What is ‘romantic fiction’? – Talking Books with author Bethany Askew

My fortnightly book programme on 10Radio is going really well. I am enjoying discussions with a wide variety of guests and if it all sounds as if we are just having a good old chinwag about our favourite subject – books, poetry, reading and the written word in all its forms – then that is pretty close to the truth.

out of stepTwo weeks ago I spent a really interesting thirty minutes in the company of author Bethany Askew. Bethany has been writing women’s commercial literature for twelve years and has completed four novels; The Double Life of Jemma Langford, Out Of Step and Counting The Days and The Time Before. The first two are currently available on Amazon Kindle and Bethany also writes poetry and short stories.

So how do you define fiction that is, mainly, read by women? We came to the conclusion that what one person might call ‘romance’ is actually what is often, somewhat disparagingly called ‘chick lit’, or ‘women’s popular fiction’. Do we want pure escapism? As my lovely friend Lucy said ‘ I like a happy ending! If I need s**t romantic f**kups then I can just stick to my ACTUAL LIFE.’ I used this quote in the show, but missed out the rude words for fear of being taken off the air….

Many people did want a challenge though. The books and authors we discussed more often wrote about relationships than romance. Life does not have neat and tidy outcomes and even happiness can come at a price. The authors that were recommended to me on social media were not necessarily the ones I expected, we ranged across the last two centuries and we had an interesting discussion about women’s fiction that is most popular in libraries…

So do listen to the show on the link below.  Bethany was a great guest – knowledgeable and willing to share a lot about her writing life. She read a passage from her work and chose the most wonderful piece of music to end the show.

I must apologise for a few ums and ars as it was a month since the previous programme and I actually wasn’t very well, but we soon warmed up.

Bethany has a great website at http://www.bethanyaskew.co.uk/ which offers full details and some examples of her work. I would like to thank her very much for joining in the conversation. Talking Books is a pleasure to do and I am so glad to have the opportunity to spend 30 minutes talking about my favourite subject every fortnight!


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Broadmoor Revealed – Victorian Crime & the Lunatic Asylum

Today on No wriggling I am lucky to have a guest post from Mark Stevens, Senior Archivist at Berkshire Record Office, responsible for looking after the Broadmoor Asylum archives. Pen and Sword Books have recently published a revised and expanded edition of his book ‘Broadmoor Revealed’ which became the most popular history e-book of 2011.

My sincere thanks to Mark for offering me this fascinating piece. All the links to learn more are included in the text.


Broadmoor Hospital is one of those institutions that everybody knows.

In fact, they probably only know it as ‘Broadmoor’.  A bit like Madonna, or Pele, one word suffices to indicate the subject.

If you push someone, then they might mention the Krays, Peter Sutcliffe or more recently Jimmy Savile.  Push someone a bit more and it is possible they might mention the artist Richard Dadd or lexicographer William Chester Minor.

When the Broadmoor archive arrived at my workplace some nine years ago, I was the sort of person who struggled to do more than know the one word.  But my relationship with the hospital has changed dramatically since then.  The archive was – is – incredible.  And it is part of my job to look after it.

I’ve said elsewhere that the archive sort of draws you into it.  It feeds the voyeur in us with page after page of the most raw, unscripted history.  It is bursting with stories, often very sad ones, that give an insight into a hidden community, experiencing what was and still can be a silent problem.

I’ve tried to tell some of those stories in my book Broadmoor Revealed.  I have included Dadd and Minor, and a couple of the other more high-profile cases, because I think that people expect to see them in a book about Victorian Broadmoor.  But for me the more interesting thing is not these remarkable and – dare I say it? – mostly middle class, intellectual patients.  Rather it is all the ordinary Victorian men and women, who were simply getting on with their workaday lives until they experienced an overwhelming and irrational desire to do something dreadful.

Many of these dreadful acts followed a similar pattern, and usually, it was the patients’ nearest and dearest who suffered.  Modern crime studies suggest that we are always most unsafe under our own roof, and the Victorian cases that I’ve read suggest that it was ever thus.

Patients on the terrace, Broadmoor Asylum c1908

Patients on the terrace, Broadmoor Asylum c1908

So the book has examples of husbands who killed their wives, such as Isaac Finch, a devout Christian who became convinced that both he and his wife were damned for their sexual sins.  There is no true crime glamour in Finch’s story.  The family were desperately poor, existing on seasonal farm work in Essex, when Isaac took a razor to Martha’s throat.  He was simply suffering from a delusional problem that ended in a tragic solution.

