Maritime Medicine and Mayhem in 1853

the-lost-story-of-the-williammary-gill-hoffs-hi-res-imageToday I am thrilled to host a return visit by Gill Hoffs, author of The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic, and of the blog post  on how Victorian corsetry contributed to a tragedy… In this post Gill links her latest book on the sinking of the William and Mary in 1853 with a subject close to my heart  – my next book is about medicine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – and the story she tells is one of horror as we witness illness and death on a boat totally unequipped to deal with medical emergencies…My sincere thanks to Gill for this piece and having read the book I can heartily recommend it. Gill has a real talent for bringing true stories to life and it is a thrilling read. Links to all her work are in the text and at the bottom of this post.

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.

Below deck on an emigrant ship

Below deck on an emigrant ship

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.

map-of-route-through-bahamas-lotgevallen-van-den-heer-o-h-bonnema-1853-used-with-kind-permission-of-collectie-tresoar

Route taken: Used with kind permission of Collectie Tresoar

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.

 

 

For further reading on maritime medicine try David I. Harvie’s “Limeys: The Conquest of Scurvy” (The History Press, 2005 http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/limeys/9780750939935/) and Kevin Brown’s “Poxed and Scurvied: The Story of Sickness and Health at Sea” (Naval Institute Press, 2011 https://kevinbrownhistorian.wordpress.com/poxed-and-scurvied-the-story-of-sicknes-and-health-at-sea/).

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 gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk or find her on twitter @GillHoffs.

http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Lost-Story-of-the-William-and-Mary-Hardback/p/12290

http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Sinking-of-RMS-Tayleur-Paperback/p/10677

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wild-collection-Gill-Hoffs-ebook/dp/B00DQ1A8UC

 

 

Posted in Book, Guest posts, Health, History, Medicine, Reading, Victorian History, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

3 Ways to Write Editors Want (Circa 1926…) Pt 2 – Dialogue

writing dialogueIn a previous post The Short Story – Writing What Editors Want Circa 1926…Part 1 I looked at some writing tips, written 90 years ago by author Michael Joseph in his book Short Story Writing for Profit. It is a book I found in a second hand shop whilst away writing in Suffolk and it is is full of gems of the period, alongside some writing advice that remains true well into the twenty-first century. This is a great time of year to learn from the masters, as this week many will be embarking on the writing marathon that is NaNoWriMo.

I have been particularly interested in the way Josephs discusses dialogue. The examples he gives are somewhat amusing. For example, in order to suggest that a man is weak and ineffectual, he offers:

“Oh rather,” said Algy. “A gel always notices a chap’s clothes what? Ties and socks to match, and all that sort of thing, doncher know. Oh rather!”

Then he, with some nerve, goes on to suggest that dialogue in the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson or Edgar Allan Poe, for example, is ‘curiously artificial’.

But he is right in a way. He considers dialogue to have three main purposes:

  1. To reveal character
  2. To convey setting
  3. To carry on or accelerate the action.

You may know, or have been told, that there are other ways in which dialogue can make, or break, the success of your short story. But these seem to me to be a firm foundation, at least as a starting point. Although Algy is clearly a man of his time, possibly a member of the Bertie Wooster set or a bit part player in a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery,  he is, although it is hard to believe, speaking naturally. 90 years later, we shouldn’t write dialogue that is too formal, nor yet too real. There are few of us that speak using perfect grammar all the time, so listen to real dialogue (I do love a coffee shop for this, but we all have our favourite coffee shop writingsettings for earwigging other people’s conversations) and jot down the ways in which they take their own stories forward. You might even be able to weave a short character sketch around their words (making all sorts of unfair assumptions of course, but they are never going to know…).

However, as Michael Joseph points out:

The dialogue of fiction must appear real and true to life…[but] faithful reproduction of ordinary human speech would appear ridiculous on the printed page…The dialogue of fiction is the result of drastic boiling down of ordinary speech. Only what is significant may remain; all the innumerable irrelevances, repetitions, ejaculations, grammatical errors and meaningless phrases must be pruned away before dialogue can be written down…’

So, he is here warning any author away from the TOO realistic  – feeling the need to show how keen you are to write real dialogue, by including every um and ar and well and the stutters that creep into our pattern of speech. Why, when one of the first rules of good short story writing is to ensure that every word counts, would you waste those words on ones that clearly don’t, and which can only slow down the pace and frustrate the reader?

