Today – the 23rd February – marks the 197th anniversary of the death of the poet John Keats, in an apartment (now the Keats-Shelley House & Museum) looking over the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Anyone who has read my blog will know of my passion for his poetry and letters, his philosophy and the way he lived his life. Not simply a brilliant poet, he was brave in the face of tragedy, loyal to his friends – who treasured his memory – and a man of great intellect. He remains popular today, globally, because he is relevant today and has much to say about the world and its workings that still make us say ‘Yes! That’s just what I think!’
I have written two posts on this blog marking Keats’s death. The first was ‘He is gone…’ Joseph Severn on the death of John Keats’ back in 2012, in which I quoted the letter from Severn – who had nursed Keats to his last breath – announcing his death to Charles Brown, the great friend with whom Keats had lived in Wentworth Place in Hampstead. The description of Keats’s last moments is heartrending, and the deathbed picture sketched by Severn, a talented young artist at the beginning of a long career, is one of the most iconic images of Keats we have.
The second post, entitled ‘The ‘vital’ death of John Keats: ending the myth of weakness’ I wrote just last year. I wanted to highlight the long-standing, mistaken, representation of Keats as the frail young romantic hounded to his death by cruel critics of his work. He was actually physically strong, quick-tempered, energetic, courageous and philosophical in the face of criticism – he was his own greatest critic after all. In this post, I wanted to illustrate how, more recently, the recognition that his friends sought to promote his life and work by promoting the image of doomed youth was, although done with the greatest love, a source of much mythologising and misrepresentation.
Today though, I want to celebrate his life and celebrate the opportunity I now have to add to the work devoted to the great man. I am thrilled to announce that I have been commissioned (yes, a publisher is actually paying me!!) to write a book about John Keats, an ‘In the footsteps of…’following him to places that influenced his life and work. It will place Keats in cities, towns and villages, in parts of the country he visited, stayed in and, ultimately died in. It will be, in some senses, a social history (I will include the historical context; Keats was influenced by the realities of the world around him as well as the classical texts he read so avidly) and will add to the research I did for Death Disease and Dissection on his time as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in London. I want it to be accessible, well researched and eminently readable. I have always hoped my posts on here, and on The Romanticism Blog for The Wordsworth Trust, have shown that poetry is for everyone and a strictly academic knowledge and approach unnecessary to the enjoyment of Keats poetry and letters.
It will be published, along with many other studies I am sure, in 2021, to mark the bicentenary of his death. My challenge is to make it stand out in some way – something I know will be very difficult. But after 40 years of influence, I am sure Keats can still help me bring him to the page and once again be part of the celebration of his life and the marking of his death.
At last, I can catch my breath and report back on the launch of my second book with Pen and Sword, Death, Disease & Dissection: The working life of a surgeon-apothecary 1750-1850. The book has only been out for a couple of weeks, but it has been a part of my life for so long I can’t believe I am only really now telling people about it. As many of you who read my blog regularly know, this has been a difficult year for me and for my family so that vital marketing has been left a little behind. I am just hoping it doesn’t affect sales too much. These things matter so much now, especially with Christmas coming up.
On Thursday 16th November I spoke to a sell-out crowd at Taunton Literary Festival, presenting some gruesome pictures of horrible procedures to much groaning and squirming (and laughter) in the audience. Nothing like the quack doctor and failed boot polish salesman Dr Solomon and his Cordial of Gilead to tickle a few ribs, and descriptions of a lithotomy (removal of a bladder stone in men) to get a few chaps crossing their legs too…
We then celebrated with wine and cake (by the fabulous Charlie of Charlotte Jane Cakes) and a book signing that went really well. Lionel and Jo Ward of Brendon Books are so supportive (Lionel founded the festival) that is was an evening I will remember for a long time, and feedback has been fabulous. If you are in the Taunton area do take a look at the bookshop in Bath Place that can often get a book to you faster than Amazon…
Anyway, what is the book about? The premise of the book is summarised up quite well by the blurb the publisher printed on the back:
Imagine performing surgery on a patient without anaesthetic, administering medicine that could kill or cure. Welcome to the world of the surgeon-apothecary…During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, significant changes occurred in medicine. New treatments were developed and medical training improved. Yet, with doctors’ fees out of the reach of ordinary people, most relied on the advice of their local apothecary, among them, the poet John Keats, who worked at Guys Hospital in London. These men were the general practitioners of their time, making up pills and potions for everything from a toothache to childbirth. Death, Disease and Dissection examines the vital role these men played their training, the role they played within their communities, the treatments they offered, both quack and reputable against the shocking sights and sounds in hospitals and operating theatres of the time. Suzie Grogan transports readers through 100 years of medical history, exploring the impact of illness and death and bringing the experiences of the surgeon-apothecary vividly to life.
