On sitting down to watch Withnail and I once again….

downloadApologies to John Keats for mangling the title of his poem on King Lear, but it seemed very appropriate. This blog has always covered an eclectic mix of subjects to say the least, breaking basic rules of blogging (know your niche, focus, give readers what they want etc) but one thing I rarely talk about is film. Yet I had ambitions – I took an Arvon Course on screenwriting eight years ago, when Jane Campion had recently stolen my thunder and come up with an idea for a biopic of John Keats that wasn’t about Keats and announced Bright Star. So I was hoping to focus on adapting a short story I had written about my great-uncle (that went on to inspire my book, Shell Shocked Britain) into a short film. On the first evening the course leaders went round the gathered company asking each of us to name our favourite film.

Now this was a challenge to me as I rarely sit down to watch a movie. My husband and I have very different tastes and although I will happily watch a two-hour episode of Inspectors Morse, Lewis or Montalbano, I am not a ‘movie night’ kind of gal.  I often lose patience mid way through a DVD, and trips to the cinema are infrequent. I do love some films –  Little Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation and the aforementioned Bright Star; Love Actually is a favourite at Christmas largely because Emma Thompson is so brilliant in it, and at the same time of year the Muppet Christmas Carol is an annual treat.

downloadBut when asked the question there was really only one real contender – Withnail and I. It is a film that divides my friends. A couple simply don’t get it, but most are, like me, rolling about with laughter within 5 minutes. It is by turns funny, cruel, and full of pathos, reducing me to a choked up mess by the ending. I felt utterly vindicated in my choice when one of the screenwriters taking the week said it was one of the best screenplays ever written. I have seen it about twenty times.

Made in 1987, it is set in the late sixties and focuses on two ‘resting’  actors, Withnail (Richard E Grant) and Marwood (the ‘I’ of the title played by Paul McGann). The Internet Movie Database offers a great summary of what passes for a plot:

“fed up with damp, cold, piles of washing-up, mad drug dealers and psychotic Irishmen, [Withnail and ‘I’]  decide to leave their squalid Camden flat for an idyllic holiday in the countryside, courtesy of Withnail’s uncle Monty’s country cottage. But when they get there, it rains non-stop, there’s no food, and their basic survival skills turn out to be somewhat limited. Matters are not helped by the arrival of Uncle Monty, who shows an uncomfortably keen interest in Marwood…”

download (1)That barely scratches the surface of the film’s appeal.  Richard E Grant is fabulous as the deluded, cowardly, lying but utterly charming Withnail, and Paul McGann as the anxiety ridden but sensible at heart Marwood, is beautiful. They are the perfect pairing in a film that made only a ripple when in first came out but has since become a cult hit. Pilgrimages are made to the locations; London, Lake District and Stoney Stratford nr Milton Keynes ( which pretended to be Penrith). It is so difficult to properly describe why it is so funny, but it is definitely in the delivery. It is now one of those films that people can quote verbatim, each scene almost a short, memorable, sketch. My favourites include:

Look at this; accident blackspot? These aren’t accidents, they’re throwing themselves into the road! Throwing themselves into the road gladly to escape all this hideousness. [Heckles pedestrian] Throw yourself into the road, darling, you haven’t got a chance!

I don’t advise a haircut, man. All hairdressers are in the employment of the government. Hair are your aerials. They pick up signals from the cosmos and transmit them directly into the brain. This is the reason bald-headed men are uptight.

And of course, they went on holiday by mistake…..

The language is unremittingly bad, so if that is offensive to you, don’t go near it. However, this, the official trailer, can give you a (perfectly clean) flavour of what you will miss..

We have recently watched the film again and it never fails to absorb, despite numerous viewings. You are bound to have at least one friend who is devoted to it, and another who can’t see why you love it and wants Bridget Jones on instead. If you haven’t seen it, do give it a try.The soundtrack is fabulous, as is  the clapped out Jag, and Paul McGann’s coat is as gorgeous as the man in it (forget The Matrix, Marwood wore it first…). And if at the end of the film you can get through Withnail’s delivery of a Hamlet soliloquy, in the pouring rain, through a fence to the wolf enclosure of London’s Zoo you have a harder heart than I have……

Are you a Withnail lover or loather? Have you a favourite quote? I would love to hear from you!

