Category Archives: Writing

SPARKLE

There you are child. Come sit by the fire and I’ll explain your duties. I’m not getting any younger, about time I had someone to help with the chores. Hopefully you’re not afraid of hard work. Everyone expects me to drop whatever I happen to be doing, wave a magic wand and turn their problems into happy-ever-after. Well I’m having to be far more discerning these days. Clients are making all manner of impossible demands since the princess sold her story to Messrs Grimm. I know times are changing but being immortalized in print is hardly ideal when one needs complete obscurity for dreams come true.

Personally I’ve never seen the need to advertise when word of mouth has proved perfectly satisfactory. You see I earned my reputation by never refusing a wish once committed, even where the final outcome seemed totally impossible. It’s taken many years to perfect these happy endings and I don’t accept disappointment lightly. I know there’s been some criticism regarding my latest case but nothing was due to my failings. Such a pretty girl but working as a skivvy did nothing for her language. I’ve a cache of spells for making even the most lacklustre girl appear glamorous, that’s really quite easy, and Prince Charming fell hook, line and sinker for her beauty, but I never guarantee what the far-distant future might hold. I suspect the Prince formed some early misgivings at the wedding breakfast after being seated next to the bride’s step-mother. Brimming with intellect she was not. After she’d drowned her sorrows in the ‘never-ending’ champagne she enquired about my services for her other daughters. One must be discreet but there are some things even I can’t fix.

Is it any wonder we fairy godmothers are a vanishing breed? Recently I was even accused of elitism. But surely one has to have standards. We can’t go granting wishes to just anyone who happens to recite the magic words and I’ve rarely received any on-the-job support so is it any wonder my methods are somewhat out-dated. Once upon a time I trained another apprentice, far younger than you; taught her how to grant simple wishes so I could concentrate on providing a better-ever-after service but she wasn’t comfortable with the world of fantasy and so very slovenly she failed to drum up any real sparkle and without sparkle there’s simply no magic.

Many thought me foolish for choosing such a calling but the truth is I’ve always aimed high and it didn’t take long to discover I was blessed with natural aptitude for happy-ever-afters. And servicing an exclusive clientele keeps me out of mischief, although there have been times I felt tempted. You see it’s never been about limitless riches, in fact in Cinder’s case it was in memory of her mother, poor soul. In the deep distant past I granted her wish to attend an exclusive finishing school but then, without so much as a by-your-leave, the little fool fell head-over-heels in love with a clothier’s son. I’ve always said that untold wealth is rarely the best basis for wedded bliss. Agreed, he was handsome, but lacking even basic people skills. When she died of a broken heart he was soon hoodwinked by that money-grabbing witch and her repulsive daughters. I daren’t think what would have become of young Cinderella if I hadn’t been alerted to her fate. I’ve an excellent informant in Rumpelstiltskin; he may be old but keeps his ear to the ground. Yes…I’ve heard the rumours about blackmail but needs must as the saying goes. I’ve learned to stay on my toes.

Speaking of toes I wish I knew how to put to a stop to those wicked red shoes but I never dabble with vanity, my talents being better tuned to match-making. I wish I could boast a career of infinite successes but, be warned child, during my formative years I made some dreadful mistakes. It’s easy to forget that nightmares are born from misused spells. Take heed from the sorcerer’s apprentice… such an impossible boy. And never, ever, underestimate the opposition, particularly if they favour dressing in black. Nor should you be persuaded to allocate any form of responsibility to dwarves. At best they can be scatterbrained but once in their cups there’s no reasoning with them and I can’t agree that manual labour offers any excuse for wholesale inebriation. Snow White was almost lost that day. Another lesson learned, as they say, which is why I now insist on complete jurisdiction from the very beginning. Reputation is everything.

Obviously I worry about the future. After that last fall I rather lost the will to fly yet I dread what the future of true-love will be without some sort of magical intervention. I can’t be alone in suspecting that the current generation of princes lack back-bone? Last time I chose an eminently eligible consort to wake a beautiful princess with a single fateful kiss he proved such a limp lettuce I was obliged to prune the undergrowth before he’d enter her chamber. While I agree one hundred years of neglect had left its mark I anticipated a little more gusto.

Now child, would you mind dropping off this pumpkin on your way past the lodge and don’t take any nonsense from the mice. If you must use the wand keep within your capabilities and, be warned, magic doesn’t work once they’ve forgotten how to dream.

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Filed under aspirations, Christmas, Entertainment, fiction, Imagination, Make Believe, Nostalgia, Uncategorized, Writing

Friars Carse

A twenty-four hour break seemed just enough to charge our memories because there was once a time, when my son was learning his trade, when we needed to drive along the A76 three or four times a month. Except I’m hardly a glutton for nostalgia and had almost forgotten the compelling beauty of this landscape, its low rolling hills and broadleaf forests, the few snatched glimpses of the glistening River Nith. The ancient road links Dumfries to Sanquhar and beyond, and its sense of history is compelling as it weaves through places that recall times past. And November is a time for remembrance.

Being Border Country the land was once dotted with castles. Proper castles, with sheer stone walls that fail to radiate warmth and hospitality. Castles undoubtedly occupied by ruthless nobles who jealously guarded their patch. Many were destroyed to fulfil a treaty with the English back in the 1300’s. Poor King David II was being held hostage in London and the price of his freedom was utter humiliation. But being Border Country the nobles were quick to rebuild.

After leaving Dumfries the first place of note is Thornhill, a perfect example of a traditional Scottish town. Neat stone houses line boulevard wide streets and shops provide essentials like oil lamps, hearth tools and treacle licks. There is a sense that time is marked differently in this corner of Scotland except yellow coated contractors are busy installing super-fast broadband cables beneath the sandstone slabbed pavements. Not even a mobile signal today!

The weather was becoming increasingly dreich so we dived inside a café for lunch. Soup of the Day was broth – just like my grandmother used to make, a thick kaleidoscope of root vegetables jewelled with beads of barley, inviting any spoon to take root. Soup that braves the elements. Except we didn’t.

Friars Carse, the hotel where we were staying, owns an exceptionally long history. On a small rise near the entrance archaeologists discovered the remains of an Iron Age Fort which was later occupied by Romans. Grey Friars brought their form of Christianity here but the ecclesiastical buildings they founded were enclosed inside a fortified building that was later extended to make a comfortable home. If I had my pick of the land I’d choose this very same plot because the stately sandstone house sits atop a raised peninsula overlooking the beautiful River Nith framed in majestic trees bright with autumn colour. Some native trees possess girths which suggest a very long lifespan, no doubt charmed by their setting.

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In 1809 the house became the home of Dr James Crichton, the Admirable Crichton, being renamed Friars Carse in 1895. In 1938 it became a hotel and attracts its regular clientele of anglers keen to nab salmon and trout. Our prize was to rest but first we’d anticipated taking a slow walk through the grounds before settling into our suite. Unfortunately the weather proved un-obliging and so we fell to appreciating the bottle of chilled champagne waiting in our room. The afternoon was spent reading and relaxing and dinner was divine, every morsel perfectly sumptuous. We retired entirely mollycoddled.

For me the most enigmatic attraction of Friars Carse is the tiny shed-like outbuilding called the Hermitage. Etched into one of the window panes are the following words:

Thou whom Chance may hither lead,

Be thou clad in russet weed

Be thou deckt in silken stole

Grave these counsels on thy soul.

Life is but a day at most

Sprung from night – in darkness lost;

Hope not sunshine every hour

Fear not clouds will always lour.

The person who scribed these famous lines lived less than a mile south of Friars Carse and should you follow the fast-flowing Nith for about half a mile you reach his former home, Ellisland Farm. Historians say he chose the site because he was particularly inspired by this stretch of river. However it cannot be denied the poet also enjoyed its proximity to Friars Carse. Robert Burns even wrote a poem called The Whistle to commemorate a drinking contest which took place there on 16th October 1789. Participants had to drink each other under the table. You might guess what form of trophy was awarded to the winner.

