- A World Of Their Own: the character universe
When I was a child, I thought that the characters who appeared in the stories I read and loved all knew each other. More recently, I read (somewhere…can’t remember where) that it’s common for small children to think that way.
I thought Winnie-the-Pooh knew Ratty and Moley, who were in turn good friends with Timmy the Dog from the Famous Five. I didn’t understand why Snow White and Cinderella couldn’t join forces, the two of them together easily defeating all the wicked witches, sinister stepmothers and evil queens in the world.
As we grow older, in a way it’s sad that we come to realise none of these characters are real, that they exist only in a little pretend-world snapshot. If we found our way into their worlds through a magic mirror or a gateway in a stone circle, or by any other mysterious means, we would not find ourselves face to face with the story-world. I can remember carefully examining the back of my wardrobe. But no, to my disgust there was no Narnia hidden away. I’d put on my anorak and wellies for nothing.
Yet we–whether author or reader or both–people our world with fictional characters. I’d love to know the psychology behind that.
Some say storytelling is to do with conveying history or traditional or moral values to a younger generation. Some say it is purely for entertainment, keeping the kids quiet in the back of the cave whilst they wait for their dinosaur steaks. Some say it is to explore concepts and ideas beyond our own direct experience, or to combat loneliness, or to relieve stress.
Whatever the reason, we love our stories. We love our imaginary worlds and the characters who live a life that we cannot.
Heroes–storybook people–don’t age. I mean, writers can make them age, but the writers are in complete control and it isn’t inevitable. Sometimes heroes just are ageless, forever young. And characters suffer, yes, but only within the realms of the story. They don’t live their whole lives with unanswered questions, or with serious flaws of their personalities. We don’t watch them decline into old age. (Usually, though. I’m thinking of Wallander.) They remain perpetually young and golden.
This way you can read their story when you are yourself young, and again and again over the long passage of years, then again when you are old and changed, experienced and maybe a little bit cynical. But their bright outlook and determined hopefulness remains unchanged. They walk through our lives beside us. They are there before we are born, and will continue long after we are gone. They are eternally young, preserved in the pages of memory and written and spoken works.
But we long for them to meet one another, to bring their own strengths and successes to benefit the lives of others.
And with creative works, we can do that. So we have superheroes popping up in each other’s stories. We have mash-ups, mix-ups and collaborations. It’s always interesting to see how this works. Maybe Inspector Barnaby should pop out to the Caribbean for a holiday and help out the Saint Marie police force in a Death In Paradise/Midsomer Murders extravaganza?
And spin-offs are popular: capturing and extending the audience for each side. Morse leads to Lewis and then to Endeavour. We love our characters to work together; we love to see their lives played out; we want to meet all their family and friends. Miss Fisher’s niece arrives on the scene to carry the torch forward in Miss Fisher’s Modern mysteries.
I was interested this week to see that authors Lee Strauss and Beth Byers have come together to produce a crossover work featuring their respective main characters, Ginger Gold and Violet Carlyle, in a new short work Mystery on Valentine’s Day (due out on 11 February this year). I’m intrigued. I will definitely buy that book!
And also on the wonderful internet, I came across a number of books that are ‘about’ books, or an authors work, being a guide to the author’s books, best reading sequence and all the characters. I was astonished to discover there’s a market for that!
With invented realities, the possibilities are endless. Fans of different series welcome the meeting of their favourite characters, I’m sure. It must be the next best thing to meeting a character yourself, to read about or watch a character you love being met by another character you love, and so setting in motion a whole new series of stories in the bookiverse.
When we look at the news it’s so easy to get really depressed. So often it seems that only terrible things are happening in the world; ecologically, politically, financially, economically, even in the arts or in entertainment, there is often bad or sad news. The winter days are cold and dreary, sunlight seems to have forgotten us, and Spring and Summer seem so far away.
So I thought I’d find a few headlines that might cheer people up a bit as we head towards what has been called Blue Monday: apparently tomorrow, Monday 20th January, is known to be the most depressing day of the year. Although it’s widely believed that Blue Monday is a ‘real thing’, it was created by psychologist Cliff Arnall back in 2004 as a way of boosting holiday sales at a time of year when exterior factors such as weather, work, mid-month financial strain and the return to work after the Christmas/New Year break are supposed to have us in their grip.
If it’s not a real ‘thing’ then we can shake it off, right?
We can do that by: having some fun (without spending the money we won’t have for another week and a half), talking to our friends and family, going for a walk, weather permitting, staying in with a loved one and snuggling in front of the TV, the fire, curling up with a book, baking a cake, planning holidays and trips for later in the year, planning DIY projects. All these life-affirming activities boost our moods and help us to remember that life is good and worth living. Feed the birds in your garden or if you haven’t got a garden, at the park. Look for signs of Spring
arriving: new growth on trees and shrubs, daffodil bulbs emerging, the slightly longer days.
Surround yourself with caring people.
Take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It’s not selfish to nurture yourself as well as others. It’s just the sensible thing to do. Treat yourself, little and often.
Count your blessings–an old-fashioned but useful way of deliberately looking for the myriad of big things and small that make your life a good one: your loved ones, the roof over your head, the bills you’ve paid, the opportunity to pay more bills in the future which means your life is full and busy and you have grown up and taken on responsibilities, the dog, the cat, the colour of the sunset, the old lady who smiled at you in the grocery store. Turn it to the positive.
Take note of the small, the mundane stuff that usually is overlooked in the busyness of life. A minute here, a minute there will not massively mess up your deadlines, but it could make a huge difference to your well-being.
