Great War guest post: A Granny’s Legacy – From Handsworth to Hebron with the Herefords

book coverI wrote, before Christmas, of my concerns that post-Armistice Day centenary commemorations, the wonderful stories that are part of the heritage given to us by the Great War, would cease to interest the media. Despite there being much to learn from 1919 onwards, and the ongoing trauma experienced by soldiers and civilians alike, it does seem I might be right. Media stories of projects ongoing are thinning out and the Brexit horrors have overtaken almost every other subject in the news. So I have been determined to continue to run stories and examine themes from the Great War. 

One of the consequences of writing Shell Shocked Britain (published Pen & Sword in 2014) was that I got to know some really interesting people, with fantastic stories to tell. One such is Amiel Price, who published her own book last year, entitled From Handsworth to Hebron with the Herefords. 1917 Diary and Letters. She had inherited a store of letters and diaries from her grandmother, also called Amiel and she shared them with me before the book came out. I was fascinated by the stories revealed, the love of the two young people heightened by the war and the wonderful cartoons and photos that illustrated it. I was also keen to hear more of life in the army away from the Western Front, in Egypt, a part of the world many don’t realise was affected. I was thrilled when Amiel asked me to write the Foreword, and I am equally thrilled to welcome her to the blog today. 

A few years ago I inherited various letters and photographs belonging to my maternal Grandmother, Amiel Robins.  Many were dated from 1917.  I had seen some of the photographs before, and I knew about the letters but had never read them.

amiel as burlington bertie
Amiel Snr as Burlington Bertie

Years ago my Mother had shown me a brown and black album containing photographs of Granny and her friends in fancy dress.  They were a stunning collection of professional black and white photo postcards showing the girls in their various costumed sketches.  She explained that Granny had been in a concert party called ‘The Allies’ that had put on many performances to entertain wounded soldiers in Birmingham.  There were photos of Granny dressed as ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’ and as ‘England’ in a union flag costume.  Indeed we still have this flag costume which I have worn myself for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and for the 2012 Olympics.

I also knew that Granny had had a fiancé called Norman Wells who had been killed during the First World War.  We still have his photograph which was mounted in a silvered frame embossed with the emblem of his Herefordshire Regiment.  As I understood it this large framed photograph had always stood on Grandfather’s dressing table in his memory.

In a small attaché case I found more photographs, some of them quite small and depicting a WW1 soldier in the desert.  Elsewhere there were photo albums of pictures of Norman and Amiel together in her garden or the countryside.  There were also two small notebooks, which turned out to be Granny’s diary for 1917 and her copied out version of Norman’s diary for October to December of the same year.

 

haircut

As the commemorations to mark the centenary of the First World War were about to begin I realised that now was the time to sit down and read through the letters.  These were all written by Norman to Amiel from December 1916 when they met, right throughout the year to Christmas 1917.  He wrote almost every other day in a beautiful hand that was easy to read.  He described what he was doing in camp, how he felt about Amiel and about his hopes for their future together.  It was the most poignant and fascinating read.  It was so evocative of that era and gave such an insight into Norman’s war.

As Amiel and Norman lived in Handsworth, Birmingham, I had assumed that there was no connection to Wales and where I lived, but no – I was surprised to find that Norman came to camp in Singleton Park in Swansea.  He described the camp and the seaside and walking to Mumbles and Langland Bay, which is where, as it happens, our family came to live fifty years ago.

musclesSo – what to do with this amazing collection of letters, photographs, and even drawings, as well as the diaries and a costume?  Even now I’m not sure, as I would be sorry to see it all disbanded and ending up in different places.  I started by typing up the letters and diaries in order to share them with my cousins so that they would also know the story from their Grandmother’s early years.

But as I typed and looked up things I didn’t understand, I was telling my friends and colleagues little snippets about Amiel and Norman.  They became intrigued and found it all so interesting that they persuaded me that other people would be interested too, and so I began my work in earnest to produce a book, the publication of which would coincide with the period of the WW1 anniversary.

The other reason I wanted to share this story is that it helps to tell some of the story away from the Western Front.  So much coverage, understandably, has been given to the First Word War in France and of the major battles that we have missed or forgotten about the war in Egypt.  Not only that but even less has been told of the ordinary soldier’s life in training camp or in a desert camp.  The hardships, the boredom, the shortages, the dreadful weather.  All topped by the longing, the desperate longing, for letters from home.

Although the story is a very personal one about a young couple’s love for each other, it is set in a time of great upset and upheaval that affected so many people at the time and so many others in the generations to follow.  The story has resonance with us all.

