‘From the Womb to the Tomb’ – at last a title. Now to get writing…


Early 19th C Apothecary and apprentice

Early 19th C Apothecary and apprentice

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 – like Shell 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….

Posted in Book, Health, History, Keats, Medicine, Reading, Writing | 3 Comments

8 Tricks to Get You Writing in 2016

I love the Writers Anon blog. It is full of useful writing tips to help you get going and get it right. Chella Ramanan has recently been on my Talking Books radio show and she is certainly someone who can inspire you to keep pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. This piece is no exception and many of the issues, such as procrastination and the usefulness of your own writing retreats (on a shoestring here), certainly ring true for me. As I head into the thick of my next book – more of which soon – I am certainly going to use some of the hints suggested here!

Writers Anon - Taunton's Writing Group

So, you want to write a novel or perhaps a screenplay, a book of poetry or a series of short stories. It’s January, you tell yourself, time for some writing resolutions, which means setting unattainable goals, which lead to despondency and disillusionment, come February.

I say, ditch the January resolutions and try these practical tips to get yourself writing in 2016.

  1. Break it down – Writing a novel is a big undertaking. You’ll think “can I really write 90,000 words?” Well, all stories begin with one word, followed by another and then  that’s a sentence. Twenty or so words more and you may have a paragraph. A few paragraphs make a scene, which then becomes pages and they turn into chapters. Break it down. Don’t think about the big picture, just get one word down after another.

2. Commit to writing – If you want to write, then you actually…

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‘Be excellent to each other….’ a belated Happy New Year from me…



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…..

Happy New Year!!!




Posted in Book, Books, Christmas, Family, Film, First World War, New Year, Nostalgia, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Shell Shocked Britain, Work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

2015- A Christmas for thinking, thanking and loving

50928-40681Followers of my blog might know that this has been a strange old year for me. It has flown past in a whirl of various worries, some real, some imagined.  I have been promoting Shell Shocked Britain around the country and have been negotiating the next book with the publishers, whilst at the same time worrying about whether the writing bug has abandoned me to chew the heart out of some other poor soul.

But I love Christmas, and genuinely want to send everyone reading this best wishes for a fabulous festive season and a happy and healthy new year. It is not an easy time of year for many – especially those who are alone, or without enough of anything to make the end of the year (with all its consumer-driven hyped up happiness) seem a little more bearable.

Reports suggest we are largely a secular society now, but many of us still cling to cosy Anglicanism at Christmas time – the traditional  story of Mary and Joseph, the stable, the shepherds and the three wise men – and listen to carols when they nudge their way into our consciousness above the strains of Slade, Wizzard or Wham. Any faith or none, Christmas is always played out as a time of peace and goodwill to all; a moment for friends and family to get together and a short period in which to take stock and reflect on the year just passed, giving thanks for the good things, and express hope for better times to come. It is a time when each and every one of us (even those who say Bah! Humbug!) really wants to love and be loved.

As always I try to find a poem that expresses something of how I feel each Christmas. Having just spent a year promoting a book that highlights the lasting effects of war trauma on both soldiers and civilians, and when we are facing a refugee crisis and violence that few seem to know how to address, Thomas Hardy comes to mind.

A Christmas ghost-story by Thomas Hardy

South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies–your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: “I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?

And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking ‘Anno Domini’ to the years?
Near twenty-hundred livened thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died

In this poem, the ghost of a bemused soldier, twisted in pain, asks us who decided that peace should once again be broken? He cannot understand how we can worship Christ who died to bring us peace, whilst allowing soldiers (this one anonymous man standing for all soldiers) to go into battle once more. All that was supposed to be achieved by the crucified Jesus has been ‘set aside’. He stares at the starry sky, on far away shores, emphasising the distance between himself and those he has left, who mourn  him. Why have those in government made laws to send him to his death?