As to setting, well in a restricted word count, it is possible to convey a sense of place within the confines of dialogue. Perhaps, as they are speaking, a character could run his or her fingers along a dusty mantelpiece, or notice that curtains are only partly drawn, to suggest a level of neglect. Josephs uses the example of a mystery story to show how surroundings can be drawn into a sentence that also moves the story along and offers a suggestion of character:

“I like this place…It is so uncanny. Do you know I wouldn’t want to sit here alone, Jem. I should imagine that all sorts of dreadful things were hidden behind the bushes and trees, waiting to spring out on me…”

To continue that acceleration of pace and to ensure that the action that does take place you must feed the imagination a balanced diet, rather than one so rich it becomes lazy and bored. The example given in the book is, I think, a good one.

“Throw a stone down sergeant. I want to judge how deep it is” …

I am seeing a well, down which a police constable might have to climb to retrieve a murder weapon. Or a hole created by a collapsed trench in the First World War perhaps. Any thoughts?

Subtext, suggestion, looks, and thoughts can all be there without direct reference. It is a skill I find very difficult, and thankfully Josephs considers this to be the bane of many writers, and he believes dialogue has to be spontaneous to be successful: ‘…revision is not desirable. If your dialogue does not develop naturally, scrap it and start again…’ I think that rather harsh. If you are revising and revising again, as writers are advised to do, the dialogue might need to change, or mistakes only become obvious for the first time.

Elizabeth

Elizabeth Taylor

However, I am with Michael Josephs when he says the best way a writer can improve their own dialogue is to read the work of the masters of their craft. 90  years ago he was suggesting E.F. Benson, Jack London and A.A Milne. I would suggest the author Elizabeth Taylor, who to my mind, in her wonderful short stories and full length novels seems to have mastered the perfect example of saying much by saying little.

Josephs also offers practical tips, such as inventing imaginary conversations between well-known fictional characters (he suggests Kipps and Micawber. Any modern day suggestions?) or taking a short story and re-writing the whole thing in dialogue.

The advice I have taken from this fascinating little book is as relevant today as it was in the early part of the last century. Firstly, to write good dialogue you have to know your character inside out – how he or she thinks or feels in given situations, or about specific issues will go along way towards suggesting the way in which they would express themselves in speech.

Secondly I must learn to put myself into the place of all my characters, becoming each of them in turn. That is something I will find especially difficult and even more so when I know that to be really successful a character has to have light and shade; isn’t wholly good or wholly bad perhaps.

Many of the suggestions Michael Josephs makes are very daunting and take me back to school homework and complicated writing exercises set by some creative writing tutors. But I am not one of those lucky people to whom (apparently) writing good, natural dialogue comes naturally,  so there is no point groaning and procrastinating, I just have to get on with it.

Clearly this writing business takes a lot of real WORK…

What are your best tips for good dialogue?

 

 

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The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer: The Lady Poisoner of Brighton

http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Case-of-the-Chocolate-Cream-Killer-Paperback/p/11844This morning I am thrilled to bring you a juicy true story of Victorian murder.  Author Kaye Jones has written a detailed and gripping account of an obsession that led to murder; a case that terrified and intrigued the nation in the early 1870s. If you would like to find out more about the woman scorned, who became the ingenious but cruel ‘Chocolate Cream Killer’of Brighton, read Kaye’s fabulous new book about the ‘poisonous passion’ of Christiana Edmunds. I was as fascinated by the case as the Victorian public, as I lived in Brighton for 15 years, and worked very close to the house where one of the key characters resided at the time… My thanks to Kaye for introducing us to Christiana in this blog post…

On the morning of Friday 18 August 1871, the following notice appeared in The Times newspaper:

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The news that an anonymous poisoner was on the loose in Brighton fascinated and terrified the Victorian public in equal measure. Though the Brighton police force had not wanted to make public the details of the case, they had little choice but to appeal to the national public. Despite several weeks of investigation, they had not questioned a single suspect and there was an urgent need to calm the town’s growing sense of anxiety. After all, this was the middle of the summer season and Brighton relied on a steady stream of tourists to boost its economy and maintain its reputation.