Should you be tempted: http://www.friarscarse.co.uk

 

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Filed under Autumn, Culture, Experience, fiction, Friendship, History, Life, Nostalgia, Past, Scotland, Wishes, Writing

Getting Back to Work – Phase One and Two

PHASE ONE

The official period of recovery is over and I’m back to the day job and wondering where on earth summer has gone. While time is tightly spliced with family and work and trying to batter the garden into some sort of order and failing I feel I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, exchanging the luxury of time spent reading and writing with the need to do things I couldn’t attempt during convalescence. It’s not a bad thing, taking a step back, but being recovered I’m finding it harder to justify. As soon as there’s space in my schedule I notice something else that must be done and recent weeks have flown by without much time for writing.

Anyway I decided to seek inspiration by reading some of my fellow writers’ blogs. Last week the Crimson League (http://crimsonleague.com) had an interesting article about creating successful characters using something called the Myers-Briggs type. This device for assessing character came as a complete revelation but rather than discovering how to improve on writing about people I discovered something fundamental about myself. For those unfamiliar with psychology it basically suggests our character is divided into four dominant forces – sensation, intuition, feeling and thinking – and that only one of these functions can dominate most of the time.

The third continuum reflects the person’s decision preferences. Thinking types desire objective truth and logical principles and are natural at deductive reasoning. Feeling types place an emphasis on issues and causes that can be personalized while they consider other people’s motives.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers%E2%80%93Briggs_Type_Indicator

Revelation! Now I understand every bad decision I’ve ever made. The very fact I act on feelings renders me incapable of making rational decisions. And for years I’ve been blaming mother! Freud eat your heart out, I should have been looking to Jung.

Mum and me

Mum and me

PHASE TWO

Only recently I’ve come to realise the very practise of creative writing is quite absurd. Putting words into a sequence in which they can be recognised and interpreted by a reader to such an extent they can impose the same images into their imagination is completely illogical when you really think about it. Why not just stick to pictures? Words are a form of code, and the essence of a code is that it requires translation and excludes those who cannot understand. When a writer puts a story into words the anticipation is that whoever reads that story will comprehend what is being described but it’s impossible to know what feeds the imagination.  I believe the real art of writing is explaining enough that the reader is transported to another time and place – every scene must have a setting –while giving no more detail than required. I have to trust that readers (like writers) have very active imaginations but what if they have no personal experience of the time and place involved? What really breathes life into a story is something far beyond words.

Shakespeare's Seal

Shakespeare’s Seal?

I write about the past because I love history. I enjoy unravelling the uncertainties of a time I can never experience. History is mystery but I can become so completely lost in researching my subject that the stories slide further and further from completion. While I prefer to have some semblance of reality I can never describe the past as real, however delicious or detailed the research. So how can I make something that only exists in my imagination come alive through words?

Shakespeare seal ring

Ring found buried in the garden at Shakespeare’s home in Stratford upon Avon.

I feel like the traveller who, having got lost, asks directions from a local only to be told they are starting their journey in the wrong place. Perhaps I should turn to writing about the future? With the tramlines of the past erased there is total freedom to invent. Actually that’s rather scary and never forget the very first Star Wars movie begins with the words – A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – George Lucas framed his tale in history, not science fiction!  Projecting into the future may seem a very good way of escaping the present but I doubt anyone would be interested in my fantasies. Some believe Shakespeare’s Tempest was the first work of science fiction but I’d rather have my stories rooted in actual events because, as they say, truth can be stranger than fiction.

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Filed under Feeling, fiction, Imagination, Understanding, Writing

Life in Songs

I don’t know if you are familiar with this enigmatic song but the lyrics came back to haunt me recently. It’s been recorded many times but my favourite version is by Dusty Springfield.

I think I’m goin’ back
To the things I learned so well in my youth.
I think I’m returning to
Those days when I was young enough to know the truth.

Now there are no games to only pass the time
No more colouring books, no Christmas bells to chime
But thinking young and growing older is no sin
And I can play the game of life to win.

I can recall the time
When I wasn’t ashamed to reach out to a friend.
And now I think I’ve got
A lot more than a skipping rope to lend.

Now there’s more to do than watch my sailboat glide
And every day can be my magic carpet ride
And I can play hide and seek with my fears
And live my days instead of counting my years.

Let everyone debate the true reality
I’d rather see the world the way it used to be
A little bit of freedom’s all we lack
So catch me if you can I’m goin’ back.

Written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King the words seem to describe lost innocence using iconic images like skipping ropes and colouring books and magic-carpet rides – freeze-framed elements of childhood in the sixties.

While visiting my sister in Kent, we decided to take a walk around our childhood. It was a fine spring afternoon and we dabbled in nostalgia as our walk recalled the extraordinary freedoms with which we were blessed ‘in our youth’.

Upchurch, the village where we grew up, lies on the southern shores of the Thames Estuary and is set on a small, low-lying peninsula where the ragged shoreline breaks into a maze of tiny inlets. These muddy, virtually unnavigable rivers, are ruled by the tide and we’d spend most of our summer holidays playing in the ribs of rotting barges, imagining the lives of those who came before. When the tide came in we would go and dig for treasure amongst piles of Victorian rubbish originally shipped as ballast and dumped beside the old jetties in days when boats, not cars, governed local transport. Amongst our best finds were a bronze Roman coin and half a mammoth’s tusk, all donated (unwillingly) to a local museum.

‘Going back’ to our childhood made us realise how little the region where we grew-up had changed. But times have changed and I doubt any mother today could permit such freedom without being accused of negligence. Not that we realised the dangers, we were too busy having fun.

Perhaps this song does sum-up the best things in childhood. Certainly that’s what Carole King captures in her bouncy, up-beat recording of 1966, made at a time when she was still ageless with youth. But listen to Dusty Springfield’s soul-ridden performance and the words resound with sadness, this songstress wants to hold onto the past because she’s terrified by the prospect of growing old.

But the fact that really sparks my interest is how the same words can be performed in such a way they generate very different emotional responses. Like the past, it means different things to different people. And that is the enigma which makes writing about the past so very fascinating. We can only visit the past when we’ve experienced the future.

North Kent Marshes

North Kent Marshes

“CliffeCreekFleet 0312”. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CliffeCreekFleet_0312.JPG#/media/File:CliffeCreekFleet_0312.JPG

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Filed under Changes, Family, Growing, Interpretation, Kent, Marsh, Nostalgia, Writing

Maps and Mary, Queen of Scots

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Whether looking for the best means to travel from A to B or going in search of treasure you can’t do without a map. And I don’t mean some GPS enabled app, that just doesn’t have the same scope. I mean a large paper sheet that refuses to close down even when you want it to and has a satisfying radius that sets your position on the planet better than glaring at Google Earth. Maps are the key to an ‘otherworld’, they lead to somewhere else, facilitate journeying beyond familiar places to places where one may be inspired and astounded. Maps are really quite remarkable.

Over the last few months I’ve been trying to determine the most likely route Mary Queen of Scots followed after landing from a fishing boat on a beach near Workington during the evening of 16th May 1568. But the truth is proving elusive, not least because after her death she became something more than human, she became a figure of romance, a legend. Every Tom, Dick or Harry with an eye to a profit has claimed she came to call.

Mary-Queen-of-Scots

There is no question where she slept that very first night because the evidence is indisputable. Imagine the furore when the Queen of the neighbouring country unexpectedly comes a-calling? Unfortunately the Curwens who resided at Workington Hall were taking the waters in Bath but a servant recognised Mary because he was French and ‘knew her in better times’.  That evening letters were being dispatched to the four corners of the land (and beyond, Mary wrote a letter to France begging assistance). Just before dawn next day Richard Lowther, deputy keeper of Carlisle Castle, arrived with a company of men (between 200 to 800 depending on who composed the letter) to escort the unexpected visitor back to Carlisle Castle. The argument being this was for her own safety.

Lowther was right to worry about Mary’s situation. The Earl of Northumberland wanted Mary under his control, and with Lord Wharton, military governor of the region out of reach in London poor Richard had to make all the decisions. He obviously knew who he could trust and called on a wealthy merchant called Henry Fletcher. Now while most records agree that Fletcher was Mary’s host during her second night in England he owned several large houses in the region. The earliest written record I can find claims Mary stayed at Clea Hall but that didn’t seem to make sense because it’s so far off the beaten track…at least nowadays. Perhaps that’s why most modern tomes agree Mary stayed that critical night at Cockermouth Hall, another of Henry’s homes.

Then, while debating my next step, I happened to bump into John Higham, a retired history teacher who’s written several books on local history. When I told him of my dilemma he pointed me towards the Saxon map of Cumberland which was published in 1579. It came as a surprise to discover that the main road to Carlisle, in fact the only road which would accommodate a large party of men and women on horseback, skirted the hills and passed through the villages of Ireby and Dalston, a very different route from today. And this made it apparent that Clea Hall is in a much better position, especially if you want to ride in ceremonial triumph into Carlisle next day and not look too frazzled. The grounds of Clea Hall also offered space for the few hundred soldiers who needed a place to lay their heads, something far less feasible in Cockermouth town centre, especially with the Earl of Northumberland’s men breathing down your back (but that’s another story).

So my journey hasn’t ended. I have an inkling the records are wrong, but I do know for certain that Mary made the wrong choice in coming to England. But then, had she remained, as was most likely, under house arrest in Scotland, she would have faded into history rather than blazed.

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Looking NW from a farm lane near Crosscanonby across farmland and the Solway Firth to the Galloway Hills.

  © Copyright ally McGurk and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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Filed under Cumberland, History, Research, Scotland, Sources, Writing

Not Writing

I’m writing. I write most days but rarely aim to publish. And it seems to me that’s the problem. I love to write but I baulk at publishing, going public. It’s like exposing your soul, I think. But that’s the point surely, writing must be read. And I agree, but not by someone else, it’s mine, secret and safe. Except I’ve recently lost my work-in-progress notebook, worse I think I left it in a hotel in Kelso…someone, a complete stranger, could be rifling through my notes right at this moment and thinking…well I hate to wonder what they might think.

It seems to me there are many reasons why people write. I’m the worst kind, the writer who locks herself away and reels off page after page of passionate prose, and edits it down to a sentence next day. I’m constantly appraising my work, destroying one set of words and replacing them with another. That’s the trouble with word processors, it’s the literary equivalent of a chalk board, but I do scribble copious notes in my notebooks and, truth be told, that’s where the bones of my stories are placed.

Now anyone looking at my desk at this very moment might think I’m in complete and utter meltdown. Although a larger than average desk (it came from a public library) very little green leather surface can be seen because it’s littered with notebooks. But each of these hand-written tomes are used for a different purpose – I keep notes about the craft of writing in one (all the tips ever received from other writers and writing workshops) which obviously I need to check regularly. The second contains source materials and references to facts, so when necessary (and more than once a day) I can find my original sources of research. And then there’s the largest (and the only one with scribblings on every page) which contains the very first outline of my pending novel, except this recently flowed into a second volume, now inconveniently missing.

I’m reminded of a handbag for all the wrong reasons. What handbag? The one in which poor Earnest was deposited when his nurse misplaced him for her novel. That poor woman went unpublished. Perhaps Oscar Wilde was right; women haven’t the temperament to write novels and remain sane.

This one’s dedicated to you Scott, wherever you might be.

Mess or management?

Mess or management?

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Filed under ambition, Books, completion, editing, Entertainment, fulfilment, Writing

Fully Tested

Spring in Cumbria

I’ve just received results from my first DNA test. I say first because I’m sure the science is still in its infancy. Having dabbled in family history research I already know (on paper) I have relatives in every corner of the British Isles. At first glance I thought my results confirmed what I’d always feared, I am entirely British. How very boring! I was hoping to discover at least one wildly romantic and exotic strain in my ancestry.

But now I’ve studied the data more thoroughly I discover I’m only 73% Brit. So there’s some hope. Actually with mother’s Northumbrian roots it’s no surprise to discover 5% of my genes are Scandinavian, the Vikings were known to love that particular coast. And 5% Celtic, something I’ve always suspected but never been able to prove. And finding Eastern European strains, with trace elements of Jewish, Spanish and Finish/NW Russian probably explains father’s ‘foreign’ characteristics.

But what’s fascinated me most is finding 3% of me comes from the Caucasus. Practically far-flung! Historically many an exotic race fled this contentious region and some infamous ones remain – like the Chechens, a very passionate people (such as my dear friend Ondrei). But this leaves me thinking – what truly defines race? I believe the various places I grew up, and the place where I live now, have made me who I am. Nationality defines character, and the landscape of the British Isles defines my spirit, but it is history which defines my soul. Which is why I wanted to explore my DNA?

Caucasus Mountains

As far as I can see Britain is peopled by the progeny of various waves of immigrants and invaders. There is no indigenous race, nobody who can prove their ancestors have native possession. The only thing my DNA test proves is how I’m descended from a cacophony of ancestors who most probably arrived on Britain’s shores before history was conceived, never mind written.

So what is British? First and foremost an island race who often travel beyond their surrounding seas but generally decide to come home. Otherwise we feel the need to make a ‘little Britain’ wherever we put down roots. It’s inevitable I suppose, to take what’s best and evolve.

I spent most childhood summers on the untamed beaches of Northumberland, near my grandmother’s home, dabbling in rock-pools, careering down seamless sand dunes, splashing the crystal cold waters of the North Sea, wondering when the last invaders beached their boats in the bay.

But my parents lived and worked at the opposite end of the country, in Kent. But it might surprise outsiders to learn that the broad sweep of salt marsh that skirts the Thames Estuary is as remote and unknowable as the wind-swept beaches of Northumbria. Charles Dickens used to walk these ancient sea-walls in search of inspiration. During the sixties, when I lived there, Upchurch was still surrounded by ancient orchards of fruit trees and autumn scaffolds of hops, quilting the northern chalk Downs. Life in Kent revolved around harvest, except nobody liked picking hops; they stain the skin and leave clothes tainted with their pungent smell. No wonder the first history I researched (age 11) was all about the production of beer!

For the last thirty years I’ve occupied a place of outstanding beauty – Cumbria – land of mystery and legend, where two nations meet but never merge. This landscape has its own timelessness, past and present conspire and inspire. But living here requires a particular kind of endurance, because we can experience all four seasons in a single day. True border people are tuned to prevail, I’m sure its distilled in the local DNA.

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I know where I belong. Take me away from my habitat and I’m nothing, or rather what remains is insignificant to who I am or whatever I might be.

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Filed under Ancestry, Changes, DNA, Family, History, Landscape, Research, Roots, Travel, Writing

Spring Clean

February is not an easy month even in the best of years. In my corner of northern England it’s generally dark, and dreary, damp and cold. Spring hasn’t yet sprung although ice-white snowdrops carpet the hedgerows and sturdy-limbed lambs are leaping in the fields. It’s hard to get motivated.

New Year is a time of hope, a time to reflect and make plans – lots of reasons to be happy, lots of reasons to be thankful. While I trust everything will turn out for the best (in the best of all possible worlds) I haven’t put fingers to keyboard of late because I’ve been experiencing troubled times. But I belong to a generation that doesn’t think it proper to air their dirty washing in public

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Am I alone in thinking we’re not as tough these days? Perhaps that’s because we don’t have to be. Despite owning every labour-saving device invented for the job I know I’m not half the housewife my grandmother was. Her home was her dominion. She baked her own bread, grew her own fruits and vegetables and prepared every meal from scratch. And everything inside her cottage and garden was spick and span as she could make it. When I was a small child I watched in fascination as she draped all the rugs and carpets in her cottage across the washing line and beat them mercilessly with a special fan-shaped stick. Clouds of dust drifted across the fence to coat the neighbouring vegetable patch. Possibly that’s why old Mr. Forster always won Best in Show for his cabbages – no self-respecting moth feeds on dust-covered brassicas.

I also remember how Monday’s were devoted to ‘washing’. In gran’s house it was critical as attending Sunday Chapel, and equally sacrosanct. A huge galvanised tub was wheeled ceremoniously into the centre of the kitchen, the gas was lit underneath and while the water boiled everything deemed dirty was ‘cooked’, rubbed and then put through the wringer. The cottage steamed with coal-tar soap and we children knew to play outside as long as possible, whatever the weather.  Gran would apologise that dinner must be cold leftovers but the reason I dreaded washday most was because everyone was exhausted by the sheer physical effort involved.

Mrs. Forster and Gran

Mrs. Forster and Gran

I’ve only known automatic washing machines. Throw dirty clothes inside, fill the soap dispenser, turn the knob and get on with life. Clothes go from dirty to clean without so much as a whimper. And I’ve never beaten the carpets, Henry the Hoover does that, guided by any hand that happens to be home. I’m thankful that house-keeping is no longer viewed as woman’s work. My memories remind me how hard life could be but going to stay with gran felt cosy as a warm, soft blanket. She never, ever complained because no matter how tough her life seemed it was ten times better than her grandmother’s.

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Filed under Changes, Education, Family, History, Life, Roots, Spring, Tradition, Winter, Writing

History through the keyhole

The original copy which comprises newspapers bound into a book.

The original copy which comprises newspapers bound into a book.

Portable edition

Portable edition

For thirty years a strapping Victorian bible of a book has sat in the corner of my office unopened and unloved. It’s so ungainly it never fitted on any bookshelf and over the years has variously seen service as a flower press, a prop or a step (by shorter members of the family). It was given to me by my late brother-in-law as a gift when we first moved to Cumbria, in 1982, and I clearly remember how excited he was after discovering it in a second-hand shop in Carlisle. At the time I was knee-deep in knitting a new way of life having moved hundreds of miles from known friends and family so I’m ashamed to say I gave the tome a passing glance and a vacant ‘thank you’.

Last month, when the floor space in my office reached critical level, I decided I must de-clutter. What’s the point of having any book if it isn’t going to be read? Luckily I resolved to honour my brother-in-law and explore the contents of this heavyweight, prior to its being ejected.

Wilson’s ‘Historical, Traditionary, and Imaginative Tales of the Borders and of Scotland, Vol. IV’ isn’t bedtime reading. Apart from mammoth proportions its antique typeface and generally archaic form of writing requires an excellent light source and active attention span. But what treasures lie within.

Wilson collected these stories at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many are folk-tales and handed-down histories, but critically some are based on interviews with ‘interesting’ local characters and the author has a comforting, if not fully objective, style. Researching Wilson I discover he was born in 1804, in Berwick-on-Tweed, and became involved in publishing at the age of 11. The year was 1815, the Napoleonic wars had just come to an end and this tenderfoot decided to go out and interview some local veterans about their experiences. From that seed his quest to record the traditions, tales and history of the region grew.

The tales were first published in monthly instalments from 8th October 1834, by which time John Mackay Wilson had become editor of the “Berwick Advertiser”. They became a minor publishing sensation with an original run of 2,000 having to be raised to 30,000 within the year. Although Wilson died prematurely, on 3rd October 1835 at the age of 31, he’d already contributed 66 tales to the first collection and the success of his idea led his executors and family to continue the process of publication. They recruited a group of contributors to continue the work and a total of 299 were eventually published.

The roll-call of writers influenced by these works includes Sir Walter Scott (who published smaller, portable editions in 1869), RL Stephenson and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Each story radiates with the rich history, lore and legend of the Borders. They caught the imagination of their age and offer a rich social history covering some 500 years. I’ve copied out the opening paragraphs of one story which captured my attention. It recounts the exploits of a man called Bill Whyte as told by his gypsy brother.

‘I was born, master, in this very cave, some sixty years ago, and so am a Scotchman like yourself. My mother, however, belonged to the Debateable Land, my father was an Englishman, and of my five sisters, one first saw the light in Jersey, another in Guernsey, a third in Wales, a fourth in Ireland, and the fifth in the Isle of Man. But this is a trifle, master, to what occurs in some families.

It can’t be now much less than fifty years since my mother left us, one bright sunny day, on the English side of Kelso, and staid away about a week.  We thought we had lost her altogether; but back she came at last, and, when she did come, she brought with her a small sprig of a lad, of about three summers or thereby.  Father grumbled a little – we had got small fry enough already, he said, and bare enough and hungry enough they were at times; but mother shewed him a pouch of yellow pieces, and there was no more grumbling.  And so we called the little fellow, Bill Whyte, as if he had been one of ourselves, and he grew up among us, as pretty a fellow as e’er the sun looked upon.  I was a few years his senior; but he soon contrived to get half a foot a-head of me; and, when we quarrelled, as boys will at times, master, I always came off second-best.  I never knew a fellow of a higher spirit; he would rather starve than beg, a hundred times over, and never stole in his life; but then for gin-setting, and deer-stalking, and black-fishing, not a poacher in the country got beyond him; and when there was a smuggler in the Solway, who more active than Bill?

He was barely nineteen, poor fellow, when he made the country too hot to hold him.  I remember the night as well as if it were yesterday. The Cat-maran lugger was in the Frith, d’ye see, a little below Carlaverock; and father and Bill and some half-dozen more of our men, were busy in bumping the kegs ashore, and hiding them in the sand. It was a thick, smuggy night; we could hardly see fifty yards round us; and, on our last trip, master, when we were down in the water to the gunwale, who should come upon us, in the turning of a handspike, but the revenue lads from Kirkcudbright!  They hailed us to strike in the Devil’s name. Bill swore he wouldn’t. Flash went a musket, and the ball whistled through his bonnet. Well, he called on them to row up, and up they came; but no sooner were they within half-oar’s length, then, taking up a keg, and raising it just as he used to do the putting-stone, he made it spin through their bottom, as if the planks were of window-glass; and down went their cutter in half a jiffy.  They had wet powder that night, and fixed no more bullets.

Well, when they were gathering themselves up as they best could-and, goodness he praised! There were no drownings amongst them – we bumped our kegs ashore, hiding them with the others, and then fled up the country.  We knew there would be news of our night’s work; and so there was; for, before next evening, there were advertisements on every post for the apprehension of Bill, with an offered reward of twenty pounds.’

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Apart from smuggling on the Solway shores this story vividly describes how the brothers fought the French (Napoleon) in Egypt, their encounters with Arabs (who they describe as being like gypsies of the desert) and subsequently their most dangerous adventure after they return to Cumberland. Bill’s real parentage is finally revealed and the story ends with this sentence: ‘I left him, and made the best of my way home; where, while the facts were fresh in my mind, I committed to paper (for the express purpose of having it inserted among the Border Tales) the gypsy’s story.’

Considering the Battle of the Nile took place in 1798 this ‘interview’ is with a man born in the late eighteenth century yet phrases like ‘small fry’ and ‘half a jiffy’ sound relatively modern. But it’s the stirring eye-witness accounts which make such stories relevant. Strip away Victorian sentimentality and the intimate, chatty style adds credence, just like Michael Parkinson interviewing a celebrity, I feel I’m listening to the past through a key-hole.

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