Testament of Youth, Testament to our times? Vera Brittain and a classic of the Great War.

tofyFor my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I read Testament of Youth, and Because You Died: Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After, both of which I found deeply affecting. As we approach the commemoration of Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, I thought I would share with you my own thoughts on a classic work of the Great War, and those of Pamela Davenport, who reviews Testament and expresses the value of it as a work supporting her research into the changing role of women during and after the war.

First of all, I must say that if you want to find out more about the background to Brittain’s work, you cannot do better than read the work of Mark Bostridge, who has written widely and well on the subject and who has provided commentary on her relationships, letters and life that, read alongside Testament of Youth, offer the context within which it makes sense.

Vera Brittain

Cheryl Campbell as Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain intrigued me long before I read the book as research. As a teenager, I watched the 1970s television adaptation, starring Cheryl Campbell as Vera, along with my parents. Both were born in the 1920s, to working class families who had endured that four years of war and suffered as a consequence. My grandfather was gassed, seriously physically injured and suffered from undiagnosed ‘shell shock’ that remained with him for the rest of his life, triggering nightmares and terror at the approach of thunderstorms. His story was one of those that inspired my own book, but it was a world away from the sheltered life Vera experienced as a child of a middle-class family, blessed with opportunities for a university education denied most women of her time. However, Cheryl Campbell’s exquisite performance drew us all in, and despite the more recent film, it is Ms Campbell rather than Alicia Vikander who is Vera for me.

Pamela goes into more detail about the story itself, below, but I wanted to mention Testament of Youth more as an evocation of a time, than as a reading experience. The descriptions of a world lost forever in the mud of the trenches are terrific, and Vera makes a statement that is one of the foundations stones of Shell Shocked Britain – that the civilian population were traumatised too, and that the impact filtered down through the generations, affecting us even now:

‘I underestimated the effect upon the civilian population (and on parents) of year upon year of diminishing hope, diminishing food, diminishing heat, of waiting and waiting for news which was nearly always bad when it came.’

The waiting at home, though more comfortable in many senses, chimes in a melancholy way with the traumatising silences between the barrages of shells in the trenches that affected so many men. Those anxious waits, at home and abroad.

Unable to write the novel she planned, Vera turned to autobiography instead and gave us a classic work that ranks alongside the best prose of the war, because, I think, she was a poet too. I refer to her poem The Superfluous Woman in my book, not because I think it is searing in its brutality like Owen, for example, but because it spoke for many middle class women (and this was the group disproportionately affected) who expected to marry those thousands of junior officers who were, in relative terms, more likely to be killed, as her lover and brother were, than the non-commissioned men serving under them.

The Superfluous Woman

Ghosts crying down the vistas of the years,
Recalling words
Whose echoes long have died,
And kind moss grown
Over the sharp and blood-bespattered stones
Which cut our feet upon the ancient ways.

But who will look for my coming?

Long busy days where many meet and part;
Crowded aside
Remembered hours of hope;
And city streets
Grown dark and hot with eager multitudes
Hurrying homeward whither respite waits.

But who will seek me at nightfall?

Light fading where the chimneys cut the sky;
Footsteps that pass,
Nor tarry at my door.
And far away,
Behind the row of crosses, shadows black
Stretch out long arms before the smouldering sun.

But who will give me my children?

Vera Brittain expected to remain a spinster after her lover, Roland Leighton, was killed in action, by a sniper. But ten years later she did remarry, and her daughter, Baroness (Shirley) Williams, has always written movingly that although her father loved her mother deeply, he always, as Pamela quotes, saw himself in competition with the ghost of Leighton. The poem above, seems to indicate that he was not wrong.

Testament of Youth is a wonderful autobiography, and a must read for researchers of the period. Desperately sad, it remains the bench mark for description of the death of the golden age that the Edwardian era so frequently represents in our imaginations. At a time, in the 21st century, when the world feels a dangerous place once more Brittain’s words should remind us that conflicts around the globe affect us all in a myriad different ways, never for the better. I think it should remind us that the legacy of Syria, for example, will continue long after the guns are silenced and that we need to support those directly affected with compassion. During discussions about refugees, and about Brexit, with my 87 year old mother I found that far from fitting the demographic profile suggesting a split between older voters (seeking a return to who knows what?) and young she pointed out the similarities between the migrant crisis and her experience of being evacuated. And for her there was only danger in leaving Europe. The financial position aside, she felt we had more in common with our European neighbours, and more to lose by damaging the Union.

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A fascinating book about coming of age during a time when the world is in turmoil, a book which resonates with emotions. – review by  Pamela Davenport

vbThe First World War can be seen as a watershed in society, marking the great division between the 20th century and the pre-war world of Victorian and Edwardian society. The traditional view of women as defined by their relationship to their men, wife, mother, daughter or sister, had difficulty withstanding the effects of war. Mobilisation left many women for the first time in an independent position and many took advantage of their “freedom” by joining the war effort.  There are many letters diaries and memories that provide some insight into life during 1914-1918 turbulent years, but for me it is one of the first accounts of the Great War written from a woman’s point of view, which has been the most influential. Vera Brittain got the idea to write Testament of Youth, in 1916. Writing to her brother Edward that, “if the War spares me, it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book, the story of us four…” the book clearly shows a young woman coming of age during a time when the world was in total turmoil.