Even sadder than that are the cases of those parents who have murdered their own children.  These mums and dads often ended up in Broadmoor because Victorian courtrooms were all too ready to find their act insane.  It is interesting to see how 19th century society sought to rationalise what was terrible by seeking proof that the perpetrator was irrational.  Today, we might prefer to create monsters rather than medicine out of such defendants.

This type of patient made up the typical female admission to Victorian Broadmoor.  I’ve written about some of them in my book.  One of the things that interests me in such cases is how the wider family unit responds to such a devastating trauma.  One of the mothers I’ve written about was effectively abandoned by her partner, for example, though actually this outcome is very rare.  The more often heard refrain from family is one of wanting their unwell member back.

You could choose any one of these women’s stories and find a tale that tugs at your heart.  I just couldn’t find space for them all in the book.  One who didn’t make the cut is Martha Baines, a housewife from Kendal.  One cold winter’s day in 1875, she poured bleach down the throat of her youngest child, aged five months.  She said that she had done it to keep the baby quiet, as it had cried for such a very long time.

She left behind her husband and three other children, and they felt strongly that Martha needed compassion, rather than treatment or punishment.  ‘No one was a better mother and wife than she’, wrote her husband to Broadmoor’s chief, pleading for her return.  It is extremely touching, and also of some comfort to know that they were reunited some two years later – a comparatively short time after the offence, and evidence of the hospital’s own compassion, together with a possibility that post natal depression may have been the cause of Martha’s illness.

To a certain extent, the desperation to obtain Mrs Baines’ discharge might be seen in an economic as much as a loving context.  Without friends or family to look after young children, a lone parent might find it difficult to raise an income while their other half was shut away.  The families of patients had everyday problems, as befits a group who were everyday people.

Author Mark Stevens

Author Mark Stevens

Which brings me back, I think, to the very unexceptional nature of most Broadmoor patients, regardless of the often dramatic cause of their admission.  After reading through so many case histories, I have concluded that the true story of Broadmoor is found not in creative geniuses or indeed in monsters of evil, but rather in the boy or girl next door.

And that may in itself be a fairly shocking statement.  But the bald truth is, as MIND confirms, that in any year around one in four of us will experience some mental health problem that requires a visit to our GP.  It is not so great a leap from that to see that a small percentage of us will from time to time experience symptoms so severe that we need hospital care.  And in the intervening period between symptoms and care, it also seems inevitable that occasionally bad things will happen.

Those bad things might suggest that Broadmoor is potentially a dark subject for any book.  Yet that is to suppose that life is static; that everyone affected by the place is frozen into solid form.  In reality, life flows within Broadmoor as it flows without the walls.  Not every unhappy beginning has an unhappy ending.

For me, that provides enough light to see Broadmoor in a variety of textures and shades.  It provides hope, too; and hope as much as horror lies behind the Broadmoor name.  The one word is never enough.



Posted in Book, Family History, Guest posts, History, Mental health, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Everybody loves it so let’s go for the top 10….!

Last month Dandelions and Bad Hair Days; Untangling lives affected by depression and anxiety was published on Kindle. Available around the world to read on Kindle, PC or even iPads and smart phones, alongside the paperback version it is now available to millions of people. All the reviews so far have been 5*, with comments such as ‘moving’ ‘enlightening’ ‘uplifting’ ‘accessible’. The book has been featured at a Psychotherapy conference where a reading by Vivienne Tuffnell of her piece that gives the book its title was viewed by many therapists present as one of the highlights of the day.


All good then. Since going to eBook DABHD has featured in two Kindle charts, reaching the top 50 of one of them and the royalties available from Amazon mean that selling at 2.99 we get nearly as much in royalties as we do for a paperback at twice the price.

But we really need a breakthrough to get it on to  ‘must read’ lists. Looking at the charts, the ‘self-help’ books that do well seem to be the ones with inspirational quotes and have a life coach angle to them. Nothing wrong with that at all. However, I do think there is a place for a book full of wonderful writing by inspirational people who talk about their own experiences in their own words, creatively and with passion. Reviewers have said that even if they have no direct experience of mental ill-health themselves, the book has helped them understand how it can affect anyone, in any walk of life and however resilient they think they are.

