,
Fringed with softness, or
Laced with abandon…

(From Children’s Eyes and Children’s Toys by Elysabeth Faslund)

The incredible Pojo

The incredible Pojo

This is SO late going up but I thought it important to make sure you got the opportunity to listen to my Talking Books show on 10Radio.org from February 14th. It wasn’t a ‘Valentine’s Day’ themed show – I have featured poetry and prose that expresses our romantic yearnings on past shows – but it was one that should be of interest to anyone with children, or who is involved with children’s education. I started this post with an excerpt from a poem that sums up for me how important it is to see the world through a child’s eyes and to give them the tools to make the most of a time when their imagination should be allowed to fly.

Tonya Meers kindly came in to the studio to talk about the business she has established with her sister, Natasha Dennis. Little Creative Days started with the provision of craft kits for children, but when Tonya decided she would like to write children’s stories the sisters decided to combine the two. Between them I think they have come up with something that can really bring out the creative side of all children and perhaps inspire them to be the writers, dramatists, artists and even theatre impresarios (well let’s think big!) of the future. Working with and in schools they have developed kits that work across the curriculum; Pojo and the Chest of Dreams for example can support work in geography and Pojo Saves the Rainforest uses puppets to tell children about the impact of deforestation.

This isn’t a sponsored post, or a review of the products Tonya and Natasha offer but it is something of a plug for anything that fires a child’s imagination and after this show you will be in little doubt that Tonya’s stories, and the opportunities the kits offer to children as part of their primary school education, are exactly the sort of thing to engage children across ages and abilities.

When my children were much younger they both had issues with certain aspects of their school day. My son would daydream and lose concentration; my daughter is dyslexic and found phonics a real challenge. They both found an outlet in performance – my son in drama and my daughter in sport – and finding a way to express their true selves, away from the challenge of tests and league tables proved invaluable.

Creative storytelling uses ‘creative group activities to bring stories alive’ and in our interview Tonya describes how puppet making for example can  enable all children to explore a story and become engaged with the story and its message. The drama activities can build confidence and offer children a way to express themselves in their own stories. Do take a listen; I am sure you will be as inspired as I was by Tonya’s enthusiasm and by the Little Creative Days ethos.

Find out more by going to the Little Creative Days website at www.littlecreativedays.co.uk

Posted in Author interviews, Book, Books, Family, Parenting, Radio Show, Reading, Talking Books, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Introducing ‘Shell Shocked Britain’: how war trauma casts a shadow across a century

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegI know that some readers of my blog (and thanks for that!) already know that throughout 2013 I was writing a book called Shell Shocked Britain commissioned by Pen & Sword History. We are now in the final edit stage, with proof-reading to come before it is finally published in October of this year, marking both the Centenary of the start of the First World War but also the month in which World Mental Health Day falls.

The publisher has given a sub-title to the book –  ‘The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health‘. I cannot argue, as it is exactly what the book is about.

I was thrilled when I was commissioned to write Shell Shocked; not simply because I got my first ever advance and felt truly ‘professional’ as a writer, but because I would have the opportunity to take the Great War and offer up an alternative view of the bloodshed and horror. There have been, and will be, many television programmes, books and academic papers released this year and rightly so, but my book examines the wider, emotional implications of the war, not just for the shell shocked troops but for the civilian population and for the nation as a whole in the inter-war period and takes a fresh look at why we may engage emotionally with WW1 over and above other conflicts. Jeremy Paxman addressed some of the same issues in his recent four-part documentary Britain’s Great War, but in a superficial, and dare I say it of the great man, rather bombastic way. Those he interviewed  must have been shocked at questions such as that asked of a relative of a conscientious objector – ‘If I suggested he was just awkward…?’ I hope I have been a little more sensitive, whilst remaining objective and accepting of realities.