I examine the class structure of the medical profession, the training a young man had to go through and the sort of life he would have enjoyed (or otherwise) when he was qualified. The medicines available to treat the most common illnesses and the operations undertaken at great risk to the patient (and sometimes to the surgeon) are detailed, as is the vital work of the anatomist, dissecting bodies (often obtained by body-snatchers) to understand the workings of the human body. It was a time of great change and is populated by some wonderful characters – good and bad – who occasionally sound like something out of a gothic-horror novel.
I was inspired to write the book when I was keen to find out more about the life John Keats, my favourite poet, would have lived had he not given up medicine (after nearly 7 years of training) to pursue one in poetry. He was so far from the frail romantic image many still have of him that I was determined to highlight how hard he had worked in what desperate conditions to become a man filled with empathy and knowledge of the harsh realities of life. The publisher wouldn’t let me indulge my passion for the man with a chapter to himself, but they have commissioned me to write a separate book about him which is a thrill.
I have also found out that this subject is on the GCSE curriculum and it has already got a 5* review from someone working in the NHS with a teenager using it to mug up on coursework, which is gratifying. It was also an era covered by the fabulous BBC2 comedy Quacksearlier this year. Historically accurate, it is highly recommended if you can get hold of a box set.
So please do consider buying a copy for the history lover in your life, especially if they have an interest in the Georgian period or a bit of Victorian gothic. It also details many issues affecting the poor specifically and there is little doubt that many of the deeply committed men ( women were excluded from medical training as a doctor during this time) I offer short biographies of are the forerunners of today’s general practitioners, facing many of the same problems.
Death Disease & Dissection (ISBN: 9781473823532) is available from Pen & Sword,Amazon and all good online and high street retailers.
It is 100 years since the notorious battle of Passchendaele. We now know much more about the trauma experienced by thousands of troops during the Great War and we recognise that, even into the 21st-century, service personnel can be affected by combat stress and post-traumatic stress disorder on the battlefield, and for many years after their involvement. Sadly, there is still insufficient support for those affected, and it is still difficult for men and women to come forward and talk about their symptoms, admitting fragility in such a tough environment.
Just before the battle we now refer to as Passchendaele (or the Third battle of Ypres) – fought between July and November 2017 and perhaps the most bloody and futile of the First World War – the War Office was becoming concerned at the sheer number of men breaking down with what was commonly known as ‘shell shock’. So General Haig’s adjutant, Lt Gen. Fowke, issued ‘General Routine Order 2384’, stating that diagnoses of mental disorder were not to be made on the battlefield, instead requiring several days of observation by doctors close to the Front.
So during the Battle of Passchendaele, a tougher approach was taken. It was thought then that ‘suggestion’ could reinforce symptoms and that evacuation to a specialist hospital, or back to Britain should be a very last resort. The aim was to get a man back to the trenches – using what was referred to as ‘discipline and forceful encouragement’, and there was more prolific use of alcohol, which, they believed, made mental collapse less likely and prevent the retention of traumatic memories.
Men who showed symptoms of shell shock were offered time away from the battlefield. Evacuation to a specialist hospital was not to be considered until a man had spent a number of weeks under observation, in (slightly greater) comfort with the opportunity for sleep and better food rations, at a Clearing Station within ear-shot of the trenches. Their duty to their fellows in the trenches and their love of their country was reinforced and the majority did return to the front line, encouraging doctors to consider this tougher approach a success. The 1922 Committee on Shell Shock heard evidence that only 16% of cases had to be referred to specialist hospitals, and 10% were returned to England. Just 10% of men returned to active duty, it was claimed, relapsed once and 3% more than once.