If you would like to buy a copy of From Handsworth to Hebron with the Herefords the price is £9.99. For further information and to order the book contact Amiel Price on 01792 369121 or email: fronheulogbooks@gmail.com

Thank you so much for sharing your story Amiel.

Marking the ending of John Keats’s life, and the beginning of a new project…

John Keats on his death bed

 

side-of-house
Keats-Shelley House, Rome.

Today – the 23rd February – marks the 197th anniversary of the death of the poet John Keats, in an apartment (now the Keats-Shelley House & Museum) looking over the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Anyone who has read my blog will know of my passion for his poetry and letters, his philosophy and the way he lived his life. Not simply a brilliant poet, he was brave in the face of tragedy, loyal to his friends – who treasured his memory – and a man of great intellect. He remains popular today, globally,  because he is relevant today and has much to say about the world and its workings that still make us say ‘Yes! That’s just what I think!’

 

death-largerI have written two posts on this blog marking Keats’s death. The first was ‘He is gone…’ Joseph Severn on the death of John Keats’ back in 2012, in which I quoted the letter from Severn – who had nursed Keats to his last breath – announcing his death to Charles Brown, the great friend with whom Keats had lived in Wentworth Place in Hampstead. The description of Keats’s last moments is heartrending, and the deathbed picture sketched by Severn, a talented young artist at the beginning of a long career, is one of the most iconic images of Keats we have.

The second post, entitled ‘The ‘vital’ death of John Keats: ending the myth of weakness’ I wrote just last year. I wanted to highlight the long-standing, mistaken, representation of Keats as the frail young romantic hounded to his death by cruel critics of his work. He was actually physically strong, quick-tempered, energetic, courageous and philosophical in the face of criticism – he was his own greatest critic after all. In this post, I wanted to illustrate how, more recently, the recognition that his friends sought to promote his life and work by promoting the image of doomed youth was, although done with the greatest love, a source of much mythologising and misrepresentation.

Today though, I want to celebrate his life and celebrate the opportunity I now have to add to the work devoted to the great man. I am thrilled to announce that I have been commissioned (yes, a publisher is actually paying me!!) to write a book about John Keats, an ‘In the footsteps of…’ following him to places that influenced his life and work. It will place Keats in cities, towns and villages, in parts of the country he visited, stayed in and, ultimately died in. It will be, in some senses, a social history (I will include the historical context; Keats was influenced by the realities of the world around him as well as the classical texts he read so avidly) and will add to the research I did for Death Disease and Dissection on his time as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in London. I want it to be accessible, well researched and eminently readable. I have always hoped my posts on here, and on The Romanticism Blog for The Wordsworth Trust, have shown that poetry is for everyone and a strictly academic knowledge and approach unnecessary to the enjoyment of Keats poetry and letters.

It will be published, along with many other studies I am sure, in 2021, to mark the bicentenary of his death. My challenge is to make it stand out in some way – something I know will be very difficult. But after 40 years of influence, I am sure Keats can still help me bring him to the page and once again be part of the celebration of his life and the marking of his death.

Gratitude or hope? A poem for #Christmas 2017 – ‘Ring out wild bells’ In memorium 106 by Tennyson

3bellsI have been going over my old Christmas posts on my blog. It seems the right time of year to begin a review of the things I have written this year and the issues that have mattered to me. In fact, this has been a very quiet year on my blog – endless excuses for not having written anything or vows to start anew, apologies for neglect etc.

The overall sense is one of melancholy, and so, when we reach a point in the year when melancholy affects millions and overwhelms many, I think I have to end with a plea for change. Can we really cope with another year like 2017? Full of hostility and strife?

There have been both for me this year – personally and as part of that thing we call humanity. I lost my lovely mum, and have been deeply affected by the strains it brought to the surface. We lost our wonderful old dog under traumatic circumstances, and then felt pulled by the stress surrounding the death of my father-in-law and the pain it brought to the surface for my husband, and for his siblings. Loss has been the word I will most associate with 2017.

All this compounded by a sense that what ‘being human’ means to me is not the same as the meaning attached to it by millions of others around the world, who pursue a way forward seemingly learning nothing from (or, more horrible, by embracing) the mistakes and terrors of the past.

I was reminded by my wonderful friend  – poet and author Vivienne Tuffnell – about the current fondness for pursuing gratitude as a way to dispel depression, anxiety and the trauma of the past. It is an age-old concept and undeniably a good thing. I am deeply grateful for all I have – my beautiful children, my lovely husband and family that supports me in what I do. But as Viv points out,  expressing gratitude can’t, of itself,  make a bad year good. Someone in a clinical depression cannot heal themselves merely by recalling a few good things. And to express gratitude has to be to genuinely mean it, or like all the other recent suggestions for self-care in mental health, it simply becomes another annexation of a peaceful principle by the powers that be. Our governments want to sedate us and prevent us being angry at injustice and aggression and all the horrors of right-wing hate-mongering that has become part of our daily global conversation.

