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.

The Sinking of the RMS Tayleur – author Gill Hoffs on how Victorian corsetry contributed to a tragedy…

Sinking of RMS Tayleur - Gill Hoffs - hi res imageI have been really lucky with the books I have been asked to review in recent weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed The Real Sherlock Holmes by Angela Buckley and now can honestly say I have spent three sunny days gripped by “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic‘” by Gill Hoffs. (Pen & Sword, 2014) I can heartily recommend it for the detailed research Gill has done into the Victorian period,  combined with her skills as a true storyteller. It is a tragic tale, beautifully told, with a respect for the victims that doesn’t preclude a thrilling description of a horrific shipwreck.

So I am delighted to host a guest post from Gill on my blog today. As she researched the book, Gill was curious to find out why only three women and three children survived out of over 170 while more than half of the men on board managed to escape the sinking ship. Here she interviews one of the many people who helped her research 

Jennifer Garside
Jennifer Garside

When researching a particular period or person, it can be useful to find someone who’s essentially carried out the work for you in advance and has a passion for the subject. I needed to know about British clothing in the 1850s, and why the fashions of the day contributed to the deaths of at least a hundred women in one shipwreck alone. Luckily Jennifer Garside, a motorbike-riding, corset-wearing, broadsword-fighting businesswoman, runs Wyte Phantom Corsetry and Clothing (specialising in neo-Victorian designs) and agreed to help. Jennifer demonstrated to me using samples, contemporary accounts and illustrations, how heavy and restrictive the women’s outfits would have been on board the Tayleur, and how that influenced their survival when the ship wrecked. As is often the way, each answer led to yet more questions, including some about Jennifer herself.

What came first for you: the interest in sewing, history, or re-enactments? How did you get into re-enactments and corsetry?

I was always crafty as a child, my mother taught me to sew and use a sewing machine, and as far as I can remember I had a fascination with pretty historical dresses. My grandmother had a button tin with pictures of Victorian ladies round the outside; I loved to play with it both for the images on the tin and the amazing buttons inside. Re-enactment came later; it wasn’t until I was at university that I discovered a group and found it was something I could actually get involved in.

I blame my parents for the re-enactments. As a child, I loved to explore castles, and they took me to see a joust when I was about 8, and I decided I wanted to have a go! At University, I found both a re-enactment group, and a HEMA group (Historic European Martial Arts) and started to study swordsmanship. The corsetry was probably born out of my love of the beautiful hourglass Victorian dresses. I have always been small, but when I was about 18-20, I had a very boyish figure not the curves I wanted. I discovered corsetry and as I was a student and couldn’t afford to buy a good corset, thought I would try making them. It took a long time to teach myself as there weren’t the resources there are available now.

How do you source vintage designs?

Fashions of 1854
Fashions of 1854

There are a lot of good resources now for vintage patterning, you can still get hold of original patterns from the 1900s (I have some amazing 40s and 50s patterns that I picked up from ebay and junk shops!), as you get earlier, there are reprints of Victorian and Edwardian patterns from magazines that are reasonably easy to get hold of and lots of books available detailing construction. The earlier you get, the harder it is to find original material to study, but by studying pictures and the material that is available, it is possible to work out how these pieces were probably made. Where possible though, the best way I find to learn is to look at extant garments, most museums have the facility to let you study pieces in their collection if you contact them, and there is so much more you can learn by looking at something in person than by looking at a photo.

What are the hazards of your work?

CAD – Cat assisted design. My ginger mog has an annoying tendency to try to get involved at the most awkward times! Also, most of my work is carried out on a 1930’s Singer sewing machine that will sew through just about anything, including fingers as I have learnt the hard way.

Do you find you notice costuming over story and acting in period dramas?

Yes and no, if the story is good and I can lose myself in it, then I can forgive most things other than the totally glaringly obvious, but I will often find once I have noticed something I can’t concentrate on the plot as the error keeps niggling at me!

What is the one key issue you think researchers need to bear in mind when thinking about clothing in the past?

I think you have to understand somewhat the culture, mindset and conditions people were living in. It is only relatively recently that we have had mass production and global communication, therefore in the past although there would be fashions, there would be a lot more geographical variation in styles and each garment would be individually made. Clothes in any period of history say something about the wearer, be that status, profession or any of a myriad of other things.

How has engaging in broadsword fighting and similar activities improved your understanding of the practical requirements of outfits throughout history?

It’s not just the fighting, by wearing the clothes of a certain period you get a better understanding of how a person could move and how they would stand or sit. This may seem unimportant, but if you want to really understand the past I think this really gives you an insight. A simple example would be the footwork when learning to use the smallsword, the weapon itself looks similar to a modern fencing blade, but looking at the original treatises the steps and lunges tend to be much smaller than in modern fencing, you discover the probable reason why when you try fencing in period footwear with smooth leather soles!

Who are your favourite female fighters?

Jennifer Garside 2This is a difficult one too. All throughout history there are examples of often unnamed women fighting alongside their male counterparts, normally only uncovered as women after death or injury. I could list hundreds of inspirational female fighters, but I’ll limit myself to two from two historical extremes. The earliest known European fencing treatise is Royal Armouries MS.I.33 or the Tower Manuscript, this dates from about 1300 and shows a system of combat with sword and buckler (a small round shield). In the latter part of the manuscript, in place of one of the two male figures we see earlier in the text, we have a female figure referred to as Walpurgis. While there is still debate as to why a female figure is used in the text, I feel that her presence maybe indicates that females fighting wasn’t such an unusual occurrence as we might otherwise believe. Travelling forwards 600 years we have Edith Garrud, trained in Bartitsu (probably one of the first ‘mixed martial arts’), she in turn trained The Bodyguard, a group of about 25 women whose task it was to keep the leaders of the militant Suffragette movement out of the hands of the police. She is immortalised in a lovely 1910 Punch cartoon showing her fighting off a group of policemen.

Thank you for all your help with my research, and for sharing so much information about your enviable life!

And thank you Gill – it is a great book and I hope to be there at one of your entertaining talks before too long!

The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: the Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen and Sword, 2014), is out now – see http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/ for further details. Contact Gill at gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk, @GillHoffs or through http://gillhoffs.wordpress.com.
For more information about Wyte Phantom Corsetry and Clothing, visit http://www.rosenkavalier.co.uk/wytephantom/wytephantom4.htm, call 0774 686 4354, or email wyte_phantom@hotmail.com.

 

‘There are more things in heaven & earth…’a response to my piece on Spiritualism in the Great War

mediumdoyle

Today I welcome a post from Ian Stevenson, who contacted me following my recent post about spiritualism and the First World War, a subject I cover in Shell Shocked Britain.  Ian is a counsellor and a member of the Scientific and Medical Network with expertise in the history of the period and a long standing interest in the subject. He offers the view that some of those offering support to the bereaved could have had a genuine gift. Is he right?  Is it true that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…..’? I would love to hear your views…

I would like to give another side to the idea that people were taken in by frauds which is what links on Wikipedia and other internet sites relating to spiritualism during and after the First World War, suggest.

The Great War of 1914-18 created a number of revolutions; political, technical and social. One of them was the growing interest in non-Christian religions and the decline in church attendance. The huge number of war dead meant many families were in mourning and looking for comfort and answers. Spiritualism attracted a wide range of followers although it is probably true to say that women played a greater part than in most other churches and most members were ‘working class’. The church and the scientific world largely dismissed or ridiculed it. After all, they knew best.

PC3-00bOne of its chief supporters was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known for Sherlock Holmes, who wrote a book  ‘
The Land of Mist’ in which a young reporter (who first appeared in the story “The Lost World” ) and his female friend investigate Spiritualism. Doyle included a number of incidents which had a factual basis. In one chapter he has them going to the laboratory of a French investigator who he admits in the notes at the end, is based on Professor Richet, the Nobel Prize winner (he was a physiologist who worked on allergies among other things) who was involved in psychic research for thirty years.

In his book, Doyle has a character that pretends to be a medium and is portrayed as a ‘bad guy’. His brother in the story, a real medium, is sentenced to a term in prison for fortune telling. This is the other side of the coin. A friend recently told me told me that as a little girl she had to watch out for policemen when her mother was having a séance. Those attending a middle class séance had no such worries.

There is little doubt that many people did-and do- attain comfort from the Spiritualist churches which tend to be informal and welcoming. We need to distinguish between them and the ‘sole trader’ medium or clairvoyant who takes money. The years after 1918 were hard for many people and some may have tried to cash in, the ‘frauds’ referred to. However, I have come across many people who go to a medium and are given facts which are correct and often obscure.

Some skeptics might dispute this, claiming that this is cold reading. Dr. Gary Schwartz, a professor of Psychology and Psychiatry in Arizona, arranged a series of experiments where the mediums could not see or hear the sitters (they could hear a yes/no response in some of the early experiments and in a second part  could ask for feedback) The amount of accurate information is impressive. Schwartz invited stage magician ‘cold readers’ to try to duplicate the work of the mediums in the same conditions. None even tried.

Harry Houdini claimed to expose frauds but he seems to have been on a bit of a mission. I saw a few of his ‘exposures’ recreated on TV and was not convinced. He did talk about ‘genuine mediums’ which suggests a belief in an afterlife. His wife certainly did and there is a signed and witnessed document which says Houdini communicated a code word to her after his death.

Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge
Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge

The accusation often made is that grieving people or those who would like it to be true, have low standards of investigation or are gullible, at least in this respect. The Rev. Drayton Thomas investigated Mrs Osborne Leonard (who sat with Sir Oliver Lodge and Coonan Doyle)as did Lady Troubridge. They didn’t just turn up for an evening or two; they sat with her for years and made meticulous notes and she was never accused of fraud. Mrs Piper, in the USA with whom she is often compared, was investigated for some years by William James, the founder of the modern discipline of Psychology in that country, before he assented to her genuine ability. Wikipedia accounts tend to be hostile and sceptics (Skeptics in the US) tend to write the pages. Sir Oliver Lodge was a Fellow of the Royal Society and not just an ivory tower theoretician. He probably sent the first radio transmission a year before Marconi.

raymondThe Wiki page says ‘sceptics have analysed the mediumship of Mrs Leonard… and auto suggestion was used.’ Having read Raymond (the book written by Sir Oliver Lodge) I find it an amazing suggestion. Read the third section of the book by Sir Oliver in which he deals with questions of scientific method, theology and philosophy, you will see that a charlatan medium impressing her ideas on him and all his family is hardly worth considering. The assertion ‘Raymond’ could not remember the names of the officers with whom he had served, is refuted by looking in the book.

The astronaut Edgar Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic (new) Sciences. The chief Scientist is Dean Radin who got so tired of people saying ‘show me the evidence for the spiritual/ supernatural/paranormal and then maybe I’ll believe it,’ that he complied a list of formal experiments, trials and studies. Google ‘Radin /evidence’ and you will find nine pages of mainly recent peer-reviewed studies. If you want to have an informed debate, this might be a place to start.

If one starts from the view there is no afterlife-like Clodd- then there are only two explanations; one is that the medium is misinterpreting what they see, hear or feel (and may have even good motives) or they out to deceive. As it’s impossible, good results MUST be fraud. In most twentieth century science not only acknowledged matter and energy but quantum physics and dark matter and dark energy have shown the limits of what we thought we knew. There is evidence that consciousness may exist beyond the brain e.g. near death experiences. If we are open-minded it may be that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in some people’s philosophy.

Ian Stevenson
Ian Stevenson

My thanks to Ian, as I am always keen to offer the opportunity to reply to posts I have written. It feels uncomfortable, looking back, to judge whether those drawn to the Spiritualist Church during and after the Great War were duped. After all, for many electricity was still a mystery and radio waves impossible to fathom. Do please comment if you have a view. Ian will be happy to respond.

Don’t admit weakness to Marie Stopes: Eugenicist, not Feminist

Marie Stopes
Marie Stopes

I have spent many happy hours researching my book Shell Shocked Britain, and have learned many things that turned my long-held beliefs about the war and inter-war period on their head. Not only has this made BBC Drama The Crimson Field impossible to watch without the desire to throw things at the screen and shout ‘it wasn’t like that!’, but it has required me to reassess my views about certain important 20th century historical figures, some of whom I had previously thought admirable.

The greatest surprise came during my work on post war attitudes to those men who came back from the war with psychiatric, rather than physical, wounds. Eugenics, and the discussions about the impact of the war on the ‘breeding’ of the next generation, threw up incidents in the life of Marie Stopes that have changed my views on the woman I had previously thought of as one of the great pioneers for women’s rights in the 20th century.

I was recommended to read a book called Dear Dr Stopes, edited 170px-Married_Love_Coverby Ruth Hall. It is a collection of letters to, and from, Stopes during the 1920s, when many of the questions referred to her from readers of her book Married Love, published in 1918. It is a fascinating look at attitudes to sex and contraception that is by turns quaint, funny and deeply disturbing.

After the war ended and it was clear that many men had returned from the Front traumatised by their experiences, there was a concern expressed – quite openly in high office – that the British Empire would be placed at risked should the ‘C3’ population be allowed to procreate at a reckless rate. What was described for the first time as the ‘A1’ class of man (the officer class) has been disproportionately devastated by the conflict so what could be done, at a time when contraceptive advice was not to be widely available for another decade?  Stopes was one of a number of intellectuals of the period to support a eugenicist view of the future – Havelock Ellis, John Maynard Keynes, Cyril Burt and George Bernard Shaw were expounding similar views, and army psychiatrists readily discussed the possible, negative, impact of allowing many of the traumatised men in their care to reproduce.

But it was Marie Stopes, as a pioneer of birth control, who adopted a high profile campaign. She supported compulsory sterilisation of parents who were “totally unfit for parenthood” and in 1921 she advocated “Joyful and Deliberate Motherhood, A Safe Light in our Racial Darkness.” and criticized a society that “allows the diseased, the racially negligent, the thriftless, the careless, the feeble-minded, the very lowest and worst members of the community to produce innumerable tens of thousands of stunted, warped and inferior infants”.

Just before the 1922 general election,  Stopes circulated a questionnaire to every parliamentary candidate to be returned to ‘The Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress’, which she founded. The statement candidates were required to sign up to said:

I agree that the present position of breeding chiefly from the C3 populations and burdening and discouraging the A1 is nationally deplorable, and if I am elected to Parliament I will press the Ministry of Health to give such scientific information through the Ante-natal clinics, Welfare centres and other institutions in its control as will curtail the C3 and increase the A1.

Ruth Hall offers some of the replies she received, including those that took issue with the implications of her proposal:

...how any institution is going to tell millions of people that they must not breed, or how you are going to get physical or mental deficients, who are sometimes returned to Parliament, to vote for the extinction of their rights, and to reflect on their parents by passing an Act of Parliament I do not know…’

What is striking in many of the replies – positive and negative – is the acceptance of the term ‘deficients’, amongst whom were included many of the men who had but recently been fighting for their country. Such language had been included in the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 and an awareness of the importance of terminology would be many years coming.

eugenicsMarie Stopes was a woman who fought to get birth control on the political agenda, and wanted it available to women of all classes. She was always happy to answer questions, very warmly, from any woman who wrote to her. But why she was so forceful in her argument is not as altruistic as I had previously thought. She even disapproved of her only son’s choice of partner and tried to dissuade him from marrying her on the basis of her short-sightedness. When her son refused to bow to her pressure, she cut him from her will. She wanted a world where only the physical and mentally perfect survived and at the end of my researches I was not surprised to learn that she had sent a book of poetry to Hitler, and wrote anti-Semititic poems, including the lines “Catholics, Prussians, the Jews and the Russians, all are a curse, or something worse.”

Shell Shocked Britain looks at the legacy of the Great War for Britain’s mental health. With leading figures of the day regularly making eugenicist arguments in the national press, and army psychiatrists giving evidence to committees in terms that were eugenicist in nature, why would anyone feel confident that a plea for support at a time of fragility would be met with a positive response?

Speaking to the dead: spiritualism, secularism & seeing the ghosts of the Great War

 

Mina Crandon  known as Margery) one of the most controversial mediums of the 1920s
Mina Crandon known as Margery) one of the most controversial mediums of the 1920s

Do you believe in ghosts? Can you trust in mediums who claim to commune with the dead? In Shell Shocked Britain I look at the rise of spiritualism during and after the First World War, examining why it experienced an explosion in interest and what it offered a nation traumatised by loss and grief. It is a fascinating subject that encompasses not just the supernatural, but issues of gender, the role of religion and the psychological need for both certainty and succour.

Even before 1914 church attendance was declining. As now, the majority of the population would classify themselves as Christian, but religious observance was increasingly confined to traditional holidays such as Christmas, Easter, harvest festivals and rites of passage – births, marriages and deaths. Demographic changes had led to the breaking up of small and close knit communities and young people were finding the strictures of the scriptures less relevant to their lives.

The Great War thrust the established church back into the limelight as clergy were called upon to rally people to the cause and offer hope and comfort to combatants and civilians alike. However, many found the support of their local priest wanting.  The church was sometimes viewed as too ready to promote an aggressive patriotism, focusing on fighting the good fight, rather than offering the necessary emotional support to those grieving. Yet if an individual priest were seen to be questioning the war, he would be vilified in local and national press. The church lost its way and a grieving nation sought meaning elsewhere.

Spiritualism as we would recognise it today began in mid-Victorian North America and by the 1870s there were numerous Spiritualist societies and churches throughout Britain and the United States, which in 1891 joined together to form the National Federation of Spiritualists. In 1902 the organisation became the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), which still exists today.  Spiritualist mediums, whose influence had declined following the the heyday of the séance in the late nineteenth century, became, for thousands of people during the First World War,  a focal point for grief and hope. Great crowds would attend spiritualist meetings across the country and enthusiasm for the gatherings went across all classes.

espiritus‘Celebrity’ endorsement furthered the cause. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge were great advocates for the movement, affected as they both were by the loss of sons to the war. In Shell Shocked I look at some of the key reasons why such eminent intellectuals were ‘taken in’, and at Mrs Osborne Leonard, one of the mediums who made such an impression on them. It makes disturbing reading, but in the 21st century there are equally audacious ‘cons’ that draw us in. Many sought to prove spiritualism was a fraud, including illusionist Harry Houdini, but that interest only heightened the public interest.

Gladys Osborne Leonard was born in 1882 and would later say that she had first had commune with spirits whilst still a child. Thwarted in her ambition to become a professional singer by illness, she turned to spiritualism and was giving professional sittings by 1915.  It was when she came into contact with scientist Sir Oliver Lodge that her fame spread. Lodge’s experiences of working with her to communicate with his son, killed in action in 1915, were written up in his book Raymond or Life and Death – a paean to the afterlife and ultimately to his desperate grief at the loss of his son.

Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge
Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge

Leonard worked with the Society for Psychical Research, an organisation established to prevent fraud, which offered a veil of respectability.  However, many later suggested Leonard was a clever charlatan who used auto-suggestion in a similar way to many of the doctors treating shell shocked soldiers, tapping into her client’s unconscious until they believed what she wanted them to believe. Her work may seem feeble by today’s standards, but in the days of early wireless technology it was not difficult for Sir Oliver Lodge to believe that invisible radio waves were acting as a conduit to his dead son’s existence on the other side.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also a firm believer and said of Leonard: “The greatest trance medium with whom the author is acquainted is Mrs. Osborne Leonard. The outstanding merit of her gift is that it is, as a rule, continuous. It is not broken up by long pauses or irrelevant intervals, but it flows on exactly as if the person alleged to be speaking were actually present. The usual procedure is that Mrs. Leonard, a pleasant, gentle, middle-aged, ladylike woman, sinks into slumber, upon which her voice changes entirely, and what comes through purports to be from her little control, Feda”

It is little wonder that so many were attracted to this contact, and with the ‘Happy Valley’ in which Leonard said dead soldiers lived a comfortable life. They smoked pipes, drank whisky and took springtime walks.

As worrying as the fraud on the recently bereaved was the exploitation within spritualism itself. In the 19th century, the formal spiritualist movement had been dominated by female mediums, such as the Fox sisters. It was closely allied to women’s suffrage and offered an opportunity for women to make their views known. However,  some of these women were preyed upon by male confidence tricksters who, to all intents and purposes, ‘pimped’ them around meetings and informal gatherings. A movement that had originally given women subject to the restrictive social mores of Victorian and Edwardian society a ‘voice’ now became another way to subjugate them.

In the inter-war years spiritualism was the only way many could make sense of loss and cling to the belief that their loved ones were in a ‘better place’. It stepped in where the Anglican church, along with other denominations, seemed muddled and without a lead, unable even to agree on what was meant by an ‘afterlife’.

In Shell Shocked Britain I look at this subject in  more detail, to assess how hundreds of thousands came to rely on the voices of the dead to keep them in the land of the living. It is a fascinating aspect of the emotional turmoil the whole country experienced during and after the Great War, and one that is rarely discussed.

Votes for Women! The Bristol Suffragettes on Talking Books

BristolsuffragettesOn last Friday’s Talking Books – my radio show on 10Radio.org -I interviewed writer Lucienne Boyce, who has recently published a wonderful book called The Bristol Suffragettes, the story of the women who took the fight for ‘votes for all ‘ to the streets of Bristol in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of us (myself included) have a narrow view of who the suffragettes were, what they stood for and how they took militant and direct action to the top of government. On Friday I learned how women in the South West of England made a real difference to the overall battle and how their determination took them to rallies and marches; how they felt forced to break windows and start fires; of their confidence to heckle politicians and, ultimately, their ability to endure prison (and force feeding) to keep the fight for votes for women at the forefront of the public mind.

Having read Lucienne’s book I am impressed most particularly by three things:

1. The amount of research that has gone into a book that is both comprehensive and immensely readable. It would be a terrific resource for anyone studying the subject at any level. The general reader – especially if they know the Bristol area or are planning a visit – will enjoy the storytelling, the photographs (so well presented on top quality paper) and the guided walk included in the back, offering the opportunity to follow the suffragettes on a walk around the city.

2. The production values. As I say the photos are presented well and the text is clear and easy to read. So many history books don’t get that balance right, having all the photos in one place surrounded by pages of dense text.

3. How grateful we should be to those women prepared to stand up and fight for us all to have a say in how our country is run.  Lucienne has balanced what was, sometimes, criminal activity, with the necessary fight that women had to take to the male establishment. They were also faced with hostility from women who felt that the responsibility was too much to deal with on top of their child rearing and housekeeping responsibilities.

I heartily recommend this book, and when you listen to the broadcast below you will hear how passionate Lucienne is about the topic. I have had some great feedback about the programme: ‘fascinating’ ‘we must have more history programmes on Talking Books‘ ‘I never knew that!’ and most importantly, ‘how can I buy the book?’.

As mentioned on the programme I always suggest ordering it through your local bookshop and even though it is not yet listed you can get it through www.localbookshops.co.uk. If you absolutely must you can get it through Amazon too!

Lucienne Boyce also has her own website which offers more details about the book and her research and also tells you about her fiction writing.  Set in the 18th century, To the Fair Land was published in 2012 to great reviews. Described as a ‘gripping, thrilling’ mystery, Lucienne also talks about the inspiration for the book at the end of Talking Books.

So do take a listen to the show, it was one that I particularly enjoyed. It is a fascinating half hour and ends with a very stirring song….

What is ‘romantic fiction’? – Talking Books with author Bethany Askew

My fortnightly book programme on 10Radio is going really well. I am enjoying discussions with a wide variety of guests and if it all sounds as if we are just having a good old chinwag about our favourite subject – books, poetry, reading and the written word in all its forms – then that is pretty close to the truth.

out of stepTwo weeks ago I spent a really interesting thirty minutes in the company of author Bethany Askew. Bethany has been writing women’s commercial literature for twelve years and has completed four novels; The Double Life of Jemma Langford, Out Of Step and Counting The Days and The Time Before. The first two are currently available on Amazon Kindle and Bethany also writes poetry and short stories.

So how do you define fiction that is, mainly, read by women? We came to the conclusion that what one person might call ‘romance’ is actually what is often, somewhat disparagingly called ‘chick lit’, or ‘women’s popular fiction’. Do we want pure escapism? As my lovely friend Lucy said ‘ I like a happy ending! If I need s**t romantic f**kups then I can just stick to my ACTUAL LIFE.’ I used this quote in the show, but missed out the rude words for fear of being taken off the air….

Many people did want a challenge though. The books and authors we discussed more often wrote about relationships than romance. Life does not have neat and tidy outcomes and even happiness can come at a price. The authors that were recommended to me on social media were not necessarily the ones I expected, we ranged across the last two centuries and we had an interesting discussion about women’s fiction that is most popular in libraries…

So do listen to the show on the link below.  Bethany was a great guest – knowledgeable and willing to share a lot about her writing life. She read a passage from her work and chose the most wonderful piece of music to end the show.

I must apologise for a few ums and ars as it was a month since the previous programme and I actually wasn’t very well, but we soon warmed up.

Bethany has a great website at http://www.bethanyaskew.co.uk/ which offers full details and some examples of her work. I would like to thank her very much for joining in the conversation. Talking Books is a pleasure to do and I am so glad to have the opportunity to spend 30 minutes talking about my favourite subject every fortnight!

 

Starting as I mean to go on…

step-forwardNext week I am taking what is, for me anyway, a really significant step. I have to believe it is a step forward and although it is not exactly brave, it is taking all my courage to move further along a path that until now has seemed one which could only lead inexorably to anxiety and unhappiness. It is a path that is meant to lead in quite the opposite direction.

Forgive me for being a little obtuse. Even that word seems designed to obstruct and prevent clear understanding. I am certainly finding this hard to express. Or easier to avoid expressing directly.

Those who know me, or have read a little about me in Dandelions and Bad Hair Days, or on this blog, will know that I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44 in 2006. I had young children and was terrified but I came through chemotherapy and radiotherapy successfully and have just been told that I can now come off of all the medication that has been keeping the beast at bay. The worst of the risk is past, apparently. No-one will say ‘you are cured’. In Somerset they don’t even say you are ‘all clear’. It is a brave man they say that will claim to have cured cancer. It can still come back but I should, with luck, do well. Good news, move on. How much easier said than done that has been for me.

From a young age I have been faced with illness – not always my own but certainly my father’s. He was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s when I was just starting primary school and I don’t remember him physically well at all. As with many neurological disorders he had good days and bad days and our lives were ruled, understandably, by how he was feeling. But I now know that however ‘good’ the day and however well he felt he would always assume the worst. He had suffered grief and loss in a previous marriage and despite happiness with a new family he felt disaster was never far from his life. It stopped him opening up to us, to love us as he might for fear of losing us as he lost his first family. Who could be surprised at that?

Dad died almost exactly twenty years ago and until I started counselling two years ago I didn’t realise how quickly I had taken over his role; started reading from the same script. The breast cancer confirmed it for me – I was playing a part in a tragedy of my own making. A starring role in my own disaster movie. How could I be one of the lucky ones? After all I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, had breast-fed my children and had just got fit and healthy when I found the lump. I had all the protective factors but no, I wasn’t one of the 9 out of 10 for whom all is well. I was the 1 in 10. Cue song…

But it has gone on too long. Before Christmas I had a scare. Ultrasound and MRI scan eventually confirming that what was on my liver was not the worst it could be, but something benign. Something that is a nuisance but NOT cancer.

This post came to me when I was browsing the Poetry Archive site, as is my wont. I found this poem by Felix Dennis, which I dedicate to my dad. I wish he could have read it.

Not All Things Go Wrong…

by Felix Dennis

Not all things go wrong, and knowing
This, be wary of despair,
As you go through hell — keep going,
Make no brave oasis there.

Through the shadowlands of grieving,
Past the giants, Doubt and Fear,
Heartsick, stunned, and half believing —
Heed no whisper in your ear.

Not all things go wrong — and after
Winter’s famine comes the spring,
Kindness, beauty, children’s laughter —
Joy is ever on the wing.

This is such a simple poem but very real for me as I head into 2013.

So with the thoughts of Felix Dennis in mind, where does it leave my script? My soap opera of a life of anxiety? Well it actually changes nothing. I could think ‘well those good results were this time, there will be others’ and carry on in the same way, crucifying myself with anxiety. Or I could do what I have done and at least take steps to try to break the cycle; write a new ending to the story. Give myself some funny lines and be kind to myself. Write myself the equivalent of a retreat; not from the world but from the knotted workings of my own mind.

logoI have booked myself onto a Living Well with the Impact of Cancer two-day residential course offered by Penny Brohn Cancer Care in Bristol. I know many men and women go shortly after diagnosis or just after treatment has ended. It has taken me six years to take advantage of the charity’s support and I hope it will make the difference to me that it has to so many others; exploring the meaning of cancer in my life with people who understand the impact of the proverbial ‘journey’. I know now I have become almost phobic about cancer, avoiding friendships with those travelling the same tough road for fear of losing them, being unable to offer the support they need or assuming their experience would be mine. I barely talk about it; hardly ever write about it which is bizarre when one’s every experience could inform one’s writing. Perhaps when I come back I will open up; I will certainly tell you how I get on.

I know it will take commitment and leaving behind all the excuses I have made to myself in the past. I must want to learn how to take care of my mind and body so that instead of taking the path that meanders without purpose to the one thing certain in our lives (death, not taxes – I paid £12 this year) I will work to choose the path that might be new and scary but which offers me not a poor shadow of my old life but a new one. I will try to come to terms with the anger and disappointment and move on.

I will tear up my father’s script and write myself a new one.

Mental health guest post: on surviving using self-help strategies….

Editor’s note:  Dandelions and Bad Hair Days has brought me into contact with some really interesting and honest writers and Melanie is definitely one of them. She is a freelance writer, mother and is currently working on her first novel. Recently having been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, she embarked on a mission of self-help, to assist alongside her medication and talking therapies. Her guest post today details some of the methods used by her and others to ease their symptoms during what can be a difficult time of year for many. Do take a look at her own blog over at Molly Doubly-Barrely.

lavender aromatherapy

Self Therapies – A holistic approach to mental illness

 A commonly uttered phrase I have been hearing of late is ‘they won’t help you unless you help yourself.’ Of course, my perpetual need to over analyse what people say took over and I have since become fanatical about self management strategies, Googling and reading until my brain aches with information overload. After waiting two weeks for a referral to the Wellbeing team, I had worked myself into a state, my medication had reduced in its effectiveness and I was generally making a hash of life. Then my appointment was cancelled due to staff shortages. Luckily, I had already read up on the experiences of others and I now realise I am not alone in searching desperately for ways to help myself, having been – temporarily – let down by the professionals. Continue reading “Mental health guest post: on surviving using self-help strategies….”

‘Health anxiety’ or ‘hypochondria’? Fear or phobia, it’s a killer…

healthanxietyPerhaps my title exaggerates; perhaps it doesn’t. All I know is that whether you worry at every possible sign of illness and go to the doctors, or worry about illness and avoid the medical profession until a crisis occurs, these are not issues to be sneered at.

‘Hypochondriacs’ are much maligned. In books, on tv and in the media anyone who seems to seat themselves in the doctor’s waiting room at every opportunity is a figure of fun or of derision. Admittedly, there are some who seem to enjoy a good old natter about their ailments and for whom a neighbour or friend’s misfortune is the subject of much hushed talk and gossip. But this is not about those people. This is about people – and I count myself one of them – for whom health anxiety is a horribly debilitating, restrictive and obsessive condition.

Often considered to be on the  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) spectrum, many of those affected by health anxiety have ‘an obsessional preoccupation with the idea or the thought that they are currently (or will be) experiencing a physical illness.’ (Anxiety UK). The most common health anxieties tend to centre on conditions such as cancer,but the anxiety or phobia may fixate on any type of illness. Continue reading “‘Health anxiety’ or ‘hypochondria’? Fear or phobia, it’s a killer…”