By the 1870s, Brighton was the most popular seaside resort in Victorian England. Each year, the town welcomed thousands of tourists, eager to escape the dust and grime of the city and to spend their hard-earned shillings in the shops beside its glorious seafront. While this particular summer had started as successfully as any other, the first unexplained poisoning had occurred early – on 12 June – when Sidney Barker, a four-year-old boy on holiday with his family, died after eating a poisoned chocolate cream. At his inquest, the coroner could not account for how poison came to be inside the chocolate and so recorded a verdict of accidental death. But when the police received reports of further poisoning two months later, they became convinced that these incidents were related and that the culprit remained at large, lurking somewhere in the town and quite probably planning another attack.

But the police and public failed to realise some very important things about the so-called Chocolate Cream Killer: firstly, that she was not the typical criminal, being a well-respected and highly-educated lady and, secondly, that she would not stop until she had achieved her objective – the murder of the local doctor’s wife, Emily Beard.

Christiana Edmunds

Christiana in the dock with Charles and Emily Beard to either side

The Chocolate Cream Killer was Christiana Edmunds, born in Margate in 1828 to the esteemed local architect, William Edmunds, and his wife, Ann. A series of family tragedies had forced Christiana and her mother to leave Kent and they arrived in Brighton in the summer of 1867 where they lodged at 17 Gloucester Place. Shortly after their arrival, Christiana became acquainted with a successful local physician called Dr Charles Beard who lived close by at 64 Grand Parade with his wife, Emily, and seven children. The Edmunds and the Beards became close friends but Christiana’s feelings quickly turned amorous and, despite being married, Charles did little to stop her advances.

It soon became clear to Christiana that Emily Beard was an obstacle to her union with Charles and that killing her was the only viable option. Christiana made her first attempt on Emily’s life in a bizarre and unexpected attack late one evening in September 1870. Christiana claimed to have brought some chocolate creams for the Beard’s children and later forced one into Emily’s mouth. Emily was immediately overcome with a foul taste in her mouth and spat the chocolate out, prompting Christiana to make some awkward excuses before leaving the house. Emily survived the attack and told Charles what had happened. This brought his friendship with Christiana to an end but gave her an idea of how to win him back: she would commit the mass poisoning of Brighton by injecting chocolate creams with poison. When everyone in the town started to fall ill, they would blame the local confectioner, John Maynard, which would force Charles to recognise Christiana’s alleged innocence.

Over the course of the next six months, Christiana’s poisoning spree would claim the life of a child and almost take the lives of countless others. Find out more about the events of that fateful summer and the life of this infamous murderess in my new book, The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer: The Poisonous Passion of Christiana Edmunds.

Follow Kaye on Facebook @kayejoneswriter, on Twitter @kaye_jones, and check out her website kayejoneswriter.com

 

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A first sneaky peak at the book..!

I have been co-ordinating this Heritage Lottery Fund project for the past two years, and it has been a real pleasure to be part of something that has brought together the community and which will leave a lasting memorial to the families affected by the Great War in Wiveliscombe, in Somerset. This is a sneaky peak of the book and set of commemorative postcards that go with the memorial (and are based on the design and tiles which are part of the mosaic). The unveiling is on 24th September and I will be sure to post some photos…

Children of the Great War: Wiveliscombe then & now

psbooks Pauline Homeshaw & Suzie Grogan with the book and postcard pack.

With less than two weeks to go until the grand unveiling of the memorial mosaic in Jubilee Gardens, the book and set of commemorative postcards are ready to go!

We thought you might like to have a look at the outside, at least, before the big day. So by way of a teaser, and an incentive for you all to come along on the big day and see the  whole thing – here is a photo of Pauline Homeshaw, Chair of the Civic Society and Suzie Grogan, who has co-ordinated the project, showing off the fabulous covers, designed by local graphic designer Aga Karmolinska and printed by Carly Press of Wellington.