So how do we ‘go viral’? How do we bring Dandelions and Bad Hair Days to the attention of all those that would benefit from it, learn from it, come to a better understanding from it? All of those involved believe that to reduce stigma and raise awareness we need to get our stories out there. We have poked our heads about the proverbial parapets, which for many has been a courageous move.

So lets find a way to sell in the hundreds, the thousands. Remember ALL profits go to mental health charity SANE, with a contribution to OCD Action in memory of Sybil Macindoe whose mother, Lois Chaber, writes movingly in DABHD and whose own book The Thing Inside My Head has done so much to highlight how damaging Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be.

I have to say I am not very confident at marketing the work I do – it feels a little like selling raffle tickets – you know people are strapped for cash and it is hard to ask. However – this is not all my writing; it is poetry and prose by some twenty contributors. It has a beautiful and unique cover, using artwork by the talented artist Ingrid Smejkal and the paperback includes photographs by photographer Nettie Edwards.  Everyone wins with this book. Please do buy it, tell your friends, review it. I can’t thank you enough for the hard work so far, but there is so much more it could do.

Posted in Book, Charities, Dandelions and Bad Hair Days, Mental health, Photography, Reading, Work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

‘Life is too much like a pathless wood’ – Is this the poem for our times?

94716I have been in a funny mood recently. As people who read this blog will know I don’t need to be in an odd frame of mind to read poetry; but there are times when it speaks to me with a louder voice and offers one or two lines that so describe my life view that I almost stand up wherever I might be reading and shout ‘YES’!!!

Robert Frost is one of my favourite poets and Birches one of the poems I have read most often. But this week, as I dashed hither and thither whilst not feeling, frankly, on top form Birches seemed to speak to me personally. I thought, perhaps, that Robert Frost had written about a moment we all have at some point in our lives (unless we are fortunate types who believe we have got everything right, can cope easily with all life throws at us and have boundless energy) when really we would just like to run away for a while. We wouldn’t want to be gone forever; we would miss our loved ones and yearn, eventually, to return. But those constant worries about whether we are doing the right thing; the calls on our time that seem so piffling; the reluctance of others to make decisions on anything without our input; well they all can just get too much…..

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

This is just the second part of the poem. You can read the whole poem here. Doesn’t that line ‘And life is too much like a pathless wood…’ ring so true, as life seems to spin further out of our control?

A number of the themes Robert Frost focused on in his work are present here – nature, and its ability to teach us about ourselves whilst maintaining an indifference to our fates; the solitary traveller and the choices he or she makes; and those wonderful trees, the birches and the woodland that feature strongly in Frost’s poetry, connecting us with the natural world whilst ensuring we remain rooted in humanity.

I am writing this at midsummer, when we should feel closest to the warmth of the sun, the green of the leaves and the wonders of the world. How far away they seem at present, and how much we need to bring ourselves back to them and root ourselves in our humanity once more.

Posted in Poetry, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The most beautiful words ever written?

The Eve of St Agnes - Millais

The Eve of St Agnes – Millais

I have been on my own for two days. The family is away being athletic – not a talent I can share with them. So who could I turn to for company but John Keats?

Yesterday I re-read Isabella: or the Pot of Basil and was struck not by the undoubted flaws it contains, but by the wonderful storytelling and the way Keats lets his personality and his political views sneak in to some of the stanzas.

Today though, I have taken the reading of his poetry to another level, with The Eve of St Agnes.

I didn’t want to undertake a long analysis here, but to encourage you to read the poem, but put simply it is a poem populated by stock characters (young lovers, warring families, old nurses) but packed with description. It isn’t a story that rattles along; it lingers on detail and draws the reader in from the bitter cold of both the weather and the hearts of the violent families into the warmth of the chamber belonging to a young woman – Madeline – who undertakes the rituals of St Agnes’ Eve in order to dream of her future love. That lover appears in physical form as young Porphyro who bribes Madeline’s old nurse to allow him access to the bedroom where Madeline sleeps. He enters her dream, and when she wakes (here there is some doubt as to whether they consummate their love – an addition that shocked some readers at the time and worried Keats’ publisher enough to ask him to tone it down) Porphyro declares her his bride and they run away from the castle into the storm.

So does this old story oft repeated justify the title of this post?  I will tell you why I believe so. It is because of  stanza XXIV, in which Keats describes Madeline’s chamber….

A casement high and triple-arch’d there was,
    All garlanded with carven imag’ries
    Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass, 
    And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
    Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
    As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings;
    And in the midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries,
    And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
  A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings.

The Flight of Madeline & Porphyro - Holman Hunt

The Flight of Madeline & Porphyro – Holman Hunt

I would encourage you to read this aloud, or just under your breath. Feel and enjoy the words as if they were a plate of the most delicious food you can imagine. It is no surprise that Keats was a significant influence on the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian poets such as Tennyson. The poem as a whole is a visual delight, the colours sparkle through the text and it is as if Keats has had a vision of Millais’ or Holman Hunt’s representations of the story as he writes – he is literally creating a work of art on the page.

j-keatsI think these literally are the most beautiful words in English Literature. A controversial assertion I am sure but one I feel confident making. A close second, and of a similar sensual nature, are also by Keats (you can tell I am not in the least biased…) from the second verse of Ode to a Nightingale..

O for a beaker full of the warm South! 
 Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
  With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
   And purple-stainèd mouth;

So what do you think? Challenge me by all means! I know there are passages in Shakespeare and many other poets that might be quoted but I stand by these as words I could literally consume. They send a tingle down the spine. Beat them if you dare!

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Sorry Nigel Farage – Talking Books loved ‘Talking France’…

20130429_211424Well, my holidays are over for 2013. Unless we win the lottery in the next few weeks I will now spend the rest of the year wishing all my friends ‘Bon Voyage’ and envying them their breaks from the daily routine (or what passes for routine in this house.) We had three nights in Paris to celebrate our 25th Wedding Anniversary, followed after just five days by a week in the Lake District. Very different trips, but equally enjoyable. Paris is a wonderful city to stroll around and in three days I walked as far as I ultimately did in the Lakes – around eighteen miles. I enjoyed delicious food on both sides of the channel and now have to adopt a strict low-fat, caffeine free diet in order to unclog all my vital organs.

All this time off has meant that work has been, largely, left behind resulting in my need to quickly shake off post-holiday blues and get back to writing. I also have tons of admin to do, but that never ends and to get it done is just a matter of avoiding distractions. Ha!

One thing that I did have to miss was my radio show ‘Talking Books’. I should have been ‘on’ the day we set off for Cumbria but was given leave and others stepped in. I would like to think I was missed, but with just three programmes to my name I doubt it. Luckily, I have the fabulous Fire River Poets in the studio this week (Friday 24th) which will make sure we get people listening again quickly.

51rgSCBy0NL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_However – back to the 26th April and the ‘Talking Books Talks France’ show. I deliberately chose the subject matter to get me in the mood for Paris, and to pick up a few hints from my guest, Trevor Snow, who organises walking tours of France and has written a book – Best of France - detailing some of his favourites.

We talked of many things, Trevor and I, on the show. He was a wonderful and very knowledgeable guest; a true Francophile. He offered some of his favourite authors who write about France, or who use it as a backdrop for their writing (most notably the novels written by Peter Mayle). As usual we looked at those suggested by my social media pals, who enjoy classics by Camus or Dumas for example or contemporary fiction by Joanne Harris, or the detective novels written by Fred Vargas. We also talked about French literature and why so many of us read authors such as Balzac, Gide and Maupassant in our angst-ridden teens. My favourite is Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier and thanks to Trevor I can pronounce the title correctly for the first time. Of course, I know some who can read French literature in the original language. Sadly with Grade E O Level French I could barely read Spot Goes to France….

I also got a mention in for The Chase by Lorna Fergusson, which I started before my holidays and finished really quickly on the plane home, gripped as I was by the thrilling story, very different from the usual tale of ex-pats in the Dordogne. I heartily recommend it.