Posted in Art, Film, London, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Thank-you. Five Years of London Historians


I just had to reblog this piece by Mike Paterson, who founded London Historians exactly five years ago. Five years!!! I am proud to be a Founder Member of what has become a hugely popular and brilliantly run organisation, offering talks, walks, newsletters and pub meet ups for anyone with an interest in our lovely capital. I am living in exile in Somerset at the moment, still yearning a little for the city of my birth (which I visit only occasionally for research trips) .Mike has done a great job and keeps me in touch with everything I am missing! Thanks Mike.

Originally posted on London Historians' Blog:

Today marks the 5th anniversary of the founding of London Historians.

The first London Historians member card. Somerset House. The first London Historians member card. Somerset House.

I’d like to thank every single member who has joined us in that time. I’d also like to thank all the friends we’ve made at museums, libraries, historic buildings, local history societies and other heritage groups, the London Topographical Society, to pick a random example. Curators, librarians, authors, academics, genealogists, archaeologists. And tour guides, a special mention for them: there are several dozen among our membership which now stands at 520. I wonder if we can make that 600 in 24 hours?

SPECIAL OFFER NEW MEMBERS. This Day Only, ends midnight.
If you’re a non-Member reading this and would like to take the plunge, we commemorate this anniversary with a £10 discount on joining. 24 hours only! Please proceed to this page. (for “Qualifying Group”, please put LH5).

Here are some…

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My next book on 18th & 19th Century medicine – and a competition to come up with a title!

L0025088 Death as an apothecary's assistant making up medicines in aBefore you read this post, I would love to know if, after hearing a little bit more about my next book, you can think of a fabulous, attention-grabbing title. The working title is ‘Death Disease and Dissection’ but it hardly covers it! If your title is chosen (just add it to the comments below the post) I will include you in the acknowledgements and ensure you get a free copy of the book….!! 

I am actually working. Posting this is part of a proper writing day. Admittedly I have been sending lots of emails, arranging research trips and talking to people who have information that may be useful, but now I am getting words down on paper, and will continue to do so off and on for the rest of the day.

I am currently researching two commissions. The first is a book about medicine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, focusing on  young apothecary apprentices and their education to the required standard to undertake the role of surgeon apothecary, a career roughly equivalent to present day general practitioners. In a past post I have bemoaned my lack of progress, and inspiration, but something has changed in the past couple of weeks, and writing this is, to me, a proof of  my commitment to the project.

Freely admitting that the decision to write the book was based on my love of the life, poetry and letters of poet John Keats, whose medical training influenced his short, poetic life in many ways, I am now finding out about many other men with interesting stories to tell and Keats will sit alongside other less prominent men who devoted their lives to serving their communities.

cartoonThis book will examine medicine from the perspective of social, rather than medical history, but the  publisher, Pen and Sword once again, is keen to include details of the sights and smells of the apothecaries shop, the conditions he treated and the hospital training he received. So there will be pills, potions and poisons, death, disease and dissection and babies. Lots of babies. Men were midwives long before 21st century equality of opportunity. It will include tales of teaching hospitals and their relationships with the resurrectionists (or bodysnatchers), operations without anaesthetic and lives on the wards as well as in the homes of patients. If you read The Quack Doctor or The Georgian Gentleman blogs, for example, you will know there is much to wonder at (including great cartoons like the one above).

I will be gathering as much new information as I can, gleaning snippets from newspaper articles and archives. Although few medical treatments could ‘cure’ serious disease, I found many men had a high level of medical knowledge and technical expertise for the time, and although there were charlatans who might just as likely kill as cure,  I discovered that those working their way up from the making of pills and lotions to take the examinations necessary after 1815 were often more knowledgeable than those men who were wealthy enough to take their medical degrees at Universities.

seanceFollowing on from my work on Shell Shocked Britain, this book has been both a refreshing new challenge and a cause of much procrastination and delay. It is due out next year, and where I seemed, in the spring,  to have plenty of time to write the research up the speed at which the year has evaporated has left me panicky and unsure of myself. I have by turns been enthusiastically researching this book, and then finding more to enjoy in the work for the one due out in 2017 on the rise of spiritualism and the need to believe in contact with the dead in the years of the Great War and it’s aftermath. Everyone loves a ghost story and I am certainly no exception, as I have published my own short collection of ghost fiction called The Marrow Scoop. Stories of fraud and abound as people tried to find a way to cope with loss and grief. Having written a chapter on the subject in Shell Shocked Britain I have done half the work already. It seemed easier to carry on.

But I am now refocused and hope to really get writing about surgeon-apothecaries in the next ten days I am spending in Suffolk to house sit for my brother-in-law, and I have ten days in Cumbria to look forward to it September so no excuses.