Post war there was little written on this subject by the doctors involved, and younger, more progressive doctors and psychiatrists (who were not involved in the strategy and who would undoubtedly have questioned the methods) were horrified at any suggestion that leaving a fragile man amongst his peers could lead to some form of ‘infection’ with shell shock.
But during that terrible battle, and until the end of the war, the most important factor in the treatment of shell shock was to deal with the numbers – there was an acute shortage of trained men and every available chap was needed to fight for his country. Their post-war suffering was not the first concern. In fact, it was a real worry, as politicians struggled with the amount they feared would need to be paid out in pensions for those most seriously affected.
One thing that always strikes us about those who survived the war is their silence, their reluctance to talk about their experiences. For many years, this was seen as bravery, the stiff upper lip of the British Tommy and many of the men returning to their families coped well. But we now know that not to speak of trauma, to repress it, can be deeply harmful. Levels of alcoholism, criminal activity, domestic violence and family breakdown are still higher amongst veterans even 100 years later. Giving men a break from the horror, a stiff drink and the opportunity to sleep may have helped a few, but it left many scarred for life, whether or not they ever ‘relapsed’ in the sense expressed to the committee in 1922.
The treatment of shell shock during the Great War, and the consequences for men and their families, for society as a whole and those affected in subsequent conflicts are something I researched at length for Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, and as we move into the last eighteen months of the commemorative period I believe it is desperately important that this legacy is not lost as 100 years since the Armistice approaches.
Many things shocked me when researching a strange case of attempted mass murder at sea for my new book “The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson”. What seems to stand out for many readers – apart from the despicable actions of the captain and his crew when their ship wrecked in the Bahamas – is the lack of medical resources on board, or, more specifically, the prescription of bacon to treat high fever.
Emigrant vessels in 1853 were meant to have a ship surgeon on board for their voyages across the Atlantic or between Britain and Australia, however this was not always the case, and it was also fairly easy for someone to use forged documents to work their passage as a ship surgeon then disappear once they reached dry land. Captain Timothy Stinson, the inexperienced and inadequate master of the William & Mary, didn’t bother hiring a surgeon for his ship and at least 14 of the 208 passengers on board suffered horrendous deaths as a result.
The William & Mary was a newly built vessel making its first journey as an emigrant ship from Liverpool to New Orleans when people started dying on board in the spring of 1853. Many of the British, Irish, and Dutch passengers were afflicted with seasickness and unable to keep food and water down for the first few weeks of the voyage. This made them more susceptible to disease and one by one the unluckiest died of measles, typhus, and similar conditions, as their bunkmates listened to them howl in pain.
Instead of a ship surgeon, Captain Stinson relied on a pamphlet he kept in his breast pocket, and used this to guide him when doling out medical advice including such gems as giving bacon to people with a high fever. It would have helped if he’d also allowed his passengers their full allotment of provisions instead of starving them with half measures for weeks on end.
Luckily for the pregnant passengers on board, there were two medically trained emigrants present. Both the doctor and the midwife were members of the Dutch party seeking to settle a town in Wisconsin. This was the same year that Queen Victoria used chloroform while giving birth to her son Leopold, rendering pain relief during labour acceptable, but the Irish women delivering children still shocked their helpers by making liberal use of the whiskey they had available. It is unclear why, with so many dying on his ship, Captain Stinson failed to make more use of this doctor or to take better care of the people he was responsible for. The fact that emigrants paid up front rather than at the conclusion of a successful journey, dead passengers (in the short term) resulted in more profit than live ones, and a shipwreck with no surviving emigrants meant little or no compensation would have to be paid out, may have been a factor but it’s difficult to tell after over 160 years.