This poem is most definitely anti-war. It was written at the time of the second Boer War at the end of the 19th century but is relevant to all wars in all time. We are still asking the same questions. This year we feel even further away from peace on earth. The crisis in the Middle East has reverberated into the heart of Europe to the point where we cannot afford to ignore the thousands of refugees desperately seeking safety within our borders.  We are at war again, and once again troops of many nations are placing themselves in the way of danger. What is significant about Hardy’s poem is that this soldier is any soldier of any nationality. He is ‘your countryman’. Whoever you are.

Borders have been much in the news in 2015. As we end the year there are still thousands trying to cross them to safety and many employed to stop them doing just that. Here in the UK we have much to be thankful for, but as Hardy  asks, why do we put ‘AD ‘ after our years, when actions of governments are at odds with the message of the season? The message of peace.

The meaning of this ‘Christmas ghost-story’ still echoes through the decades…….



Posted in Books, Charities, Christmas, Family, History, Literature, Poetry, Reading, Religion, Shell Shocked Britain, Victorians, War, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reading Classic Christmas Crime – a review

1bdbc562f8c14c622a64e9bd2c2272b0For a number of reasons, this lead up to Christmas is quite stressful, and my own writing is not going so very well. My mother is poorly, my son moving into his first flat and December is racing away with me at such speed that I am afraid to blink in case I miss the big day.

However, that does mean that I can indulge in a very relaxing hobby, pursued from mid November onward. My usually fairly eclectic list of books to read becomes skewed towards those books with a Christmas setting. Those first bells and snowflakes. Amongst books as diverse as The Xmas Files  – The Philosophy of Christmas (full of interesting philosophical questions to annoy your family with as they settle down to their turkey…) and Anne Perry’s A Christmas Hope (formulaic but gently entertaining) I also re-read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and A Child’d Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. I can’t read these books at any other time of year so eat the pages up greedily to make the most of every festive moment.

This year, things are slightly different as I have caught a reading bug that began going round last year, when British Library Crime Classics brought out crime and mystery fiction from the Golden Age of crime – from the 1920s to 50s – by authors well known and new to discover.

I have now indulged to the point where I feel the need to share some of these delicious stories, and give you a chance to get hold of them in the last few days before Christmas and the New Year and find out for yourselves why one or two of them have become surprise best sellers.

download (3)The first is Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story (British Library Crime Classics) by J. Jefferson Farjeon. (1883 – 1955)  Farjeon wrote more than 60 crime and thriller novel s popular with other great writers of the time such as Dorothy L Sayers.who said ‘Jefferson Farjeon is quite unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures’. His work has been out of fashion for many years before British Library Crime Classics rediscovered it, and it became something of a sensation in 2014.

I thoroughly enjoyed this mysterious and unusual ‘whodunnit’, which overtones of another theme popular at the time – spiritualism.

It is described thus: ‘The horror on the train, great though it may turn out to be, will not compare with the horror that exists here, in this house.’ On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings a train to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. Several passengers take shelter in a deserted country house, where the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but no one is at home. Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers are seeking to unravel the secrets of the empty house when a murderer strikes in their midst.

It is fun to read, when the language becomes familiar (and anyone loving Christie, Sayers et al won’t find it takes long) and there are sufficient red herrings and false (and real) trails to give the reader a chance of working out what is going on. Or simply go along for the ride – I thoroughly enjoyed it.

download (1)Secondly, why not try Crime at Christmas by C H B Kitchen, published by Faber & Faber. To set the mood:

‘There we were, all gathered together for a Christmas party, and plunged suddenly into gloom.’

It’s Christmas at Hampstead’s Beresford Lodge. A group of relatives and intimate friends gather to celebrate the festive season, but their party is rudely interrupted by a violent death. It isn’t long before a second body is discovered. Can the murderer be one of those in the great house? The stockbroker sleuth Malcolm Warren investigates, in this brilliantly witty mystery.

I think Kitchen was a tad ahead of his time. A fairly typical country house death becomes something far more sinister and stockbroker Malcolm Warren (who has appeared in a previous Kitchen detective story) is left to work it out, initially sidestepping the curious Inspector  – a lovely character- and then finding teamwork solved the twisted little mystery far more satisfactorily. Again, the language is early to mid 20th century and with Warren a rather introspective and thoughtful man, who offers the reader the opportunity to ask all those questions not covered in the text in a fictional discussion at the end, you find yourself transported into the minds of criminal and policeman. Great stuff.

