Guest post: Cholera’s Lasting Legacy by Amanda Thomas

Amanda Thomas with her latest book Cholera: The Victorian Plague
Amanda Thomas with her latest book Cholera: The Victorian Plague

Today I am lucky enough to have a guest on my blog – author and historian Amanda Thomas, whose latest book Cholera – The Victorian Plague has just been published by Pen & Sword History. Here she offers a fascinating, and tragic, overview of this terrible disease, which still ravages communities in many parts of the world. My sincere thanks to Amanda and full details of how you can purchase her book are given at the end of the piece. If you have any questions or comments we would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

I have been interested in cholera for many years and my second book on the subject, Cholera: The Victorian Plague has recently been published by Pen and Sword.  I first became aware of the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century when a distant cousin, Susan, asked me why some members of our family had disappeared in Lambeth in the late 1840s, specifically James and Anne Osmotherly, who originated from the Hoo Peninsula in Kent.  James is my second cousin five times removed and Anne was the niece of Susan’s great grandmother.  Susan and I visited Lambeth Archives in London and discovered that James and Anne had both died of cholera, an often fatal disease which causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea, and which is commonly thought to be caught by ingesting water tainted with sewage.

It was at Lambeth Archives that I opened for the first time a box of documents entitled The Lambeth District Sanitary Reports.  These pristine papers, virtually untouched since the day they had been written, were to form the basis of many articles about the 1848 to 1849 cholera outbreak and eventually my first book on the disease, The Lambeth Cholera Outbreak of 1848-1849 (McFarland, 2010).  The District Sanitary Reports were written in two or three phases in January and February 1848 and give a vivid insight into the deplorable living conditions of Lambeth’s working poor.  They were produced in response to the 1847 Metropolitan Sanitary Commission to investigate whether better drainage and sanitation might improve the health of Londoners.

London Slums  Wellcome Library, London
London Slums
Wellcome Library, London

In the nineteenth century thousands died from cholera in Britain during the four major epidemics of 1831-2, 1848-9, 1853-4 and 1866, and in the years between when the disease was still prevalent but not so virulent.  In Lambeth alone in 1848 and 1849 around 2,000 died, perhaps more, but many deaths were attributed to dysentery and, despite the introduction of civil registration in 1837, some went unrecorded.  At a time when disease was little understood and the government was fearful of uprisings like those which had taken place in France and America, it was important to keep the working poor in check.  Deaths from cholera in the early stages of an outbreak were kept as quiet as possible by the medical elite so as not to cause widespread panic; those most at risk of the disease were the poorest members of society and also most likely to cause unrest.  The working population was concentrated in the densely populated riverside communities of conurbations which had grown up and rapidly expanded in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.  Epidemic diseases such as cholera are opportunistic and will spread easily and fast in environments like these where there is a lack of sanitation and little understanding of basic hygiene.

Death from cholera is swift, painful and unpleasant, as the dehydrating effect of the disease causes the blood to thicken, affecting circulation and respiration.  In a densely populated community cholera will spread voraciously once it has taken hold, killing vast numbers throughout the warm weather of summer and early autumn.  During the worst epidemics gravediggers were unable to keep up with the number of burials, and the merciless nature of cholera, together with the sight of coffins piled high at cemetery gates, had a profound and lasting effect.  In the nineteenth century cholera was as feared as the plague, or Black Death.  Local authorities and the government knew something had to be done but the challenge was enormous and also extremely costly.  In the new urban industrial areas such as Lambeth’s waterfront, houses for the working population had been erected hastily and without care.  A lack of sanitation, filth, damp and poor ventilation were all factors in the spread of other potentially fatal diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, measles and diphtheria.

Politics and religion divided opinion and played a part in delaying social reform; ignorance and prejudice impeded scientific progress.  Most believed disease was spread by miasma, or foul air, which did not help the argument for improving sanitation.  Yet whilst the poor were the worst affected by cholera, the better off were not immune, and the repetitive severity of successive cholera outbreaks highlighted an urgent need to improve Britain’s sanitary infrastructure for everyone.  Outbreaks of influenza and typhus in the late 1830s also had an effect, but by the middle of the century the putrid stench emanating from rivers and open sewers, scientific observation and the gathering of statistics were all catalysts for change.

Vibrio cholerae bacteria Source: http://remf.dartmouth.edu/images/bacteriaSEM/source/1.htm
Vibrio cholerae bacteria Source: http://remf.dartmouth.edu/images/bacteriaSEM/source/1.htm

The stories of Dr John Snow and the removal of the pump handle in Soho, and Joseph Bazalgette’s new system for London’s sanitation are well known.  They reinforce the common understanding that cholera is not transmitted through the air in miasma, but rather, it is a waterborne micro organism, a vibrio, which spreads through water tainted by sewage.  Today cholera remains a serious threat to public health but current research and the recent outbreaks, such as those in Haiti and Bangladesh, have shown that contaminated drinking water is not the whole story, which the historic record confirms.

In Bristol during the 1866 cholera outbreak Dr William Budd realised that the working population was at risk of contracting the disease not just from a contaminated water supply but because of their poor hygiene.  Budd and his colleagues made local people aware of the need for cleanliness and also put in place a system for disinfecting affected houses.  As a result only 29 people died in Bristol during that outbreak.