Get on with it woman, it is an interesting subject and one I hope people will find fascinating as I look at the GPs of 200 years ago and assess the challenges they faced in world of ever-increasing medical knowledge.

Posted in Books, History, Keats, London, Medicine, Mental health, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Don’t leave it too late to live in the moment: Rooting our lives in the present


I wrote this piece for The Terrace Psychotherapy & Complementary Therapy Clinic in Taunton. and wanted to share it on here. I just love the poem, and having read the article referred to in it, about the nature of time passing, seemingly more and more quickly, I want to try and make the most of every moment. It is such hard work to rein ourselves in though, isn’t it?

Originally posted on let's talk!:

mindfulness-meditation-reduces-loneliness-older-adults-study-1343684974Have you noticed how quickly 2015 seems to be flying away from us? Someone mentioned it is just 19 Fridays until Christmas – which sounds terrifying, bearing in mind we hardly seem to have taken the lights down from the last one. There is an interesting article doing the rounds online called ‘How did it get so late so soon?‘, which examines the 21st century perception of time, and why it seems to pass more quickly now than even a couple of decades ago. It seems to be something to do with our need to multi-task simply to stay on top of all the demands made on us in the 21st century. It also offers a reason for the seeming increase in the speed of time passing as we grow older:

“There’s a suggestion that our perception of time may be in proportion to the length of our…

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Four poems on one day – a challenge for my 5 year ‘bloggerversary’

robert-frost-poetry-quotes-poetry-is-when-an-emotion-has-found-its-thought-andIt is 5 years since I started blogging!! I can’t believe it! So much has happened in my writing life just because of this blog so THANK YOU to everyone who has kept reading over the years! I celebrate with, what else? A post about poetry…xxxx

Last week I was challenged by the lovely Lorna Fergusson, writer and inspirational creative writing teacher at Fictionfire, to post four poems in four days on my Facebook timeline.  Normally, this is not something that would cause me too much of a problem – I love poetry, as anyone who reads my blog even occasionally knows. But I am in a funny place work/writing wise at the moment and I just couldn’t allow myself to be distracted. To have the opportunity to think about poetry when I was supposed to be doing client work was, it pains me to say, almost too tempting to resist.  I closed my eyes to my favourite anthologies, Keats books and The Poetry Archive website and cracked on with designing a website and proofreading ( a rather marvellous) manuscript about a holocaust survivor. But oh, it almost HURT!!

So, as I saw the Virtual Victorian (writer of sumptuous gothic, Essie Fox) post Maya Angelou today, I thought I would give myself a break, as it is Friday and I have worked jolly hard this week. The remit of the challenge was not to post four favourite poems (although why post something I don’t enjoy? Sorry Byron…) but presumably to offer readers something interesting in their timeline. In that I failed dismally, so I will try really hard here to offer a selection I hope you will simply enjoy, find thought-provoking or moving. Here goes:

Firstly, a beautiful sonnet written by a contemporary poet  – one that is not as well-known as other love poems regularly read at weddings, but which perhaps should be…


Alice Oswald

From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it’s like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it’s like a coat;
and if the coat is yours, it has a tear
like a wide mouth and when the mouth begins
to draw the wind, it’s like a trumpeter
and when the trumpet blows, it blows like millions….
and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.

And secondly, one of the saddest, most moving poems to a lost child, full of searing grief and pain, but beautiful nonetheless…

On my First Son

Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

079This one is a current favourite, because three weeks ago I spent three hours at Sharandy’s on the Blackdown Hills, one-to-one with hawks and owls, flying a Harris Hawk and handling similar fabulous and always wild raptors…

Close-up on a Sharp-shinned Hawk

Don McKay

Concentrate on her attributes:
the accipiter’s short
roundish wings, streaked breast, talons fine
and slender as the x-ray of a baby’s hand.
The eyes (yellow in this hatchling
later deepening to orange then
blood red) can spot
a sparrow at four hundred metres and impose
silence like an overwhelming noise
in which you must not listen

Suddenly, if you’re not careful, everything
goes celluloid and slow
and threatens to burn through and you
must focus quickly on the simple metal band around her leg
by which she’s married to our need to know.

keats-charcoal1And finally, it has to be Keats, of course. I didn’t want to post poems already on this blog so I thought you might like an extract from the beginning of the long, narrative poem Hyperion. I think the landscape is inspired by his trip to the Lake District in 1818, it so evokes those wet valleys and deep, dark forests…

From Hyperion Book 1

John Keats
Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,
Sat gray-hair’d Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung above his head
Like cloud on cloud. No stir of air was there,
Not so much life as on a summer’s day
Robs not one light seed from the feather’d grass,
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.
A stream went voiceless by, still deadened more
By reason of his fallen divinity
Spreading a shade: the Naiad ‘mid her reeds
Press’d her cold finger closer to her lips.