Once the ship had wrecked in the Bahamas, and Stinson and almost all of his crew had abandoned their remaining passengers to the sharks, the lack of ship surgeon became less noticeable – especially after several passengers had been murdered with a hatchet. But the Dutch doctor had to take a break from pumping the hold and instead assist the midwife in delivering a premature baby while its teenage mum was up to her waist in seawater. It is unlikely Captain Stinson and his pamphlet could have helped with this, but since he made every effort to ensure all aboard died in the Bahamas, it’s doubtful that if he was still there he would have even tried.
Gill Hoffs is the author of “Wild: a collection” (Pure Slush, 2012) and two shipwreck books, “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015) and the recently released “The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson” (Pen & Sword, 2016). She lives in Warrington, England, with Coraline Cat. If anyone has any information regarding the wrecks and the people involved, they can email her at email@example.com or find her on twitter @GillHoffs.
Whilst I was researching for my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First world War’s legacy for Britain’s Mental Health(Pen and Sword Books October 2014), I came to understand how, during certain periods of the war, concern about the numbers diagnosed with shell shock, and the possibility of it becoming an ‘epidemic’ grew. Never was this a greater worry than during the battle of the Somme, when official reports suggest that, in a six month period, more than 16,000 men were recorded as a casualty of war owing to the trauma they experienced during the Somme offensive that lasted from July 1st to November 2016.
They suffered the classic symptoms – mutism, blindness and deafness, facial tics, paralysis and depression, alongside nightmares – reliving the horrors night after night. My grandfather was a victim, which led to lifelong anxiety and a terror of thunderstorms. My great uncle was hospitalised for a year with war trauma and, four years after the end of the war, he committed suicide, first murdering his ex-girlfriend by cutting her throat. It is the story that inspired my book , and, as I discovered, there were many similar tragedies played out across the country in the years after the war.
Of course, as Shell Shocked Britain describes, even the extraordinary figure of 16,000 would be a gross underestimate. Many men were recorded as physically, rather than mentally, wounded and others did not break down until later, even many years later, when an event seemingly unrelated to their military experience would trigger a breakdown. It is important too, to note how class based was the diagnosis and record of a man’s experience. As I sat in the various libraries, researching my book, the fact that officers were more likely to be diagnosed with ‘neuresthenia’ (or a long term break down resulting from the pressures they were under) where others might be categorised as ‘Shell Shock Sick’ and therefore not a ‘real’ casualty of war, became clear. Post war, men who remained hospitalised as a result of their trauma had their pensions docked to cover their treatment, where a man with physical wounds did not, leaving many families impoverished.
The First World War was a very different kind of war to that anticipated in the heady patriotism of 1914. The battle of the Somme was one of the first full scale battles in which volunteers and conscripts took part, and they had to endure days of heavy bombardment as thousands of shells were used by both sides. They could be buried alive in the stinking mud as trenches collapsed, blown into the air by a shell or mown down by machine gun fire. The would lose many close friends, often as they stood in the same trench, and it is of little surprise to us now , when we know that even the battle hardened regular troops were breaking down, that many thousands of others with less experience should find it hard to cope.
It is a subject I return to again and again as I give my talks – the sheer unfairness of the response to shell shock; the desire to ‘keep the numbers down’ in an attempt to ensure morale was not affected; the different treatments meted out depending on which hospital, which doctor and which class you were classified in – all are shaming. What is worse, in my view, is that 100 years on, things have not changed sufficiently to prevent significant numbers continuing to suffer from what is now often referred to as ‘combat stress’. Veterans of conflict (or some ‘peace-keeping missions’) still find it is hard to ‘come out’ about any mental health problems they are experiencing and some are left with the same lifelong psychological wounds as their forbears in the Great war, leading to alcoholism, family breakdown and ultimately, suicide.
So as I end my talks, I would just like to end this piece, marking as it does the start of that battle, with the thought that this commemorative period will come to mean little if we don’t, during the four years, work to properly understand the issues men faced then, and those our forces veterans face now. We must keep the pressure on the necessary organisations to ensure that research into the causes of and treatments to alleviate the symptoms of combat stress, PTSD or whatever we now choose to call it is properly funded. Charities are finding themselves overwhelmed as the MoD and NHS fail to meet the needs of men and women affected by war trauma. And the sort of legacy left by the terrible crisis in the Middle East and the horrors experienced daily by civilians and troops in the war zone is incalculable.