Myths about the war abound and by the end of this first year of commemorative events there is a danger that arguments by politicians and media opinion will sully what should be a sombre time of reflection.  Dan Snow published a wonderful list called ‘Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about World War One debunked that highlights how far we have strayed from what may be called ‘a truth’ about that war. It is important we recognise what was universal about WW1 as well as what was unique and for me, having just ‘completed’ Shell Shocked Britain it was a relief to see him write

By setting it apart as uniquely awful we are blinding ourselves to the reality of not just WW1 but war in general. We are also in danger of belittling the experience of soldiers and civilians caught up in countless other appalling conflicts throughout history and the present day.

Having read widely and having spoken to those who have had a role in the modern-day Armed Forces as well as the Army of the 1940s and 1950s, it seems to me that the response to the horrors of armed combat are as difficult to comprehend today as they were for those first soldiers faced with mechanised and trench warfare. As civilians we simply cannot understand the bonds between men and women in war zones; we can’t imagine what it is like to see one’s friends blown to pieces before our eyes, or sit to eat our meals with the numbers around the table dwindling as injuries and fatalities increase. We see the names but we don’t know the people, or understand what took them to that front line in the first place.

netley-shell-shock-1917Combat stress and PTSD  are the descendants  of  shell shock. Many (though not all), of the responses to the trauma of battle are the same now as they were then – anxiety and depression, anger expressed as aggressive and impulsively dangerous behaviour, alcohol and other substance misuse and nightmares and flashbacks. Currently the national charity Combat Stress is helping 5,000 veterans deal with their symptoms. By the end of the Great War some 80,000 men had been diagnosed with shell shock but there were thousands more affected, to some extent by the trauma of war.

In addition, they came home to a nation where almost everyone knew a bereaved family, even if they had been lucky to welcome their own sons home. Many felt guilty; many were themselves scarred by anxiety as they waited for the dreaded telegram, ran for cover as Zeppelins or Gotha aircraft flew over their homes bringing death behind the Front Line, or welcomed young men home only to find them taken from them by Spanish Influenza, or later manifestations of shell shock that drove them to suicide. Relationships had changed in a fundamental way and many found it hard to adapt. It can be argued (as well as challenged of course) that there was a sense of collective trauma, as the prelapsarian world of the Edwardian era was shattered

But as Dan Snow rightly points out, many young men actually found the war offered them a way out of grinding poverty and unemployment and offered them opportunities to enjoy freedoms denied to them at home. Now, we still find young men and women signing up to find a career, to gain respect and take themselves away from a damaging home situation. These young people live 100 years apart but (despite the caveat that we cannot attach 21st century mores to 20th century lives), they are not so different.

And this is what I wanted to express something of in Shell Shocked Britain; that we are a world apart now, as the last veterans pass on and the numbers who lived through that time dwindle, but we are in many ways the same people. We talk of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and the stoical way many veterans dealt with their experiences, but for many this was not simply the British way. There were simply no words to express the experience to a world that seemed desperate to get on with living.  And it is still that way today for veteran and civilian alike – the trauma has no words and if unaffected it is hard to comprehend.

However, failing to deal with the issues the war raised stored up health problems that reverberate even today. Work has been undertaken by psychologists that shows how far the memory of war can cause mental health issues not only in first generation, but second and third generations of a family. A grandchild may remember an angry grandparent, perhaps reliant on alcohol, aggressive and unkind. Or there were men in the family, like my great uncle Alfred Hardiman, whose acts changed the lives of sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces. Some of them are alive today. Ask them.

If all the work over the next four years of commemoration is to mean anything, we must try to understand, and I hope Shell Shocked Britain may help, just a little bit.

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In which Talking Books is ‘Blessed by Magpies’, and poet Paul Tobin

blessed by magpiesIt has taken me a little while to post up my last Talking Books show. There are no excuses other than a few pressing deadlines and much time taken up with experimentation with a new way to manage my time…..

Anyway, the show on 31st January was a terrific one. I was joined by poet and author Paul Tobin who shared his love of the written, and spoken, word with me. Paul grew up in Widnes in the 60′s and has lived in Somerset for over thirty years. His poetry draws from his childhood in the north and he reads aloud with an intensity that picks you up and takes you into the world he is describing. He read two of his poems on the show – do listen and let me know what you think. We talked of many things but not least the impact of reading poetry aloud, the importance of revision and the poet’s ability to distil an experience and make it real for others.