Along the margin-sand large foot-marks went,
No further than to where his feet had stray’d,
And slept there since. Upon the sodden ground
His old right hand lay nerveless, listless, dead,
Unsceptred; and his realmless eyes were closed;
While his bow’d head seem’d list’ning to the Earth,
His ancient mother, for some comfort yet.

Anyway, thanks to Lorna for the inspiration. Poetry nurtures and speaks to our souls in a way nothing else can. Do find your own favourites and let me know what they are!!

Posted in Literature, love the universe and everything, Mental health, Poetry, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Running hard to stand still: Anxiety, writing & a world of confusion…

images (2)I sit at my PC. My hands hover over the keyboard, my mind trying hard to focus on the letters. I will them into words, sentences, paragraphs. I flick through my folders of research; the articles I must read, the chapters I have identified in the books taken  out of The London Library. But it isn’t right. It is never right. The words are there but they are not fit for purpose and refuse to get into shape. I switch to the internet, searching for inspiration on twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Nothing but distraction, they only add to a sense of frustration and an anxiety that increases as the minutes and hours pass.

I turn to the social media and blogging work I do for others – that is fine. My editing and proofreading work is going well. I am not letting clients down, just myself.

I stand up, stretch and try a change of scene, getting out the colouring books that still my mind.  Alternatively I take up the book I am currently reading, greedily turning pages of stories that take me away from my desk, the room, the house and ultimately the life I am living. The sun might be out, the day warm and the plants in pots close to where I sit offer a faint scent. All I can hear are gulls, light traffic noise and a sound akin to a roomful of anxious sleepers grinding their teeth, as my dog sits next to me chewing on an old bone.

What has happened? Shell Shocked Britain has been a success, as far as I can tell from reviews and comments following the many talks I have done. I have been commissioned to write two further books, both non-fiction and both on subjects that would usually fascinate me. They do still. But I can’t write. This blog post is the first I have written in weeks and it scares me. Everything scares me. and perhaps that is the problem.  As always, my favourite poet is wise beyond words:

….if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all…. (John Keats)

download (1)The world feels a frightening place at the moment, the very air we breathe charged with anxiety. Austerity, deprivation, radicalisation, dehumanisation, the race for technological progress at the expense of simple peace.  Clearly life is in real terms much more frightening for those fleeing war zones, fighting extremists, simply struggling to stay alive. But their fear seems to transmit around the globe with an intensity that touches my soul, and eats away at my sense of my own safety. My work on social media offers no protection from the tragedy and sadness that can strike even the happiest of communities, families, individuals. Illness, accident, the actions of the wicked, the thoughtless or the desperate that devastate and cut short lives – stories that are shared, retweeted, posted and reposted until our bodies become ticking time bombs and our families prey to the seeming whim of fate.

I return to my chair in front of the large, bright screen and the stream of words that taunt me, meaningless as they seem in the face of the tears that fall, the heart that races and the breath that comes in wretched little sobs. Anxiety is a condition for which I am prescribed a number of pills, but this doesn’t feel like a sickness that can be cured by any chemical. It is a symptom of a loss of control over the world I inhabit, of a sense of being done to, rather than doing. Reactive rather than proactive.

fallHow do those of us that struggle with mental health issues regain a sense of power over our destinies? Is it possible to surge forward once again when one has tripped and fallen behind the confident front-runners? I have lost my momentum and am struggling against a headwind; somehow I must pick up my pace once more, and fly (you can tell my family are in the next room, watching an athletics meeting on the TV….)

Does anyone else feel like this at the moment? The tiny space I occupy on the troubled globe seems a lonely place sometimes……

Posted in Books, Mental health, News, Work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

In which I learn more about spiritualism in the Great War and need some help with ‘Theosophy’….

Whilst writing Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I became fascinated with the rejuvenation of the Spiritualist movement just before, during and after the Great War, on into the 1930s. People were so fascinated by the chapter in the book that dealt with the subject that I pitched an idea for another book to deal specifically with that subject, and how bereaved families turned to mediums and the spiritualist church in their thousands as a response to grief. That book has been commissioned and I am thrilled to have the chance to do more research on the subject.