So, even whilst the madness of the political situation Britain currently faces seems to hog the limelight, be sure to remember what happened 100 years ago, and consider the horrors still witnessed that leave a psychological scar that may never heal.
Shell Shocked Britain is published by Pen and Sword Books and is available from their website HERE or on Amazon HERE. It can also be ordered from any bookshop.
Today I am really pleased to welcome another guest blogger to No wriggling out of writing. Phil Sutcliffe has published a wonderful memoir written by his father, Sam Sutcliffe who served in the First World War and whose words offer a genuine sense of what it was like to be a serving soldier at Gallipoli, the Somme and Arras. It resonated strongly with me as one of the most fascinating aspects of research for my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, was reading the real-life stories of those who experienced the warfare. ‘Nobody of Any Importance’ is the title Sam gave his own record of his war time experience, recalled in the 1970s, and as you read his words it quickly becomes clear that as one of the brave chaps who served on all Fronts between 1914 and 1918 he is far from unimportant….
We got e-chatting because Suzie’s a Keats fan and one of her @keatsbabe tweets came up just as I was working on an FB from Sam’s early chapters about his childhood in Edmonton where he described walking past the apothecary’s shop where the poet served an apprenticeship.
Well, Sam does offer a lot of vivid pictures from his experience of growing up poor in north London in the 1900s. Here’s the quack doctor who performed daily miracles in the market place:
“Doctor Brown was a fine figure of a man clad in proper morning dress: a cutaway black coat, striped trousers, patent leather shoes and a tall silk hat on his head his fair moustache waxed to two long points… and the tale he told about the pills he sold, that was part of the weekend entertainment… He gave value for money in pills, potions, and perorations and did very well indeed.”
Sam was born on July 6 1898 (he died at 88, I was born when he was 49) and left school at 14, worked as an office boy near Liverpool Street for a couple of years… then went to war, lying about his age so that he could stick with his brother Ted, 18. After lengthy training in Malta, his 2/1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers landed at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, in September, 1915, the fag end of that disastrous campaign. Their first battlefield:
“[as they approached Suvla]… on land, rifles fired continuously and artillery lit up the blackness, each flash followed by a bang, a shriek or a strange whine which often increased in volume then ended up in a big explosion. Guns were being fired with intent to kill… and here was my first experience of warfare…’
“[then, on the beach under rifle and shell fire]… We hugged the ground, of course, to let the bullets pass harmlessly above us, but one of those wretched things broke that rule. When one move forward started, young Nibs, more of a boy even than I was, didn’t get up. The Captain was told, all paused again, and the shocking news came along that he was dead, shot through the head… Our first casualty, I thought, young Nibs, the cheerful Cockney…”
Talking about the Memoir, I realise, I tend to focus on the terrible events which raise fundamental moral questions. But here’s a lighter moment, the immediate aftermath of the Suvla Bay evacuation, December, 1915:
“Soon, out of sight of the explosions, some singing started up, our first for many a day. And then we really gave vent to the joy and relief we felt. A youngster who had obliged at concerts back in Malta… sang a quickly improvised parody of that popular song, Moonlight Bay: ‘We were sailing away from Suvla Bay/We can hear the Turks a-singing/’Please don’t go away/You are breaking our hearts/So please do stay’/‘Not bloody likely, boys/Goodbye to Suvla Bay’. All joined in, inventing their own versions as we sang along…”
Still, for the last few excerpts of this blog Sam’s back on the battlefield. The Somme now, Gommecourt sector. He’d transferred to the Kensingtons by then. First, … thinking of Suzie’s work – from July 1 itself, an evident observation of shell-shock:
“Nothing was gained in our sector. Many good men were lost. Many normally strong fellows were reduced to trembling, inarticulate old-looking men… I saw a Scot who, though not wounded, just sat and shook. His head nodded, his arms flailed feebly, his legs sort of throbbed, his eyes obviously saw nothing… One of our usually most happy and physically strong men was crying non-stop while violently protesting about something. He’d been buried up to his shoulders in earth and, even in that inferno, men nearby had paused in their advance to free him, yet he had this strange grievance… ”