Paul is frequently found reading from his work at festivals and is a member of the Juncture 25 group of writers and although he was quick to correct me – he would not describe himself as a performance poet by any means – if you see his name on the bill do join the audience if you can. Another member of the Juncture 25 group. Paul Mortimer, was on my show last year and remembering the other Paul’s poems I can sense a certain comradeship in their work.

Paul Tobin’s most recent book of poetry is called Blessed by Magpies, a bird with whom he feels a spiritual connection. He has given me a copy, which I shall enjoy reading. But I read his blog before the radio show and one poem on there struck me – I hope Paul doesn’t mind my copying it here..

In the pub with my mate Jon
In the pub with my mate Jon,
Drinking red wine and soda.
Overhearing the biased tones
Of three armchair soldiers,
Discuss the merits of each
Gun, bomb and plane.
Laughing at the enemy,
Mispronouncing every name.
My drink seems blood,
Bubbles burst and ripple,
There is no talk of brotherhood,
Only of the dead and crippled
 

Do go to his blog -magpiebridge.blogspot.co.uk to find more fascinating stories and images – he peppers his writing with intriguing photography. He has also written a steampunk novel, The Jowler, which is available from Amazon. Paul also drew the winner of the competition Martine Lillycrop set last week – the answer to which was Bladerunner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick. He also set a question of his own, but really it is a matter of names in the hat so to enter, just comment below with your own favourite contemporary poem…. The winner will be drawn on my show on the 28th February and the winner will receive a signed copy of Blessed by Magpies.

And listen to the show on the link below. I think you will enjoy it.

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Editing as the ‘last act’ of writing: Louise Bogan on taking words to heart

editingPoetry, for me, offers an opportunity to live within another’s thoughts as if they were my own. On this blog I have, from time to time, shared a poem that I have come across as I sit at my PC attempting to work at my own writing. Procrastination has led me along paths to poems I might never have experienced if it wasn’t for that moment of ennui – and the internet, of course.

I have no idea what took me to Louise Bogan last night. A visit to one of my favourite sites, the Poetry Archive, always offers a new poem or poet to explore alongside a recording of the poet reading their own work. It is a strange experience sometimes as not all poets read in a way one might expect and the musical tones conjured up in the mind are rarely replicated in the often scratchy audio. But it is still a website of the very best kind – one that takes you on an adventure in words and lives.

Anyway, tonight one poem spoke to me, stuck as I am in my chair in front of the computer editing my book Shell Shocked Britain before it goes into the proof reading stage (when I will visit the Poetry Archive even more regularly I suspect). I have read the three stanzas through a few times, and although I haven’t yet grasped the full meaning (if I ever do) the poem struck me as appropriate to my mood.

My book is written, yet not complete. As I read and re-read the words I have written over the past year the familiarity is such that the work becomes comfortable, yet tedious. The first excitement of the work is over and whilst I can now recognise it as good enough, at the same time the power of the words I know almost by heart is fading. I know that to ensure it is really successful (in the sense that it is as I intended it to be) I have to look at it again and really see it. Having pulled it apart, discarded, re-written and re-built I am, at last beginning to understand it as a whole – a physical book that will, I hope, be read for the first time, fresh, by as many people as can be convinced to buy it.

This poem, with its strange and contrasting images of beauty and decay, of fear and darkness and of journey’s end reflects my current mood. A scythe hangs, harmlessly now, in the apple trees, as the cursor sweeps across the document in front of me and as I sit, as leaden as the statues in Bogan’s garden, watching the book take shape. The words ‘shake and bleed’ before my eyes and it is beginning to feel like ‘a voyage done’. But it is a voyage during which I have fallen even more deeply in love with writing and at times have had to come to terms with some truths about my self as I go on to start a new commission and involve myself in a new subject.

Song for the Last Act

Louise Bogan

Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd’s crook.
Beyond, a garden. There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.