I don’t know what to say to wish you all a happy Christmas and a joyful festive season. Like gratitude, a couple of days of eating, drinking and making merry a do not make a ‘good year’. My little pleas for kindness and peace sounds like so much pissing in the wind to be brutally honest.

Alfred-Lord-Tennyson-1809-010So as always I head for poetry. This year I can’t find a better expression of a manifesto for truth and light that that offered by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He is a poet I have read, but not studied, other than to know the basics, and to understand that In memoriam is a requiem to lost friendship and love and a way of working through Tennyson’s anger and pain following the loss of someone dear to him.

As an eminent Victorian, adjusting to the inexorable march of industrialisation at the cost of all that he thought beautiful, his concerns are at once different and the same as ours. His love of an idyllic rural England will chime with anyone who watched the recent BBC 1 series Blue Planet II and was horrified by the amount of damage we are doing to our planet. Climate change deniers beware – you can’t claim the disgusting amount of plastic in our oceans is anything other than man-made.

On a personal level, the lines Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes/ But ring the fuller minstrel in even offers my plea for a fruitful year of writing, as I get to fulfil my dream and am paid to write a book about John Keats.

This is a poem that asks us to set aside nationalism, hate and war, and embrace a world not driven by money and power. Let us hope 2018 is a year when, instead of feeling loss, we regain some things – hope at least being something we all need, whatever our faith, or belief system.

In Memoriam  106 -Ring out, wild bells
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

A very happy Christmas to you all. Thanks for reading.

Death, Disease & Dissection: Keats, Quacks & Bodysnatchers – what’s not to like?

Death Disease & DissectionAt last, I can catch my breath and report back on the launch of my second book with Pen and Sword, Death, Disease & Dissection: The working life of a surgeon-apothecary 1750-1850. The book has only been out for a couple of weeks, but it has been a part of my life for so long I can’t believe I am only really now telling people about it. As many of you who read my blog regularly know, this has been a difficult year for me and for my family so that vital marketing has been left a little behind. I am just hoping it doesn’t affect sales too much. These things matter so much now, especially with Christmas coming up.

LitFest3On Thursday 16th November I spoke to a sell-out crowd at Taunton Literary Festival, presenting some gruesome pictures of horrible procedures to much groaning and squirming (and laughter) in the audience.  Nothing like the quack doctor and failed boot polish salesman Dr Solomon and his Cordial of Gilead to tickle a few ribs, and descriptions of a lithotomy (removal of a bladder stone in men) to get a few chaps crossing their legs too…

We then celebrated with wine and cake (by the fabulous Charlie of Charlotte Jane Cakes) and a book signing that went really well. Lionel and Jo Ward of Brendon Books are so supportive (Lionel founded the festival) that is was an evening I will remember for a long time, and feedback has been fabulous. If you are in the Taunton area do take a look at the bookshop in Bath Place that can often get a book to you faster than Amazon…

Anyway, what is the book about? The premise of the book is summarised up quite well by the blurb the publisher printed on the back:

Imagine performing surgery on a patient without anaesthetic, administering medicine that could kill or cure. Welcome to the world of the surgeon-apothecary…During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, significant changes occurred in medicine. New treatments were developed and medical training improved. Yet, with doctors’ fees out of the reach of ordinary people, most relied on the advice of their local apothecary, among them, the poet John Keats, who worked at Guys Hospital in London. These men were the general practitioners of their time, making up pills and potions for everything from a toothache to childbirth. Death, Disease and Dissection examines the vital role these men played their training, the role they played within their communities, the treatments they offered, both quack and reputable against the shocking sights and sounds in hospitals and operating theatres of the time. Suzie Grogan transports readers through 100 years of medical history, exploring the impact of illness and death and bringing the experiences of the surgeon-apothecary vividly to life.

wax head
Wax anatomical model of human head c1800

I examine the class structure of the medical profession, the training a young man had to go through and the sort of life he would have enjoyed (or otherwise) when he was qualified. The medicines available to treat the most common illnesses and the operations undertaken at great risk to the patient (and sometimes to the surgeon) are detailed, as is the vital work of the anatomist, dissecting bodies (often obtained by body-snatchers) to understand the workings of the human body. It was a time of great change and is populated by some wonderful characters – good and bad – who occasionally sound like something out of a gothic-horror novel.