So do come along on the day, when the books and postcards will be on sale for £5 each (all monies raised will go back into the Civic…

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The Short Story – Writing What Editors Want Circa 1926…Part 1

Short Story Writing for profitA rather wonderful book has come into my possession. I bought it whilst house-sitting (and writing my next book) in Suffolk, on a trip to an antique centre taken as light relief after an intense period tapping away at the laptop. Called Short Story Writing for Profit, it is by Michael Joseph and was written 90 years ago, in the mid 1920s. It bears some close reading, and some sharing, so I thought it deserved more than one post. I think, as I read it, the saying ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ is very appropriate to the writing life…

So firstly, the Foreword, which is by short story writer Stacy Aumonier, who was described in an Independent list of Forgotten Authors as ‘perfect for reading with a hot toddy on a cold night’, and who wrote the intriguingly titled  “Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty”, in which a shy heroine ‘winds up underneath a dead stranger’s bed in a French hotel room’. His wise words should be read by all aspiring writers.

An early paragraph describes the would-be author thus:

I have often noticed that when authors break loose, that is to say when they escape from their colleagues, and flash their personalities at dinner parties and tea-fights, they invariably talk about Smollett and Fielding, Freud and Froissart, and art, and art, and ART. But when they are together with no visitors present, they talk about contracts and agents, and the best way to squeeze a bit more out of editors and publishers. All of which is very nice and as it should be.

Do we know anyone like that? Apart from never having been invited to a ‘tea-fight, I don’t think I do, but one never knows how one comes across, does one? *puts on pompous hat*.

On the process of writing a short story he says:

…This is a point which cannot be stressed too much-  that a short story must be finished before it is begun. In other words that you must think it all out clearly and in detail before you begin to write. In a novel it is not so necessary, because you may wander off and enjoy yourself and come back…

I am not sure how many authors of novels feel free to ‘wander off and enjoy themselves’,  but Aumonier then offers the best piece of advice a writer of shorter fiction can hear, that is the need ‘to use the utmost economy and eliminate all superfluous matter’.

On the business of writing, that is the commercial side, the differences between then and now make themselves known, at least in the realities of traditional publishing:

Stacy Aumonier

Stacy Aumonier

But to be as successful as H.G. Wells must be a perfect nightmare. When he writes a novel he has to consider…English book rights, and the American book rights, but the English serial rights, and the American serial rights, and the translation rights in a dozen or more foreign countries….And it looks as though quite soon we shall have some further complications with broadcasting or wireless rights.

And after all deductions, he says:

A friend of mine who wrote two best-sellers recently told me that he gets just eight shillings in the pound on what he earns!

If only!

In the next post I will detail what the author, Michael Joseph, offers as advice to  ‘remove the more obvious blemishes of amateur efforts’. Whilst believing that the writing  of great stories cannot be taught, he hopes to make it easier for even the most obvious novice to get past the apparently discerning editors he mentions and into publications lost to news stands for decades. He is not quite as patronising as he sounds…

Perhaps we should all give up hope? No – we must turn back to the cheering words of Stacy Aumonier who ends his Foreword by saying:

There are days when the weather is dull and overcast, and customers [for your writing] few and far between, and surly in their demeanour. You feel inclined to put up the shutters, and run away and leave it, and never come back. But wait awhile. There dawns a day when the sun comes out, and you suddenly think how attractive your goods look in the window, and customers are jolly and generous. They pat you on the back, and even pay you for things in advance, and you are awfully pleased with yourself. You forget about the dull days. You even persuade yourself – quite unreasonable – that the dull days cannot return, because you are living then, and sunshine is a more vital thing than mist.

 

 

 

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First and Last – the poetry of Judith Williamson (1947-2015)

judith williamsonToday on my blog I am really pleased to be able to share the poetry of a woman I knew nothing about, until I was contacted by fellow writer David Venner who, in writing this post, drew my attention to the work of Judith Williamson. Reading The Supporter, shared below, I marvelled at the warmth and wit in her work and, with the poem Home,  the breadth of her work is illustrated. A collection of her poetry was published posthumously in 2015.