51SFasQJ6xL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_Another British Library Crime Classic , The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay is decidedly odd, although on the face of it the standard device is properly in place – a country house, a curmudgeonly old patriarch and Christmas. But we hear the story through the eyes of a number of the characters before we hear from the Chief Constable who has to unpick a mystery cast with a troupe of characters he thought he knew well, but who make it clear they all have their secrets. …..

Aunt Mildred declared that no good could come of the Melbury family Christmas gatherings at their country residence Flaxmere. So when Sir Osmond Melbury, the family patriarch, is discovered – by a guest dressed as Santa Klaus – with a bullet in his head on Christmas Day, the festivities are plunged into chaos. Nearly every member of the party stands to reap some sort of benefit from Sir Osmond’s death, but Santa Klaus, the one person who seems to have every opportunity to fire the shot, has no apparent motive. Various members of the family have their private suspicions about the identity of the murderer, and the Chief Constable of Haulmshire, who begins his investigations by saying that he knows the family too well and that is his difficulty, wishes before long that he understood them better.

This one was slightly harder to get in to, and many of the characters were less than likeable. However, it is a good example of the genre and if you love a good whodunnit there are ample clues to help you reach the identity of the murderer before the end. Just go with it, and I think by the end you feel will feel satisfied at the conclusion (very important in my view!)

514y46avEGL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_I have just finished another British Library Classic – Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries which was edited by one of my favourite modern crime writers, Martin Edwards ,author of the Lake District mysteries. It is a collection of short stories, written by a wide range of ‘Golden Age’ crime writers. Arthur Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers and Marjery Allingham are all there, sharing the space with writers famous in their day but long forgotten by most of us. I particularly enjoyed Waxworks, by Ethel Lina White and Cambric Tea by Marjorie Bowen. One review states:

Like an assortment of presents under a Christmas tree, there’s something for everyone in this Yule-themed anthology … Classic tales of murder and jewel thievery with a light dusting of snow.

I agree- I gobbled these stories up. Often an anthology is patchy, but I enjoyed each story for a different reason and have learnt much about how to drive a good plot forward with a limited word count. Of course, dip in and skip at will – that is the joy of the Christmas season. One minute one is reading, chilling with a glass of something and a mince pie and the next everyone has to thrill to Pictionary and fractious children. A short read may be just what you need to get back in a mellow mood.

download (2)At this point I feel it necessary to mention one book I was really disappointed in, mostly because it has been renamed and rebranded in a jacket similar to those designed by the British Library. Now called Murder at the Old Vicarage: A Christmas Mystery, it is  by Jill McGown and now has a different cover and title (it was first published as ‘Redemption’ in the UK, and marketed to the US with an homage to Agatha Christie.) It is set in the 1980s or 1990s, feels dated and although the murder is baffling, it is only so because there were not enough suspects and the whole plot felt incestuous and hard to picture. It is out of place with the other books it is being marketed with and dare I say, feels like a ‘jumping on the bandwagon’.

51hkOIVokkL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_So I have now got one more to read – Murder for Christmas (Vintage Murder Mystery)  by Francis Duncan. Duncan is apparently due a relaunch; there are some 20 other crime stories in his back catalogue  Apparently:

Mordecai Tremaine, former tobacconist and perennial lover of romance novels, has been invited to spend Christmas in the sleepy village of Sherbroome at the country retreat of one Benedict Grame.

Arriving on Christmas Eve, he finds that the revelries are in full flow – but so too are tensions amongst the assortment of guests.

Midnight strikes and the party-goers discover that it’s not just presents nestling under the tree…there’s a dead body too. A dead body that bears a striking resemblance to Father Christmas.

Can’t wait to get started. Do give some of these a try if you are into crime, or into Christmas or, best still, both. I found two via our local library and others are available via all good bookshops (and Amazon).