Born in 1893 in Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire into a middle class family, Vera was expected to conform to society’s expectations of women’s role in society. This was during a time when middle class women were seen as a family’s possession, to prepare for marriage, to raise children and run a household. Not much had changed since medieval times! It was not considered suitable that a woman from Vera’s background would be in paid employment or god forbid, leave home to study at a University!  Home life was oppressive for Vera and her independent spirit was apparent, “The disadvantages of being a woman have eaten like iron into my soul”.  Vera was quickly realising that being a woman was a barrier to her being recognised as an individual and independent person with the right to have further education and a career. She was deeply envious of her younger brother Edward, who could leave home without getting married.

But times were changing and in 1913, after a series of lucky chances, Vera was accepted to study at Somerville College Oxford. Initially her father had rejected the idea, but so determined was Vera to study that he finally relented and gave her permission to leave home. By this time Vera had met and fallen in love with Roland Leighton, Edward’s school friend. All three of them were going to Oxford, and the future looked bright. But the dark clouds of war and destruction were gathering. On August 4th 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. It was a decision that is seen as the start of World War One, and Vera would be on the move again.  At the end of her first year at Somerville, she decided that her duty lay in serving her country and like Edward and Roland , she left Oxford going bravely into battle. As she said later, she was “carried away by the wartime emotion and deceived by the shinning figure of patriotism”.  Vera became a nursing auxiliary and spent the remainder of the war years nursing in London, Malta and France.

Testament of Youth became a main resource when I was writing about Women’s roles changing due to WW1. Vera’s memoir highlights the cataclysmic effect of war, not only for Vera but for men and women from her generation. This testimony of a VAD serving with the British army overseas, is an eloquent and moving expression of the suffering and bereavement inflicted by war. But Vera still observed that life was different for women, “The war was a phase of life which women’s experience did differ vastly from men’s and I make a puerile claim to equality of suffering and service when I maintain that any picture of the war years is incomplete which omits those aspects that mainly concern women…The women is still silent who by presenting the war in its true perspective in her own life, will illuminate its meaning afresh for its own generation“.

On reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth the reader is gradually drawn into Vera’s world of destruction and suffering. The narrative plays on emotions, the disbelief as one by one, those closest to Vera are lost in battle, her fiancé Roland, her brother Edward and their friends Geoffrey and Victor. It is a book that portrays the world through Vera’s eyes as she stands at the heart of the upheaval of pre and post-WW 1. Vera was a writer of great descriptive powers, both of place and emotions, the cold and damp, the sickening horrors of Boulogne, the field hospital at Etaples. Her writing resonates with emotions and thoughts of the “shattered, dying boys”, she nurses, her inability to readjust to the brightly lit alien post war world.

In 1919 Vera returned to Somerville, where she felt other students didn’t appreciate the war effort, to study Modern History in an attempt to understand the origins of the conflict which had claimed the lives of Edward, Roland and two close friends. When she visits Edward’s grave on the Asiago Plateau there is a sense of overwhelming shared grief.  It was at Somerville that Vera suffered from a “nervous breakdown”, which is now recognised as post-traumatic stress syndrome.

By the time the book was published, 15 years after the end of the war, Vera had rejected anything that identified war with “grey crosses and supreme sacrifices and red poppies blowing against a serene blue sky”.  The book is Vera’s passionate plea for peace, she clearly throws light onto the agony of war to the individual and “its destructiveness to the human race”.  Testament of Youth conveys the very essence of Vera, a feminist, writer, pacifist, and the voice of the lost generation of World War 1.

Vera was a fascinating woman who achieved so much in her life, she published over 29 books and many articles. She worked tirelessly for the League of Nations and working for peace during the Second World War as a member of the Peace Pledge Union. Her work showed that she was a woman who acted on her principles as well as talking about them.

Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain as an older woman

Although there is hope at the end of the book she is able to escape the pain and devastation of the past as the reader is introduced to her husband to be George “G”, the “ghosts” never left Vera, as G commented, “The hardest rival you can have is a “ghost” because your inclination is to idealise someone who died long ago”.  Vera died on March 29th 1970 and was cremated, according to her wishes her ashes were scattered over her brother’s grave in Italy’s Asiago Plateau.

Testament of Youth is a beautifully written and thought provoking book, about the consequences of war, love, duty, responsibility and the power of the written word. It is a book that has stood the test of time. Tragically the message still resonates in the world today.

References:

http://www.ppu.org.uk/vera/
http://www.ox.ac.uk/world-war-1/people/vera-brittain
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/24/vera-brittain-testament-of-youth
Posted in Books, Family History, First World War, History, Reading, Reviews, Shell Shocked Britain, War | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

 

Posted in Books, Reading, Victorian History, Victorians, Writing | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

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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