The name Judith Williamson may not be familiar to readers of this blog. As ‘J L Fontaine’, Judith was a published author. She had been writing since her teens but her first novel The Mark was not published until April last year. Her poetry, beautifully crafted but until recently known only to close family, reached a wider readership in 2014/15 through her participation in an online poetry project, ‘52’, in which over 500 aspiring poets were encouraged to write a poem a week, inspired by a shared prompt.

Following Judith’s untimely death last October, three of her fellow online poets compiled a collection of her poems and this was published by CreateSpace under the title First and Last. Many of Judith’s poems are autobiographical and so perhaps it might be thought that they will have meaning only to those who knew her. But I think they have a much wider appeal because they deal with subjects, ideas and feelings that are universal. As the compilers of First and Last noted, “Judith had the knack of projecting human warmth through the foggy glass of modernity”.

Judith WilliamsonBefore introducing a small selection of her poems, a few biographical notes may be helpful. Judith was the daughter of a village schoolmaster – her mother was the school secretary. She trained as a legal secretary, married and had four daughters. As the blurb on the cover of her novel The Mark puts it “she worked on a chicken farm, in hospitals and old people’s homes and, as ‘JJ the Clown’, children’s entertainer and puppeteer.” After gaining a post graduate diploma in counselling, she later worked in a college and as a police welfare officer in Sussex.

Once her children had left home Judith moved to France, living in a lovely rambling old house in a village between Poitiers and Bordeaux. Here she found time and space to write. She also found a French partner and, after a few years, moved with him to Senegal in West Africa, where some of her later poems are set. These and one or two earlier ones are among my favourites. They can be funny, thought-provoking or moving; they all engage the reader and often strike a chord with one’s own experiences. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

 

The Supporter

I must have been bowled over, to arrive
each Sunday afternoon,
to make cucumber sandwiches
and watch a game
I never understood.
I watched him triumph
week after week,
his bat raised in acknowledgement of
our polite applause.

I stumped him.

I swapped him for a rugby player
but that seemed, mostly, mud, maul,
testosterone,
and odd-shaped balls.

I kicked him into touch.

The hockey player
was fast and furious,
most of the time,
especially in bed.
He wielded a very short stick.

The ball was finally lost
in the undergrowth of neglect.

I huddled on a cold and windswept beach
to watch his dinghy
cross the finishing line.
Waking just as the klaxon sounded, signalling
his victory.

I took the wind out of his sails.

The footballer was easy.
He only required that I hold up a mirror, so
we could both admire him.
It was a game of one half.

Overnight, I moved the goalposts.

It seems, however,
my path was set.
And that I have spent my life
shivering on the sidelines.
Admiring.
Supporting.
Applauding.
Waiting
for the real game to begin.
Several of Judith’s poems convey her restlessness and her search for her true self.

Home

My need to wander far and wide,
to uproot and downsize,
two suitcases containing
all that I possess
reflect how rootless I have felt
since childhood,
It took me many miles
and years to find
my home inside me.

After her move to Senegal, Judith’s sense of injustice comes through strongly in her later poems.

Tourist Trade

Delicate as the fallen flowers that
carpet my yard,
the girls arrive.
Blown by the wind of poverty
into the gaudy town.

At night in bars and clubs,
their young faces
gashed with painted smiles
they are draped
like bright scarves
over ageing flesh.

In the bellow and roar
of bloated tourism
they can no longer hear
the heartbeat
of the village
or the crying child.

Sometimes Judith abandoned the short line verse format (she never constrained herself by rhyming her lines). The following paragraph of prose contains, in 125 carefully chosen words, so much to admire in the style but at the same time so much to rail against in the subject she is writing about.

Progress

Cooking in my little kitchen, I reflect that my African sisters, along the track, are cooking on wood foraged during the day and carried home on weary heads, their splay-legged babies, bobbing on their mothers’ backs, lulled by rhythm. The women cook, squatting on sand in darkened yards, or by the light of a mobile phone. Their husbands sit, resting after a long day of lying around talking to friends and drinking tea. The male children play in the road, chasing old tyres or kicking tin cans while their sisters crouch by their mothers, ready to help or fetch or carry, vilified if they are too slow. In my well-equipped kitchen, very advanced, sophisticated, I cook while my husband plays on the internet.