Sam’s Battalion got two or three days semi-rest a mile or so back, before returning to the front line and spending their nights in No Man’s Land – retrieving the dead:
“While working in bright moonlight on search work, I looked down into a length of communication trench… and saw the rather large face of a very good chap I had worked with for a while in Egypt… And here he was, long dead, eyes blank, but still the features unmistakable and formerly so familiar to me…
As soon as possible, I guided two of the men doing recovery work to Charlie. I recalled then, as I do now, his special qualities. He was completely honest, stubborn about things in dispute, but usually found to be right about them in the end; Cockney in speech to an extent which, on first acquaintance led one to expect illiteracy, he soon made you realise your error…
Of the many men whose poor bodies we found and saw cared for that night, Charlie was the only one whom I had known well in life. He had been one of us, and thus special to us, during our first experience of Army life… Recollection of Charlie calls forth a mental picture of him walking away from me… large head, broad shoulders, sturdy trunk, strong, slightly bowed legs… Goodbye, Charlie.”
Following Sam’s story, you can see how military training worked all the way through to terrible reality – for example, from rifle training in Malta to three years later, 1918, at the Front near Arras. His Battalion (Essex Regiment by then) had been ordered to fight to the last bullet to cover a strategic retreat. Lines of German soldiers are crossing No Man’s Land in front of his trench:
“… intensive training… had achieved its purpose; when the situation required it, I became a rifle-firing automaton… One target I dealt with was a man running not towards me but across my line of fire, about 50 yards distant. ‘Snap-shooting at a moving target’ on the firing range; back come the instructions, ‘Maintain normal aim, moving with the target, then increase movement of rifle till daylight appears between target and rifle then “Fire”’. The soldier fell… a comrade ran several yards to help him, appeared at the tip of my rifle fore-sight after I had rapidly reloaded, and I squeezed the trigger. As he too fell, the utter automatic callousness of my action registered somewhere in my brain and doubt nagged then and forever after about there being any plausible excuse for such murderous conduct.”
And yet, an hour or so later, this was how his “active service” came to an end and a grinding eight-months as a POW began. His Battalion had run out of ammunition. For no reason he could put into words, exhausted by the toil and the terror of it all, he climbs out on top of the trench and stands there:
“Looking forward, I saw Germans, hundreds of them. A glance to the right made me abandon all hope of surviving. A line of Germans was charging in my direction, bayonets fixed on rifles, the job assigned to them, obviously, the destruction of any remaining opposition… As the galloping line came closer I could see their faces, their features. Most of them boys like me… I just stood there and waited for it to happen – the hoped-for clean bayonet thrust and goodbye… At about two yards, I stared at two boys, one of whom would have to do the dirty work. Fresh, healthy faces which made veteran me feel quite old. Now. It must happen now. I concentrated on the nearest boy. All in a split second, he smiled, swung a little aside, his comrade did likewise, and they were all gone, bless the lovely lads.”
All the best
My sincere thanks to Phil Sutcliffe, writing on behalf of Sam, for these fascinating insights into his father’s life. For full details of how you can find out more, and buy the book (remembering that the proceeds go to the marvellous Red Cross), see below.
Nobody Of Any Importance: A Foot Soldier’s Memoir Of World War I, by Sam Sutcliffe, edited by Phil Sutcliffe – paperback and e-book available thru blog here (including audio excerpts and reader reviews) or direct from firstname.lastname@example.org, or thru Amazon here. Buy £1 e-book episodes from the full Memoir – Gallipoli: A Foot Soldier’s First Battle and The Somme: Through The Eyes Of A Foot Soldier Who Survived The Battlefield – direct as above or through Amazon here and here respectively. Twitter @FootSoldierSam Follow FootSoldierSam on Facebook here (all author/editor proceeds to the British Red Cross)
I am not sure how many of my readers know this, but I host a fortnightly radio show, and I have just realised that this month marks the third anniversary of my first ever broadcast. I don’t have the sexy tones of Mariella Frostrup or the wit of Stuart Maconie, so at the time, I wasn’t even sure if ‘Talking Books’ on 10Radio would get to a third show, let alone a third year. So I have decided it is something I should be really proud of. (I am making decisions like that now. Reflection can be good for the soul).
I think guests like coming on the show. I am certainly booked up a long way ahead – shows are planned in to June this year and some guests have been on more than once, so I hope it is an experience that is not as scary as some first fear. Talking Books is, I hope, an interesting mix of informal chat and interesting discussion about poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction, journalism – basically a celebration of wonderful words across all genres, written and spoken. I have been entertained by many of the guests, so I hope listeners have too, especially as I have covered everything from romantic fiction to steampunk, via crime, biography, baking, babies , the First World War, festivals and on and on as far as erotica. I am not sure I can go much further than that…….
Anyway, I thought, by way of a celebration of the show’s success, I would mention a few of the guests that have made an impression over the years. So many writers have been willing to give up their time to chat to me about their work (and special thanks here to Julie Munckton, for the first two years my resident book expert) that I would love to mention them all, but here are just a few to give you a flavour of the work I have featured on the show, with a couple of links to recordings of the show. It may be local radio but it is available worldwide via the 10Radio website. I know for certain I have one listener in Liechtenstein…..
For her wonderful work about the Bristol Suffragettes, and her new series of detective stories featuring Dan Foster, Bow Street Runner, check outLucienne Boyce
My old Reading Matters mate Rod Miller, alias artist and author Rivenrod,
You seek her here…but which name will you find her under today? Jenny Kane, romantic novelist and organiser of Tiverton Lit Fest or Kay Jaybee, award winning author of erotic fiction? You will never look at a delivery man in the same way again….
My first ever outside broadcast at the fabulous Sherlock Holmes Hotel in Baker Street, for the launch of The Real Sherlock Holmes by Angela Buckley
As many of my readers will know (because I have, frankly, gone on about it enough) I have spent much of the past three or four years immersed in the trauma that resulted from the horrors of the Great War. My book, Shell Shocked Britain, was published by Pen and Sword nearly 18 months ago now, and I am still working hard to market it, giving talks and keeping in touch with the continued commemoration of the First World War. I am also project co-ordinator of a Heritage Lottery Fund project in my local area, focusing on the children of the Great War. So I have been firmly rooted in the history of the early part of the twentieth century for some time now.
However, over the past few months I have been commissioned to edit the English version of a book, called Journey Into the Unknown: Homage to a Holocaust Survivor first published in Germanby Ruth Kaufmann. Ruth follows the life of her father Bertl Kaufmann, a survivor of the persecution which Jews were subjected to during the Nazi rule. It is now available in paperback and on Kindle and I have found it a deeply moving project to be involved with. A second book, following Adele, a young girl who didn’t survive the Holocaust, will be published later this year and I am pleased to say I will be working on that one too. Journey into the Unknown was published to mark the opening of Austria’s Holocaust Museum in Graz, focusing on the Jewish experience of the horrors.
The book is written in the form of a diary, a picture built up by Ruth during many conversations with her father, Bertl Kaufmann, who has only recently passed away. Like many of the men I researched for Shell Shocked Britain, Bertl could not speak of the horrors he witnessed for decades, and for me it reinforced the research I have read into trans-generation trauma and the point I was making in Shell Shocked Britain – that the impact these experiences can have on a family go across and down the generations.It makes supporting the mental health of today’s war veterans and civilian victims of war trauma vital, and if society neglects the issue it will cost many, many lives.
Journey into the Unknown: Homage to a Holocaust Survivor is out now in paperback and on Kindle. It is a short read, but perfect for adults and young adults who want to travel with a teenager into adulthood through one of the most shocking periods of modern history.
Last year I wrote about my next commission – a book about early 19th century medicine, focusing on the medical life of a surgeon apothecary. I added a note to the piece, asking for ideas for a title, as I was at that point unsure that the working title – Death Disease & Dissection – properly described the subject matter. I love a bit of gruesome anatomy as much as the next person, but actually dissection was only a small part of the surgeon-apothecary’s training, and I could imagine the flood of complaints from those expecting pages dripping with blood, as tales of resurrectionists filled the chapters. There will be a bit of that, but the men (and they were all men) working in the field at the time were more like present day GPs. In fact that is what makes researching this history so interesting – likeShell Shocked Britain, this too offers comparisons across the centuries.
Anyway, back to the title. People offered some great ideas, but the one that struck me as being sufficiently descriptive to please the publisher, and interesting enough to keep me writing, came from across the Atlantic. Wonderful poetic friend David J Beauman suggested ‘From the Womb to the Tomb‘, which felt like a Gothic homage to the NHS principle of ‘cradle to grave’ care (which service, apothecary surgeons of early 19th century communities were already offering – at a price). I pitched the title to Pen and Sword and, with the addition of the subtitle ‘The medical life of the 19th century surgeon apothecary‘ I have at last got the title agreed. Hooray! Now all I have to do is write the book.
I describe more about the subject in that previous post, and also admit to enjoying the excuse to write about the training poet John Keats received before he turned his back on medicine to pursue poetry. I am rather hoping people who love the poetry, letters and life of that great man will find much to delight them in my book. We know little about Keats’s time as an apprentice, or the days he spent on the wards of Guy’s Hospital, and I am finding research into the lives of his contemporaries fascinating. His life couldn’t have been so very different, outwardly at least, and there is little doubt that his experiences, and the horrors he witnessed in the operating theatre (one of his tasks was to hold down the unanesthetised patients) informed his poetry and letters.
So over the coming weeks you might find more posts about my research and, as the book takes shape, snippets of information that don’t make the cut, but which I find interesting for their own sake.
So with thanks to David J Beauman I now have no excuse to procrastinate. I must start writing up the research asap. It’s about time….
I appreciate I am a bit late with my new year greeting here on No wriggling out of writing. Having lost my blogging mojo a few months ago I have found new ideas for posts hard to come by, especially as I earn a crumb writing for other blogs too ( most notably The Terrace counselling and complementary therapy clinic blog ‘let’s talk!‘) which, though interesting, can take up valuable blogging energy. However, I wanted to get 2016 off to a good start and felt it important to thank those who have stuck with me in more barren writing times, and those who have bought, read and otherwise supported my book Shell Shocked Britain:The First World war’s legacy for Britain’s mental health. It makes a lot of difference to know people still find something to enjoy when I do actually make the effort. I wish you the very best of times this year, and onwards.
It isn’t easy to believe, when news reports detail a myriad of horrors in the world, that there is any chance of some sort of global ‘spirit’ that binds humanity together. But to remain sane I know I have to inhabit a community that still cries out for peace, equality and goodwill towards our fellow beings, and this period over Christmas helps a great deal. Celebrating with family and friends in Somerset and Suffolk reminded me of what is, ultimately, important for the maintenance of my own (and surely many other people’s ) emotional well being – spending time with people we love, remembering our shared pasts, looking to the future and enjoying the ‘moment’. It might sound a little twee to some, but I can’t think of a funky way to put it so bear with me.
Over the Christmas holiday we watched ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure‘ – again. It was, and still is, a family favourite; our children loved it and can still quote it at length. It isn’t a great movie – made at the beginning of Keanu Reeves’s career when his slightly vacant acting style actually supported his role as a dipsy late teenage boy heading backwards in a time machine to collect historical characters to pass a History report – but it is fun, and has bequeathed to us a message that I offer as my hope for 2016……
It isn’t profound, but it is true. Yes we can resolve to eat more healthily, take more exercise and write more and better in the coming months, but we can make those resolutions any time of year, if we are honest. But the sooner we can work to show each other affection and respect, the better and then we can truly let the good times roll…..