Keats
John Keats

I was inspired to write the book when I was keen to find out more about the life John Keats, my favourite poet, would have lived had he not given up medicine (after nearly 7 years of training) to pursue one in poetry. He was so far from the frail romantic image many still have of him that I was determined to highlight how hard he had worked in what desperate conditions to become a man filled with empathy and knowledge of the harsh realities of life. The publisher wouldn’t let me indulge my passion for the man with a chapter to himself, but they have commissioned me to write a separate book about him which is a thrill.

I have also found out that this subject is on the GCSE curriculum and it has already got a 5* review from someone working in the NHS with a teenager using it to mug up on coursework, which is gratifying. It was also an era covered by the fabulous BBC2 comedy Quacks earlier this year. Historically accurate, it is highly recommended if you can get hold of a box set.

Quacks
BBC2’s Quacks

So please do consider buying a copy for the history lover in your life, especially if they have an interest in the Georgian period or a bit of Victorian gothic. It also details many issues affecting the poor specifically and there is little doubt that many of the deeply committed men ( women were excluded from medical training as a doctor during this time) I offer short biographies of are the forerunners of today’s general practitioners, facing many of the same problems.

Death Disease & Dissection (ISBN: 9781473823532) is available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and all good online and high street retailers.

 

What makes a good ghost story?

Ghost-Stories-The-Woman-In-White-Who-Stands-In-The-GraveyardI write ghost stories. I don’t know if they are any good (although I did publish three, in a short collection called The Marrow Scoop, just to test the water) but it is a genre I enjoy reading and that is always a positive start when one wants the words to flow.

I have been a little disillusioned lately though, as my favourite spooky stories are nearer those of M R James, Charles Dickens or Edith Wharton than the paranormal psychological and positively erotic supernatural fiction that has become so popular. I wonder if we, as a species, are becoming harder to frighten? So many stories and video replays of real-life horrors are available via social media 24/7 that the rustle of a curtain or the scratch on a skirting board might seem too tame.

What can be more frightening than one man driving a car deliberately to kill a random group of strangers he knows nothing about or setting a bomb filled with nails to kill and maim for life? Except perhaps the knowledge that our children might be at risk of harm whilst in the care of those we thought we could trust implicitly?

Perhaps this surge in the popularity of the mythical beasts of horror – the vampires, the werewolves, the zombies – is part if the desire to control a new reality. Down the centuries there have always been people who commit the most wicked crimes against their own, or against strangers, but now it is exposed to daylight and refuses to crumble to dust.

download (12)So I am reevaluating my own spooky tales as I continue to write them for a modern audience. I am reading as many of the ‘greats’ as I can, shorter and longer stories, spooky or less so, classic or contemporary.  However, even Susan Hill, the author of one of the best ghost stories of recent years The Woman in Black seems to be finding it hard to compete with the out and out gore fest of the horror genre, and with psychological thrillers and crime novels, which increasingly seem to delve deep into our innermost fears – of being hunted perhaps, or stalked. Her most recent stories, such as The Small Hand and The Travelling Bag have garnered less favourable reviews. Choking mists and a gothic backdrop can only achieve so much it seems. The chills must come from elsewhere, and the piece be deemed a good short story as well as simply a frightening one.

My best stories (I think) have been inspired by antique pieces with something of the grotesque about them –  a marrow scoop or spoon, for example, was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to scoop the marrow from cooked bones, as something of a delicacy. Another tale of mine, The Ponyskin Trunk, was again triggered by the sight of a travelling case covered in the hide of a piebald pony. But one can only use that device so often before the ‘game’ is given away too early on.

As a child, I remember television programmes that left me genuinely too scared to go up the stairs for fear of what might be lurking. Even my favourite poet, John Keats, has conjured a phrase, in a fragment, that sends shivers down my spine…

This living hand, now warm and capable 
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold 
And in the icy silence of the tomb, 
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights 
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood 
So in my veins red life might stream again, 
And thou be conscience-calm’dsee here it is– 
I hold it towards you…

But how does a modern writer capture that feeling and express it on the page to create an equally terrified response?

RatsnovelI recently read some James Herbert to better understand the creeping horror that can build to a crescendo, sending you hurtling under the bedclothes, seeing a potential killer in even the smallest creature. The Rats certainly sickened me and occasionally left my fingers feeling contaminated by something as I turned the page on yet another gruesome scene of rodent carnage. I did hear scuttling and caught shadows flicking quickly at the corner of my eye, but I finished it feeling sick rather than truly scared. I also read The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, but found I was imagining the horrors of the film version rather than conjuring my own scenes from the author’s prose.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson,  did grip me, having seen the film too long ago to really remember the stand-out images, but I think that is more than a ghost or horror story. There is an examination of psychological issues layered within the plot that could almost make one believe one’s very sanity is at stake.