Sadly, Judith Williamson’s life and burgeoning writing career were cut short just when she had found her voice and had started to receive recognition for the quality of her work. Her poetry, her published novel and others that may still find a publisher, will hopefully form an enduring legacy.

 

David Venner (Judith’s brother-in-law)

My sincere thanks to David for sharing this with me. His own book Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-1918 was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2015 and he wrote about it on this blog HERE.

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Six years of randomness – blogging a writing life

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” Flannery O’Connor

sixthSix years ago today I started this blog!! At the time I wondered if I would keep it going more than a week; but here I am older, wrinklier and wider, if not wiser more than 300 posts later.

I chose No Wriggling Out of Writing as the title because, until that moment, wriggling out of doing what I love most had become a habit, and as the blogging boom took off I was encouraged to give it a try. I am not surprised, looking back, that within six months of putting finger to keyboard I had decided to have regular counselling sessions, and the quote from Flannery O’Connor, above, is a feeling I can identify with. Writing on here has helped me to identify those issues that are really important to me, and those that support me when I am struggling to come to terms with my health anxieties, a slow down in book sales, or world events that threaten to overwhelm me. I am more confident in what I hold dear and what I genuinely feel.

So a sincere ‘thank you’ to all those who have read my blog , regularly or just by chance. Looking back, my blogging has changed a lot over the past six years. I started off as part of the ‘mummy’ or ‘parent’ blogging community, becoming less keen as it seemed to morph into something that focused more on freebies and PR than on genuinely held beliefs.

I also realised that to be true to myself I would have to have a blog that went against those ‘blogging bibles’ that suggest you need to find a niche and stick to it; write for an audience and ensure you mop up every possibility to ‘monetise’ your blog. Marina Sofia on the lovely finding time to write blog, recently wrote a piece I could really identify with called Professional Blogging vs. Personal Connections , and for me it has been those personal connections I have made – with other writers and readers – that have been most valuable. My blog is random; posts about my favourite poet John Keats sit alongside those written on the subject of my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health (a book that would never have been written if not for this blog). Book reviews share space with my love of Cumbria or the occasional rant. I love to have guest posts on my blog, and appreciate the opportunities blogging has given me to write for others. Blog statistics vary wildly from day to day and, still, the post that has had most views (more than 30,000) is the quick one I wrote in 2012 mourning the death of David Barby, the Bargain Hunt expert. All that effort to be literary…..

frostWhen I mentioned my bloggaversary to friends on twitter, and wondered how best to mark it, I had lots of suggestions – many involving cake or alcohol – and one I certainly took up was to look back at my early posts to see how I had progressed over the years. Things have certainly changed, and I found that those I like best, and those still read most regularly, are ones in which I focus on a particular poet, or poem.  When I write those I am often working through my own thoughts or concerns, but I find I connect with a global audience of other poetry lovers. Lots of people seem to recognise the ways in which a poem can take the real essence of a feeling and describe it in a way that can get to the ‘heart of the matter’, express your deepest thoughts, help you feel less lonely or support you through tough times. It is in poetry that I think Flannery O’Connor’s words resonate for me, alongside the Robert Frost quote, above. Those ‘Oh yes, that’s it!’ moments that can also be felt when listening to the lyrics of a favourite song, or hearing a few bars of a familiar piece of music. I have changed through my love of poetry, and my ever wider reading of it; changed as a writer and as a person. The knowledge that others feel as you do is never as well expressed as it is in poetry and it has taught me so much.

So, on a day when I am reviewing what I have achieved in my six years of blogging – things I would never have done had I not written that first, tentative post –  I thought I should end with a poem on the subject of loving poetry by the fabulous Billy Collins.  If nothing else, I hope this blog has shared my enthusiasm for verse and encouraged you to give it the opportunity to work its magic on you. If you are someone who still can’t connect with poetry, take Collins’s advice and drop a mouse into a poem – as with my blogging experience, you never know what he or she will be when he has found his way out….

Introduction to Poetry 

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins

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