Amanda with the heritage plaque she wrote for Lambeth Council  Credit: Alexander Thomas
Amanda with the heritage plaque she wrote for Lambeth Council
Credit: Alexander Thomas

There is no doubt that the cholera epidemics during the Victorian era played a part in speeding up social reform, including effective sanitation.  However, as the recent Ebola outbreak has highlighted, deadly infectious diseases are still a threat to public health in Britain.  The good sanitation which we all enjoy – and the efficacy of antibiotics until recently – have created a dangerous complacency.  Today most diarrheal disease in Britain is caused by an ignorance of good hygiene, particularly the importance of hand washing and careful food preparation.  In the Victorian period the rapid spread of cholera through densely packed communities was not because of tainted water, but rather by hand-to-mouth (oral-faecal) contamination.  At the peak of successive outbreaks, cholera spread most rapidly through the female population, the women caring for the sick and washing the garments and bedding of the dead.  Cholera is a resilient bacterium and can remain dormant for long periods of time, including within dried vomit and excrement.  Those handling such materials who neglected to wash their hands with soap and water afterwards caused the spread of cholera just as effectively as the tainted water supply in John Snow’s Soho.  Bacteria are cunning and opportunistic and our ignorance of the importance of basic preventative measures – such as simple hand washing – means that we will always be vulnerable to diseases like cholera.

AMANDA THOMAS is an author, historian and linguist; she has previously worked in journalism, and public relations. Her books include ‘The Non-Conformist Revolution’ (Pen & Sword History, 2018), ‘Cholera – The Victorian Plague’ (Pen & Sword History, 2015), and ‘The Lambeth Cholera Outbreak of 1848-1849’ (McFarland, 2010). She has advised on the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ (Series 10, 2013), ‘The One Show’ (2016) and, in collaboration with English Heritage, on ‘The Flying Archaeologist’ (2013) 

www.ajthomas.com

http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Cholera-Hardback/p/10951

Who needs Glastonbury? The Keats House Festival 2014

keatshseAs many of those who read my blog regularly will know, I am a Londoner born and bred, not moving away from the city until I was 25 and and retaining my love of my roots even as I live now in Somerset, which I reached via Brighton, sometimes referred to as ‘London by the Sea’. I return to central London regularly for research trips or events, but rarely find myself as far out as the North London suburbs which I remember so well from childhood.

I was not a rebellious teenager, far from it. As I have recently written for The Wordsworth Trust blog, I fell in love with the words of a dead poet when my friends were finding more to identify with in the lyrics of Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet, or Boy George.  John Keats may have been little more than five feet tall, but his personality was as large and vibrant as any new romantic.

So it is with a sense of deep frustration at my inability to attend that I alert you to a wonderful festival that is taking place in Hampstead, London from this Saturday, 7th June, until the 15th. Keats House (which I always think of as Wentworth Place) is celebrating the 200 years since Keats wrote his first poem, as a teenager studying to be an apothecary.

Although the weather does not promise to be kind, for this weekend at least, the House and garden will host a range of events for adults and children to inspire and delight. There will be writing workshops and family fun days and the terrific actors  Simon Russell Beale and Dame Janet Suzman will read a selection of Keats’s poetry (although I do wish they would have younger actors reading his words, to capture something of his own voice).

Daljit Nagra, the latest Keats House poet in residence.
Daljit Nagra, the latest Keats House poet in residence.

Keats House has a poet-in-residence, and the wonderful Jo Shapcott will be handing over the baton to Daljit Nagra and both will take workshops during the week to help you find your own poetic inspiration. It isn’t all about Keats; there is dancing, screenwriting, censorship and ‘Poeticabotanica’. And afternoon tea with Keats. Bliss.

I would have been particularly keen to attend ‘Writing the Frontiers of Life, Death and Sickness’ on the 11th,  where Sam Guglani, Jo Shapcott, and award-winning poet, novelist and playwright Philip Gross ‘explore and celebrate the interactions between poetry and medicine today’. This is a subject that fascinates me. To ignore the influence of Keats’s long study of medicine on his poetry is to miss so much of what was important to him, and what traumatised him and changed his perspective on what it meant to be alive.

So I can’t be there, but if you are in London over the next few days why don’t you take a look at the website The Keats Festival 2014 and see if there are any tickets available? You can doff your cap to the great man for me and learn a little more about his lasting legacy to us all.

 

Talking Books goes walkabout with The Real Sherlock Holmes…..

A13cI-0avRL._SL1500_Talking Books, my show on 10Radio.org,  went national last week when I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch of Angela Buckley’s great new book ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada‘. The launch took place in the Sherlock Holmes Hotel on Baker Street in the heart of London and Angela was good enough to allow me to wander around the room with my radio mike, John Motson style, putting her many guests on the spot, and grabbing some great interviews.

‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’ is wonderful ride through crime fighting in Victorian Manchester. Jerome Caminada was not the dashing and flawed character of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels but he was a resourceful and committed ‘super sleuth’ in his own right, utilising all manner of disguises and subterfuge to solve the many high-profile cases that made him a national figure in the late 19th century. More recently overshadowed by his fictional contemporary, Angela has brought him to the fore once more in a book that takes you through the poverty-stricken streets of Manchester, and further afield, on Caminada’s coat tails. One can only admire the audacity of his methods; disguises, undercover operations (including the duping and schmoozing of domestic servants) and determined chases that brought some remarkable criminals to justice. He even had his own equivalent of Moriarty, a criminal who threatened to be his nemesis.

mcGHow marvellous it would be to see him on-screen, perhaps interacting with Holmes and Watson. I have been thinking about who might play the role of Jerome, a more solid and less flamboyant man than Holmes but just as dashing. Aiming for big box office – how about George Clooney, Russell Crowe or Hugh Jackman? All look good with a beard after all. If Paddy Consadine hadn’t already played the eponymous Mr Whicher, of Suspicions of fame I would suggest him. But I am nominating Ewen McGregor. About the right age with just the right about of gravitas. Find his agent’s details Angela!

download (1)Anyway, do listen to the recording of the event below. It was great fun and you will hear snippets from writers and historians Emma Jolly and Rosemary Morgan, Essie Fox, Kate Mayfield and Mel Backe Hansen as well as the lovely Rachel Hale, author of the fabulous History Magpie blog and Angela’s writing buddy who came along with her husband Steve who is an accountant and a jolly good sport. I was determined to find out who was the on-screen favourite Sherlock Homes. I think Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch will have to settle for a draw. Angela and I had a good long chat about Jerome and I also got a great interview with Nick Barratt of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’  fame, who, it appears, also has a great-uncle of dubious fame…..

Angela’s children Ella and Ethan were stars. I was quickly reminded by Ethan that the Buckley household never ran out of cornflakes whilst Angela was writing because they ‘only have Shreddies’. One day he will be a challenge for Paxman…….

So grab a copy of Angela’s book and enjoy. It is published by Pen & Sword History (Angela and I share a lovely editor, Jen Newby) and is selling like the proverbial. Many thanks to Angela for allowing me to piggy back her launch to cut my outside broadcast teeth. I had a great time and as you can tell from the recording, so did everyone else there.

angelaThe Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada by Angela Buckley is published by Pen and Sword Books. For more details see her blog, http://victoriansupersleuth.com

The ‘First Blitz’ – Terror Comes To The Home Front

220px-It_is_far_better_to_face_the_bulletsHow many people know anything of the ‘First Blitz’ – war waged by Germany from the air between 1915 and 1918?

As I researched Shell Shocked Britain : the First World Wars’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health I was surprised that so few of the stories from that time were well-known. I discussed the subject with a number of people and they had little or no knowledge of the horrors perpetrated by first the Zeppelin airships and then enormous fixed wing aircraft.

By 1914 Germany had several Zeppelins at the disposal of the armed forces. They could fly at speeds up to 85 m.p.h. with the capacity to carry approximately two tons of bombs. The first raid was on Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn in January 1915 and continued across areas in the Midlands and along the East coast, including Hull where raids in June 1915 caused devastation.  I was lucky to discover letters describing these raids in the Liddle Collection held by Leeds University Library, and those from Mrs Nell Hague to her husband George, who had remained in London whilst she visited her mother, offer a fascinating insight into the mix of horror and excitement many felt:

“The Zeps are here! And from mother’s bedroom window the whole town seems on
fire…..

It is no exaggeration to say that there were thousands of people in and around the fields and houses… the dear little children –the cripples, the aged – oh my dear it must be seen to be realised…”

The raids became a tool to boost recruitment; many men so disgusted  that the enemy had brought war to the homes of Britain that they felt compelled to join up in response to official posters, such as the one illustrating this post, above.

Gotha_RG_im_FlugBy 1917 Zeppelins had been replaced by fixed wing aircraft – the Gotha, and, shortly afterwards, the ‘Giant’, with a wing span of 42 metres (138 feet) and tail roughly the same size as a Sopwith Pup. It is hardly surprising that British planes had such difficulty countering these fearsome attacks.

In his recent series Britain’s Great War Jeremy Paxman briefly touched on the physical and emotional trauma experienced by the populations of towns along the East and South East coasts of England and in London, the target of many of the raids. He focused on the first daylight raid of June 1917 during which (amongst a total of 162 people) eighteen pupils of Upper North Street School, Poplar, in East London were killed. Sixteen of them were aged from 4 to 6 years old. In Shell Shocked Britain I develop the story of that day, and others, to consider some of the lasting mental scars of the air raids.

In total, around 1,500 civilians were killed by air raids over the period of the war.

My Great Uncle Alfred Hardiman was a conscript into the 31st Battalion Middlesex Regiment, a works battalion, and spent his short service in the army in London. At some point in 1917 he was involved in the aftermath of one of the Gotha raids on London and his experience marked him so deeply that he spent several months in hospital. He was eventually discharged ‘unfit for service’ due to enuresis – he had become,at the age of 27, incontinent. In 1922 he would finally break down, killing his ex-girlfriend and himself. By all accounts a previously gentle man, he was not alone in finding the terrible sights of war on the Home Front impossible to forget.

wwi-british-policeAs always, one has to be wary of imposing present day values and responses on those living 100 years ago. When the bombs of July 2005 went off in London we were given minute by minute accounts of the situation by all media outlets. In the First World War, coverage of raids was actively suppressed, ostensibly to avoid panic. When we look back just the few years to the terrorist attacks, we can recall fears of further attacks, utterly unpredictable and our lives endangered simply by virtue of the train or bus we boarded. In the war, the suppression of news reports had the undesired consequence of heightening rumour and suspicion. No accurate reports resulted in a population constantly on the alert and the continued official resistance to proper air raid warnings (even to the point where policemen could only warn people by wearing a placard around their necks) resulted in more disruption rather than less.

In Shell Shocked Britain I discuss the ensuing ‘collective trauma’ in more detail, looking behind the reports of calm responses and stoical public at the deeper, personal terrors. On the Kent coast, particularly in the town of Folkestone, severely battered by Gotha raids in 1917, doctors had already begun to describe a form of shell shock amongst the families involved. I found reports of suicides both during and after the war due at least in part to continuing air raid shock.

Of course many were left unmarked by such events; some even found them exciting. But others, such as Alfred Hardiman, were left so traumatised that the anxiety became impossible to bear.

I have not yet been made aware of many planned events to mark those lost in the air raids of the First World War. Discussions on twitter suggest that thus far these horrors have so far been neglected. I hope that, in the next four years, places affected will take time to remember the horrors of the days when death first came from the skies..

Why Mrs T should have left the room quietly, closing the door behind her….

Thatcher ThanksOk, I give in. I have to write something on the subject. The media are not going to shut up, as I had hoped. Days after Margaret Thatcher died we are still getting quotes, anecdotes  tributes, vitriol and all manner of unnecessary and prurient detail coming at us from all sides. It will undoubtedly continue until after the funeral next Wednesday when, once again, my daily dose of Bargain Hunt will probably be cancelled to make way for something I don’t want to be part of.

The debate in Parliament yesterday was full of sycophantic hypocrisy from all sides. Her gender was to the fore but the fact that she was born a woman has very little relevance to her legacy in my opinion – she didn’t exhibit any of those traits that make me proud to be female. It was likely that only those Labour members of Parliament who stayed away were expressing their true feelings and to many the gesture just looked disrespectful. But if you do feel as strongly as they do and believe someone destroyed your community it would have been impossible to sit and listen to all that tosh without a fit of apoplexy. They were looking after their health, if nothing else.

I was born and brought up in Margaret Thatcher’s constituency of Finchley in North London. When I was first able to vote, there was simply no point – she always won by a mile. However, my family did vote – Labour and more recently Lib Dem – and I distinctly remember my Mum saying that when Mrs T walked down our street she would have liked to throw a bottle of ink at her. No love lost there then. But Mum was no flag waving socialist; and my father had views I suspect would chime well with UKIP now. We lived in a relatively comfortable suburb, largely unaffected by her brand of conviction politics. Even if you weren’t a direct victim of her divisive policies there was something about her that just rubbed people up the wrong way.

And now we discover that she died at The Ritz. She is to have a ceremonial funeral that will cost millions and apparently this is being justified, financially, on the basis that she ‘saved us billions on our EU rebate’. Pardon me, but you can’t pick and choose on our austerity measures. If we are truly all in this together she should have been holding court in a Costa Coffee. Her ‘remains’ as they were frequently referred to by the ghastly Nick Witchell should be in cheap pine; the handles unscrewed and recycled before she goes through the curtain in the crem. There are many people in struggling communities quietly making this world a better place to live in who aren’t being paraded through the streets of London and eulogized before 2,000 people – including the Queen- in St Pauls. Even some of the most right-wing voices in the press are suggesting this is not appropriate. She may be an historic figure, but she was not a saint. By the end of her tenure at 10 Downing Street, even her friends knew she had become a liability.

So shouldn’t it be ‘Margaret Thatcher exits, quietly and with dignity, stage left‘?

The funeral will happen; we can’t stop it. But there has already been a backlash against the Conservatives in opinion polls as people are reminded of those years in which social cohesion was sacrificed in the name of opportunist greed. If only we could stand here and say that Tony Blair was not her direct descendant…..

But there is a tiny crumb of comfort. Let the last line of her obituary read:

“Jeremy Clarkson came to her funeral….”

British? Moi?

britThis is a tough one. I have been nominated by the lovely writer Vivienne Tuffnell over at zen and the art of tightropewalking (whose novel Away With the Fairies I am currently reading and enjoying very much) for A Very British Blog Tour something I would not normally get involved in.

There are three reasons for this:

1) I always find it hard to nominate people to continue the tour – it feels like sending someone a chain letter, albeit  a benign one.

2) I rarely think of myself as British, or of any nationality, unless I am filling in an official form of some kind. I like the idea of being ‘European’ and embrace the possibility of one day having the time and money to travel across the continent. Being ‘British’ at the moment sometimes seems parochial and occasionally I feel as if I am being knitted together with people who have a very different and potentially less inclusive view of Britishness than I do. It is hypocritical I realise. But then so is shouting for many of our Olympic medalists if you vote for UKIP…

3) Why would anyone want to know this stuff about me? For the same reason I want to know about them, I suppose.

So why this one? Well it is one that involves a discussion of my writing life (via the terrific Roz Morris at Nail your Novel )  and I am, now, a writer. I earn money by it and am published so it would be good to let people know I am here and what I am all about. A couple of the questions seem to directly refer to my current non-fiction writing on something I consider an important topic, and I also thought it would do me good to enjoy my ‘Britishness’ for a moment. In a house full of people who consider themselves (rightly) to be a little bit Irish, I have no such claim. If I am not British, then what am I? Embrace it girl – even with the government we have it isn’t all bad…

So here goes…..

n20Q: Where were you born and where do you live now?