Let me know what you think, and I would love to know of any books you have read in the lead up to the big day that have thrilled, thwarted or frustrated you. And do you have a favourite Christmas read of any genre?

A very Happy Christmas from No Wriggling Out of Writing, and all good wishes for a fabulous new year of reading!

Posted in Book, Books, Crime, Reading, Reviews, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Healing the Addiction to War, Part 1

A very interesting and thought provoking piece by Moira Lake, who writes here of our relationship with war, and our seeming need to become involved in the lives of others, supposedly to ‘improve’ them…..

Moira Lake

So we in Britain are at war again. Not that we weren’t at war already, of course. We always seem to be at war. And if we’re not officially at war, we’re threatening war, warning each other about the likelihood of war, debating the advantages of war, cringing in fear of war or looking forward to the prizes of war. The greatest of these prizes is invariably claimed to be peace. What a joke.

Pitt cartoon

And why are we always at war? Well, needless to say, it’s always someone else’s fault. It’s for their own good, after all. Hmmm.

A few years ago the historian Stuart Laycock did some interesting research. He found that of the 193 UN member states in the world today, the British have made war in 171. To put it even more simply, Britain has at some point invaded 90% of the countries of the world

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You only have one mother…..

1597122_10152669845145031_1421512996_oMy mum isn’t well. She is unwell in that way we refer to those who are, officially, really old; ‘well she is 86 dear’; ‘things are just wearing out’; ‘well none of us go on forever’. Diagnosis? Why bother with one? It is ‘old age’ and if we are lucky, perhaps, it comes to us all. So let’s just watch her legs swell up, sense she can’t quite catch her breath, and listen whilst she tells us of something that worries her – over and over again so that very worry is reinforced, and dwelt upon until conspiracy theories take over from reality and there is the inexorable descent into an anxiety state that takes more of her breath, more of herself.

Perhaps she will rally, again. But she has started those sad little conversations that begin ‘don’t be upset when I go dear, I’ve had enough’, and at some point, in the natural order of things, we will lose her, my sister, brother and I.

But I have to admit I am struggling, desperately hoping she will once more be her ‘old self’, flashes of whom we still glimpse as we watch her wolf down dark chocolate, then complain of indigestion, or hear as she describes the behaviour of a friend who is ‘lovely, but…’

My mum dedicated her life to bringing up her family and caring for her husband, our dad, who was diagnosed with early onset Parkinsons before any of us,his children, had left primary school. She has been a widow almost as long as she was a wife and has had to deal with what she would describe as a ‘basin full’. She has a strength of character that can be both tender and downright scary, and of her three children I am the one whose ‘buttons’ have been pressed for maximum effect, with emotional consequences for us both. But recently, as her short term memory has deteriorated and her longer term recall become more selective, we have enjoyed some great laughs, and hours of simple fun playing games on the iPad, discussing who are our favourites on Strictly Come Dancing (‘I can’t bear that Katie Derham, with that smile…’) and talking about her family history. No competition, no manipulation, just love.

10862706_10153454611380031_6347351552373342626_oI know in my heart that I am hoping she stays with us not for her sake, but for mine. I am scared – of being ‘top of the tree’, of no longer being, physically,  someone’s daughter, of being cast adrift from that last link with all those memories, of feeling alone (despite having my own lovely family).

We are a lucky human being if we get to our eighties as fit as a flea. Our society desperately denies death whilst worshipping youth, and the elderly are seen as a demographic time bomb, a problem to be solved, a drain on our national finances. Why are we so keen to stay alive, when at the same time we are casting age and experience aside?

Perhaps I am affected by national as well as personal events. The world seems a scary place at the moment. Am I alone in thinking someone has taken the brakes off and our lives and events are spinning out of our control? Mum has been ever present, a safety blanket, the tap root from which much of my life has taken strength. Too much? Possibly. Perhaps I am just afraid to acknowledge myself as an adult…

At some point I have to acknowledge myself as a root from which my own children have branched out and become the lovely folk they are.

I am no longer a child, but I will always be the child of my mother.

Posted in Childhood, Family, Family History, love the universe and everything, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments