On struggling with the writing life – again

writing
writing
My thoughts, indeed.

I still seem to get a fair few hits on this, my blog. Not that I deserve them. No wriggling out of writing has been sorely neglected of late as I struggled with the first edits of my forthcoming book, (Death, Disease & Dissection to be published by Pen and Sword Books in October). My mum has been poorly too, and my sister and I have been spending more time with her in the hope that she can find at least a little joy in her life.

I have to be honest though. I have been endlessly wriggling out of writing, procrastinating at every opportunity and finding any excuse not to write. I have watched social media carefully, comparing myself to others and finding solace in their dilemmas, or berating myself for my lack of productivity. Author after author seems to have celebrated the release of yet another book or highlighted an article they have written. My pitching arm – the one that writes down the ideas that should be winging their way to commissioning editors has been, of late, disabled by the mental equivalent of a frozen shoulder.

I am an author and a published one, but it is hard to call myself a ‘writer’ unless I am writing so I need to get the word count up again. My imagination feels stifled, the door into the part of my mind I use as the boiler room for my creative work is firmly locked. Writing is an expression of myself, and has been used as therapy more than once, when I have really needed to speak to the world about something that is important to me. The love of it must come back.

The world has been, and still is, an emotionally exhausting place to live in recent months, but with little hope of improvement in the near future I can no longer use the horror in Syria, the abject misery of Brexit or the hideous injustices perpetrated by Trump as a reason not to write.  But writing about those things seems too scary.  I sit with fingers on the keyboard ready to respond to the most recent news item and have literally to stop myself from exposing the raw edges of grief I feel to the whole world.

I have, as always, turned to poetry when feeling most frustrated. John Keats , in Endymion, wrote ”In spite of all/ Some shape of beauty moves away the pall/From our dark spirits.’ and I have to hang on to the thought that this fallow period will end. Only I can end it after all. I am, at least, reading a lot across different genres and still booking new writers onto my Talking Books radio show.  Other authors inspire as well make me feel, quite without intending to, like I need a good kick in the pants…

So, if there is still anybody out there reading this, rather self-indulgent post, here is my attempt at a plan. Some parts, driven by my publisher and the looming of deadlines, will be easier to bring to fruition. Others are all down to me, and I am hoping writing them down will help:

  1. Death, Disease & Dissection WILL be out in October of this year.
  2. My anthology of blog posts relating to John Keats(with a foreword by Lynn Shepherd who has published some of them on The Wordsworth Trust blog) will be completed by the autumn.
  3. I will post at least once a fortnight here on No wriggling out of writing, even if it is just to share a favourite poem or poet, or review a book.
  4. I will enter two competitions (short story or poetry) by the end of this year.
  5. I will update my website and get that newsletter OUT.

Does that sound a lot? Or not enough? How can I possibly know? I have to get proofreading work in, articles pitched and written and blogs for business done to earn at least something to pay the bills, but as someone who describes herself as a writer, I know the first step is to WRITE.

Brace yourself…

 

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

 

 

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?

 

 

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

Keats, melancholy & mental health – I blog again for The Wordsworth Trust

KeatsblogIt is hard to keep my blog up to date at the moment, with lots to write and things to think about, but I can never resist the opportunity to write about John Keats for the lovely Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog. In the past two years I have written about how a particular Keats poem speaks to me, about his time at Guy’s Hospital undertaking medical training and a piece on the work of two young film makers taking ‘La belle dame sans merci‘ to new audiences.

This week I am on there again, looking at the ways in which the letters written by Keats offer inspiration and solace in difficult times, and how much of his work can be seen as ahead of its time in its relation to current psychotherapy practice. In his letters you can find expressions of what it means to be ‘mindful’, being accepted for who you really are, learning to cope with anxiety and depression, and finding inner strength. You find empathy and a willingness to walk in another person’s shoes before judging. To really understand how wonderful his poetry is, read his letters and get to know the man. His philosophy is at once melancholy and heartening.

Anyway, you all know how much I love his work and how appealing is his character. Take a trip over to The Wordsworth Trust blog and see how he wrote those inspirational quotes so much better than all those you find on your Facebook news feed.

I would also recommend you take a look at the other posts on Romantic subjects, posted regularly on the blog. They are fascinating and offer a terrific picture of the Romantic period. I am proud to be on there.

On St Valentine’s Day – Love poems you wish you had written 2015 #4 – UA Fanthorpe

love_poem_400x400So we come to the ‘big day’ itself. The 14th of February, St Valentine’s Day and apparently the most romantic day of the year. Of course, for many it is nothing like that, by circumstance or choice.  There is something rather uncomfortable (and occasionally nauseating) about seeing rows and rows of red cards of various design (and taste) in the shops as soon as Christmas cards are swept into the stock room once more.

However, the sentiment is a fine one and when I called for requests this year, asking my readers and friends on social media to suggest love poems for this short series, one stood out as distilling my feelings for my own Valentine – my lovely husband Peter. And it isn’t by John Keats (though I was sorely tempted of course!)

fanthorpe180U (Ursula) A Fanthorpe was a British poet who died in 2009 and I have to admit that I didn’t know much about her poetry at all, until prompted by Jessamy Carlson  (‏@rjc_archives ) on twitter. Her obituaries describe her as ‘a great role model for all of us who could do with a bit of ‘late flowering’ ‘ and I am determined to read more of her work in the future. I think this poem sums up that kind of love that, whilst ‘everyday’, is vital for the maintenance of another’s happiness and which inspires devotion, understanding and acceptance. I have a very ‘suspect edifice’ at times, and regularly require a metaphorical re-wiring and re-pointing. This is quite different from Donne, Auden or Yeats, but utterly believable and real.

Atlas

UA Fanthorpe, from Safe as Houses (Peterloo Poets, 1995)

There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;

Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;

Which answers letters; which knows the way
The money goes; which deals with dentists

And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,
And postcards to the lonely; which upholds

The permanently rickety elaborate
Structures of living, which is Atlas.

And maintenance is the sensible side of love,
Which knows what time and weather are doing
To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;
Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers
My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in air,
As Atlas did the sky.

What do you think? Do you still find it romantic, as I do, despite the imagery being more practical than poetic?

Sadly, I could not find a reading on YouTube and there is no recording of Fanthorpe reading Atlas on The Poetry Archive, although she reads three other poems, including ‘Earthed’.

So this week of love poetry has been fun for me, and asking for requests took the pressure off a little as I struggled to sift through the many, many poetry books that fill my shelves. There were other poems suggested, including Because I liked you, a sombre piece by A E Houseman, How do I love thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, La Vita Nuova by Dante and a number of poems by Carol Ann Duffy, two of which were included on a companion post by the lovely Dad Poet. My thanks to everyone who got in touch.

So on Valentine’s Day love and be loved, or take heart in the thought that somewhere out there is the person for whom, one day, you can find a just the right poem. I hope the past few days, and my previous posts on poetry (just search in the box above or find ‘poetry’ in the word count to the right) have given you a few ideas.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sitting under Walter de la Mare’s ‘Mistletoe’: Happy Christmas from an exhausted writer…

merry-christmas2014 has passed in a blur. As did 2013. Does writing a book shorten your life? Now there is a question. I have put on two stone and done little exercise, sitting as I have done in coffee shops, or at my PC scribbling or tapping away to get Shell Shocked Britain completed and ‘out there’. Certainly the Grogan bum is now spreading indelicately over the edges of the chair as I write this. New year resolutions include better planning and more exercise -new ways of working that I tried to stick to early in 2014. So we shall see…

So this is Christmas…. I did one of those Facebook ‘review’ things that use the photos you have posted to create an overview of the past 12 months. Mine was so boring in comparison to those my friends were posting that I didn’t bother. Now I have two more to write for Pen & Sword over the next two years and at present my batteries are drained to the dregs. Even rubbing them between my hands, blowing on them and putting them back can’t get the words flowing again. Fingers crossed for 2015.

Anyway, I am whining. I have had a great year, challenging myself in ways I never imagined (talks on Shell Shocked Britain have gone really well despite my nerves), so I wanted to write this as a THANK YOU to everyone who has read this blog and taken an interest in my work. If you have bought a book, that is great but a re-tweet or Facebook share is also greatly appreciated.

images (4)As always, poetry is something I read avidly at Christmas. A poem can distil the essence of the season and strike an emotional chord worthy of a ding dong merrily on high. This year I have chosen Mistletoe by Walter de la Mare. It reminds me of the late evening Christmas Day, when I relax in the sitting room, with just the Christmas tree lights to cast shadows around the room. It is a moment of sadness in a way, but I try to ignore the fact that all that mad spending and celebration is drawing to a close for another year and just enjoy that moment of peace, looking forward to the new year.

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen—and kissed me there.

Have a lovely Christmas everyone, take care of yourselves and each other and let us hope the new year is a happy and healthy one for us all.

Guest post: The moving memoir of a despatch rider on the Western Front

AES 1917 001Today I am lucky enough to have another fascinating guest post on No Wriggling – this time by family historian and writer David Venner, who I met after the publication of my own book, Shell Shocked Britain. Here he writes movingly of his own family experiences in the Great War, and tells us more about his great-uncle Albert Simpkin, a despatch rider and the subject of a book David will see published by Pen & Sword in the spring. 

As I write, many of the leaves on the hazel outside my window have fallen and lie scattered on the ground. In time they will decompose or get dragged below the surface by earthworms.  Other leaves remain on the tree but they have changed – from the fresh green of the spring to a faded autumnal yellow: a metaphor, perhaps, for the men who fought on the First World War battlefields. Many of them fell and lay scattered on the surface or were swallowed up, unrecognisably, by the mud. The men that survived and returned from the war were changed, some in obvious, physical ways, others with mental scars that may or not have been apparent to the observer.  A lot of them of course were damaged both physically and mentally.  Their families and the wider community were deeply and irreversibly affected too, as Suzie conveys in her thoroughly researched and well-written book, Shell Shocked Britain.

My great uncle Albert Simpkin was one of the lucky ones who survived the war. Suzie’s book has started me thinking about how his experiences might have changed him. I knew him as an old man, but as he only married into my mother’s family when aged 40, his early life and character are not easily pieced together.

AES 1914 001
Albert in 1914

He was born in 1885, the eldest child of a Salford printer and his wife. When he was 12 his mother died at the birth of a fourth child, a traumatic experience for Albert and the rest of the family. His father soon re-married and Albert apparently did not take to his step-mother – a further source of emotional stress at a sensitive age. At the 1901 census there were two young half-brothers as well as the three siblings from the first marriage. It is perhaps not surprising that, on leaving school and being apprenticed to a Salford engineering firm, Albert moved out of the family home. He lived in digs with two other young men and a landlady who, according to family stories, treated him in a much more kindly way than his stepmother did.

Albert was almost 30 when he joined up, so was not as unworldly as many of the volunteer soldiers were. His teenage traumas, work experiences and early move to independent living probably resulted in a marked degree of resilience and maturity in his approach to life. He seems to have been a natural leader, as quite early in his army training he gained a promotion to become sergeant of his section.

We can gain some further insights into his character from a very detailed diary that Albert wrote of his war service. He was a motorcycle despatch rider with the 37th Division HQ on the Western Front and so had a wide-ranging role and view of the action. He saw some horrific sights, which he records, often with a comment on his reaction:

‘Higher up the trench I came across the body of one of our men badly mutilated, one of his arms had been blown off and half of his face was missing.  The front of his tunic was shredded like wool and the ammunition in his pouches had exploded. A pretty ghastly sight but it raised no more feeling in me than one feels in a butcher’s shop.  War brings one down to the level of animals.’

He endured some atrocious conditions, spending two winters in the Ypres area and another on the Somme:

‘We are having wretched weather, raining every day … After an hour’s riding we are plastered with mud from head to foot and the only way to clean oneself is to wash down with buckets of water.’ 

‘The snow is melting rapidly and everywhere is deep in mud.  I do not know which is the greater evil, snow or mud.  Snow turns to water but mud sticks closer that a brother.’

The places in which he was billeted were often far from healthy:

‘Last night we slept in a barn … The place was alive with rats which ran over our bodies and sniffed inquisitively in our faces.  One of the fellows awoke with a yell, a rat had bitten his ear.’

‘I examined the bed I have been sleeping in and found every known species of vermin, bed bugs, lice and some I was unable to christen.  I straightaway got leave from the OC to go and get a bath after which I changed all my underclothes.’

Yet he found leave-taking a depressing time:

‘The time hung very heavily, everyone cheerful but a trifle forced. I was glad when it was time to go back to France’.

He seems to have had a well-developed sense of morality and equality. For example, he was very critical of the preferential treatment of officers:

‘Sometimes when we have money we go to Bailleul for a feed but all the best places are reserved for officers, which greatly annoyed us until we found a place of our own. Even the ‘pip squeaks’, who a year or two ago were wiping their snotty little noses on their cuffs for want of a handkerchief, may enter, while the highest NCO may not. This childish snobbery of the old army sickens me.’

Despite this critical view of the officer class, his commanding officer gave him a glowing reference on demobilisation:

‘Sgt Simpkin has discharged the duties of NCO in charge motorcycles and despatch riders

in the Company with marked success. Energetic, keen and reliable in all his work. Exceptionally good disciplinarian and leader of men.  Marked organising ability. Throughout his four years of active service he has set a splendid example of personal gallantry which has greatly influenced the personnel under his command.’

AES 1950s 001
Albert in the 1950s

Albert returned to his old job with Crossley Brothers and was chief engineer by the mid-1920s. He married and shortly afterward was sent to Argentina to set up a branch of the company in Buenos Aires.  He and his wife visited England every two or three years, staying with my family on our farm in Somerset.  In between these visits he wrote to me – long, wonderfully informative letters – with descriptions of Argentine wildlife, farming, local customs and events, and he was always interested to know about our lives in England.  He was like a substitute grandfather to me: both of my grandfathers had died before I was born. Having no family, Albert and his wife Lily made as much fuss of my brother and me as if we were their own grandchildren.

Albert never spoke of the war and at the time I never thought to ask him about it. In any case it is most unlikely that he would have wanted to talk about his experiences with a young boy – I was only 15 when he died. I would have loved to have heard how he won his Military Medal and what he did to earn the commendation “for bravery in the field”.

It is hard, thinking back to the visits to our farm and when re-reading his letters, to find any evidence of the effects of his war experiences. As an old man he walked with a limp which could have been the result of a war injury; in his diary he mentions being slightly wounded in the leg. Mentally, he never showed (or was very careful to conceal) any signs of depression, anxiety or sadness.  On the contrary, I remember him as a jolly, generous and gregarious man, with a twinkle in his eye and a vitality which belied his age. It was as if he was determined to make the most of a life that was spared when so many of his contemporaries were not so fortunate.

Despatch riderAn abridged version of Albert Simpkin’s diary is due to be published in April 2015 by Pen and Sword Books, under the title Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-18.

 After graduating from Edinburgh University, David Venner had a career in countryside management. He is now a family history advisor in North Devon where he also practises rural crafts. You can follow him on Twitter: @davidvenner4,  and on the diary website:

www.despatch-rider-on-the-western-front.co.uk

For Remembrance & the Armistice: Some very personal messages……

labelsHave you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget’ –(Siegfried Sassoon)

At the launch of my book Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health  on the 22nd October 2014, I offered people the opportunity to take a red luggage label, a pen and write a simple message on it, tying it to the life-sized white wooden tree installations in the event space at Foyles in Bristol. I waffled on a bit about saying something about the evening, about the book, about the nibbles etc, but I also suggested people might want to offer up the names of someone they hold in their heart, as an informal act of remembrance.

I have to say, when I looked through them after the event, I was really moved at the names and comments people had taken the time to note down. So for Remembrance Sunday, for Armistice Day and for posterity I thought I would note some of them here on my blog, and say a huge thank you to everyone who made the event such a special evening for me.

In loving memory of my dear father George who died aged 83. He was an officer in the Royal Engineers and served in the Korean War. Love you always Dad

To the past, the present and for a better future with more understanding and available help x

A cliché but Never Forget

Thinking of my Italian ancestors who fought for Italy in WWI

To Grandpa, who couldn’t bear dirt or to be dirty after the trenches…

John Cant grandfather survived died 1970. Wilfred Carr Great Uncle. Died of wounds December 1917 near Ypres.

For Herbert My grandfather who never spoke of his experiences and I was too frightened of him to ask, hoping for exciting stories no doubt. Now, when it is too late I respect his silence and regret I never got close to him

Remembering Ronald Robertson RIP

To all conscientious objectors from The Society of Friends

Remembering all those women who served abroad In memory of all the conscientious objectors

In memory of my dear and beautiful friend Susan – I will carry you in my heart to every launch, event, exhibition and special place…xx

I also had some lovely congratulatory messages, but I am so pleased that the launch and my book offered people the space simply to remember. We have so little time to think now that we are in danger of losing sight of our essential humanity and connections to each other, and to those people in our lives who have made us who we are.

The best way to market a book? Shell Shocked Britain on ‘blog tour’….

marketingWe have all seen it – on our twitter timelines, our Facebook feeds and our Instagram image lists. The endless stream of book plugs can get really frustrating, as tweets or status updates from people whose lives we connect with get subsumed in links to Amazon or personal websites where a book with great reviews  can be bought at a bargain price. Evidence suggests that if you only follow other writers, and they are the only ones that follow you back; if you just collect ‘followers’ and fail to actually engage and enthuse, or just bombard them with ‘buy me’ links, your books sales will be little influenced by anything you do on social media. Twice daily links and highlights of new reviews are fine, but every hour, just in case I missed it? I think not.

Looking at my own behaviour I know that it takes me a while to get to know a writer online and that recommendations from others I admire hold greater weight. Some authors seem to develop a ‘brand’, rather than work to build a relationship with their reader based on mutual interest and that is something that brings out the cynic in me. Are you the product, or is it the book? I am not sure I want to feel manipulated by a brand; perhaps the Coca Cola of the book world.

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegSo as my own book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health (Pen & Sword October 2014) came up for publication last month I wanted to ensure I did more than just say ‘look at me, I’ve got a book out so buy it PLEASE’. I hate asking people to buy a £1 raffle ticket for a good cause, so how on earth could I ask people to buy a book that might cost them nearly £20?

I have got to know some lovely writing friends via twitter and Facebook and know that I have been encouraged by their approach to grabbing my interest as a reader. I had recently hosted guest posts by both Vivienne Tuffnell (who had just written Square Peg) and Angela Buckley (author of The Real Sherlock Holmes) on this blog, as part of their own ‘blog tours’ so I thought I would give something similar a go. In doing so, I hoped, I could offer potential readers the opportunity to see the sort of issues Shell Shocked Britain deals with, and highlight the legacy of the Great War for Britain’s mental health and whet their appetite for the book. And hope they bought it, of course.

I have to say to any author considering a blog tour that it is no mean feat. I was lucky to have lovely bloggers agree to host me, but I still had to write the posts, find the images and make sure I got the copy to the bloggers in a timely fashion. I underestimated the amount of work it takes to promote a book in the early months. But I am SO glad I did it and I want to send a big ‘thank you’ to all the lovely people who hosted me. Of course, all the (hopefully) fascinating content I came up with to tempt people to find out more is on other people’s blogs, but not here on my own. So I thought I would link to them all on here and encourage you to go over to the other sitesand read not just my article, but others on each of them. All are writers and historians that I admire and I am proud that my writing now sits alongside theirs.

So mind the doors please, here we go….

Stop 1: Shell Shocked Britain – Suzie Grogan shares the crime that inspired her book on Angela Buckley’s Victorian Supersleuth

Stop 2: Is Britain still “Shell-Shocked”? A question for World Mental Health Day on Vivienne Tuffnell’s Zen & the Art of Tightrope Walking

Stop 3: A Short History of Shell Shock by Suzie Grogan on the Leeds Big Bookend blog

Stop 4: Gender & the Great War – The myth of the ‘superfluous woman’ on Emma Jolly’s genealogic blog

Stop 5: Shell Shocked Civilians -Fire over Folkestone and the bombing of Tontine Street on Rachael Hale’s The History Magpie

Stop 6: Avoiding the trickcyclist and nutpicker: First World War home remedies and miracle cures on Caroline Rance’s The Quack Doctor

Stop 7: The Children of Conflict: How the First World War Shaped the Next Generation on Debra Watkins’s Writer blog

Thanks all! And to everyone who has, or will buy Shell Shocked Britain, a ‘thank you’ too. We need to get the mental health message out there and ensure that if this four years of commemoration of the First World War achieves anything it does at least get recognition of the issues current service personnel face  – remarkably similar as they are to those experienced by their shell shocked forbears 100 years ago.