A: I was born and brought up in North London and always considered myself a Londoner through and through. My family tree shows decades of poverty-stricken existence in Clerkenwell on both stems. However, others have done more detailed research and it seems that on both sides I have ancestors from the South West, which is where I live now (on the Somerset/Devon border). Perhaps I have been heading home all my life…

Given the chance though I would be up in the Lake District. No question.

Q Have you always lived and worked in Britain or are you based elsewhere?

A: Always Britain. I do wish I had traveled and worked abroad when I was younger though. I don’t think you can really understand your own nationality until you have lived away from it.

Q Have you highlighted or showcased any particular part of Britain in your books, a town, a city, a county, a monument, well-known place or event?

CIMG1018

A: I write about The Lake District in my poetry, and my non-fiction is set wherever the research takes me. However, I feel drawn to use London as a backdrop to my fiction. I love the city and feel really ‘alive’ when I go back.

Q: There is an illusion – or myth if you wish – about British people that I would like to discuss. Many see Brits as ‘stiff upper lip’. Is this correct?

Soldier croppedA: I am currently writing a social history book entitled Shell-Shocked Britain about the impact of WW1 on the mental and emotional health of the nation. My great uncle was deeply affected about one of the air raids on London in 1917 but could never talk about it. In 1922 he murdered his ex-girlfriend and then turned the cut-throat razor on himself. That event too was hushed up, only to be discovered when I was undertaking some family history research. Decades of repressed emotion explain the mental health issues many of the family experienced over the century. It was a shocking time, and I think people need to discuss pain in order to deal with it. It comes out in ways we don’t expect.

Q: Do any of the characters in your book carry the ‘stiff upper lip’ or are they all British Bulldog and unique in their own way?

A: I don’t really like either the ‘stiff upper lip’ or ‘British Bulldog’ attitudes. But in my jolly crime novel Lavender Larceny (to be published this year) the characters are two elderly ladies, one of whom shows a very feisty and undoubtedly British character!

cover-small-2Q: Tell us about one of your recent books

A: Dandelions and Bad Hair Days is very important to me as it is an anthology of pieces written by people who have experienced mental health issues. There is poetry and prose and some wonderfully lyrical writing which is inspiring and often full of hope. All profits go to mental health charities.

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: Shell Shocked Britain for Pen and Sword Social History mentioned above and an anthology of ghost stories that I have written over the years. They are traditional ’round the fire on a stormy night’ M.R. James inspired creepies. I hope! And Lavender Larceny, which is on the third edit. One day it will be ready…

Q: How do you spend your leisure time?

A: I muddle about a lot and the time just goes. Beating my brother at Bejewelled Blitz and my son at Scrabble on Facebook….. Seriously, I read a great deal. I have loved the poet John Keats since my early teens and read and re-read his work as a source of inspiration and to calm me when times are tough. I also read LOTS of fiction; I find it is a great way to improve my own writing.

Q Do you write for a local audience or a global audience?

A: I write because I love it and I hope others will enjoy it. I hope it is accessible to anyone, anywhere and I do have readers coming to my blog from all over the world, which is really gratifying. Thanks everyone 🙂

Q: Can you provide links to your works?

A: Dandelions and Bad Hair Days has its own website at www.dandelionsandbadhairdays.wordpress.com and is available through Amazon and all good bookshops. For details of all my current projects I have my own website at www.suziegrogan.co.uk.

Q: Who’s next?

This is the toughie. I don’t know if this is their kind of thing but I do know they are all a terrific read and have very different approaches to ‘British’ writing…. Give them a look.

Rivenrod

Sarah Cruickshank at A life more lived

Essie Fox at The Virtual Victorian

Madame Guillotine

Lorna Fergusson over at Literascribe

 

On Victorian London, forensics and writing inspiration: a conversation with D.E. Meredith, author of The Devil’s Ribbon

D.E Meredith
D.E Meredith

Today I am lucky enough to have a guest on my blog – the author D. E. Meredith writer of the historical crime series, The Hatton and Roumande Mysteries featuring the first forensic scientist, Professor Adolphus Hatton, and his trusty French morgue assistant, Albert Roumande.

D.E Meredith studied English at Cambridge, worked in advertising during the late 80s but soon found that world unsatisfying and embarked on a dramatic change of career working as a campaigner for conservation causes, ultimately working in the press office at the British Red Cross. She has witnessed history first hand – Afghanistan just before it fell to the Taliban and Rwanda as it was devastated by the terrible genocide in 1994 for example. Working in a field where injustice was rife and violence part of everyday life inspired her she says, to bring those themes into her crime novels and indeed they run as threads through both The Devil’s Ribbon and the first in the series, Devoured.

Here she talks of Victorian forensic science, inspiration and writing discipline, something I am more than a little short of. So thanks to D.E. Meredith for taking time out to talk to me!

I have read other interviews with you that suggest you have almost become a writer by  accident! The inspiration behind Hatton and Roumande is fascinating. Would you mind telling us again how you felt the urge to tell their story?

I read a travel diary by the great Nineteenth Century naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, called “The Malay Archipelago.” Russel Wallace was Darwin’s alter ego and came up with similar ideas on evolution at the same time as his more famous contemporary but history has not given Wallace the credit he surely deserves. The travelogue was full of amazing detail about taxidermy, specimen collecting, orangutan hunting and life as a Victorian scientist. Fantastic and inspiring stuff and I was sure there was a novel in it. It just so happened that I’d finished a contract for Greenpeace and was between clients, I had builders in the house so it was hard to work anyway and so I simply started to mess about on the computer, thinking why the hell not? I knew if I was ever going to write a book, it would be a murder mystery. I devoured them as a child – no pun intended – especially PD James and Agatha Christie so that’s what I started to write. As the Victorians were at the cutting edge of so much new scientific thinking, forensics seemed an obvious ingredient to add into the mix. And I guess, that’s how I created Professor Adolphus Hatton and his Chief Diener, Monsieur Albert Roumande of St Bart’s

devil's ribbonwb (1)Here I must admit to being a little squeamish…. Some of the episodes in both Devoured and The Devil’s Ribbon are very gory. How easy do you find it to imagine such scenes?

I love writing anatomy scenes. I do a lot of research to try and get them right. Not only in anatomical  terms but also to describe the bodies as a Victorian surgeon would have viewed them. I’ve seen a number of surgical operations when I worked for the Red Cross and was in and out of field hospitals, seeing the impact of war and in particular, land mines on people so I am not shocked by blood and guts. I treated myself to a copy of Grey’s Anatomy. This was the bible for surgeons in the Nineteenth Century and contains exquisite line drawings.   I often flick through my copy not just to check the inner workings of an organ  but also to wallow in the intricacies and beauty of the human body which never fails to astound me. Added to which,   it’s important we see the world through Hatton and Roumande’s eyes. Decomposition and cadavers are hardly an avoidable theme when the books you write concern a pathologist working in a morgue in Victorian England. Dissection and cutting up corpses  is Hatton’s and Roumande’s business. I see no reason to sugar-coat my descriptions. The violence I describe isn’t  gratuitous or titillating though it is macabre. I am very aware I’m writing in a period which gave us the Gothic tradition and the beginnings of the horror genre and  so it feels right that my own writing is imbued with those of sort of blood soaked drama.

The dark and seamy side of Victorian London has become a popular backdrop for new detective fiction.  I think you bring something quite new, and raw, to the environment your characters work in. Scotland Yard detectives are hard to like in your books, for example. Was it difficult to find an original ‘angle’ on Victorian crime?

I didn’t plan to be an author or do much pre-thinking about how I wanted my books to be. I  didn’t look at the genre before I started writing , so I wasn’t looking for any kind of angle and maybe for a new writer that’s liberating. I just set sail, free as the wind and followed the story. It’s only after I had my first book published and reviewers started comparing it to Michael Cox’s work in particular,  that I realised there was a whole plethora of other writers  out there doing “Victorian crime.”   I try not to read it. I don’t want other people’s work influencing mine though I do try and read contemporary thrillers to try understand the issue of pace. The only book I had in my mind when I wrote Devoured was The American Boy by Andrew Taylor , who I now follow on twitter (I love all of his books) but not because I wanted to emulate what he was doing. Taylor is a master of re-creating an authentic voice – in the case of The American Boy – a regency voice and I knew if I couldn’t do it as seamlessly as Taylor, then I didn’t want to do it at all.  I think the raw quality which others have spoken about comes, not just from the subject matter, but from my prose which tends towards the gritty.  Life was hard back then. I think of the Victorian Age as being like  Slumdog Millionaire only with top hats. It was tough and visceral on the mean streets of London. As for the police being corrupt? It went with the job. Many policemen in the 1800s often wore two hats. They worked for the Met but they also did a bit of private work for those who could afford to hire them. Corruption was rife,  so I’ve based my idea of the police force  on what I think was happening at the time.

I thoroughly enjoy your detailed plots and the way in which Hatton and Roumande’s are not only challenged by criminals but by the police. How do you keep track of the clues to ensure your reader is kept guessing to the end?

I love plotting but I do find it a challenge because for all the planning in the world, once you start writing, novels take on a life of their own and it can be hard to keep control. My plots are very intricate and complex, multi-layered with elaborate structures  but that’s how the world is, isn’t it? The world isn’t lateral and neither is the imagination – well,  mine, isn’t. I like to set lots of plates spinning but I don’t want to confuse readers or undermine the pacing. This is all part of the craft of novel writing, something a writer has to learn to do through trial and error. But I think if I can combine tangential scenes and blind alleyways with an overall story which is homogenous, then I’ll deliver something that’s rich and satisfying for the reader. I’m highly organised in life but much more freefall when I write. I  don’t like plans. I do them in advance, on a couple of sheets of paper but  then I nearly always chuck them away when I start to get into the meat of the novel. I feel over planning kills creativity.  I like the fear factor. I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a cliff edge when I begin a new chapter. Of course, I think about the characters in advance – who they are, what they look like, how they feel, how they relate to others and so forth.   As to the layering which is so crucial if you’re trying to create  a puzzle, adding or rearranging clues and red herrings can be honed (added in or cut back)  during  the process of  rewriting. The first draft is never the last draft.

I can sense that Hatton and Roumande are the natural predecessors of Sherlock Holmes. Did Mr Holmes’s perspicacity inspire you to go back into the history of his forensic techniques?

Not self consciously although I did get the idea of the tattoo on lady Bessingham’s finger in Devoured from the Holmes story but I can’t remember which one. I wrote it first and then thought – hang on a minute I’ve seen this before so I googled it, found it and decided, hell, it works,  so I’m going to use it  anyway. I hadn’t read much Sherlock Holmes but like everyone else, Holmes is just part of my psyche from a misspent youth in the suburbs  watching too much telly – old B&W films, the brilliant series with Jeremy Brett in the 80s.  And now, of course, I watch the fabulous Cumberbatch version with  my kids. My youngest son is a  big fans of the books, so I’ve got more into Conan Doyle in terms of the actual writing recently. I’ve even been to see Conan Doyle’s  house in Surrey as part of the campaign to save it from the evil hands of developers.  It was rather moving and I felt like I  was walking in the shadow of Doyle. He had an incredible imagination. Hound of the Baskervilles has to  be one of the greatest and spookiest detective stories, ever.  As for my characters, they have some similarities to Watson and Holmes in that they’re a pair working in Victorian London (although Holmes was fin de siècle) but Roumande is more than Hatton’s equal and in terms of intellectual insight. I split perspicacity between the two of them and often it’s their knowledge of the human heart which helps crack the case in the end, not just their knowledge of forensics.

220px-Old-microscopesFrom your research, what do you think (other than DNA) has been the key breakthrough in the field of forensic science and why?

Without a doubt, the invention of the microscope.  All the early microscopists saw quite distorted images due to the low quality of the glass and imperfect shape of their lenses. Little was done to improve the microscope until the middle of the 19th Century  when great strides were made and quality instruments like today’s microscope emerged. Companies in Germany like Zeiss and an American company founded by Charles Spencer began producing instruments which allowed Victorian scientists to see the world in its wonderful minute detail. Both the Zeiss and the Spencer feature as “stars” in my novels. Studying blood samples, smears  of glistening semen, hairs, human skin  or other traces left behind on a cadaver, or at crime scene, would never have been possible without an effective  microscope.

Many people, myself included, can find it hard to find the ideal place to write. Where do you find it easiest to get the word count going in the right direction? Do you write in silence or can you shut out all the background noise, or listen to music?

I wish I could listen to music but for me it has to be silence. I wrote three novels in a tiny corner of the bedroom but I have recently moved house (two weeks ago) and now have an office and so it’s bliss. I’ve already doubled my output because the house is bigger so firstly, the kids can’t track me down quite so easily asking “What is there to eat?” and secondly, I can’t hear the relentless drone of Sky Sport pummeling through the walls, because we’ve put the telly in the basement – along with  my rugby mad teenage boys and their mates. Routine is vital for writers. You have to invent your own structures. Nobody’s going to do it for you. We all have distractions. I’m a mum and I have to juggle all sorts of stuff but I religiously go for a run or a bike ride after my kids have been waved off to school – “Adios amigos!” –  and park my butt on a seat in front of my laptop by 10.00am with a coffee LATEST. I don’t do anything else till the kids get home at three-ish. I don’t meet friends, I don’t have coffee or do lunch. I block the internet out increasingly using the download “Freedom” if I seem to lack focus (hello twitter!) and find that I can do 4 hours good work (ie: actual writing) and then the rest of the day is spent doing general PR, writing features, posts etc  or my favourite bit, the research – there’s a huge amount of research in my books and it all takes time. Writing requires discipline and it doesn’t require you to be a social butterfly. In fact, it demands withdrawal.

Can you tell us a little more about your future writing plans?  Is there another Hatton and Roumande planned for the near future? And will you ever write contemporary fiction?

I am currently writing the next Hatton and Roumande  book called The Butcher of Smithfield (working title) which is  set in 1863, so five years on from The Devil’s Ribbon. It’s been a really interesting challenge picking up the characters and their lives from where I left them. I’m having great fun – though it’s demanding. You’re creating something out of nothing. I spent a long time  researching the Jewish community living in London in the 1860s and the German community which was huge and centred around Whitechapel and Dalston. I’ve also been looking at mind doctoring, early attempts at brain surgery and the beginnings  of neurology along with colonial exploits in Africa and The Crimean War – quite a lot of material but the story is working really well and it’s all coming together. Huzza!

I wrote initial drafts for a contemporary novel set in Rwanda against backdrop of genocide but have put it in a pending tray till later. I found it difficult to write because the material was too  close to the bone but I am more experienced  writer now, and fully intend to go back to this book and deliver a contemporary thriller based on some of my own personal experiences during my time as an aid worker. The material is too good to ignore.  But for the time being I am fully immersed in my Victorian world and will be there for some time, I suspect. And I adore it.

I’ve done a little bit of flash fiction and I really enjoyed it. I don’t have time at the moment to pursue it but for budding writers out there, it’s a really interesting challenge. To tell a story in less than 500 words, means every word counts. This is a good thing to remember even when you are working across say, 100k words which is the usual length of my novels.

In a recent interview I asked author Lynn Shepherd (Tom All Alone’s, A Treacherous Likeness) who she thought should play the part of her detective, Charles Maddox, if we were to be allowed to enjoy the books adapted for television or on the big screen. She sees Tom Hiddleston in the role and has him in her head as she writes.  Who can you see as Hatton? Roumande?