So I am really interested to find out what my readers find truly terrifying in a story. Is it still possible for a classic ghost story to create the proverbial ‘shiver down the spine’ on first reading? Which books or stories have stood the test of time and which modern authors have truly ‘creeped you out’?

Or do you think, as I am beginning to, that we are faced with so much that is ‘wonder full’, so many things possible that were, just a few years ago, unthinkable, that it is almost impossible to be surprised? Will the next stop be the book with an image that suddenly comes to life before your eyes, snarling on the page?

Do let me know what you think!

 

 

“The door we never opened”- how poetry heals past and present for a better future. by Vivienne Tuffnell

LGGToday on Nowriggling I am thrilled to have a guest post by Vivienne Tuffnell. Viv has written for me before, not least as part of Dandelions & Bad Hair Days (I have to thank her for that title) and more recently blogging on Words are tools of healing when she published a collection of her essays as Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking. 

Here she writes on a subject very close to her (and my own) heart – poetry. Readers of my blog will know that just six weeks ago I lost my much loved Mum, and I gained solace reading Viv’s recently published novel Little Gidding Girl. I have reviewed it on both Amazon and Goodreads now, with 5* both times and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who likes a book to challenge and move them and at the same time be a rollicking good readHere she describes how important the reading, and writing, of poetry, is to her and how it inspires her work.

I’d like to thank Suzie for hosting this post on her fabulous blog. It’s a great treat to have a friend who loves poetry as much as I do. Though our tastes in poetry differ a little, they overlap in quite considerable ways and we both believe that poetry is important, vital even, to the development and well-being of us poor naked apes.

You might know of German poet Goethe’s smash-hit book “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” a melodramatic tale of a poetically-inclined young man and his sad fate. But did you know that this wildly-popular book spawned so many copycat suicides that it was actually banned? It was seen as the ultimate in romance and despite the ban, sold in numbers equivalent to today’s bestsellers written by Dan Brown and E.L. James.

The power of the written word has never waned, but the acceptance of pure poetry as its primary form has been lost. Young people are made to study poetry for exams and it’s rare for them to continue to read and explore poetry after those exams are over. Those same young people will devote the energy instead to the music that they love because it speaks to them.

Many people see poetry as an irrelevance, a luxury of the few folks able to get to grips with it, but poetry has gone underground and has become lodged in popular music rather than the pages of dusty old books. Song lyrics ARE poetry and like the poetry found on the page, they are as subject to as many variations. From the profound to the banal, from the lyrical to the grating, popular songs get into the consciousness of youth today the way poetry did a hundred years ago.

Yet there’s always a few for whom pure poetry becomes an essential part of their psyche and self-expression. Growing up, I was one of them. Geeky would be the word used now but when I was 17, the word didn’t exist (as far as I know) and we’d be called swots and weirdos instead. For me, poetry said the things that I didn’t know how to express. Not being in the slightest bit musical, I was baffled by the popular music at the time, and when I sought to deconstruct lyrics to better understand the music, I was called strange. I wrote a bit of poetry and a lot of fiction, but it was crowded out by exam pressure, and the last piece of fiction I wrote in my teens was the first version of The Hedgeway, completed not long before I turned 18.

I studied English and Latin at university and I was overwhelmed with the sheer weight of brilliant poetry and literature to such an extent that it was years before I began writing again. I was a new mum with a small baby when I returned to fiction, and I was in my late thirties when I began to explore poetry again. I only got into my stride again then because poetry became the only way I could express the tumult of emotions and experiences and visions I’d become subject to. The terrible mixture of dreams, imaginings, mental wanderings I experienced at that time coalesced around a single volume of poetry, one I’d come to many years after university. Four Quartets seemed to contain everything, hinted at and referred to obliquely, that my restless mind was trying to get at, and up popped a title: Little Gidding Girl. I had no idea what it meant.

613N30NIieL._UX250_
Vivienne

In the grip of a flood of creative energy that I’ve never come close to again, during those three years I wrote more than I’ve ever written since. Novel after novel just poured out of me, the words long dammed up. In Little Gidding Girl  I tried to explore the painful, poignant memories of being 17 and the frustrations and triumphs of being 37, and the world between the two ages, with all its losses and gains, destroyed dreams and false starts and betrayals. To create a novel that somehow married the two people I had been and was now, needed something that transcended my own experiences and psyche and it was Four Quartets that offered the link between those two eras of my life.

 

To find out more go to the Amazon page for Little Gidding Girl HERE. 

Caitlín Matthews, author of Singing the Soul Back Home, and Diary of a Soul Doctor has said of Little Gidding Girl:

From the unknown spaces between what is, was, and will be, messages and sendings break through into Verity’s life: are they nightmares of a parallel reality or projections from a love that has flown? Vivienne Tuffnell keeps us guessing with utmost artistry as we trace the interweaving way-marks in pursuit of the truth. Little Gidding Girl kept me enthralled until the very end.’ –

 

 

Memories of Murder – A Victorian Supersleuth at work once again…

Today I welcome author Angela Buckley to No Wriggling once again. Previous posts have described her work researching Victorian detective Jerome Caminada, The Real Sherlock Holmes and on Amelia Dyer, the 19th century baby farm murderer. Her new book is inspired by her childhood in the suburbs of Manchester, and the intriguing case of the murder of police constable Nicholas Cock. Read on to find out how her memories have resulted in a fascinating new book, out this week…

Whether it’s truth or fiction, crime continues to pique our interest and grab our fascination, from the initial shocking scenes, through the unfolding investigation, all the way through to the final revelation of the killer. As a writer, certain real-life crimes stand out for me; they seem to ‘call’ me, tempting me to open a specific case that has long been forgotten. That call is even more powerful when a crime has taken place in a place I know.

West Point 1926
The junction of West Point pictured in 1926 – the post office is in the row of shops

The second crime in my Victorian Supersleuth Investigates series, is particularly relevant for me, as it happened close to where I grew up in Old Trafford, in the suburbs of Manchester. In the early 1980s, I had a Saturday job in a post office, just around the corner from my family home. Every week I sat behind the stationery counter, gazing out of the large glass windows, watching the traffic pass by as I waited for customers to buy envelopes and greetings cards. At the time, I had no idea that I was staring at a murder scene from almost a century earlier.

CoverIt wasn’t until I began researching and writing about Victorian crime that this terrible incident came to light. In fact, I can’t quite recall exactly when I first heard about it. It has been loitering at the back of my mind for a long time, waiting for its turn to be brought back to life. I finally opened the case files and discovered exactly what happened on a dark night in 1876, when a young police officer was murdered in cold blood. Through contemporary newspaper accounts, trial records and many overlooked documents, this extraordinary story has gradually taken shape through intriguing clues, compelling witness testimonies and the twists and turns of a sensational police investigation.

PC Cock (1)
P.C. Cock

On 1 August 1876, PC Nicholas Cock was walking his beat at midnight. When he reached the junction of West Point (the location of the post office where I worked) he stopped to chat with a colleague and a passing law student. A few minutes after the three men had gone their separate ways two shots rang out in the dark. Constable Cock took a bullet to the chest and, shortly after, died of his injuries. His superior officer, Superintendent James Bent of the Lancashire Constabulary knew exactly who the culprits were and instantly set out to frame them for his officer’s murder. This complex case led to a murder conviction, a race to spare a young man from the gallows and an astonishing confession by a notorious burglar.

Since writing about this fascinating case, I often think of young PC Cock when I visit my parents who still live in my childhood home. The garden wall against which he fell has long gone, as well as most of the original buildings at the junction, but I can still stand outside the post office and imagine that dark night a century before. Many of the pubs where the suspects used to drink are still there, as is the memorial stone over Nicholas Cock’s grave on Chorlton Green. I’m glad that, after 140 years, I’ve had the opportunity to share his tragic story, which is intrinsically linked with my own past.

 

Childhood (1)My sincere thanks to Angela for writing for my blog. Who Killed Constable Cock? by Angela Buckley is out now in ebook and paperback. You can find out more about Angela’s work on her website, www.angelabuckleywriter.com and on her Facebook page Victorian Supersleuth.

 

‘Delicious drowsiness’ – John Keats on the importance of sleep…

Keats and sleep
The Moon & Sleep by Simeon Solomon

I have often written of the relevance of the poet John Keats to readers in the 21st century – in fact, I am publishing a collection of pieces on that theme (mainly drawn from this blog and those posts written for The Wordsworth Trust) shortly. So when I was sitting ruminating on my rather odd sleep patterns of late, who should I once again turn to? You’ve guessed it…

‘Delicious drowsiness’ is a comment made by Andrew Motion in his fabulous biography, Keats, where he discusses a sonnet – To Sleep –  written by the poet in April 1819 (a year in which his genius developed rapidly). It has always been a favourite of mine, as the language is, I think, delicious. Read it aloud, or under your breath and feel the words in your mouth, and on your lips…

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
      Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
      Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
      In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the “Amen,” ere thy poppy throws
      Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,—
      Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
      Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.

 

Technically Keats was working with, but not adhering strictly to, the Shakespearean sonnet form and the language used is gentle and the vowels long, creating that ‘delicious drowsiness’ Motion refers to. There is some debate about the meaning, and whether it refers to death, as well as or instead of, sleep. Certainly, the words ’embalmed’ and ‘casket’ can be suggestive of finality, as can the shutting of the eyes in the early lines;  the still recent death of his brother Tom was on Keats’s mind throughout that great year of poetry.  This sonnet can also be seen as reminiscent of some of the lines in Keats’s Ode to a Nightingaleparticularly  the sixth stanza:

 

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
         I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
         To take into the air my quiet breath;
                Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
         To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
                While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
                        In such an ecstasy!
         Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
                   To thy high requiem become a sod.

 

Melancholy, but accepting of death; longing for a painless end, drifting off to the sound of the nightingale. Such is the end he would have wanted for his brother.
However, since my early teenage years and discovery of Keats as ‘my’ poet, I have always thought of this poem as a hymn to sleep as relief from anxiety and worry.  My lifelong struggles with anxiety (well documented on this blog) continue, so I cling to lines such as ‘Then save me, or the passed day will shine/Upon my pillow, breeding many woes’  and ‘Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole’ as indicative of Keats’s ability to describe an eternal truth. How many of us have not experienced at least one night when sleep won’t come, and all the worries of our world come marching in, magnified and determined to disrupt our rest still further? We thump our pillow in frustration, toss and turn and long for something that will help us nod off – whether it be a book, hot drink or a sleeping tablet (that poppy with its ‘lulling charities’).

Sleep and Keats
Sleeping in Poppy Field, E. J. HARRINGTON
The beginning of the poem, rather than a reference to death, makes me think of that wonderful sleep of childhood, when a story is told, the light is turned out, and some magic makes our eyelids heavy and ensures any worries disappear.
Sleep is a time for healing. Physically it is vital to our health and well-being. It can also offer us a brief respite from the concerns of everyday life. It can be a joyful feeling, shared in the arms of someone we love. Observing it in our children can be, outside that natural sense of relief at the peace we craved after a long day, a deeply moving experience, highlighting the innocence of the young, and their (hopefully) carefree existence.

 

But in To Sleep, it is the last line that has always sent a shiver down my spine – of pleasure rather than fear. Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards/And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul rival those other great lines in the second stanza of Nightingale…

 

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

         Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
        And purple-stained mouth
and those in The Eve of St Agnes:

 

  And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
       In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
       While he forth from the closet brought a heap
       Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
       With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
       And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;

 

… for their sheer sensuousness, and the pleasure they offer the reader willing to speak them aloud (in private if you must!). Don’t you agree? Have you others to rival these?
There are a number of memorable descriptions of sleep, or the longing for it, in Keats’s poetry and it is, I think, something we would all do well to turn to at times when our own conscience ‘burrows’, like that mole, under our mattresses and denies us that longed for unconsciousness.
      

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…

 

The ‘vital’ death of John Keats: ending the myth of weakness

John Keats on his death bed
John Keats on his death bed
John Keats on his death bed – a sketch by Joseph Severn

Today is the anniversary of the death of the poet John Keats, in Rome, on the 23rd February 1821. He was just 25, and suffered from tuberculosis (or consumption as it was then known). His friend, Joseph Severn, who nursed him during his months in Rome, where he had sought relief in the warmer climate, wrote in a letter ‘He is gone–he died with the most perfect ease–he seemed to go to sleep.’  However, he had actually endured weeks of agony whilst doctors misdiagnosed and mistreated his condition, and the end was a blessed relief to Keats, and to Severn.

Why is Keats’s death so particularly moving? Shelley and Byron and a myriad other well-known poets have died young, or relatively so. Descriptions of and reactions to the deaths of Shelley and Byron, for example,  seem almost theatrical in comparison. Perhaps the way in which Wilfred Owen, himself influenced by the work of Keats, died, just before the Armistice was signed at the end of the Great War, touches us in a similar way. But Keats’s death haunts me, has haunted me for years, and his loss remains, I believe, one of the greatest in British literary history.

I have written many times on this blog of my enduring love for the poetry and letters of Keats. I first read his work after watching a ‘Blue Peter Special Assignment’ about him in the mid-1970s. I was just 12 years old, already a deep-thinking and rather anxious child, and I took Keats, literally, to heart. I read and memorised the poetry, I bought a book of his letters, and struggled, then, with the language and philosophy that make him such a relevant poet today. At 14 I read Robert Gitting’s biography, still one of the best, and over the years since then I have widened and deepened my reading of his life and work. I am not an academic, but an enthusiastic, and I hope knowledgeable, devotee of the man.  His poetry has taken me through some dark times, and his letters,  full of profound wisdom and knowledge of the ways of human hearts, resonate with me in the 21st century as much as they ever did, more so perhaps in these deeply troubled times.

Over the decades, ‘my Keats’ has developed as my understanding has also grown and deepened. Reading about his life, particularly older biographies of him, I began to feel that something was failing to ‘fit’. His letters were full of a vitality at odds with some of the early descriptions, and the sensuality in his poems was suggestive of a strength of character in the face of possible criticism that belied the old belief that critics themselves were so important to his view of himself.

So if it is not his youth, I wonder why his death touches so many? Perhaps it is because of the tragedy of his love for Fanny Brawne, left back in England. He knew as he sailed to Italy that he would never see her again, and could not bear to look at her letters in his final months. Is it because he had spent months nursing his mother and then his younger brother through the final stages of what was a ‘family disease’, only to succumb to it himself?

Is it with knowledge of the moving way he had written of death in his poetry? For example, the sixth stanza of Ode to a Nightingale:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
  I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
  To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 
  To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
    While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
          In such an ecstasy!
   Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
     To thy high requiem become a sod.

Or in the sonnet  ‘When I have fears..’ which begins, prophetically, with the words:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Then in his letter to Fanny Brawne, written in July 1819, less than two years before his death:

I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.

Or is it, perhaps, the epitaph he wrote for himself – ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water’? Those enigmatic words – are they hinting at either a bitterness at the lack of time to make a permanent mark on the literary world, or at a belief that all life lacks permanence, that we are all but brief impressions, impermanent in the face of the overwhelming beauty of life? Or something else?

Keats death mask
Keats – death mask, showing the ravages of his final days

For me, the real poignancy of his death is in the legacy his friends sought for his ‘posthumous life’, adding to and turning that brief and unexplained epitaph into something expressing real bitterness at his lot; the idea that he died in a fury, a sensitive young man railing at his critics, unforgiving in the face of a fate he didn’t think he deserved. It feels SO WRONG, I think, when the wonderful poetry and letters he left behind suggest something quite different. As Michelle Stacey wrote in her terrific tribute to Keats written for The Paris Review on this date last year:

Aside from requesting the “writ in water” epitaph, Keats did not lament his coming end or curse his enemies on his deathbed. If anything, he lamented his continued life. He wrote to a friend of “leading a posthumous existence,” and complained in the same terms to Severn, who wrote that Keats would sometimes weep when he awoke and found himself still living.

There were, of course, moments of deep despair, of disappointment and of loss. Joseph Severn had nursed him, terrified that Keats would attempt suicide when in his darkest moods. But there was calm too. As Stacey points out, Severn reports quieter moment, when Keats looked forward to the ‘quiet grave’ and like Stacey I was struck by the daisies, still there on the ceiling of the room in which he died in Rome. Severn reported that the poet could almost feel them growing over him as he lay there. It was an image to comfort friends, but also one that suggests acceptance and reflection.

The grave of John KeatsIn adding to the tombstone words suggesting that it was, to all intents and purposes, the ‘Malicious Power of his Enemies’ (the critics) that hastened Keats’s death, and then promulgating the myth of the over-sensitive, weakling poet in work such as Adonais by Shelley, the friends who loved the man and admired what we know now to be some of the greatest poetry ever written did him a gross disservice. Before his final months he was physically strong, short and stocky and people were forcibly struck by the energy and yes, the vitality of the man. By changing the epitaph I think that vital spark was diminished, and it took decades for a truer picture to become established. Even now, many think of him as the archetypal ‘Romantic’ poet, laying in a faint over the back of a chaise longue…

The myth endured, and only in the last fifty years have we properly understood the strength of Keats, from his work on the wards of Guy’s Hospital during his medical training, to his political beliefs, the support he gave friends and family, and in the courage he showed in the face of death. Now we can acknowledge the fiery temper, the jealousy exhibited in his love for Fanny, the possible over-reliance on laudanum, alongside the generosity of spirit, loyalty and wisdom beyond his years. The latest biography of Keats, by Nicholas Roe, offers a particularly comprehensive and complex analysis of the man and his influences. He was so much more than the innocent young poet abroad, and I think only now does his biography sit comfortably with his poetry and letters.

I have written for a long time of the relevance of Keats’s poetry to life in the 21st century – his philosophy is timeless; always energetic and fresh with passages that still make one cry out ‘Yes! That’s it!’. And the manner of his death, so young, allows him to remain timeless as a physical figure in our minds. His death deserves to be a moment treasured, not simply as that of a talented man dying tragically young, but as one which brings us to his life, and the stunning vitality of it.