Someone who has been a huge support to me as I try to find out more is Ian Stevenson, who has written on this blog twice before, most recently in response to a piece I wrote on spiritualism to highlight how people dealt with the psychological trauma of war. So, when I expressed some confusion about ‘theosophy’and its relationship to spiritualism, he offered to clarify things for me and I thought readers of my blog might be interested too… Here is a summary of his thoughts:


Blavatsky and Olcott in 1888

Theosophy means ‘The wisdom of the Gods’, and the Theosophical Society in England describes it as ‘the thread of truth in scriptures, creeds, symbols, myths and rituals. ‘ It is usually used to refer to teachings of the Theosophical Society founded in New York in 1875 by an American, Henry Olcott and a Russian noblewoman Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, usually called Madam Blavatsky, or HPB. Olcott was a Spiritualist but Blavatsky claimed to be a medium with psychic abilities and beliefs that caused disagreement with the Spiritualist Church. In her view mediums did not usually contact the real person who had died but a ‘shade’. In her view, once on the other side, the essential person began a process of life evaluation and progress to a new life. The personality of the life just left separated and became a shade. It could respond with the memory and characteristics of the deceased but it was not the real, essential person. After a while, it even lost the power to communicate and became a shell which drifted and eventually disintegrated. This did not go down well with the Spiritualists, who grappled with her controversial and often inconsistent views.

We think of the Victorian age as one of faith. In fact there were growing doubts and a survey in 1851 found that only half the population attended church-and that was a day the clergy did their best to ensure good attendance. The urban working class were the worst at attending church. The poem Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, published in the 1860s but probably composed earlier, refers to an ebbing of faith common to may intellectuals of the time. Blavatsky believed the mainstream churches had lost  deeper understanding of their faith and all people had were the doctrines, preached without real understanding.The motto of the Theosophical Society  is: “there is no religion higher than truth”, or that behind all the different faiths was a single reality, which could not be understood by reason alone.

The Theosophical Society has three aims or objects:

  1. To form a nucleus of the ‘Universal Brotherhood of Humanity’ without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.
  2. To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science.
  3. To investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.
Annie Besant

Annie Besant

The Society played a major part in bringing Eastern thought to the West and providing alternatives to the Christian monopoly of religious thought. Many of the concepts of the New Age movement which flourished in the 1960s onwards, were first introduced by the Society. A key concept of Theosphism is that of re-incarnation and karma, along with the hidden or occult world and such ideas as  astral planes and mental planes of existence. Blavatsky wrote a number of books, notably The Secret Doctrine,  which influenced great names such as William Butler Yeats, Frank Baum (author of the Wizard of Oz), Paul Gauguin, Kandinsky, Klee, and Mahler. The emphasis on brotherhood and treating women as equals was, for its time, quite revolutionary, and in Britain an early leader was Annie Besant, prominent women’s rights activist and socialist, who married a clergyman. After reading the four gospel accounts of the crucifixion decided she could not believe in the inspired nature of the Bible and refused to take communion despite being ordered by her husband, from whom she later separated, to do so.

In 1920 Theosophy was debated at the Lambeth Conference, which the Anglican Church holds every ten years, along with Christian Science and Spiritualism. Of course, they could not approve of these movements. Many resolutions condemned them. Others, however, felt that they should, at least, be taken seriously. But there was no real attempt to create dialogue and today the church will speak with other mainstream religions but has little contact with alternative spiritual movements.

By the 1960s, other strands of spiritual thought were emerging e g. Transcendental meditation or Zen.  The emphasis of the New Age was on ‘bottom up’ spirituality and the individual finding their own path, drawing on ancient traditions, such as Gnostic Christianity and modern movements, such as the psychology of Carl Jung as well as modern science. The Theosophical Society  has a more dynamic presence in the USA and the British sections  have declined, though not disappeared.

My thanks to Ian for drawing my attention to the importance of Theosophy to our recent increased need to find a more spiritual path via meditation and mindfulness. It is a complex subject but I will look at the photos and discussions about Madame Blavatsky as a medium with greater interest and understanding of her motives. It is easy to call all mediums ‘frauds’ (Stephen Fry even called them that directly through the cameras of QI XL this week….) but some genuinely felt they had a gift, and a connection to whatever constitutes ‘the other side’. I am looking forward to examining the subject in more detail in my book!

Posted in Books, Guest posts, History, psychology, Shell Shocked Britain, spiritualism, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments