Guest post: The evacuated teachers of the Second World War by Gillian Mawson

 

Evacuation of Gateshead School Children 1939 courtesy Gateshead Libraries
School children evacuated 1939. Courtesy Gateshead Libraries

As many of my regular readers know, I have recently written about the loss of my mum. I have delayed publishing this wonderful guest post from historian Gillian Mawson because it is a story that resonated so closely with my mother’s experience as a child during WW2 that I found it quite hard to comment on it. At the age of just 10, with her 6-year-old brother, my mum was evacuated out of London to Bedfordshire and was so traumatised by her experience at the hands of the woman who took them in that even in old age she would recognise similar abusive traits in others. It would bring back all those unhappy memories, and when she felt most vulnerable it caused her a great deal of distress, even in her 80s. Gillian has written a number of books describing, often in their own words, the wartime experience of evacuees. Some had a wonderful time, but others, like my mum, were less fortunate and it is important that all their stories are heard. So I am thrilled Gillian has written this post for my blog, focusing on the teachers’ experience, and the responsibility they felt towards their young charges. Full details of Gillian’s latest book can be found at the end of the post. Do take a look – the immediacy and freshness of some of the memories are heartrending.

During the Second World War, thousands of British teachers were evacuated with their pupils, yet we hear their stories far less often than those of child evacuees. These men and women took on a great responsibility. Cut off from their own families, they not only educated the children in their care but did their best to monitor their health and happiness, providing comfort when their pupils were homesick or distressed.

Maureen Brass described preparations at St Dominic’s Infant School, London

‘The week before the evacuation, we gave parents lists of what the
children should bring with them, made labels showing their names,
the name of the school and the school number. Ours was school
number 0302. On the morning of September 1st 1939, the children
assembled in school around 7.00am. The staff had arrived at 6.00am.
At 8.00am we set out from the school, waved off by tearful mothers,
grandmothers and others. The groups, Seniors, Juniors and Infants,
with staff and helpers, walked in fours to Kentish Town West Station.
We all boarded a train that was waiting for us and set out into the
unknown.’

Mary Richardson taught at Cork Street School, Camberwell, and recalled the school’s arrival in Kent;

‘Each teacher was assigned 10 children and after a long train journey,
we arrived at Sevenoaks where we were neatly put into cattle pens
to be counted. We then caught another train and arrived at Brasted
station, which is quite a distance from the village, so when we
arrived at the church hall we were a sorry sight – tired, thirsty and
afraid. Mothers came and chose us and I was seized upon by the
lady at the village shop and bakehouse. We had promised to try to
keep families together but with four Peabody girls and four
Sparrowhawk boys, this proved impossible. Some of the younger children had head lice, some had wet themselves and their clothing was dirty,
ragged and unsuitable. However, the Kent ladies were brilliant, extra
clothing was found, menus were changed to accommodate townies
who never ate ‘greens’ and cuddly toys given to comfort the weepy ones.’

Guernsey children and teachers arrive July 1940 in Disley Cheshire
Guernsey evacuees and their teachers arrive in Cheshire, 1940

When the children arrived at their new billets, they wrote their new address on a postcard, together with a short message for their parents. Their teachers advised them to write phrases which would cheer up their anxious parents, such as ‘Dear Mum and Dad, am living with nice people. I am very happy. Don’t worry about me.’ However, this had tragic consequences for one little boy and his family. He left his new billet, placed his postcard, with the above message, in the letter box then went for a walk. Sadly he fell into a canal and drowned. His family were advised of his death that evening, but two days later, his postcard with its poignant little message arrived at their home.

In many cases, whole schools were evacuated to open air camps in the countryside. When Derby School was evacuated to Amber Valley in Derbyshire, the teachers became virtual ‘foster parents’ to 200 boys. Elisabeth Bowden’s father was the Headmaster of Derby School and she moved into the camp with her parents;

‘Mum, Dad and I lived in a bungalow whilst the pupils and the other teachers
were billeted around the camp in large wooden huts. It was a huge responsibility
for those adults, in charge of 200 boys. Mother had some petrol because
she drove the emergency vehicle. Several times she had to take boys
with broken arms, limbs and that sort of thing, to hospital.’

Although many evacuees received loving care from their wartime foster parents, others did not. Children endured physical and mental cruelty at the hands of unsuitable hosts because billets were not fully vetted before the children were placed there. Children were sometimes ‘rescued’ from these situations because their teachers noticed their unhappiness or observed bruises and marks.

Peggy and Betty White were evacuated to Oxford and were very happy in the home of Mr and Mrs Murphy. However, when Mrs Murphy was due to have a baby, the girls had to move out and, as Peggy recalls, their next billet was very different;

‘We moved in with Mrs Fisher who turned out to be the most wicked
woman we had ever met. From the very next day, we were beaten
and made to do all the housework before going to school. We had to
get up at five each morning and we were sent to bed as soon as we
got in from school. As an extra punishment we would be shut, one
at a time, in a dark coal-shed all night. We lived there for about a year,
which to us seemed like forever. One day Betty’s teacher, Mrs Payne,
saw the terrible bruises on her. She questioned us both, and we said that Mrs
Fisher would kill us if we ever told anyone. Mrs Payne took us back to the
house and told us to pack our belongings in a suitcase while she had words
with Mrs Fisher. Then we all left. As we walked along the road in
the gathering dusk, with our battered suitcase balanced precariously on
Mrs Payne’s bicycle, she said, ‘Where would you like to live most of all?’
Betty and I cried in unison, ‘With Mrs Murphy.’ She replied, ‘That’s just
where we are going.’ We skipped the rest of the way there. Mrs Murphy
cried when she saw us and so did we.’

The teachers who remained with their evacuated pupils carried a huge burden of responsibility during the war. Miss Grace Fry’s life was completely changed by her wartime experiences. She was evacuated with her pupils from Guernsey to Scotland for five years and remarked some years later, ‘It was the evacuation that decided me, I was not going to get married and I wasn’t going to have children because I had had enough with all that during the war.’ Looking back today, child evacuee, Kathleen Cowling, believes, ‘We were very fortunate in having teachers who stayed with us throughout the war years and provided some continuity in our lives – they sacrificed a lot.’ John Davis adds, ‘My memory is of the unfailing kindness of the staff at a time when their own personal lives must have been under great stress, as well as the responsibility of teaching and caring for such a large number of children in very difficult circumstances.

My latest book, ‘Britain’s Wartime Evacuees’ can be viewed here:

evacueeshttps://www.amazon.co.uk/Britains-Wartime-Evacuees-Evacuations-Accounts/dp/1848324413/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

My sincere thanks to Gillian for this post. You can find out more about her valuable work at her blog https://evacueesofworldwartwo.wordpress.com/

“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.

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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.’ –

 

 

Poetry for Christmas #3 – Ogden Nash -The boy who laughed at Santa Claus…

Father ChristmasMy illustrations for this, the third in my series of ‘Poetry for Christmas’ posts (see the previous two posts for #1 and #2) are deliberately used to pose a question that confuses many of us. Is it Santa Claus, closer in name to the model for the great man, St Nicholas, or Father Christmas?  Does the name affect the image, or are they all inter-changeable? I have been told that Father Christmas wears a long red robe belted in the middle, rather than the jacket and trousers favoured by coca cola, and indeed Raymond Briggs. But then of course we go back to the ‘did he wear red, or should he be in green?’. We in Britain associate him with red apparel, and in the end, does it really matter? One day, he might decide on an anorak and jeans, after all, he is real, isn’t he…?

Jabez Dawes, in this fabulous cautionary tale by Ogden Nash is keen to spoil the magic andSanta Claus poke fun at the great man, and even suggest that he may not exist! Quite rightly, he get his come-uppance and Santa gets his revenge. It clearly isn’t all about the festive season – Jabez is a beastly child, even before the obvious trauma of losing his parents, but for some reason, all is always forgiven or excused until he messes with Santa…

Ogden Nash was an American poet who, with his light verse, has left some witty and memorable lines to posterity. To find out more, take a look at the poets.org page, or find a book of comic verse and you are sure to find at least one of  his gems.

The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus
by Ogden Nash

In Baltimore there lived a boy.
He wasn’t anybody’s joy.
Although his name was Jabez Dawes,
His character was full of flaws.
In school he never led his classes,
He hid old ladies’ reading glasses,
His mouth was open when he chewed,
And elbows to the table glued.
He stole the milk of hungry kittens,
And walked through doors marked NO ADMITTANCE.
He said he acted thus because
There wasn’t any Santa Claus.

Another trick that tickled Jabez
Was crying ‘Boo’ at little babies.
He brushed his teeth, they said in town,
Sideways instead of up and down.
Yet people pardoned every sin,
And viewed his antics with a grin,
Till they were told by Jabez Dawes,
‘There isn’t any Santa Claus!’

Deploring how he did behave,
His parents swiftly sought their grave.
They hurried through the portals pearly,
And Jabez left the funeral early.

Like whooping cough, from child to child,
He sped to spread the rumor wild:
‘Sure as my name is Jabez Dawes
There isn’t any Santa Claus!’
Slunk like a weasel of a marten
Through nursery and kindergarten,
Whispering low to every tot,
‘There isn’t any, no there’s not!’