Now that I have your face by heart, I look.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music’s cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence. In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat’s too swift. The notes shift in the dark.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

I will read more about this poem, but it seems to me that it has at its heart the story of a love affair – an unsettled and difficult one, perhaps coming to its natural end. The poet is troubled and darkness is never far away; beauty is brief and images and words ink-black.

lbogan

Louise Bogan

Lousie Bogan was an American poet, born in 1897. In the 1930s she suffered her first serious depressive illness and was then vulnerable to depression until the end of her life, in 1970. She was reclusive and disliked confessional and overtly political poetry but was admired as both poet and critic of other’s work. I want to learn much more about her now and read more of her poetry. Poetry can do that – inspire you to a little more detective work and a whole realm of new experiences.

So as I continue with my edits, then undertake the first, second and maybe third proof-read of a book I know so intimately,  I will recall Louis Bogan’s words

Now that I have your face by heart, I look. Now that I have your voice by heart, I read. Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

This may be the beginning of the ‘Last Act’ in the writing of Shell Shocked Britain, but it marks the beginning of a whole new performance as I begin on fresh pages for the next book….

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Tie a yellow ribbon round your own Barnaby…

yellow dogFirst things first – apologies for the pun, but when I made the joke (paraphrasing the Tony Orlando & Dawn song circa 1973) to the nurse at our Vets she thought it was rather good. In fact we discussed how our lovely black lab/collie cross Barnaby (AKA Barney, AKA Mr B) could be a promotional tool for the Yellow Dog UK scheme.

Yellow Dog UK is part of an international scheme to ensure that the public become aware that ‘some dogs need space’. How many times do we hear that someone has been injured by a dog that is ‘usually very friendly’, ‘a poppet at home’ or who has ‘never bitten anyone before’? I think we forget that dogs are pack animals, with some instincts that are still wild and who can, if circumstances allow, cause serious injury to others. We may love them, but not everyone does. Some dogs have been rescued, with backgrounds unknown. Others have had a lifetime of abuse until someone intervened to give them a better life.  Some are still in training, or in season (it isn’t only humans who have hormones) which can affect their behaviour or make it unpredictable. Some are old and arthritic and have become the proverbial ‘grumpy old’ dog.

Barnaby

Barnaby

Barnaby was diagnosed with arthritis and a bad back at the age of just three. He is a wonderful dog and great company for me as someone who works from home. He is gentle and loving, if a teeny bit chaotic – but as I have been told many a time, the same can be said of the home he lives in. On his home patch he is wonderful. Once you have been welcomed into Chez Grogan you will be overcome with love, licks and numerous toys and chewy things. However, the pain he has suffered with his back and the arthritis kept at bay with supplements has resulted in a suspicion of strangers – human and canine – that sometimes (and it is seemingly random) results in a display of aggression quite unlike his ‘real’ self. He barks and bares his teeth, his hackles rise and as a large black dog, looks like the Hound of the Baskervilles. Scary, but there is something in him that wants to protect himself, and us as his family (or pack).

Some might say such a dog should be put down. But that isn’t necessary if the owner of such a dog is responsible and takes proper precautions. If Barnaby hurt a child I would never forgive myself and we would have to take expert advice on whether he could be kept safely.  But if I ensure he is walked where it is safe and other walkers, dog owners and the public know that he ‘needs his space’ all is well. That is where the Yellow Dog Project comes in. Their website explains that the project means that:

 when you see a dog with a YELLOW ribbon, bandanna or similar on the leash or on the dog, this is a dog which needs some space. Please, do not approach this dog or its people with your dog. They are indicating that their dog cannot be close to other dogs. How close is too close? Only the dog or his people know, so maintain distance and give them time to move out of your way.

Barnaby will be wearing his bandanna with pride. He is a good dog who is trained, performs lovely tricks and looks after the Grogan clan to the best of his ability. Life has given him a bit of a battle to fight – he is young to have such pain and it isn’t fair. With caution, and the help of schemes such as the Yellow Ribbon, we can make sure he has a happy life without intimidating other dogs, or their human companions, needlessly.

Take a look at the website for the Yellow Ribbon. It is a great scheme and more people need to know about it to make sure everyone recognises that a dog in yellow is a dog who wants to be left alone. Remember – it is not often the dog’s fault. We have a responsibility too.

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