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Saturday, 20 September 2014

Mostly about cheese by Sandra Horn

Chalk or cheese?
Sandra Horn
     Susan {Price} posed this question, so in the absence of any other inspiration I’m blogging about it. Well, cheese, obviously. Chalk isn’t good for much except making dust and shrieking against the blackboard fit to loosen all your fillings at once. Cheese, on the other hand…how can I extol thee?
     Here’s my favourite cheese joke, from Al Murray: ‘The French make 300 types of cheese. Keep going, chaps – one day you may get to cheddar.’ Except of course, he should have said Wensleydale. The crumbly sort, as was served on a slab of Yorkshire tea bread in the little café in the wall at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, in the old days. Sigh.
     My one-time boss, a formidable woman of strong opinions her whole team were supposed to share, once remarked, ‘I think we all agree that the French make the best cheese.’
     ‘Not all the time they can't make Wensleydale, they don’t,’ I muttered, thus putting myself in her bad books for evermore.  An attempt at a light-hearted Wallace and Gromit reference didn’t help. I didn’t care. And while I'm at it, bad cess to anyone contaminating it (Wensleydale) with such ridiculous fol-de-rols as cranberries or apricots. What are you thinking of? There will be a special circle of hell waiting for you, mark my words.
     I wish I’d put cheese in more of my books. I can only think of one, and it isn’t finished yet and might never be.  Mice, now… but their association with cheese is dubious, as you will know if you’ve ever tried baiting a (humane, I hope) mousetrap with it. Mice are largely indifferent to cheese, being somewhat low down the evolutionary scale.  Bacon will do, or chocolate.
     Once caught, we take the mice for a walk onto Southampton Common and release them, with the trap flap pointing away from our house.  Sometimes it takes them several days to find their way back, during which time we’ve grovelled about covering airbricks and any other outlets we can find with fine mesh. It doesn’t work. I do have a soft spot for them, though – in Nobody, Him and Me, they outwit the dreadful cat, Biter the Fighter.
     It got me accused of being a cat-hater, which I’m not, as witnessed by my lovable old tabby cat Miss Minkin in The Hob and Miss Minkin stories. She is too busy looking after her beautiful fur and taking refreshing naps to do more than just think about chasing mice and birds.
     Not like our local mob, who stalk round the bird feeders and get yelled at on a regular basis. Sometimes I shy my garden clogs, which are always within reach, at them, being careful to miss, naturally.
     Speaking of birds, which I was a moment ago, I seem to have a lot of them in the books . There’s The Crows’ Nest, Goose-Anna, birds galore in The Tattybogle Tree, a slew of pengiuns in I Can't Hear You! I Can't See You!, a crucial jackdaw in The Stormteller, a yellow canary in Babushka, an important seabird in The Silkie, and a special crow song by Ruth Kenward in Tattybogle the Musical. 
     You may not know this, but birds like cheese. They get our chopped-up rinds every day and always come back for more.They are clearly further up the evolutionary scale than mice. Or people who put cranberries in Wensleydale. And don't even get me started on mustard with cheese. Blurghhh!!!!!

Friday, 19 September 2014

Gatekeepers – You Choose – Publishers or Readers? by Chris Longmuir

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about gatekeepers, and who decides what readers should be allowed to read. I suppose this has been instigated by the Hachette/Amazon dispute, with Hachette wanting to maintain high prices for their e-books and Amazon stubbornly resisting this in favour of a discounting model. Now, I’m not going to get into an argument of who’s right and who’s wrong, let the big boys slug it out. However, the niggling thoughts about gatekeepers keep on invading my mind.

It has long been accepted that publishers are the gatekeepers, but is this a good thing? It is generally accepted that in order to be accepted by a publisher a book has to be well written and that the badly written books will be weeded out. Excuse me for a moment while I have a snort of derision as I think about Fifty Shades of Grey and all those celebrity memoirs. You see, it’s not really about quality. It’s about money, and whether the book will sell in sufficiently large amounts to earn the publishers shed loads of cash.

Thinking back to when my saga A Salt Splashed Cradle was rejected by one of the big publishers – a book which is now selling very well and is popular with readers, thank you very much – the rejection was on the basis that historical sagas had gone out of fashion. Now this book had survived the many layers of the RNA (Romantic Novelist Society) probation scheme for new writers which involved the thumbs up from three different professional readers and placement with the said publisher. So, to be rejected on the basis of changing fashion in the world of readers was, looking back on it, strange. Did all the saga readers suddenly stop reading this genre overnight? Or was the publisher acting as a dictator, deciding what readers could or could not read? I would lay bets it was nothing to do with what readers wanted and more to do with sagas not bringing in as much money as the other genres. Was any thought given to the devoted saga readers? No, they would just have to make do with whatever the publisher dictated was the new fashion in reading.

The same thing happens when a publisher decides a mid list author is no longer reaching the publisher’s ever increasing targets. They are dropped without any thought given to the readers who may be waiting anxiously for that author’s next book.

This poses the question – should publishers be the gatekeepers? Or should the industry allow their readers to be the gatekeepers? Somehow, I can’t see that happening because, as I said, it’s all about money and profit. So perhaps it’s just as well the gatekeepers are getting competition from the independent authors who are very aware of who are the most important people in the publishing equation. The readers.

Chris Longmuir

Thursday, 18 September 2014

A Message From Scotland by Catherine Czerkawska

Today is Referendum Day in Scotland and this country where I have lived and worked – on and off – for the past fifty years, is torn in two in a way that I would hardly have believed possible. Way back at the start of the year, my husband said, ‘It will get very much worse. It will be terribly, tragically divisive.’ I didn’t believe him. Well, I hoped he was wrong. But he was right. 

Every morning, for the past few weeks, as the debate - often between otherwise close friends - has become more bitter, more insulting, more angry, I have woken up at three or four in the morning with words practically bursting out of my head. I have, so far, resisted the urge to write them down. They are too angry, too insulting, too divisive in themselves to be committed to paper or screen. But I’m feeling sleep deprived and rather ill. Because here I am, living in a divided country. And make no mistake, it is divided. Horribly so. People speak about winning and losing, they speak about an inspiring and peaceful campaign and all pulling together whatever the outcome, but where more or less half the population are in absolute and occasionally violent disagreement with the other half about a country’s future, the only answer to that is the useful, cynical, Scottish double negative:

‘Aye right.’

I’m working on a new novel. Or trying to work on a new novel. It’s a fictionalised account of the life of Jean Armour, the bonnie Jean who became Robert Burns’s wife and who has been very largely sidelined by a string of mostly male academics, commentators who seem to think that she was somehow ‘unworthy’ of the poet’s towering intellect. I’ve never felt that way. I’ve always been on Jean’s side. In fact, I’ve written a couple of plays in the past, one for Radio 4, about the writing of Tam o’ Shanter and one for Glasgow’s Oran Mor venue, called Burns on the Solway, ostensibly about the last few weeks in the life of the poet, down on the Solway coast. Except that both plays turned out to be quite as much about Jean as about the poet. And the more I wrote about her, the more I heard her voice inside my head, the more I realised that I liked her enough to be able to live with her for the time it takes to complete a novel.

For those who don’t know, the couple had a difficult start. He promised marriage and they signed a document to that effect which in those days, in Scotland, meant that the marriage was legal. Her father fainted at the news and then ‘persuaded’ her to go back on her word. The names were cut out of the document. This didn’t invalidate it but perhaps he thought it did. Robert was outraged as only a handsome, self-regarding, self-dramatising poet could be. Jean was pregnant. She gave birth to twins. Robert took the boy to his family farm, Mossgiel outside Mauchline, and left the girl with Jean. The girl died. Robert took up with Highland Mary of unjustifiably saintly memory. Then Robert went off to Edinburgh to be lionised and Mary died as well. Jean’s parents tried to marry her off to a Paisley weaver but she wasn’t having it. Undoubtedly she loved Robert, truly, madly and deeply. On one of his return visits to Mauchline they met up but didn’t make up. They did something though, because Jean fell pregnant again and was turned out of her father’s house in disgrace. Robert relented enough to take a room (and a bed) for her. She gave birth to another set of twins but the babies didn’t survive for long.

And then, quite suddenly, the poet, who had been dallying in Edinburgh with ‘Clarinda’ aka pretty but prudish Nancy McLehose, came back to Ayrshire, married Jean without further ado and set off to Dumfriesshire to establish a hearth and home for his new wife at Ellisland.

It is an intriguing story with a certain amount of mystery about it. On the one hand, it reads like a conventional romance: nice girl goes through hell but tames bad boy who turns out to have a heart of gold. Except that she didn’t and he didn’t. Nor did it really end happily ever after. But it’s a complicated story and one that has huge potential as a novel. I could have written it as a piece of non-fiction but I want to be able to make up what I don’t know, and there is an awful lot we don’t know about Jean. All we have are hints, intriguing suggestions, possibilities. What ifs. 

So what does this, if anything, have to do with the dread R word. Well, the other day, I was chatting to a friend who said ‘how’s the work going?’ and I said ‘It isn’t, really. I’m working around the idea rather than through it.’ And she said she felt much the same. When, as I do, you write with a very strong sense of place, a strong sense of history, your own attitude to that place as a writer makes a difference to how and what you write. I have loved living here in Scotland. But I was born in England. My parentage is Polish, English, Irish. And now, increasingly I find myself putting a little mental distance between myself and the place where I currently live. I think I am doing it for the sake of my health, as a matter of self preservation. I had written ‘have loved’ there, well before I thought about it, about what that might mean for my future.

Meanwhile, I have to find a way for Jean and her story to take precedence over everything else that is going on, that will go on over the next year or so. It’s a very strange thing to say, but I may have to find a way of buying some time in isolation to write this novel. Some time elsewhere. Not here. Otherwise, I know that all my perspectives will be skewed by the nasty mixture of conflicting emotions that is Scotland today.

Pictures of Jean and Rab are by Leslie Black, from the Oran Mor's excellent production of my stage play Burns on the Solway with Clare Waugh and Donald Pirie. If you want to read the play, it's available in eBook form on Kindle - and it should be available pretty much everywhere else too in due course. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Pathetic Fallacy – or you, me and the weather – Elizabeth Kay

I always had trouble with the phrase pathetic fallacy. It seemed like an extremely harsh condemnation of the British obsession with The Weather, and a wagging finger at attributing any sort of malevolence to it. We Brits all know The Weather has a particular delight in ruining Wimbledon fortnight, bank holidays and test matches. So it was with some surprise that I discovered the words have changed their meaning, and when Ruskin first coined the phrase it didn’t mean stupid misconception but simply emotional falseness. What’s wrong with the occasional foray into personification, if it’s deliberate? When I’m writing a fantasy involving a desert it’s quite nice to have a callous sun with a definite mind of its own. Writing has fashions, and the fact that a Greek chorus is as yesterday as a codpiece shouldn’t stop you using one if you feel that’s exactly what your story needs.
            All that was just a way of getting me into writing about the weather, of course. I’m sitting here with the uncaring rain beating down outside, waiting for a friendly and benevolent sun to show its smiling face so that I can get out into the garden. But it’s The Weather that adds or subtracts colour from our writing. Of course, if you’ve set something in a mine or a spaceship it isn’t relevant, but even in a hospital a glimpse of a snowflake through a window can bring a tear to the eye.
            One of the things I’ve always admired about C.S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia was the way he used different locations, with their differing weathers, to bump up the atmosphere. The journey to Harfang in The Silver Chair makes me shiver just thinking about that driving snow, and crossing the desert in The Horse and His Boy usually has me heading to the fridge for a cold drink. The storm at sea on the Voyage of the Dawn Treader is terrific stuff, and I tried something similar in Ice Feathers:

…The following afternoon the sky darkened to the colour of a rotten tooth and the wind started to blow with serious intent one moment, only to die away altogether the next. It was odd. The sails would be pulling hard for a while; a moment later this furious activity would be followed by an eerie period of quiet, as though the vessel were holding its breath. Then the boat took to lurching to and fro in a very unpredictable way, and Kura had to fix her eyes on the horizon to stop herself feeling ill.
The storm overtook them with frightening speed this time round, and the waves just got bigger and bigger. The deck became awash with foam, stranded fish, and splintered wood from damaged crates. As if the deck weren’t wet enough already, the rain lashed at it with real violence, and one of the water barrels broke free and rolled into the mast with considerable force. The horizon vanished behind towering cliff-faces of water, and the ship shuddered as it hit a gigantic wave full-on.

Getting sufficient intensity into a piece of work isn’t easy, as the weather is such a common theme and finding new ways to describe it is tricky. Even in a rain forest rain is still rain. It’s the effect it has on the environment that’s the telling point – the effect the wind has on the waves, and the effect the waves have on the boat. I’ve encountered two lots of rain that I thought were particularly memorable. The first was in Costa Rica (and what an inspiration that place was – it gave me the opening of The Divide).
I was sitting in a bar, drinking a beer, and the glasses all came with little paper pads underneath them, as the condensation was so extreme. The glasses cried dribbles of water down the sides in a constant stream of misery, and the rain hammered on the corrugated iron roof like an entire troupe of tap-dancers. The second time was in Zambia, driving along in the back of an open-topped truck. The raindrops hurtled down like bullets; they were the biggest raindrops I’ve ever seen, and they actually hurt when they hit you. Really hurt – we were given a tarpaulin to pull over us, as protection. It’s extremes like this that you remember.
            Times change, too. How do you describe a sunset these days, when so many have done it before you and a photograph does it so well? Jane Austen’s use of the weather was more about the effect it had on her characters; no photographs to grace the covers of her novels in those days, and everyone was only too familiar with the weather as most people were out and about in it far more than we are with our climate-controlled cars and centrally-heated homes. In John Mullen’s excellent book What Matters in Jane Austen he says:

 Sense and Sensibility is kicked into life by a misjudgment about the weather: Marianne goes walking on the Devon hills with her younger sister Margaret, convincing herself that "the partial sunshine of a showery sky" bodes well. Marianne's "declaration that the day would be lastingly fair" is utter folly, revealed when "a driving rain set full in their face". Fleeing for home, Marianne trips and is rescued by the handsome Willoughby. It might seem a fortunate accident, the beginning of a romance, but Marianne's determination to delude herself about the weather bodes ill.

So what next for the weather? It’s more extreme than it used to be. Bad news for people living on a flood plain, or for those who rely on the rain for their crops. For the writer, though, it’s out and about in the thick of it. Hailstones, snowdrifts and mist are the clothes worn by our countryside; make sure you’re up to date with the latest fashions on the catwalk.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Land of the Free by Jan Needle

One of the beauties of the BBC is that if you pay your licence fee (or even if you don't, come to think of it) you can watch the most amazing things for free.

I received a heads up through my inbox this morning from a friend of mine called Kath Shackleton, who is the maker of an amazing new series of programmes for educational TV called Children of the Holocaust.

Martin Kapel. Male. Leipzig....
With the utmost clarity, and in language that anyone can understand, it recounts the personal stories of refugees from the Nazis, who found their way to England as children at the time of World War II.

Each narration, in the voice of the actual survivor, is illustrated by rather wonderful but extremely simple animations. I'm hardly a child myself, but I found them moving and enthralling.

And all you need to do, of course, is go onto the BBC website, press the right buttons, and you can watch them. You can also download them and keep them. At no extra charge.

Given the state of the world today, including the demonic complexities of Israel and the Gaza Strip, the timing is quite chilling, and it's compulsive viewing. Here's the link:

There's another BBC series on at the moment, I also learned through my inbox, which I wrote myself.
You can watch that for free as well, which is slightly less satisfactory (for me and the taxman!) than watching the  work of Kath's company, Fettle Animations.

It's my 1980's series about long-distance lorry drivers called Truckers, and some bright spark has put all eight episodes up on YouTube. I am still quite often asked, all these years later, when the Beeb is planning to repeat it, and I can only ever respond 'I wish.'

I am also frequently urged to shout from the rooftops that mine is nothing to do with the recent series which nicked the name, and which my lorry driving friends don't rate much at all for authenticity.

The BBC did actually pay me for a second series of the original, but cancelled it just before it went into production, on the grounds of cost. I'm not a believer in conspiracies, but I suspect that was not the full story. A couple of high-ups in the the BBC indicated later that it was felt to be 'too demotic.' Lorry drivers, they learned to their apparent distaste in the first series, were working class individuals, many of whom were not exactly conformists in normal societal terms.

They swore. They smoked. They drank. They did not respect the law. They were authentic!

Worst of all apparently, some of them were even sexist, and did not always treat their women right. A more sensible writer would probably have glossed over that. Friends, I ain't that writer.

Never mind, you can now watch it for nowt. Quite lucky for me, really, because I never actually got to see one of the episodes. 

Slightly weirder though, is another thing that pops into my inbox every few days. Apparently anybody in the world can now download my novel My Mate Shofiq for free. Good in one way, because a few more people might get to read it. Like Kath's series, it just gets more topical.

It's also up for sale on Amazon at a ridiculous £2.90. So how come you can download it free? Search me, brother.

However, Shakespeare doesn't get paid any more either. So what the hell…

See - you CAN pay for it...

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Crisis? What crisis? by Dennis Hamley

I thought I had the subject of this month's blog all sewn up and ready to go but now it will have to wait until October, Today might be very significant in our lives and I think we need to share it with you. It's nothing to do with books or publishing but at the moment it has taken over our thoughts and feelings. So I'm sorry there are only two pictures today. I am too angry to look for any more.

As many of you know, Kay and I have been together for seven years - in fact yesterday (Tuesday September 9th) we celebrated the seventh anniversary of the day we met. You may also know that Kay first arrived here from New Zealand in 2006 on an ancestry visa so as to enjoy two summers every year and use the money she earned as a live-in carer to finance European travel. She intended to spend six months a year in the UK and six in New Zealand. Some of you also know how we first met on the towpath of the Oxford Canal and after that events moved quite quickly. We have lived together since November 2007. Kay is an artist, formerly much exhibited throughout New Zealand and now locally in the Oxford area. You may also remember that last year we were married. We eloped to Gretna Green without telling anybody and did the deed there. There's a blog, an Augustan Ode by Nicholas Fowler, posted on AE in July 2013, to prove it. It's still in Older Posts.

Why did we elope? We had often talked about marriage but felt that it would be difficult for our families. If in New Zealand, mine could not be present; if in England, Kay's couldn't. Elopement also had the advantage that we would be married under a legal jurisdiction different from both England's and New Zealand's, so nobody need feel aggrieved. Our families were uniformly delighted when they knew and so were all our friends. We did not, by the way, change our surnames.

In 2011, five years after she first arrived, Kay applied to what was then called the United Kingdom Border Agency for Indefinite Leave to Remain. She was refused. The main reason was that she had overstayed her first allowed period of six months out of the UK by a few days so technically she had not lived here for five full years. However, she was given Discretionary Leave to Remain for three years.  This would be extended for three more in 2014 as long as her personal circumstances hadn't changed.

Well, 2014 has arrived and in July Kay sent in her application. We left nothing to chance. I wrote a supporting letter and the package was full of proofs that we were solvent, not overcrowded, claiming no benefits and fully committed to each other. We took the precaution of having an immigration lawyer check it to make sure everything was completely in order. What could possibly go wrong?

The first month passed. Then an acknowledgement came from the Home Office. Our lawyer said it was a standard reply  to applications like ours. That may be true. The fact remains that it is the most strangely worded acknowledgement I have ever read.

'Your application raises issues concerning the European Convention on Human Rights which are complex in nature. As such, it falls outside our normal service standards for deciding leave to remain applications.'

The first point about this is that the second sentence neatly gives the Home Office the power to take as long as they like to come to a decision. We might be sentenced to an extended limbo, an imposed indefinite half-life.

That's bad enough. But it's the first  sentence we struggle to understand. Are we being oversensitive in thinking it's very ominous?  I cannot see how these issues can be called complex. In fact, I find it hard to understand why they are called issues. This sentence needed a thorough deconstruction.

The only articles in the European Convention on Human Rights which can possibly have any relevance to Kay's application are articles 8 and 12. The first refers to the individual's right to a private and family life. The second asserts the individual's right to marry whomsoever she or he chooses. I remember David Cameron on television during the 2010 election campaign saying he had no wish to dictate to British citizens who they may or may not marry. Will he repeat the sentiment next time round?

Why involve the European Convention at all? Surely these are inalienable rights for anyone living in a democracy. The Convention is only binding on signatories because member countries have agreed that it represents values to which they all aspire. The only reason that I can see for mentioning it lies in the fact that several criminals and terrorists have cited these articles in their appeals to the European Court of Human Rights against their proposed deportation and won. We thought this was appalling and thoroughly supported Theresa May's efforts to have the decisions reversed.

I have to presume that this is the precedent which the Home Office has used to invoke the European Convention. Are they trying to cut off ways in which we, if Kay's application is refused, might appeal to the European Court?  Theresa May has advised Mr Cameron that the UK should leave the European Convention completely. Is this statement related to that? If it is, there are two conclusions to be drawn. The first is that Articles 8 and 12 no longer obtain in Britain. The second is that we are classed with potential terrorists and criminals who threaten the nation's security and economic well-being.

Oh, that makes us feel really great.

Is what I've said far-fetched? If it is, then the Home Office response is meaningless. If it isn't, then it's very, very sinister.

I incline to the sinister interpretation. 'By their fruits shall ye know them'  - the Bible has nearly as many good quotations as Shakespeare. The Home Office actions in the recent MacIsaacs case are disturbing. In 2013 they accused Mr MacIsaacs, the American headteacher of a primary school in Dumfries, and his Scottish wife of going through a sham marriage. Mr MacIsaacs came to Scotland on a visitor visa over ten years ago to trace his Scottish ancestry. He enjoyed himself so much that he applied for a work permit to teach in Scotland. When it expired he applied for its renewal. This was refused but he was told that he could apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK. So he did and it too was refused. He was told he would be deported. Earlier, his wife had been diagnosed with cancer. The Home Office said she could go to the USA with him (begging the question of whether they would let her in). The Home Office had the brass nerve to suggest that she would settle well in the USA because she would find no language difficulties there. The decision was only overturned after a vociferous public campaign.

However, the Home Office was clearly unconcerned about further damage to its reputation. Earlier this year came the case of Mrs Katherine Tate. She is Australian and is married to an Englishman. They live in England, where he runs an electrical business. They have two children. Mrs Tate is now pregnant. She too applied for renewal of her visa. It was refused purely because the Home Office decided she should have completed the forms in Australia instead of here in the UK. They told her she would be deported, even though five months pregnant. If she was not gone by a specified date she would be forcibly removed. The Home Office even instructed the NHS not to give her free treatment if the baby was born before her deportation.The Tates appealed to a tribunal, which overturned the Home Office's appalling and vindictive decision. The Home Office, zeal undiminished, said they would appeal. Fortunately another well-organised public campaign forced them to back down.

So, how likely are we to suffer the same result? We have ugly suspicions. Surely even the Home Office wouldn't be so brazen as to say that marrying after living together constitutes a change in personal circumstances? And if they can accuse Mr and Mrs MacIsaacs of a sham wedding when the guests comprised a fair proportion of the population of southern Scotland, what are they going to say about ours when nobody was there except two lovely people we'd never met before who acted as witnesses?

I said at the beginning that today might be significant. Two months have passed since the application was sent. We have an added complication. Kay's son is to be married in Australia on October 4th. We have flights and hotels booked for a fortnight there, leaving  on September 30th. We booked them back in March. We knew this was the year of visa renewal but we assumed that ours was an open and shut case and would be sorted long before we leave. We told the Home Office about the wedding in the application. Kay rang the Home Office this morning (Wednesday 10th) and asked what, if anything, could be done to ensure her application is processed in time. She was told first, that a decision on her application had not yet been completed (and may not even have been considered yet) and second, that she should fill in an online 8-page request form, which she did at once. The return of her passport at this stage would ordinarily mean that she was withdrawing her application. Even if she does get the passport back in time they may refuse her visa and then there's a fair chance that I will be coming back to the UK on my own and the whole weary and needless process will have to start all over again. Meanwhile there are upwards of 200,000 people who shouldn't be in the country. The Home Office has lost track of all of them.

Final thoughts? We fiercely resent the  implication in all this that we are classed with illegal immigrants and potential terrorists. It seems that the Home Office now has a policy of zero tolerance. This has grave implications for our society. It is not good if ruining the lives of innocent and decent people is regarded as acceptable collateral damage in the Government's attempt to demonstrate how efficient they are at reducing immigration.

So I give you fair warning. If things go badly for us we will be trying to mount a public campaign as effective as those for Mr and Mrs MacIsaacs and Mr and Mrs Tate.  And we would love to think that we could have your support.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Coincidentally... by Ann Evans

My dad, Edward Carroll

Wouldn't it be nice to get so famous that the Who Do You Think You Are? TV team did a programme on your ancestors? They make it look so easy with allocated genealogists and historians doing all the leg work then coming up with the results effortlessly. Ah, if only! Although doing the research is half the fun.

There's something fascinating about tracing your family tree, discovering your roots, seeing what skeletons are lurking in the cupboards. And of course, the great thing is, with self publishing there's nothing stopping anyone from producing the finished story as a book or website without any major financial outlay should they want to. 

My research has taken me back to the mid 1800s so far and I was lucky in that my mum wrote her life story in notebooks, which I'm busy transcribing. I just wish I'd asked her more questions when she and my dad were still around.

My mum, Violet Carroll (nee Hardy)

I'm also scanning in some old photographs including a large one of my grandfather in his Edwardian attire which has practically crumbled to bits. So it's a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle. My good pal, Rob who takes all my photos for articles and ebook covers, will re-photograph it eventually, and then (hopefully) work his magic to restore it on his computer.

My ancestors all came from Sunderland, County Durham and a year or so ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to do an author school visit up in Sunderland. In fact, although I can't be sure, I think the school I visited had connections with the school my mum actually attended.  
I didn't get time to do very much research other than the school visit. So I'm quite excited to be going back up to Sunderland to a different school this coming week. It's to Red House Academy in Southwick, Sunderland - coincidentally, the very district that my parents were born and grew up in. And this time I'm taking an extra day before and after the school visit to do some proper research. 

Sunderland from the end of Roker Pier.
I'm always intrigued by coincidences. As a little child going to the library with my mum, I found the fact that there was an author with my surname absolutely amazing (well I was only about six). This was Lewis Carroll - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and I was totally amazed to later discover that he had connections with Sunderland. Lewis Carroll whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson often visited his sister in Sunderland and her husband the Rev Charles Collingwood of the Holy Trinity Church.

Holy Trinity Church, Sunderland.

He certainly found inspiration on his visits to the north east coast. The Walrus and the Carpenter is believed to have been composed as he walked along the beaches of Seaburn and Whitburn and he wrote his famous poem Jabberwocky while visiting the Wilcox cousins in Whitburn.

On my visit to Sunderland this week, I plan on going to see the statue of his Walrus in Mowbray Park, and the statue of himself in Whitburn Library. I got to see the blue plaque commemorating his stay at the Holy Trinity Church last time I visited. The church is barely a stone's throw from where my mum and dad were born. 

Statue of Lewis Carroll
in Whitburn Library.
Maybe my great grandparents who were around  in the mid 1800s when he made one of his visits (I know, I don't look old enough!) bumped into the great man. Maybe they stopped to chat... “And your name, my dear sir?” asked Charles Lutwidge Dogson. Maybe my great-granddad pulled the cloth cap from his head and answered, “My name? Why it's Carroll, sir. Why do you ask?"
Okay, so I'm a writer, and the imagination does tends to get a bit carried away at times!

Doing my research for the family tree, I spotted the fact that quite a few well know writers have connections with Sunderland and County Durham. Terry Dreary for one was born in Sunderland. Lord Byron's family home for a time was Seaham House in County Durham. 

Engraved portrait of Charles Dickens
after the 1838 drawing in chalk
by Samuel Laurence.
Even Charles Dickens has connections. In fact in August 1852 he took his amateur acting troupe up north to perform in Sunderland's brand new (and barely completed) Lyceum Theatre. The play was Not So Bad As We Seem by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. (Another coincidence - I live in Lord Lytton Avenue – named after the above writer!)

There's a fascinating letter written by Charles Dickens that tells of that night, definitely worth a read:

Another writer who didn't have such a good time up north was the 18th century playwright Oliver Goldsmith, most famous for She Stoops to Conquer. Another random coincidence, I played Mr Hardcastle from the play when I was at school. Help! I can still recall the opening line “I vow Mr Hardcastle, you're very particular." Unfortunately (and sadly) our class of 13 year olds really didn't do the famous play justice - although we did get a lot of laughs. Probably not where they were intended though! Actually Oliver Goldsmith didn't get justice either when he was in Sunderland as he got arrested for an offence committed by someone else! He eventually left Wearside on a ship bound for Rotterdam.

So, coincidences - do you come across them very much in your life?
Kaleb Nation said: "Confidence is merely the puppeteer's curtain, hiding the hands that pull the world's strings." 

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