The children wept all Christmas eve
And Jabez chortled up his sleeve.
No infant dared hang up his stocking
For fear of Jabez’ ribald mocking.
He sprawled on his untidy bed,
Fresh malice dancing in his head,
When presently with scalp-a-tingling,
Jabez heard a distant jingling;
He heard the crunch of sleigh and hoof
Crisply alighting on the roof.
What good to rise and bar the door?
A shower of soot was on the floor.

What was beheld by Jabez Dawes?
The fireplace full of Santa Claus!
Then Jabez fell upon his knees
With cries of ‘Don’t,’ and ‘Pretty Please.’
He howled, ‘I don’t know where you read it,
But anyhow, I never said it!’
‘Jabez’ replied the angry saint,
‘It isn’t I, it’s you that ain’t.
Although there is a Santa Claus,
There isn’t any Jabez Dawes!’

Said Jabez then with impudent vim,
‘Oh, yes there is, and I am him!
Your magic don’t scare me, it doesn’t’
And suddenly he found he wasn’t!
From grimy feet to grimy locks,
Jabez became a Jack-in-the-box,
An ugly toy with springs unsprung,
Forever sticking out his tongue.

The neighbors heard his mournful squeal;
They searched for him, but not with zeal.
No trace was found of Jabez Dawes,
Which led to thunderous applause,
And people drank a loving cup
And went and hung their stockings up.

All you who sneer at Santa Claus,
Beware the fate of Jabez Dawes,
The saucy boy who mocked the saint.
Donner and Blitzen licked off his paint.

father-c1Take heed all ye who scoff. or perhaps you feel the boy hard done by? I know for many the ‘joys’ of Christmas are a myth, and I accept there is far too much pressure on us to be happy on this one day a year, above all others. But I do think that sometimes the only way to get through this time of year is to believe that if we hold on tight, the days will get lighter, both in reality and metaphorically. And for me, the magic of the Christmas saint is one I cling to…

Poetry for Christmas #1 Mistletoe by Walter de la Mare

mistletoe2016 has flown by. It has been a strange, and horrible, twelve months in many ways and I feel barely ready for winter. However, the Advent calendar is up, and nine doors are opened already, so in order to make sure December does not fly past in a haze I have determined to do something Christmassy every day. I can’t control what is going on in a world which seems ever more determined to implode, consumed by hate and denying our humanity, and I am well aware that there is an unhappy side to the festive period based on a different kind of consumption. But there is magic too, and poetry can express some of that feeling of love, anticipation, joy and sparkle that is the best of the season.

So I thought I would share some of my Christmas favourites on my blog. I love talking and writing about poetry and I hope , even if you don’t consider yourself a poetry lover, you can find some lines that resonate with you.

So the first poem is Mistletoe by Walter de la Mare (1873-1956).

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen—and kissed me there.

I suppose one could think this poem a little sinister – the author has no idea who has kissed him, and there is no confirmation that the ghostly kiss is welcomed. de la Mare is well-known for his ghost stories, some of them horror-filled.

Walter-de la Mare
Walter de la Mare

However, loneliness is expressed; the poet is on his own, the party-goers have left and he is under the mistletoe in that misty place between sleep and wakefulness, nodding off as the candle burns low. The colour of the mistletoe is still fresh, however, and it has that fairy quality that suggests the seasonal magic is at work. Walter de la Mare expressed his view that there are two types of imagination; one childlike and visionary, and the other (present when the childlike quality is lost) more intellectual. At Christmas I feel I return to childhood, with perhaps unrealistic hopes for the perfect holiday.

So I am with the magic, and the romance and the gentle, sleepy love that this poem expresses. What do you think? What are your favourite Christmas poems?

The Short Story – Writing What Editors Want Circa 1926…Part 1

Short Story Writing for profitA rather wonderful book has come into my possession. I bought it whilst house-sitting (and writing my next book) in Suffolk, on a trip to an antique centre taken as light relief after an intense period tapping away at the laptop. Called Short Story Writing for Profit, it is by Michael Joseph and was written 90 years ago, in the mid 1920s. It bears some close reading, and some sharing, so I thought it deserved more than one post. I think, as I read it, the saying ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ is very appropriate to the writing life…

So firstly, the Foreword, which is by short story writer Stacy Aumonier, who was described in an Independent list of Forgotten Authors as ‘perfect for reading with a hot toddy on a cold night’, and who wrote the intriguingly titled  “Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty”, in which a shy heroine ‘winds up underneath a dead stranger’s bed in a French hotel room’. His wise words should be read by all aspiring writers.

An early paragraph describes the would-be author thus:

I have often noticed that when authors break loose, that is to say when they escape from their colleagues, and flash their personalities at dinner parties and tea-fights, they invariably talk about Smollett and Fielding, Freud and Froissart, and art, and art, and ART. But when they are together with no visitors present, they talk about contracts and agents, and the best way to squeeze a bit more out of editors and publishers. All of which is very nice and as it should be.

Do we know anyone like that? Apart from never having been invited to a ‘tea-fight, I don’t think I do, but one never knows how one comes across, does one? *puts on pompous hat*.

On the process of writing a short story he says:

…This is a point which cannot be stressed too much-  that a short story must be finished before it is begun. In other words that you must think it all out clearly and in detail before you begin to write. In a novel it is not so necessary, because you may wander off and enjoy yourself and come back…

I am not sure how many authors of novels feel free to ‘wander off and enjoy themselves’,  but Aumonier then offers the best piece of advice a writer of shorter fiction can hear, that is the need ‘to use the utmost economy and eliminate all superfluous matter’.

On the business of writing, that is the commercial side, the differences between then and now make themselves known, at least in the realities of traditional publishing:

Stacy Aumonier
Stacy Aumonier

But to be as successful as H.G. Wells must be a perfect nightmare. When he writes a novel he has to consider…English book rights, and the American book rights, but the English serial rights, and the American serial rights, and the translation rights in a dozen or more foreign countries….And it looks as though quite soon we shall have some further complications with broadcasting or wireless rights.

And after all deductions, he says:

A friend of mine who wrote two best-sellers recently told me that he gets just eight shillings in the pound on what he earns!

If only!

In the next post I will detail what the author, Michael Joseph, offers as advice to  ‘remove the more obvious blemishes of amateur efforts’. Whilst believing that the writing  of great stories cannot be taught, he hopes to make it easier for even the most obvious novice to get past the apparently discerning editors he mentions and into publications lost to news stands for decades. He is not quite as patronising as he sounds…

Perhaps we should all give up hope? No – we must turn back to the cheering words of Stacy Aumonier who ends his Foreword by saying:

There are days when the weather is dull and overcast, and customers [for your writing] few and far between, and surly in their demeanour. You feel inclined to put up the shutters, and run away and leave it, and never come back. But wait awhile. There dawns a day when the sun comes out, and you suddenly think how attractive your goods look in the window, and customers are jolly and generous. They pat you on the back, and even pay you for things in advance, and you are awfully pleased with yourself. You forget about the dull days. You even persuade yourself – quite unreasonable – that the dull days cannot return, because you are living then, and sunshine is a more vital thing than mist.

 

 

 

First and Last – the poetry of Judith Williamson (1947-2015)

judith williamsonToday on my blog I am really pleased to be able to share the poetry of a woman I knew nothing about, until I was contacted by fellow writer David Venner who, in writing this post, drew my attention to the work of Judith Williamson. Reading The Supporter, shared below, I marvelled at the warmth and wit in her work and, with the poem Home,  the breadth of her work is illustrated. A collection of her poetry was published posthumously in 2015.

The name Judith Williamson may not be familiar to readers of this blog. As ‘J L Fontaine’, Judith was a published author. She had been writing since her teens but her first novel The Mark was not published until April last year. Her poetry, beautifully crafted but until recently known only to close family, reached a wider readership in 2014/15 through her participation in an online poetry project, ‘52’, in which over 500 aspiring poets were encouraged to write a poem a week, inspired by a shared prompt.

Following Judith’s untimely death last October, three of her fellow online poets compiled a collection of her poems and this was published by CreateSpace under the title First and Last. Many of Judith’s poems are autobiographical and so perhaps it might be thought that they will have meaning only to those who knew her. But I think they have a much wider appeal because they deal with subjects, ideas and feelings that are universal. As the compilers of First and Last noted, “Judith had the knack of projecting human warmth through the foggy glass of modernity”.

Judith WilliamsonBefore introducing a small selection of her poems, a few biographical notes may be helpful. Judith was the daughter of a village schoolmaster – her mother was the school secretary. She trained as a legal secretary, married and had four daughters. As the blurb on the cover of her novel The Mark puts it “she worked on a chicken farm, in hospitals and old people’s homes and, as ‘JJ the Clown’, children’s entertainer and puppeteer.” After gaining a post graduate diploma in counselling, she later worked in a college and as a police welfare officer in Sussex.

Once her children had left home Judith moved to France, living in a lovely rambling old house in a village between Poitiers and Bordeaux. Here she found time and space to write. She also found a French partner and, after a few years, moved with him to Senegal in West Africa, where some of her later poems are set. These and one or two earlier ones are among my favourites. They can be funny, thought-provoking or moving; they all engage the reader and often strike a chord with one’s own experiences. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

 

The Supporter

I must have been bowled over, to arrive
each Sunday afternoon,
to make cucumber sandwiches
and watch a game
I never understood.
I watched him triumph
week after week,
his bat raised in acknowledgement of
our polite applause.

I stumped him.

I swapped him for a rugby player
but that seemed, mostly, mud, maul,
testosterone,
and odd-shaped balls.

I kicked him into touch.

The hockey player
was fast and furious,
most of the time,
especially in bed.
He wielded a very short stick.

The ball was finally lost
in the undergrowth of neglect.

I huddled on a cold and windswept beach
to watch his dinghy
cross the finishing line.
Waking just as the klaxon sounded, signalling
his victory.

I took the wind out of his sails.

The footballer was easy.
He only required that I hold up a mirror, so
we could both admire him.
It was a game of one half.

Overnight, I moved the goalposts.

It seems, however,
my path was set.
And that I have spent my life
shivering on the sidelines.
Admiring.
Supporting.
Applauding.
Waiting
for the real game to begin.
Several of Judith’s poems convey her restlessness and her search for her true self.

Home

My need to wander far and wide,
to uproot and downsize,
two suitcases containing
all that I possess
reflect how rootless I have felt
since childhood,
It took me many miles
and years to find
my home inside me.

After her move to Senegal, Judith’s sense of injustice comes through strongly in her later poems.

Tourist Trade

Delicate as the fallen flowers that
carpet my yard,
the girls arrive.
Blown by the wind of poverty
into the gaudy town.

At night in bars and clubs,
their young faces
gashed with painted smiles
they are draped
like bright scarves
over ageing flesh.

In the bellow and roar
of bloated tourism
they can no longer hear
the heartbeat
of the village
or the crying child.

Sometimes Judith abandoned the short line verse format (she never constrained herself by rhyming her lines). The following paragraph of prose contains, in 125 carefully chosen words, so much to admire in the style but at the same time so much to rail against in the subject she is writing about.

Progress

Cooking in my little kitchen, I reflect that my African sisters, along the track, are cooking on wood foraged during the day and carried home on weary heads, their splay-legged babies, bobbing on their mothers’ backs, lulled by rhythm. The women cook, squatting on sand in darkened yards, or by the light of a mobile phone. Their husbands sit, resting after a long day of lying around talking to friends and drinking tea. The male children play in the road, chasing old tyres or kicking tin cans while their sisters crouch by their mothers, ready to help or fetch or carry, vilified if they are too slow. In my well-equipped kitchen, very advanced, sophisticated, I cook while my husband plays on the internet.

Sadly, Judith Williamson’s life and burgeoning writing career were cut short just when she had found her voice and had started to receive recognition for the quality of her work. Her poetry, her published novel and others that may still find a publisher, will hopefully form an enduring legacy.

 

David Venner (Judith’s brother-in-law)

My sincere thanks to David for sharing this with me. His own book Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-1918 was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2015 and he wrote about it on this blog HERE.

Six years of randomness – blogging a writing life

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” Flannery O’Connor

sixthSix years ago today I started this blog!! At the time I wondered if I would keep it going more than a week; but here I am older, wrinklier and wider, if not wiser more than 300 posts later.

I chose No Wriggling Out of Writing as the title because, until that moment, wriggling out of doing what I love most had become a habit, and as the blogging boom took off I was encouraged to give it a try. I am not surprised, looking back, that within six months of putting finger to keyboard I had decided to have regular counselling sessions, and the quote from Flannery O’Connor, above, is a feeling I can identify with. Writing on here has helped me to identify those issues that are really important to me, and those that support me when I am struggling to come to terms with my health anxieties, a slow down in book sales, or world events that threaten to overwhelm me. I am more confident in what I hold dear and what I genuinely feel.

So a sincere ‘thank you’ to all those who have read my blog , regularly or just by chance. Looking back, my blogging has changed a lot over the past six years. I started off as part of the ‘mummy’ or ‘parent’ blogging community, becoming less keen as it seemed to morph into something that focused more on freebies and PR than on genuinely held beliefs.

I also realised that to be true to myself I would have to have a blog that went against those ‘blogging bibles’ that suggest you need to find a niche and stick to it; write for an audience and ensure you mop up every possibility to ‘monetise’ your blog. Marina Sofia on the lovely finding time to write blog, recently wrote a piece I could really identify with called Professional Blogging vs. Personal Connections , and for me it has been those personal connections I have made – with other writers and readers – that have been most valuable. My blog is random; posts about my favourite poet John Keats sit alongside those written on the subject of my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health (a book that would never have been written if not for this blog). Book reviews share space with my love of Cumbria or the occasional rant. I love to have guest posts on my blog, and appreciate the opportunities blogging has given me to write for others. Blog statistics vary wildly from day to day and, still, the post that has had most views (more than 30,000) is the quick one I wrote in 2012 mourning the death of David Barby, the Bargain Hunt expert. All that effort to be literary…..

frostWhen I mentioned my bloggaversary to friends on twitter, and wondered how best to mark it, I had lots of suggestions – many involving cake or alcohol – and one I certainly took up was to look back at my early posts to see how I had progressed over the years. Things have certainly changed, and I found that those I like best, and those still read most regularly, are ones in which I focus on a particular poet, or poem.  When I write those I am often working through my own thoughts or concerns, but I find I connect with a global audience of other poetry lovers. Lots of people seem to recognise the ways in which a poem can take the real essence of a feeling and describe it in a way that can get to the ‘heart of the matter’, express your deepest thoughts, help you feel less lonely or support you through tough times. It is in poetry that I think Flannery O’Connor’s words resonate for me, alongside the Robert Frost quote, above. Those ‘Oh yes, that’s it!’ moments that can also be felt when listening to the lyrics of a favourite song, or hearing a few bars of a familiar piece of music. I have changed through my love of poetry, and my ever wider reading of it; changed as a writer and as a person. The knowledge that others feel as you do is never as well expressed as it is in poetry and it has taught me so much.

So, on a day when I am reviewing what I have achieved in my six years of blogging – things I would never have done had I not written that first, tentative post –  I thought I should end with a poem on the subject of loving poetry by the fabulous Billy Collins.  If nothing else, I hope this blog has shared my enthusiasm for verse and encouraged you to give it the opportunity to work its magic on you. If you are someone who still can’t connect with poetry, take Collins’s advice and drop a mouse into a poem – as with my blogging experience, you never know what he or she will be when he has found his way out….

Introduction to Poetry 

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins

The loveliest of love letters? Keats to his ‘Bright Star’

keatssevI have just had to empty and refill my bookcases, seeing them painted and replaced in our newly decorated dining room (which doubles up as a work space). So I have been able to take another look at my lovely array of books of John Keats‘s poetry and letters, biographies written over the past 150 years and critical discussion of his writing. I wanted to run away for a week and reread my favourites – there just doesn’t seem time to do them justice amongst the jumble of other things I do in the week to earn a living. At times of stress I regularly turn, in short bursts, to my copies of ‘The Letters’ and ‘The Poems’ of Keats,  and may fit in another viewing of Jane Campion’s film Bright Star , preventing as they do the pulling out of hair and the breaking of cups and dinner plates.

John Keats wrote the most striking letters – philosophical, romantic  and frankly heartbreaking. Many explain his poetic philosophy and add significantly to the power of his poetry, others are amusing and lighthearted. One I recently revisited would have many women swooning. It was written by Keats to Fanny Brawne in the summer of 1819, the year in which he wrote much of his best, and best known poetry. He had fallen deeply in love with Fanny over the previous six months and was spending the summer away from her on the Isle of Wight with his friend Charles Brown. In Bright Star, excerpts from this letter are read by Ben Whishaw, who plays Keats, as heard in this clip (although the images are not from the film):

However, it is wonderful to read the whole, veering as it does between barely inexpressible joy and a deep despair:

Postmark: Newport, July 3, 1819

Shanklin, Isle of Wight, Thursday

My dearest Lady — I am glad I had not an opportunity of sending off a Letter which I wrote for you on Tuesday night—’twas too much like one out of Rousseau’s Heloise. I am more reasonable this morning. The morning is the only proper time for me to write to a beautiful Girl whom I love so much: for at night, when the lonely day has closed, and the lonely, silent, unmusical Chamber is waiting to receive me as into a Sepulchre, then believe me my passion gets entirely the sway, then I would not have you see those Rhapsodies which I once thought it impossible I should ever give way to, and which I have often laughed at in another, for fear you should [think me] either too unhappy or perhaps a little mad.

I am now at a very pleasant Cottage window, looking onto a beautiful hilly country, with a glimpse of the sea; the morning is very fine. I do not know how elastic my spirit might be, what pleasure I might have in living here and breathing and wandering as free as a stag about this beautiful Coast if the remembrance of you did not weigh so upon me I have never known any unalloy’d Happiness for many days together: the death or sickness of some one has always spoilt my hours—and now when none such troubles oppress me, it is you must confess very hard that another sort of pain should haunt me.

Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom. Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately, and do all you can to console me in it—make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me—write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain. But however selfish I may feel, I am sure I could never act selfishly: as I told you a day or two before I left Hampstead, I will never return to London if my Fate does not turn up Pam or at least a Court-card. Though I could centre my Happiness in you, I cannot expect to engross your heart so entirely—indeed if I thought you felt as much for me as I do for you at this moment I do not think I could restrain myself from seeing you again tomorrow for the delight of one embrace.

But no—I must live upon hope and Chance. In case of the worst that can happen, I shall still love you—but what hatred shall I have for another!

Some lines I read the other day are continually ringing a peal in my ears:

To see those eyes I prize above mine own
Dart favors on another—
And those sweet lips (yielding immortal nectar)
Be gently press’d by any but myself—
Think, think Francesca, what a cursed thing
It were beyond expression!

J.

Do write immediately. There is no Post from this Place, so you must address Post Office, Newport, Isle of Wight. I know before night I shall curse myself for having sent you so cold a Letter; yet it is better to do it as much in my senses as possible. Be as kind as the distance will permit to your

Present my Compliments to your mother, my love to Margaret and best remembrances to your Brother—if you please so.

Having regained composure after having her breath taken away by the longing expressed in this letter it would be a cool woman who didn’t relish these words, but the intensity might also be a little frightening. Fanny was in her late teens; Keats just 24; his references to loss – the sepulchre, the death or sickness of loved ones, the draught of poppies, three days of delight as butterflies – are I think so very romantic, but quite chilling. Keats asked that all Fanny’s letters to him be burned after his death, a request his friends met. We have no idea of Fanny’s response, but there is a sense in his subsequent letters that whatever words she wrote back to him were never enough to convince him that she loved him as much in return. I believe, though, that the fact that she nursed him in the weeks before his final voyage to Rome (dealing with the consequent gossip that such an arrangement would have attracted); didn’t marry for seven years after Keats’ death; wore his ring on a chain around her neck all her life and kept every one of his letters, contradicts the insecurities Keats felt (no doubt made worse by his failing health) and I for one have always admired her.

When these letters were published a few years after Fanny’s death in 1865, Keats’ reputation was damaged – the Victorians found their sensual language and occasionally angry intensity disturbing. Fanny, until then completely unknown to Keats’ growing readership, was not seen as a fit object of his adoration. However, this view has changed in recent years and Bright Star certainly went some way, albeit fictitiously, towards giving us an understanding of the relationship. There is much we will never know, but I for one find the romance deeply moving.

The Mind of a Murderer – A guest post by Angela Buckley

Amelia Dyer 1
Amelia Dyer              (Thames Valley Police Museum)

Today I am thrilled to have as my guest on No wriggling, Angela Buckley, who has written for me before, about her last book,  The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada. Today she looks into the mind of Amelia Dyer, the notorious Victorian baby farmer, who plied her shocking trade in Bristol and Reading. Angela’s latest book Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders is a gripping read and heartily recommended!

In the spring of 1896 the body of an infant was found in the Thames near Reading. This gruesome discovery exposed the nefarious crimes of one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers. Notorious baby farmer Amelia Dyer advertised in the newspapers for babies to look after for money, strangled them and disposed of their bodies in the river. Over a century later, the question still remains: was Amelia Dyer mad or bad?

There is no clear evidence that Dyer suffered from any mental health issues during her childhood, despite the early deaths of two siblings and her mother. She established her baby farming business in her home city of Bristol, in the late 1860s and the first documented incident of possible psychological problems arose in 1879, when a coroner opened an inquest into the deaths of four babies in Dyer’s care, following a suspicious death certificate. When police called at Dyer’s house to take her to court they found that she had taken a laudanum overdose, which prevented her from appearing. This was the first in a series of drastic actions taken by Dyer seemingly to avoid the law.

Gloucester asylumIn the early 1890s Amelia Dyer’s situation as a baby farmer became increasingly precarious, when a governess tried to claim her child, after her circumstances had changed. The bereft mother came several times to Dyer’s home and even brought a police officer on one occasion. Each time Amelia Dyer had a breakdown, was certified ‘insane’ and committed to the asylum. She made two further suicide attempts, by cutting her throat with a knife (she only sustained a slight scratch) and by throwing herself into a pond. Dyer spent three brief periods in the asylums at Gloucester and Wells, after which she returned to her baby farming trade.

When Amelia Dyer was finally brought to trial for murder at the Old Bailey on 21 May 1896, much of the evidence focused on the key question of her sanity. All the doctors who treated her in Bristol testified. Dr Thomas Logan described how Dyer had threatened to break his skull with a poker, leading him to conclude that she was suffering from brain disease and her ‘insanity’ had been exacerbated by mental anxiety. Dr Lacey Firth examined Dyer at Bristol Hospital after her drowning attempt. He believed that she was melancholic, but not insane. A third doctor came to the conclusion that she was ‘of unsound mind’.

In an attempt to unravel the mystery of Dyer’s mental state, the judge called upon expert witnesses. Dr Forbes Winslow had examined the prisoner in Holloway. Her delusions and hallucinations led him to believe that she was insane. However, the prison’s medical doctor claimed that she was not. The final expert medical witness was Dr George Savage, from St Bartholomew’s Hospital, a renowned doctor with ‘long experience in lunacy’. His final conclusion was that Dyer was not suffering from ‘homicidal mania’, and that the crimes were not the act of an insane person. Despite the contradictory evidence, the jury returned a guilty verdict and Dyer was sentenced to death.

Granny Smith
Granny Smith (Reading Borough Libraries)

The final word on this debate should go to those who were closest to Amelia Dyer. Her daughter, Mary Ann Palmer, told the court how her mother alternated between quiet periods and bouts of extreme violence – she had threatened Mary Ann’s life several times. Interestingly, it was Mary Ann who had told the doctors in Bristol about her mother’s mental health history, while they were considering her treatment. The person with the least reason for incriminating Dyer was Jane Smith, also known as ‘Granny’, an elderly woman whom Dyer had rescued from the workhouse. After visiting Dyer in Reading Prison, a journalist asked Granny if she thought the prisoner was ‘trying the old game on’, to which she replied, ‘I do; but I don’t think she will get off so easily as she has done before.’ Mad or bad, Amelia Dyer was executed for her crimes on 10 June 1896.

Cover copy[arEN][1]Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders by Angela Buckley is available in ebook and paperback via Amazon and other online retail outlets. You can find out more about Angela’s work on her website angelabuckleywriter.com

How old newspapers can aid historical research: by Denise Bates

Historicalnews coverToday I welcome to No Wriggling Denise Bates, whose latest book, Historical Research Using British Newspapers is published by Pen and Sword this month. I have often written on this blog of how useful I found the British Newspaper Archive in my research for Shell Shocked Britain and at all my talks I stress how important a resource old newspapers are. Denise has used my experience, and that of other writers, as case studies in her book. In this post she looks at the ways in which research into mental health can be enhanced by reference to the newspapers. Shell Shocked Britain was inspired by a cutting found when I was undertaking some family history research, so imagine what you might find in those fascinating old pages…..

Old newspapers are no longer an archive resource mainly used by seasoned researchers. An internet connection and a log-in enable anyone with an interest in the past to read old newspapers, at a time and place which is convenient to them. There are many gaps in our knowledge of the past and digitised newspapers now offer anyone who is intrigued by topics that fall outside the academic or commercial mainstream a way of pursuing their own interests. Sometimes the subject-matter of historical research has been driven by the academic or the publishing community meaning that some topics have effectively fallen ‘out of history’. Some writers have been too keen to make a point at the expense of accuracy and, for some topics, finding material to learn from has been a practical problem. Newspapers can be very helpful in all of these situations.

Mental health in the nineteenth century is a subject where newspapers contain a rich repository of material for investigation, to supplement existing knowledge about life in the asylum or the hysterias supposedly experienced by females. When I researched Pit Lasses, my book about the women and girls who worked underground in coal mines until the job was banned for them in 1842, I had hoped to discover something about their mental well-being but found scant information in the records of the time. A fortuitous breakthrough came when I traced a newspaper report about an unnamed female who had died at a Lancashire Colliery in 1844. The case was included in Frederick Engels’ political tome, The Condition of the Working Classes in England. Engels was keen to show that women still laboured underground and suppressed the inconvenient fact that the teenager did not work at the colliery but had killed herself by jumping down the shaft.

No reason for Margaret Wignall’s suicide was given in the brief paragraph, but as more newspapers became available on-line I discovered a detailed report of the inquest into her death. The Mines Act of 1842 had cost Margaret her job and other work was hard to find. She had briefly been employed as a children’s nurse but was dismissed because of her rough manner of speaking in favour of a more refined girl. Presumably depressed by her inability to earn her keep, perhaps nagged by her parents on this point, she took her father’s lunch to him at the pit and then killed herself in public view. The truth about her untimely death is much more complex and shocking than Engels’ text suggested.

Margaret’s is just one case amongst many reported in nineteenth century newspapers where an individual may have suffered mental health problems. My breach of promise research found several broken engagements where one of the parties probably had schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or depression, although this was not recognised at the time. Not all individuals turned to the devastating outcome of suicide but it is clear that many struggled to cope without support or understanding from of those around them.

As these brief examples show, newspapers contain a wealth of information on many subjects, but it is not always presented a direct manner. An open-minded researcher who is prepared to commit time to locating and interpreting information drawn from newspaper reports may make discoveries that enhance our understanding of the past, or even challenge existing beliefs about it.

My sincere thanks to Denise for writing this post, and do look out for her book in all good bookshops, or find out more at the Pen and Sword website.

Historical Research Using British Newspapers by Denise Bates is published by Pen and Sword in April 2016. Her previous books, Pit Lasses and Breach of Promise to Marry are also available from Pen and Sword.