Ed Norton

Adolphus Hatton has to be played by Ed Norton just as he appeared  in The Painted Veil. He’s fabulously repressed, quintessentially English, uptight, work obsessed, wiry but sexy as he appears in that film and if we can’t get him,  then James McAvoy would be good. Roumande MUST be played by the uber gorgeous Javier Bardem because he’s the right “look” (big, dark and burly) and all my mates will pay me good money to meet him if he accepts the part which I’m sure is only a matter of time. I’m ever hopeful. And clearly,  completely delusional.javier_bardem

The Devil’s Ribbon is the second book in the acclaimed Hatton & Roumande series, by D E Meredith and is out now in hardback, publishing by Allison & Busby priced £19.99. The first book Devoured is also out now in paperback, price £7.99.

‘London Snow’ and the joy of a trip to the capital whatever the weather

The Wellcome Library
The Wellcome Library

Last week I went to London and spent three happy hours in The Wellcome Library, taking advantage of their beautiful reading rooms. I was researching shell shock and PTSD to inform Shell Shocked Britain, the book I am writing for Pen and Sword for 2014, and although a trip up on the coach from Wellington only leaves me with three or four hours of concentrated study, I had a very successful afternoon.

And then of course, the weather changed and a trip up would have been difficult – delays on the M5 and M4 resulting in time for a cup of tea and a piece of cake in the cafe and little else (you can see where my priorities lie.)

I was born and brought up in London but have spent 25 years of married life away from the city. My husband, also born there, isn’t keen on a day trip, let alone going back to the capital to live. I put this down to his early years in Streatham; living in a big house right near the Common must have been a horrid experience….(you may sense I feel he has little, if no excuse for his continuing antipathy).

The moment I cross the boundary into the familiar suburbs I feel that first excitement; it is a genuine ‘buzz’. I am not so naive as to think that ‘buzz’ wouldn’t eventually become exhausting if I had to make a long commute every day. I had to travel from the northern suburbs into Holborn every day for three years and standing on an open platform – even at the beautiful Arnos Grove Station – was pretty hellish in winter. Readers of my blog might know of my love of poetry; little snippets or whole poems ‘speaking’ for me of an immediate experience. So remembering last week, and realising how different the experience of the City, and indeed Somerset (it is snowing heavily here as I write) is as the snow tumbles down, I give you this poem by Robert Bridges.

For me London Snow brings the city, with all its inequalities, together under a blanket of snow which ‘hides difference’ and makes ‘unevenness even’. Even those living in the darkest spots wake to ‘unaccustomed brightness’. The perfect lines, They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze/Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing; so describe the innocence and thrill children still experience as the snow starts to fall that for a moment I forget what a nuisance it can be, and how frustrating it was to get to college with slush splashed up the back of my tights and three hours ahead of me to sit, damp and cold, in a lecture hall. Those men of Bridges’s poem are for a moment taken away from the toil of the day ahead by the sight of the ‘uncompacted lightness’ of new fallen snow and the charm they are about to break with their heavy boots.

London Snow

By Robert Bridges

When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled—marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.
Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder,
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’
With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.
For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.

So as I wake up tomorrow morning, perhaps unable to do all those things I had planned for the day, I will not let my first thought be ‘Oh damn it’. I will remember Roberts Bridges and be greeted by its beauty and its charm.

Until I can’t get to the doctors, fail to make my counselling appointment and miss a coffee with my good friend Bethan who is working so hard for Dry January to raise money for Alcohol Concern.

Oh well, it is still a beautiful poem….

Ho Ho Ho – a Happy, healthy Christmas from No Wriggling!

vintage-christmas-261314Just a quick post to wish all those who follow my blog and any who just drop by the very merriest of Christmases and the happiest and healthiest of New Years.
This has been a good year on No wriggling. One post alone received over 20,000 views – a record by some way – and I am very grateful for your support of my writing.
This isn’t a review of the year, but 2012 also saw my first book published (called Dandelions and Bad Hair Days- Untangling lives affected by depression and anxiety) by Dotterel Press and another commissioned (Shell Shocked Britain) by Pen and Sword Books. So I can now legitimately call myself a ‘writer’. Thank you!
Anyway I thought I would send you a Christmas message via John Betjeman, who in this poem pretty much sums it up for me. Continue reading “Ho Ho Ho – a Happy, healthy Christmas from No Wriggling!”

On receiving some wonderful old news……

zeppelinDM290107_228x352As some of my regular readers may be aware, I was commissioned earlier this year, by the new social history imprint of Pen and Sword Books, to write a book about the impact of the first world war on the nation’s mental well-being. Shell Shocked Britain (a working title) is due to be published in 2014, marking the centenary of the beginning of WW1. I am honoured to be part of this new ‘stable’ and have been determined to do the very best job possible.

So I have been researching, pulling together reading lists and then actually getting down to some reading and yes, even writing. The book is framed by the story of my Great Uncle Alf Hardiman, who slit his ex-girlfriend’s throat and then turned the razor on himself in 1922. (I tell the story on this blog in An Unsound Mind) At the inquest it was heard that he had been involved in an air raid on London and had spent a year in hospital, never fully recovering. Continue reading “On receiving some wonderful old news……”