What preparing for this programme really brought into focus is how many people adore all things French. I know I do and Paris was very welcoming. Yet we came home to all the fuss and bother about Europe and the ghastly, greasy Nigel Farage suggesting that Europe is some kind of threat to the very soul of Britain and Britishness. Frankly, I don’t think those Mr Farage finds so threatening care about Britain as much as politicians, full of pomp and pompousness, would like to think. The French get on with their own lives, experience their own problems and enjoy all the lovely things French culture can offer. Standing around in tweeds without a chin rubbing people up the wrong way will get us nowhere Nige. Not an image of Britain I would want to promote.

As always I give you the chance to ‘catch up’ so here is the link to the show:

Do listen in to this edition of ‘Talking Books’ if you have a chance. It was great fun to do, although I still get a few nerves, especially when asked to read out a question for a French quiz. Thanks for stepping in Trevor!

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Talking crime – on why we love a good murder mystery….

At last I post the second of my Talking Books radio shows. I mean to post these relatively quickly after the show goes out, but a) have not yet learned how to edit and record the show myself so must rely on the good nature of others and b) I want to write a post that adds something to the show and takes the ideas a little further. I have done three shows now and each one could have gone on for hours, so interesting was the subject and the studio guest associated with it.

On 12th April I was talking crime writing with author Jane McLoughlin. Before the show I canvassed by Twitter and Facebook chums as usual  Who are your favourite crime writers? Who is the greatest fictional detective in your view? Which crime series has transferred best to small and big screens? I managed to get a few of the ideas into the show but I had such a good response I thought I would go into just a little more detail here.

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

So – the greatest fictional detective award goes to…who else? Sherlock Holmes. (Overwhelmingly the most popular portrayal of the great man was by Jeremy Brett). Robin Vanags, 10Radio’s voice over specialist read a short extract from A Study in Scarlet on the show,  in which we experience Holmes’ deductive powers for the first time, to Watson’s general bewilderment.  There is little to match it and such wit and originality has inspired so many subsequent writers that the respect is well-earned. However, the ‘boom’ in crime fiction started in the 1920s and 1930s and as I mention on the show there are interesting theories as to why.

Ask yourself the question (if, that is, you enjoy crime fiction) ‘why do I enjoy reading about dark mysteries and gory murders?’ For many of us it is the enjoyment gained from trying to work out ‘who dunnit’ or ‘why dunnit’. We want to engage with the detective, attempting to beat them to the solution. It is a challenge. But it is also a thrill – a safe one. In reality we would shun the criminals, hate to read about the crimes and find detectives threatening.

The work I have been doing for Shell Shocked Britain threw up an interesting theory that offers an unexpected perspective on the aftermath of the Great War. The work of Agatha Christie, Marjorie Allingham and particularly Dorothy L. Sayers were a direct response to the war. The environment all three women created was a relatively ‘safe’ old England, but underneath the cracked surfaces of the ploughed fields and old church floors horror and death lurked. Women were particularly adept at evoking this sense of domesticity threatened. They played with the role of women in society and class tensions. This is a direct response to the horrors of the Great War, during which anxiety and fear, death and loss were never out of mind. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is a shell shocked Great War veteran.

After the war ended, was there a continuing need for that sense of danger, of the unexpected and of the randomness of death? I find it a convincing argument. Many of those who enjoy reading crime fiction now love the cosy domestic settings of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, or more recently the Cotswolds that are home to M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin. Others wish to raise their adrenaline levels higher, travelling to  Sweden to follow Wallander, or across America with Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta. I am enjoying crime novels set in the 19th Century at them moment and got in a mention for Lynn Shepherd and D.E. Meredith, both of whom had me riveted to their books in the past year. (Neither of whom hold back when it comes to the blood and guts.)

So is there a part of the human psyche that wants to face death; to see a dead body, understand the mind of a killer and to bring him or her to justice? Or are we all potential detectives, or even killers, eager to see how it is done?

Jane McLoughlin (who writes quite dark crime fiction herself  - I shall review  the book she gave me A Nice Place to Die on here soon) and I didn’t come to any firm conclusions on the radio show, but it was a fascinating discussion which could have gone on for hours. Once again I am not sure I have got the knack of staying close enough to the microphone but I get so enthusiastic I find it hard to sit still….

Anyway, do listen if you have a moment. You can skip bits if I am waffling. I will post the next show – talking books about or set in France – later this week. Do let me know what you think, or have any hints for improving the way it is structured or how I sound. I really do want to learn. I may not make the BBC but now I know why they hold on to their jobs for as long as possible….

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