If you still want to read the news, but don’t want to get depressed, here are some uplifting stories from the last week or so:
Not all retail parks and human environments destroy habitats and ecosystems, some are being used to encourage and even nurture wildlife: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-51050547
A dad helped his daughter revise for her school exams, and saved his own life: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-suffolk-51081957
Generous and caring people still exist in communities: anonymous donors leave money for those in need: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-51093623
And here’s a picture of Malcolm – he’s a happy chap, and a glance at him having a snooze will always put me in a good mood. I advise looking at this picture three times a day after meals and once before bed.
I’m hoping that with all these little things, you–and I–will have less of a Blue Monday and more of a Rosy Outlook. Wishing everyone a good week.
- Shakespeare’s English?
Sometimes people say annoying things like, ‘There’s no point in studying Shakespeare–it’s completely out of date and has nothing to do with life in the twenty-first century. It’s a relic, dead and dusty. It’s a waste of time.’
If you’ve been living on Mars for your whole life, you might not know this, but Shakespeare (Bill to his friends) lived from 1564 to 1616(ish). So yes, it was a long time ago. But I firmly believe his work is still relevant today.
Why? Well, many movies and books, and other creative arts continue to be based upon or inspired by the plays or poems of William Shakespeare. More than that, so many words he created are part of our everyday language. Although experts continue to disagree about just how many words he actually ‘invented’, whether it’s 1000 words and phrases, or 3000, (or whether all his plays were in fact, his plays), there is an even greater number of words and phrases that you and I use in our ordinary speech which were commonplace in those days but were not recorded in written English until Shakespeare first put them down on the parchment.
Not that Shakespeare was the first person to write in what we call ‘modern’ English–there were many writers in the hundreds of years before who wrote in the English language: the language of the poor, and working classes, whilst the wealthy well-educated spoke Latin, then French. But I’d argue that Shakespeare was the first to really use the language in a vitally creative way, adapting it to his audience and the form he was writing in.
A quick comment: English is a relatively new language. It’s a mixed up thing, using elements from many other languages. Its words were ‘borrowed’ (but we won’t be giving them back, so it’s more like theft) from the Celts, the Romans, the Greeks, the Norse, Old German, Old French, Latin, Japanese, Yiddish, Native American languages, Chinese languages, Indian dialects, Arabic dialects, Dutch, Icelandic… or all of the above, English as a language is something living and breathing, it evolves, changes, it has trends, adaptations and corruptions. Igloo. Veranda. Wanderlust. Safari. Samovar. Loot. Cookie. Anonymous. Ketchup. Avatar. Telescope. Doppelganger. Genre. Cafe. Lingerie. Kindergarten. Rucksack. Glitz. Schmooze. Guerilla. Macho. Patio. Chocolate. Moccasin. Karaoke. Karate. Typhoon. Moped. Paparazzi. Siesta. Gherkin. Quartz. Horde. Schmuck. And many more…
You only have to compare Englishes around the world to see the changes that have occurred to the ‘common’ language. If it wasn’t so, you wouldn’t need dictionaries of American English and British English, to explain us to one another. Pants and pants. One is underwear, one is trousers (outer wear). And now, it’s a word meaning bad or terrible, as in: ‘My morning at work was completely pants.’
If someone said, ‘Yeah, baby, that’s out of this world, it’s fabulous, man,’ you’d know they were giving you a crash course in 1960s idioms. Once upon a time, if we were satisfied with the way things were, we said things were cool. Then we started saying people should chill out. How quickly words are assimilated into our language these days. They are often not new words at all, but simply known, ordinary words being applied in a new way. Which brings me back to Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was a genius at taking words we already used and using them in a new context. For example, he often used nouns as verbs. These conjured up vivid mental images, making his plays, for example, colourful and immediate. In a play, already heavily leaning on words for context and meaning, to use words in different way was to bring the spoken word to life.
Here’s a little list of words and phrases, either new or adapted, that can be found in Shakespeare’s work:
Bandit (Henry VI, Part 2)
Critic (Love’s Labour Lost)
Dauntless (Henry VI, Part 3. 1616)
Dwindle (Henry IV, Part 1)
Elbow (the noun used as a verb, King Lear)
Friend (the noun used as a verb, Hamlet)
Green-Eyed (The Merchant of Venice) to describe jealousy; previously or commonly, jealousy was considered to be orange! (Much Ado About Nothing: ‘The Count is neither sad nor sick, nor merry, nor well;/But civil Count–civil (play on the word Seville) as an orange,/And something of that jealous complexion.)
Lacklustre (As You Like It)
Skim-milk (Henry IV, Part 1)
Swagger (Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Unaware (poem: Venus & Adonis)
Uncomfortable (Romeo & Juliet)
Undress (Taming of the Shrew)
Unearthly (A Winter’s Tale)
Maybe it’s time to bring a bit more Shakespeare back into our everyday language? There is nothing the Bard did so well as a good insult. Try these out at the pub:
Villain, I have done thy mother (sounds surprisingly modern – and completely validates my point!)
Thou Painted Maypole (for a tall woman)
Away, you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish
Thou sodden-witted lord! Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows
Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon
Poisonous bunch-backed toad
I am sick when I do look on thee
The tartness of his face sours grapes
I was searching for a fool when I found you (my favourite!)
I do desire we may be better strangers
He has not so much brain as ear-wax.
You have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness
Her face is not worth sunburning
Thou hateful wither’d hag!
Thou art unfit for any place but hell
Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain
You are now sailed into the north of my lady’s opinion, where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard (Of which I think we can all agree, the best response is, ‘What?’)
- Welcome 2020
‘I can hardly believe it’s about to be 2020!’
That’s what everyone is saying. I suppose it feels like a big number. Certainly it’s one of those futuristic-sounding dates from the sci-fi we used to watch and read years ago. Someone in my family said ‘We’re back to the 20s.’
Will they be the roaring twenties? Flappers from one hundred years ago may have been delirious with excitement at the arrival of peace and the relief that gave to countries around the world.
Let’s hope 2020 will be a year of peace, happiness, compassion, generosity, givingness and mutual care and support.
Have a lovely New Year, everyone, and I hope you and your families thrive in 2020.
- Happy Christmas to everyone xx
- A quick recap of 2019.
So that was that! Here we are (almost) at the end of December, traditionally time to look back and reflect on the passing year.
Brexit loomed large in many people’s thoughts. I was dismayed by the outcome of the election. Again. I voted. My family voted. It didn’t work, and now there’s nothing we can do but get on with our lives. When I was a child, they used to say of naughty boys, ignore him and he’ll get tired of showing off and go away. So that is my new strategy with regards to Brexit, and Boris. Onward and upward, guys, and let’s hope for better things next year.
This year, I’ve published two books. I released a stand-alone novel (never a good idea) called Easy Living. I’ve written a lot of books over the years. Some of them–okay, a lot of them–too dire to be inflicted on the reading public. But Easy Living has a very special place in my heart. And even though I knew it would only sell in small numbers (very small, actually), I wanted to release it anyway, just for myself. If you’re interested, you can find out a bit more about Easy Living here.
Then just a few short weeks ago I released The Thief of St Martins. It’s book 5 of the Dottie Manderson 1930s murder mysteries, and I’m so pleased to be able to say it is selling quite well, and a few people have said some wonderful things about it, which is so encouraging. It took me the best part of a year to write. I know these days we are all supposed to write between four and six novels a year, plus write blog posts, and put together special free giveaways, but I just can’t achieve that level of output–and I don’t know if that amount of pressure is healthy.
I do blog–see, look, I’m doing it right now–although I admit I’m not always sure what to blog about. I feel embarrassed talking about my books all the time, thinking that might be a big turn-off for readers. We Brits don’t cope well with self-promotion–from a very early age, we’re taught that it’s bad manners and is boastful. So I try to write about things I’ve discovered during my research, or I write to help or support other writers, because that’s writing what I know, as writing coaches (mistakenly) tell us to do. But I try to come up with something most weeks. I’m rewarded by lovely comments and conversations with people, and by seeing the numbers of my blog followers gently rising week on week.
What else have I done this year? I’ve read quite a lot. I’ve done some editing and proofreading, a lot of social media promo, and I’ve spent hours playing on Canva and Bookbrush, as I love to create simple graphics, and find it quite therapeutic and relaxing. I’ve also started drafting several novels and novellas, some of which may never be seen or heard of again, and some of which you (hopefully) will read next year.
What shall I do next year? I’ll be blogging again, of course. And reading, as always. And then I plan to release two novels in 2020, at least one of which will be a Dottie Manderson book. I’m starting serious work on The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6 in January, and will hopefully finish the first draft by the start of March. If that seems a long way off, can I say that I’ve already written four chapters? Only another 18-20 to go…. I’ve got other ideas too, but who knows what will actually happen? There just isn’t enough time for all the ideas I want to write about. I might watch some TV. I’ll keep on with my Polish lessons. I might do a spot of gardening. Housework will come in there somewhere, way down the list. Maybe I’ll travel? Who knows?
So now all that’s left is for me to say a massive thank you to all my readers, to my friends and family, for the incredible, jaw-dropping support and encouragement I’ve received. I honestly couldn’t have done 2019 without you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Now, where’s the alcohol and chocolate?
- A Quick Trip To The Loo (bathroom, for you non-Brits)
These days it is more or less standard to have 2 or maybe 1.75 bathrooms per average home in the Western world. If you ever watch a house moving TV show, such as Escape To The Country or similar, top of most home-buyers’ wish-list is an en-suite bathroom to the main bedroom. I’d say probably the majority of families have a main bathroom with a toilet, shower/bath and a wash basin, and many have a spare ‘loo’ (toilet) in addition to the one in the main bathroom. Not everyone, but many people do. It’s quite easy these days too to stick a new loo in any unused walk-in cupboard, or utility room, or to section off a piece of a large bedroom. A lot of people think of a luxury home as one that includes more bathrooms. The bathroom has become our special little private world for relaxation as well as taking care of our bodies. Though we don’t really give the same attention to our toilets as we do the rest of the bathroom.
Can you imagine sharing your toilet with a dozen other families? What about if those families all have four or six kids? That’s a lot of trips to the loo!
Yet that used to be normal. In fact, it was once common for even larger numbers of people to all use the same toilet all the time. It’s easy to see how contagious diseases and infections could sweep through a whole community very quickly. Add to that open sewers running (literally) down the middle of the street and the potential for an epidemic is huge. There were several major outbreaks of cholera in London in the nineteenth century, and there can be little doubt that contaminated drinking water from the sewer-filled Thames was the cause.
In Judith Flanders’s book The Victorian House, the author quotes a report from 1858 (the same year as ‘The Great Stink’ when London was sunk beneath a terrible sewer stench resulting from a long hot summer) that the army wanted to combat the high number of deaths amongst servicemen that could be attributed to disease and poor hygiene. Flanders says, ‘When the Army improved the ventilation ‘and nuisances arising from latrines and defective sewerage’ in its barracks, the death rate dropped dramatically’. (Nuisances here means spillage, overflowing, and the smell, not to mention infestation of pests.)
So it seemed the time was finally ripe for an advancement in the provision of hygienic solutions. It was time for a loo.
Just let me clarify for overseas readers. In Britain, you are more likely to be invited to make use of a loo or a w.c. or a lav. Any of these means toilet. If you are in a public place, most people will announce (but why?) that they are going to the ladies’ or to the gents’, or (cringe) to the little boys’ room/little girls’ room. Brits usually ‘pop’ to the loo. No idea why. Brits rarely say they are going to the bathroom. American visitors, in Britain if you ask for a bathroom, people will look at you oddly, wondering why you need to take a bath right now.
When I studied Spanish years and years ago, we laughed like mad when our teacher told us a very old-fashioned word for the loo in Spanish was el retrete. I loved it though, and thought it was a very useful descriptive name. Maybe they should bring that back? I think a lot of people like the idea of ‘retreating’ to use the loo in peace. Or beating a hasty retreat.
In Britain too we talk about ‘spending a penny’, a coy euphemism dating back to the days when you had to put a penny in the slot of the lock mechanism to open the door of a public loo. Though when we were kids we used to hold the door open for one another as we came out, and save our mums a fortune. These days it will probably set you back 20p or 50p in places where they still charge money to use the toilet. Who knows, it could be more by now.
Flushing toilets, in the modern sense of pulling a chain, pressing a lever, or a button or just waving your hand in front of a detector on the wall, to flush the toilet, is a relatively new concept. But the idea of using a flow of water to sluice out a latrine has been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years, since the Roman times, and probably earlier. Technology seems to rise and fall, doesn’t it, as humans learn a new idea then immediately unlearn it again, only for that same idea to be rediscovered later.
However the notion of a flushing toilet didn’t really fully catch on in the domestic sphere until the recent past. Maybe it was just easier to use a chamber pot then let someone else have the problem of disposal? Or maybe, with plenty of people around to do the more revolting tasks, those with the money to advance technology had no need to do so?
In the first half or even two-thirds of the nineteenth century, toilets for the use of the wealthy or moderately wealthy were still mainly chamber pots under a bed or in a commode, with waste needing to be carried out of the house and ‘disposed of’, sometimes into earth pits or closets, sometimes into a furnace. There were even people, ‘Night-men’, who came to the house to empty all your waste and take it away and sell it–yes, sell it! Urine was valuable for its nitrogen content, so useful in making gunpowder, in dyes, bleaches, and tanning leather, and as an ingredient in cleaning products, whilst poo was a great fertiliser and compost material (still is actually…)
Many households still relied on the outhouse, or outdoor earth-closet. These were not just the arrangements for the working classes, or servants, but were sometimes used by the middle and upper classes too.
In Kate Summerscale’s wonderful true-crime book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the dead body of a child is found in the earth-closet outside the family residence. This was a fairly well to do family in a large country house, and in 1860, when the murder took place, it was still unremarkable to have an earth-closet in the garden for the use of the servants. (With newspaper as toilet tissue!) The child’s body was found two feet below the seat of the closet, caught or placed on the splashboard (eww!) suspended above the pit for the waste.
In rural areas, even up to the middle of the twentieth century there would be households whose main w.c. was an earth-closet outside and a short walk away from the house. But the flushing toilet first went on ‘display’ to the British public at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and a record number of almost 850,000 people queued over the course of the event to make use of the convenience of one of these new flushing toilets in one of the waiting rooms. It caused such a stir that it was reported in Parliamentary Papers, noting that although urinals had been provided for gentlemen to use in addition to cubicles, there was a much longer waiting time for ladies–nothing changes, does it?
But once flushing toilets were exposed to the British public, everyone wanted one. In middle and upper class households almost everyone had a flushing toilet by the end of the century. Obviously in working class homes, it took a lot longer to catch up with modern hygiene trends. Hence the shared toilets on blocks of slum dwellings, and the composting toilets in the countryside. As I said a couple of weeks ago, that’s almost come back around now, with eco-friendly, low water use toilets being installed in rural and out of the way or arid areas.
The Victorian House by Judith Flanders
Lost Voices of the Edwardians by Max Arthur
If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale
- Once Upon A Time…
I know I’d promised to talk about toilets this week – (!) but I’m doing last minute proofreading and panic-tidying/tweaking of The Thief of St Martins: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 5 at the moment, ahead of its release on the 30th November. I needed to think of something quick so I didn’t ignore my blog altogether, but without it throwing my schedule off the rails.
So I thought I’d tell you a story: it’s not a very new one, some regular readers might have seen it before, but hopefully it’s interesting enough to get your attention. It’s a short story loosely based on a real news report (!) from a local paper a few years back. In fact it made the nationals. When the old hospital in the village of Shardlow was demolished, workmen reported strange goings-on and a paranormal specialist was called in to investigate. Yes really! It’s just occurred to me I should have put this on at Hallowe’en. Epic fail.
The story is called:
Henry was puking into a sink. The world around him rocked and dipped. He gripped the edge of the sink, closing his eyes, afraid to let go. Bile rose in his throat and he bent to puke again, strings of mucus dragging from his chin to the backs of his white-knuckled hands. He retched again then again.
‘I’m not well, you know.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ said a voice behind him. ‘This is obviously a terrible shock. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling. But if you don’t take my advice and Cross Over, then I’m afraid I just don’t know what else to suggest.’
‘I love Shardlow. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve been in this hospital for years, it’s like a home to me. I know every nook and cranny.’ Henry took a few deep breaths to steady himself, trying to breathe through his mouth so he wouldn’t catch too much of his own stench. He wiped his face on his sleeve and turned stiffly to face the man.
‘You’re the bloody psychic. If you can’t help me, who can?’
The man had been about to speak but was pre-empted by a third person, a workman in faded overalls.
‘What’s he saying now? Tell me what’s going on!’
The psychic fought the urge to roll his eyes heavenward and kept his voice polite.
‘Well, Henry’s still being ill, and he wants to know what we can do to help him.’ He resisted the urge to add, duh! The workman kept touching his cigarette as if to check it was still there behind his ear. Clearly he felt it was time for a short break.
There was a knock on the door and another workman, twenty years slimmer, put his head around the door.
‘Here, Guv, that bird from the paper’s here with a photographer.’
‘All right, Kendall, show them in.’
The journalist marched into the room. She wore a dark power suit and smart blouse, and her high-heels tapped loudly as she took a turn about the room looking around carefully for several minutes before she finally looked at the two men she could see.
‘Hmm. Are any of Them in here right now?’
‘Yes, over there, in the corner. He’s by a sink, keeps being sick, poor chap. I can see him, though you probably… He’s wearing pyjamas, obviously, as he’s a patient in the hospital, and a dressing gown and slippers.’
‘Can’t see anything myself.’ She gestured the cameraman forward. ‘Just do a general pan across the room, and then close in on that corner—apparently there’s supposed to be something going on there.’ She turned a brittle smile on the older workman. ‘So you think there is actually something to these rumours, then?’
The workman bristled a little, shuffled his feet and reassured himself that his cigarette was lit.
‘Well, we’re just ordinary blokes, been on lots of jobs like this, demolitions, rebuilds, the like, and never had anything like this. Noises and cold mists and whatnot. Tools flying through the air. We’re just ordinary chaps, not a fanciful bunch, not much call for imagination in the demolition business…’
‘In my experience there’s nothing so suggestible as a bunch of hairy-arsed workmen with barely one GCSE between them. A couple of pints at lunchtime, and you’re all seeing fairies at the bottom of the garden. Please tell me there’s more to this than someone feeling a bit queasy and a couple of strange noises. No? God! Why would they want to stay in this hole anyway? I mean it’s cold, dirty and—forgive me for stating the obvious but they are dead aren’t they—why does it matter where they—er—live?’
The workman grew a little red in the face, and the psychic stepped forward, just in case. But just as the workman was about to express his views in a forthright manner, Claire slid through the wall and came over to Henry and his precious sink.
‘What’s happening?’ she asked him.
Henry gestured towards the journalist.
‘She’s from The Daily Sceptic and she’s just upset Banksey by suggesting he imagined us, and that’s the photographer—he’s hoping to capture us on film, which will be a miracle because he sure as hell can’t see us with his eyes.’
‘Right! Normal Monday morning then! I see old Smelly Feet is still here.’
‘Yes, I am,’ said the psychic, ‘and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m the one who is trying to help you as well as being the only one that can see—and hear—you!’
‘Ah!’ she fell silent, then changed the subject. ‘Henry, Mrs Jarvis wanted me to let you know that the vicar’s here with his holy water and stuff. Mr Jarvis is keeping an eye on everything from the Castle North Ward staircase. Apparently we’re expecting a medium, a rabbi and a man from the environmental health. Must get back, I do so love a party.’
She vanished through the wall once again whilst Henry, feeling unwell, abruptly turned back to his sink. The psychic turned to tell everyone what was happening. The journalist and the photographer rushed off to welcome the new arrivals, and Banksey came to lean on the same piece of wall as the psychic. He took down his cigarette and turned it over between his fingers.
‘So what effect will that lot have then? A vicar, a rabbi and a bloke from the environmental? Sounds like the start of a joke like we used to tell before everyone got all PC.’
The psychic smiled then sighed as he thought it over. He shook his head.
‘I don’t know to be honest. I mean usually the only ones who take this kind of thing seriously are blokes like you and me. What do you think, Henry? Will they be wasting their breath, or does it spell disaster? Henry?’
But Henry wasn’t there. He was halfway down the main stairs, and when he reached the ninth step, he passed right through the man from the environmental health. The man halted on the tread, looked about him and pulled up the collar of his jacket, remarking to the chap in the dog-collar that it was a bit parky in these old, empty buildings. The man in the dog-collar frowned at him thoughtfully but said nothing.
By the time Henry had found the Jarvises, Claire, old Mr Wainwright and Miss Siddals, the man in the dog-collar was unscrewing the lid of a small bottle and smiling complacently at the psychic.
‘Really, Malcolm, I don’t know why you look so perturbed. I thought you didn’t believe in this sort of thing, or so you said on Richard and Judy. I thought you put your faith in psychic energy and channelling.’
‘I do,’ the psychic snapped. ‘But that doesn’t mean I don’t have any feelings about your inquisitorial methods.’ He would have said more, but at that moment the door was opened and a tall thin young man in a smart dark suit came in, followed by the journalist and the photographer. It opened again and they were joined by Banksey and Kendall. The tall young man turned out to be the rabbi, and he apologised for being a little late.
‘Two poltergeists in Matlock and a tree spirit out at Chesterfield already this morning. Don’t you just hate Mondays!’ The man from the environmental health made the introductions then they all looked at each other to see whose turn it was to go first. The vicar stepped forward and spread a pale pink fluffy bathmat on the floor.
‘What does that do?’ the journalist queried. The vicar looked at her as if she was daft.
‘It stops my trousers getting dusty,’ he said and hitching them at the thighs, knelt down carefully, and closed his eyes and put his hands neatly together.
The psychic found another convenient wall to lean against, and with an inward sigh, settled back arms folded, to see what would happen. Banksey was still fondling his yearned-for cigarette, whilst Kendall was trying to position himself so that if the journalist moved he could see either up her skirt or down her blouse. The photographer was searching his pockets and holdall for a spare camera battery, and swearing a good deal under his breath, unaware of the vicar glaring at him with Anglican tolerance. The journalist was trying to straighten her hair, smooth down her skirt, lick a smidge of lipstick from her teeth and find a notebook, and the rabbi, looking a little battle-weary, stationed himself by the window facing into the room. The environmental man, caught uncertainly between the roles of Master of Ceremonies and chief coat-holder at a duel, hovered by the door.
Henry appeared with his entourage just as the vicar began to whisper confidentially to his fingers, his eyes screwed shut in earnest concentration.
‘It’s started,’ Mr Jarvis pointed out, somewhat unnecessarily. They stood by the wall, watching and waiting. Henry, ignoring a growling in his stomach that indicated it would be better to find himself a nice sink, whisked across the room to the psychic’s side.
‘Shardlow is such a nice little village. Even the gravel pit’s quite pretty now. Fifty-nine houses they’re going to build here, you know.’
‘It’s not a very big plot.’
‘No, not especially.’
‘So they won’t be very big houses.’
‘No I don’t suppose they will.’
‘I hate all these pokey little modern places, tiny little rooms, no garden to speak of. And the developers make a fortune. We got here first, we should have some rights, at least. You know, like squatters.’
‘You did say you didn’t want to cross over. So there wasn’t much else I could do. I told you they wouldn’t let matters rest.’
‘I didn’t have time to think it over. If you could just buy us some time—I mean, this is all a bit drastic.’
‘I agree, but it’s out of my hands now. Sorry, Henry.’
‘Do you Mind!’ thundered the voice of the Reverend Milward. The psychic muttered an apology, his face reddening.
‘What’s he going to do then?’
The psychic didn’t reply, afraid of further censure.
‘Ooh, I feel all queer!’ Mrs Jarvis wailed, and her husband took her arm and lowered her into a chair that was no longer there.
‘Don’t you take any notice, Hetty, my girl, just pretend it’s a Sunday service. Just remember not to say Amen as that’s effectively agreeing to whatever demands he makes.’
‘You ought to do something to stop him.’ Henry said, ‘I mean it’s just not fair! That’s what you’re here for isn’t it?’
‘Actually I’m here to advise the company how to get rid of you, not to stick up for you. After all this place has been condemned, you know.’
Before Henry could reply, the rabbi prostrated himself on the floor careless of his beautiful suit, and began to worship loudly. The man from the environmental unrolled a large wodge of paper and began to read out statutes and by-laws, and the photographer, out of battery packs, swore viciously and threw his camera on the floor as the journalist turned on her little tape recorder and bent to hold it close to the rabbi, causing Kendall to see quite a lot of naked thigh and in all this commotion Banksey accidentally squashed his last cigarette.
‘Bugger this for a game of soldiers,’ said Henry, ‘come on you lot, there’s no point in going on with this—we can’t win this one. Let’s call it a day and move on.’
‘But where will we go?’ Claire was wringing her hands in distress. ‘I’ve been here so long, Shardlow’s all I know!’
‘I know, Duck, but face it—this lot’ll have us turfed out in no time, so we might as well jump as be pushed.’
The ghosts stood in the centre of the room, frightened and upset. Henry was paler than usual and shaking, but his resolve held and so did the contents of his stomach. He patted Claire’s arm awkwardly.
‘Come on, Old Girl, brace up. We’ll think of something.’
The psychic came to a decision, and took a step forward.
‘You can all come back to my place. It might be a bit of a squash in the van though.’
They left before the rabbi could dust off his knees.
Six months later.
‘Hurry up, Henry, the Ghost Whisperer is on!’
‘Ooh goody, I like her, she’s so sweet!’
There was the sound of a toilet flushing and moments later, they heard gargling. Claire and Mr and Mrs Jarvis were wedged in comfortably on one sofa, and on an adjacent sofa, Henry rushed in to flop down between Miss Siddals and Malcolm the psychic. Mr Wainwright had an armchair all to himself.
‘Turn it up, Malcolm, we can’t hear!’ Mrs Jarvis complained.
‘Pass the biscuits,’ Henry said.
‘Shh! Shh, it’s starting!’
Henry fidgeted a bit more to get comfortable. He sighed.
‘It’s the perfect night in,’ he said.
- The bath that came in from the cold: the rise of the modern domestic bathroom: part 2
I’ve been re-reading a great book about domestic life: ‘If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home’ by Lucy Worsley. I highly recommend this book for a fascinating, very accessible history of the home. Of bathrooms she says, ‘Bathrooms are now…the only rooms…with a lock on their doors, yet the activities that take place within did not always require privacy’.
The full immersion of the body into water was more of a ritual for spiritual purposes or for political allegiance than it was to do with getting clean. Soldiers would cleanse themselves before going off to the crusades – it was a setting aside of the physical and the spiritual self for the express purpose of going into battle for God. Knights bathed before receiving the conveyed upon them.
The concept of a room set aside (more or less) for the sole purpose of cleansing the body is a relatively new one. Previously, bathing was a communal, social activity. In the medieval times, both sexes enjoyed bathing in public bathhouses. It was not done to cleanse the body but for fun and relaxation. You could even get a meal sent in to you, and a few pints of ale from a nearby inn. Unfortunately the bathhouses where you could bathe, drink and be merry rapidly acquired a reputation for naughty sexual shenanigans, and it wasn’t long before bathhouses became brothels, pure and simple. There were other concerns too: sharing water with a large number of other people meant that bacteria lurked, and bathing became more likely to infect your body, not less. Bathing began to be regarded with suspicion and distrust, and consequently, people stopped doing it.
This gave rise to the private wash in the bedroom. We have probably all seen the large jug sitting in a matching china bowl on a washstand, a vital piece of furniture. Hot water was carried up from the fires of the kitchen or scullery by panting maids who must have had biceps and shoulders like a modern action movie hero. These days we still see these jug sets in homes, guest houses and boutique hotels, no longer for daily use but for decoration, used to convey a sense of homely comfort and traditional values.
But with bathing out, the emphasis was on the wearing of clean clothes. Underwear was invented, and it became the norm to change the clothes more often. Washing was done in the dim recesses of the servants areas of the large country house, with households employing one, two or sometimes a whole team of laundresses for this particular work. Labour was cheap, clothes were not.
And it wasn’t all about the nasty germs that you might pick up from bathing, nor about having enough staff to fill a bath or run up and down with hot water. From the middle of the nineteenth century more than half of Britain’s population were living in cities. The sheer logistical demands of bringing fresh, clean water into the cities was a nightmare. Remember these places still had open sewers until the beginning of the 19th century. Water, when piping began, was often rusty, or tainted, or just not available due to the inefficiency of the system or the lack of proper distribution. Piped water was often only available at set times, so households had to either manage without, or get used to collecting and storing it until needed. This all required management and planning.
But from the Regency period onwards bathing, at home and beyond, again began to be seen as an important part of everyday life across all social strata. If you watched the new adaptation/reimagining of Jane Austen’s unfinished work, Sanditon on TV recently, you would have enjoyed the sight of gorgeous young men emerging from the sea after a swim – naked, of course, but perilously close to where the ladies are bathing from bathing machines in a ridiculous array of clothing to swim in. In Jane Austen’s wonderful work Pride and Prejudice, the precocious Lydia says, ‘I’m sure I should love to go sea-bathing,’ whilst her mother responds with ‘A little sea-bathing would set me up forever.’
There were still concerns about the dangerous effects of the action of the sea having a stimulating effect on women in particular, as ‘everyone’ knew that women were hysterical creatures at the best of times, and any kind of physical enjoyment was to be strictly controlled. I wonder if the birth rate went up nine months after a trip to the seaside? I guess that depends on whether or not ladies spotted someone like Sidney Parker (aka Theo James!) ambling out of the sea with not a stitch on.
In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland travels to Bath with Mrs Allen to take the waters for their health, and in doing so, they are participating in the huge trend that was sweeping the nation: it was once more a good and healthy thing to do, not to mention a vital aspect of the social calendar for the well-to-do. To go to Bath, to see and be seen in the various rooms of the spa was on everyone’s to-do list. Science – or natural philosophy as it was then called – touted the benefits to mind, body and spirit of warm water containing salts and minerals. They didn’t just bathe in it, either. It was drunk by the pint.
But what if you were too poor to be able to be seen at a trendy spa?
The poor, or even middling wealthy, could of course, always swim in the sea, or lakes and rivers, and were arguably less at risk of the rapid rise and fall of fashionable opinion. New coastal resorts sprang up from the Regency era onwards, and from the middle part of Victoria’s reign the railways took even the less well-off to the coast for a day’s relaxation, walking swimming and sandcastle building. But even at home, the tin bath would come out and be filled with hot water for getting off the week’s grime and starting a new week fresh and clean. Ish.
Faith played a part here. Religion determined your bath night. Did you believe that Sunday or Saturday was the sabbath? Was the start of the new week Sunday or Monday for you? Because that dictated which day of the week your family had their weekly bath. For many, the end of the week was Sunday, and that was bath night, but there were large numbers for whom Saturday was the last day of the week and Sunday the first, so they had their bath on a Saturday night. Scandanavian languages still carry this concept in the everyday word for Saturday – in Swedish it’s lördag, in Danish and Norwegian it’s lørdag, and in Icelandic it’s laugardag (which is the closest to the language of origin). But they all mean the same – pool or bath day. There was also a sense that bathing was a social duty – one had to consider the people aroudn one, and the idea of smelling bad to others was abhorrent.
For most people who were brought up C of E (Church of England/Anglican) Sunday remained the day when you had your weekly bath. And there was a strict order to who got to have the bath: starting with either the eldest or the ‘man of the house’ or main bread-winner (usually all three would have been the father of the family), and proceeding down the chain to the youngest. All using the same water. Can you imagine the state of the water by the end? There is a reason we have an old saying ‘Don’t throw out the baby with the bath-water.’ I’m guessing the water was so murky it would be hard to tell if anyone was left in there, though I sincerely hope no mother would accidentally leave her baby int he water and forget about it. (Said the woman who once took a picture of her baby in her new coat, then left the house, and was halfway into town before remembering the baby was still lying on the sofa… sorry, Darling!)
In 1918, a law was passed in Britain to the effect that all new houses had to have hot and cold running water to a bathroom. But of course, this had no impact on the millions of older homes. Only as finances allowed would bathrooms be added to the terraces and villas across the nation. These days if you buy a Victorian home, you will find either a bedroom or two have been sacrificed to provide bathrooms, or a bathroom has been added on as a built extension to the back of the house, often downstairs.
Fast forward to the Second World War, and hot water was rationed – or rather the coal that was usually the means of heating it, and individuals were only supposed to use a depth of four inches of water per day in their baths. I’m not sure how anyone hoped to regulate this, or how much it contributed to the war effort, but like a lot of things at that time, it gave the community as a whole a sense of ‘doing our bit’ and made people think they were helping their nation to win the fight.
So that’s it, from there we went to actual baths in actual designated bathrooms, and the concept of a daily shower quickly became a normal part of our cleansing ritual.
I want to close with this lovely item. I took this picture at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. It’s a portable or travelling shower bath. The bamboo supporting canes can be removed, and the water tank at the top taken off, so that the traveller is left with conveniently-sized separate sections that can be readily reassembled on arrival at the destination. Always supposing you haven’t left vital screws, nuts or bolts etc on the dining room table at home. I like to think of it as a kind of IKEA device, with a Scandanavian-sounding name. Maybe The Lördag?
next week – the loo!
- The rise of the domestic bathroom: My childhood in the 60s
As you will know if you’ve been to this blog before, I’m a bit of a history nut, and in particular I love the history of the private home. I mainly write mysteries set in the 1930s, although I set my books in other eras too from time to time.
But the few short years between the World War I and World War II bewitch and intrigue me. These were the years that really created the world as we know it now, and the legacy of those years is still widely felt and experienced today. (To read a bit more about how I see this era, please click on this link to read a blog post from last year)
Because of my daft preoccupation with the first part of the twentieth century, I visit a lot of English country houses and I take LOADS of pictures. I’m particularly interested in the more ‘basic’ aspects of life. I want to know about how meals were created, how houses and clothes were cleaned, and how people cleaned themselves. So I thought I’d tell you a bit about my childhood, and also next week, a bit about the rise of the modern domestic bathroom.
I was born in 1960 in the South of England. Contrary to many peoples’ view, this was not a time of universal comfort and modernisation. Not that I was particularly aware of it as a child, but looking back now, I can see we were very badly off by modern standards. Yet we were not alone, and I doubt if our experience was a rare one.
From when I was about three, or a little younger, we lived in what can only be described as a bedsit, though in those days we gave it the grander name of a one-room flat. Mum and I slept, cooked, and relaxed in that one room in an old house, with many other such rooms. If you read books written in the 40s, 50s and 60s, you will often come across mention of these grand old houses gone down in the world and divided up into flats or bedsits. Larger private homes became unmanageable without a staff to run them, and after the first world war, wages rose, and labour was scarce, lured away by the higher wages and often shorter working weeks in the factories. We lived in one of those grand old houses, a handsome very square, white-washed Georgian villa over four floors.
We were on the first floor ( second floor to you guys from the States), and our room faced out the back where there were the remains of a beautiful garden. Our neighbours on the same floor were two men sharing a room. They were British but called themselves Pierre and Rene, and they worked as hairdressers. They were young, noisy and seemed to have a lot of fun. They gave me gifts and sent postcards whenever they went away. I realise now they were a gay couple. But not then. Then, we thought they were just good friends. Really good friends…
Next door to them was ‘Uncle’ Harry, an elderly refugee from the former Yugoslavia. He’d been living there for fifteen or so years, since the war ended. He gave me tinned fruit and cream as a treat, and told me stories. I think he was lonely. He had lost his family in the war. He proposed to Auntie Zonya regularly but sadly she always turned him down. It was normal for children to call adult friends Auntie or Uncle, even if they were no such relation.
Across the hall was Auntie Zonya. I adored her. She was a strong influence on my early years. I have written a number of short pieces about her, including Jazz Baby, Patrick’s Irish Eyes, Big Knickers, and others. More importantly, she bought me my first cat.
There were others too, who were out for most of the day or kept to themselves, so we didn’t know them so well as these four. Upstairs in what used to be the servants’ quarters in the attic, was Miss Lilian, who was the owner of the house, and I was always told to behave and be polite when she came down to our floor, as she had the power to throw us out onto the street. I remember her as seeming incredibly old, with very white wavy hair, and not much taller than me. I’d love to know more about her life and whether she remembered the house in its prime, when it was all for one family. There’s never a time machine around when you need one.
There were people who lived downstairs in the basement too, but I only slightly knew the couple with the little girl who I played with occasionally. They had windows that were below the level of the garden, with little dug-outs around them to bring in the light. These were presumably the old kitchen, scullery etc of the house when it was in its heyday.
There was a shared bathroom on each floor. I remember we shared our bathroom with at least three and sometimes more other families, though usually these families consisted of single people or couples.
It wasn’t unusual to be on the loo or in the bath and someone else needed to use the facilities. It wasn’t unusual for there to be no hot water because someone else had used too much for their own bath. (No shower!) Most of the time when I was having a bath, someone would come in to shave, or wash, to rinse some clothes, or to use the loo–not a pleasant experience for either of us!
One friend in the house–my Auntie Zonya–used a chamber pot until well into the late 60s. I found it (empty I hasten to add) under her bed once and thought she was putting out cups of tea for an invisible giant. (I was an imaginative child) I only found out what it was when I asked her where the saucer was, as the ‘cup’ was shaped and patterned just like a huge teacup. I’d say that the fact that I didn’t know what it was shows that usage of chamber pots was in decline by the 60s, although clearly not completely done away with.
Even when we moved from there to a house–one bedroom upstairs and a kitchen/sitting-room downstairs, with a toilet in the backyard under a lean-to roof and with no light and loads of spiders–we still had no bath of our own. That was around 1966 or so. But it was private, and cosy, and I remember I loved that house. I was about 6 when we moved in, and only about 7 when we left, so we weren’t there as long as it seems in my memories. It’s gone now: that and the house next door–that belonged to a blind gentleman who was a piano-tuner–were bulldozed to create something a bit nicer. Auntie Zonya lived in the house after us, when we moved on. She said the piano-tuner’s house was haunted. Then again, she said that about everywhere.
Hot water had to be boiled. Baths were not available at all–we didn’t have one of those old-fashioned baths you see in period dramas. We had a plastic washing-up bowl and used to put hot water in it, stand in it and wash ourselves down. I had long hair. Washing that was a nightmare. We used to take a torch out to the loo when we needed it. As a lean-to shack, the loo had no light, no windows, and was freezing cold – even in summer. And the spiders…
When we moved into a council flat (again, for those from outside the UK, I mean an apartment complex in social housing/government housing for the needy/low-income families) we had a big dining/sitting room, a separate kitchen, two bedrooms. AND–drum roll please–a bathroom!!!!!!!! Not to mention under-floor heating. (That was blissful) We had to go to the flat to clean it the week before we moved in as the previous occupants had left it dirty, and this gave us the perfect excuse to have a hot bath, which seemed to us the height of luxury and I can remember it even now, more than fifty years later.
The most exciting part of this house, apart from the bathroom, and the two bedrooms, was the coal door next to the front door. Basically if a thief timed it right they could get into the flat through this coal door and take whatever they wanted (not that we had anything!) and leave by either the front door or the coal door. Not a great feature from a security point of view. As an avid Famous Five reader, I loved the idea of the coal door giving absolutely anyone access to our home.
From there, we entered the modern world of running hot water, central heating and baths, then showers, of washing machines, then tumble driers, fridges, freezers, microwaves, toasters and colour television, computers, the Internet, eBooks and self-publishing…
But long before I came into the world, the common approach to washing, going to the loo, and in personal grooming had undergone massive changes. Read more next week!