- 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!
- Revised release date for The Thief of St Martins: Dottie Manderson book 5
Just a quick update to apologise to all the lovely people ‘out there’ who have pre-ordered my book, The Thief of St Martins: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 5.
Sadly I’ve had to push back the release date by one month for a number of reasons, and so it will not now appear on your Kindle until 30th November 2019.
I’m so sorry for the inconvenience!
- Woohoo…NaNo2019 Funsies!
At this time of year, everyone starts putting out their ‘Tips For NaNo’ blogs. As I didn’t want to be left out, I thought I’d add my voice to all the advice aimed at writers planning to participate in this year’s (Inter)National Novel Writing Month through NaNoWriMo.org in November.
What do you mean, ‘what is it?’? It’s
secondfourth only to Hallowe’en, Christmas and Valentine’s as the most celebrated season of the year. Whether you are a seasoned author or a newbie who’s never written a whole novel before, this is a great way to challenge yourself to write a complete novel—though it could also be non-fiction, if that’s your bag, baby—by taking the challenge to write a whopping 50,000 words during the month of November.
I’ve done it several times now, and still haven’t quite made up my mind whether or not to go for it this year, as I’m just doing a final proof of my latest novel which is out at the end of this month, and I am, frankly, exhausted. But I do have some ideas I’ve been mulling over, so who knows, I might—just might—do something rash and go for it.
Even if I decide to do the smart thing and take a break, I can say unreservedly that NaNoWriMo is a great idea and I really believe it’s a valuable writing experience. If you’re not sure whether to do it, then I say, maybe give it a go, what have you got to lose?
You could gain a complete first draft!
Even if you don’t manage to complete the challenge, you will have achieved something – if you only write 10,000 words, or less than that – hey, it’s 10,000, or 1,000 or 250 words more than you had in October.
So here are my top tips for a great NaNoWriMo:
- Prepare. Yes, make sure you do. Even if you see yourself as a ‘pantser’, make sure you hit the ground running on November 1st by having a good idea of what your story is about, who the main characters are, and key plot points. You will need to write a little over1600 words per day every day to achieve the 50,000 word target by the end of the month. Reread any notes you have, and get your Word docs or word processing files, or your Scrivener files ready on your computer of choice. Do any essential research necessary NOW, don’t leave it until November.
I recommend setting up 30 files, dated: 1 Nov, 2 Nov, etc, so they are in the correct order time-wise, type up your story every day. Have another file called something like ‘Whole Thing’, and every day you complete, copy and paste that day’s work into the Whole Thing file, so you won’t have to do this at the end.
If you struggle to get going each new day, leave yourself a few words of direction at the end of your writing session, so when you come to start the next day, you’ve got a starting point.
It is a marathon. And like a runner in a marathon, you will have to learn to overcome ‘the voice’ in your head that tells you to give up, that you can’t do it. It’s not just athletes: you will find that voice also tries to trip up writers. You must learn to be stubborn, bloody-minded even, and refuse to give in even when everything in you and around you says you will fail and that what you are writing is terrible. So what, you will say, I’m going to do it. Carpe Stilum. Seize the pen! (I think…Latin is not my strongest skill)
If you get really stuck, go back and reread what you’ve already written, try to figure out what your original vision was and how you saw the story developing. If that isn’t working for you, try writing isolated scenes , conversations between your characters, events, try writing description of the setting in your story. Anything to keep going. Collect some images that will help to inspire you or give you a push forward when things are tough. You can find some wonderful images for free on Pixabay. Create a folder of these images to look at when you need something to spur you on.
- Keep your daily writing typed up. This is important if it’s your first time. Type your work into a computer file, don’t only write in longhand. Because at the end of the month, you need to copy and paste all your writing into the NaNoWriMo counter to get your achievement verified. And if it’s only written in notebooks, no matter how neat the writing nor fancy the notebook, it just—doesn’t—count. So don’t do what I did two years in a row (argh, the pain! Why am I so forgetful???) of writing mainly longhand then not leaving enough time to type up my work before the end of the month. It’s no good telling NaNoWriMo you’ve successfully completed the challenge if you don’t upload your ENTIRE 50,000 words for verification by their robot. In addition, remember their robot may not count quite the same as you, so ensure you’ve got a couple of hundred words over the 50,000-limit ‘just in case’. Don’t fail because you wrote exactly 50,000 words.
- Don’t get distracted. There is so much to look at on the NaNoWriMo site, and so many useful talks, motivational speeches, helps, suggestions, support groups, discussions and so on, not to mention the merch, but DO NOT spend time looking at this stuff if you haven’t done your daily word count. It is so easy to become distracted and to think, I’ll just write a bit extra tomorrow. Then the dog breaks its leg, and you’re at the vet till midnight and before you know it a week has gone by and you’ve got to write 3,500 words a day just to keep up. So don’t get on that slippery slope. Write first, have fun later.
- Be realistic. The aim here is not to write and publish a great work by Christmas. Okay, I’m sure some wonderman/woman will do exactly that—there’s always a handful of literary stars. But most of us will be aiming to simply write a complete, or almost complete, first draft during NaNoWriMo. Don’t write your 50,000 words then think the work is over, that your book is ready to be unleashed on a waiting world. This is simply the end of the beginning. Once you’ve finished your first draft, pat yourself on the back because it’s a wonderful achievement. Then request your winners’ certificate from NaNoWriMo.org and take a well-earned break. Put your first draft away. Then get it out in a month or six, and begin the process of rewriting, crafting, polishing. Work on it alongside the NaNoWriMo revision camps and workshops, and take pride in getting it as good as it can be. And—while you wait—write another book!
- Keep going through the tough days. At first it’s exciting. It’s fun. You feel a wonderful sense of achievement, and as you reach the end of week one, you survey your 5,000 or 10,000 or 15,000 words with pride. It’s all so easy, it’s all so wonderful. You should have done this years ago, why do people say writing is tough? BUT…often, (and it won’t just be you who goes through this) you can hit a brick wall. You struggle to wring 400 words from your imagination. Things happen in life and it can be hard to find the time. Suddenly the blank page is staring back at you, in what can only be described as a hostile manner, and you begin to feel like giving up. Now, yes, now it is hard. Maybe it’s not worth it, your inner wimp suggests.
Okay, take a breath, dig deep, you can do this. Hang on in there as they used to say in the 70s. Write a page of ‘I have no idea what to write’ or ‘I am so &*%%£! off with this writing game’. Anything, just to keep writing. Just keep at it and slog through the tough times. This would be a good time to read or listen to ONE or TWO only of the motivational speeches or posts, just so you know there are others going through the same experience. Keep writing, it will come back, I promise. You can make that 50,000 words appear. It’s not inspiration, by the way, it’s hard graft that will get you through this. Hard graft, and ignoring your inner meanie who says it’s time to give up and go home. ‘There’s always next year’, your inner meanie says with a snarky smile. Kick that B*****d in the shins and write on!
Woohoo—you made it! You are a writing genius and should feel sooooo proud of your achievement. Congratulations! Print off your certificate and put it on your wall to gloat over.
One of my books came out of a NaNoWriMo draft. I’ve written a number of other NaNoNovels but they are still on a shelf waiting for some TLC. Not every NaNoNovel shines and reaches publication, and not every novel that shines and is published started life written in 30 days flat in November. But NaNoWriMo is a valuable experience, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It will do wonders for your self-esteem as a writer.
Now stop wasting time and write another book. Oh, and, please, let me know how you get on! See you on the other side.
- ‘So, where do you get your ideas?’
I know I’ve written on this topic a couple of times before, but it’s one of those questions that never goes away.
Where do you get your ideas?’
This is one of the first questions people usually ask me – and I’m pretty sure it happens to other writers all the time. It kind of makes me want to groan, because it’s next to impossible to give a sincere and considered answer to this question without boring the pants off everyone by talking for an hour. The short, somewhat trite answer might be, ‘Everywhere!’
But if we really want to answer the question, it takes a minute or two longer. Because really there’s no single answer. Ideas don’t come from one unique, unvarying source. Nor do they come in the same way each time. Anything from the world seen or unseen can come to my attention and lead me to think, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting…’
Inspiration, which is what ideas really are, comes from everywhere and nowhere. A snatch of song, a news story, a little patch of colour on a card in the paint section of the DIY store, the turn of a person’s head making you think just for one split second it’s someone else, someone from another time, someone who should be dead. An unexpected view of yourself in a shop window, that odd moment before you recognise yourself, that brief second when you think, slightly puzzled, ‘I know you.’
An overheard snatch of conversation, ‘Don’t lose my hat, man, my hat’s my identity,’ and ‘Of course she never did find out who’d sent it.’ A film, a book, a taste, a smell, a memory, a story your mother told you – you’ve known her all your life yet this is the first time she’s ever mentioned this particular incident.
I have based two full-length stories on dreams, three short stories and one novel on songs, a poem on a piece of art, a novel based on a documentary I saw on TV about ancient tapestries, (Opus Anglicanum: Latin for English work), and another about the Reformation. I’ve written a short story about an arrowhead, and another about ancestral bones and the relevance they might have to a Neolithic man, about a couple of trips to Skara Brae in the Orkneys.
I’ve written a whole series of stories about the fact that all too often people think it’s okay to take the law into their own hands. (I’m looking at you Cressida, MC of the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy!) I’ve written about work situations, about hopes and plans for the future, about family tree research, about children, and pets, and parents. About love. About the absence of love. About Faith. About fear. About books I read as a child. And books I read as an adult. I’ve written about identity and what it means to be who I am, who you are. I’ve written about death – loads.
I saw a gorgeous man on the bus many years ago and wrote a story about him, (The Ice King – still not ‘available’, but if you’re intrigued, here’s a link to a short bit about him.) I’ve read news reports and been inspired to create my own story around some of those. I’ve written in hospital having just given birth, in hospital awaiting treatment for cancer, at work during my lunchbreak when I felt so depressed I just wanted to run away and hide. I’ve written when sitting on the loo, sitting in the garden, on holiday, in bed with flu, and in cafes all over Britain, Europe and Australia. I’ve written on buses and trains and planes. I’ve written when someone I cared about has died. I’ve even got inspiration from sitting down at my desk every day and just making myself write. Sometimes I’ve written page upon page of ‘I don’t know what to write’, like lines that we had to do at school, and still nothing has come to me and I’ve gone away desperate, feeling that the well has not only dried up, but was only a mirage to begin with.
If you are a writer, you squirrel away in the eccentric filing cabinet known as your brain EVERY single thing that you ever experience, and a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle or creating a patchwork quilt, you keep trying pieces together every which way until something fits and makes a pleasing and meaningful picture. There’s not really a pattern to it, there’s not a system or a set of regulations to follow. You just do it.
That’s where I get my ideas.
- ‘Features’ of the 1930s.
I’m back to Betty’s Paper again. I wanted to have a look at the features that are inside the magazine. Tell me what you think – do they seem very ‘now’ to you? I was a little surprised by how similar these mags were to the ones we read today. I’m not sure if I expected something different, and if I did, what exactly? Seems like they nailed the art of selling and entertaining even then.
The first thing that caught my eye with these and with some of the others I’ve seen, is that alluring offer of a ‘Free Gift’ emblazoned on the front. That sent me straight back to the 70s and my copies of Jackie and other magazines designed for teenage girls. There was often a free eye-shadow, or a lip gloss or something. They still do that, dont’ they? That was usually the only reason you bought the mag – that and the pin-ups inside! Can I confess right here and now that I had a massive poster of Ben Murphy from Alias Smith and Jones on my bedroom wall?
So an offer of a ‘platinette ring’ with a ‘sparkling stone of sapphire blue’ is going to lure us in with our hard-earned cash, isn’t it? I love the creativity displayed just in that little offer – platinette – sounds a teeny bit like platinum – so it’s bound to be good! I wonder how many girls were told, ‘Marge, it’s just gilt, love.’ And Marge, faithful to Betty’s Paper unto her dying breath would immediately retort, ‘It’s not gilt, it’s platinette!’ And not just any old platinette, either, it’s got a sparkling stone of sapphire blue in it. (Blue glass to you and me.) Free gifts always had a massive appeal, and would undoubtedly have sold loads more copies of the magazine, at small cost to the publisher. Another ‘free gift’ of note from another issue: A butterfly-shaped dress ornament. I bet that was taken out and admired repeatedly, but never worn – because how many opportunities does a hard-working girl get to go out dolled up with a butterfly on her frock?
But apart from the free gift, what features did Betty’s Paper offer? A few weeks ago I touched on the ads which offered all manner of fortune-telling and astrology. But just like today, for the readers of 1930s Betty’s Papers, the combination of both astrology and celebrities were a heady mix.
There is a double page spread on exactly this topic: ‘Confessions of a Hollywood Fortune Teller’. It’s quite clearly a gossip column under another name, and yet again, I take my metaphorical hat off to the cunning and crafty imagineers who created the content for Betty’s. They knew how to get people’s attention. If I could only bottle that stuff…
We start with a section about a girl called Ruby. You’ve never heard of her, right? Me either. Her name was Ruby Keeler. The article goes on to say ‘It’s hard to imagine a lovely talented girl accepting stardom reluctantly and being doubtful about it, isn’t it?’ (as if we’d know) and then, ‘She had come to Hollywood not as a star but as a star’s wife. That was all Ruby wanted to be. She was completely happy just to be Mrs Al Jolson.’ Oh ok, now I’m interested. But I’m a bit of a cynic and I couldn’t help laughing when I read: ‘She had never quite got over the thrill of realising that anyone so famous and splendid as Al could have wanted her–a night-club and vaudeville dancer. ‘I think you’re marvellous,’ he told her.’
Aww bless. Lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Are you a lonely, single night-club and vaudeville dancer? You too could meet someone famous and splendid who will admire you and call you marvellous for no reason other than that you’re young, blonde, beautiful, and can dance and sing. Just write in to Betty’s Paper and you might win a lovely undie set. We promise not to use your real name and address unless you win. Or are featured in our loveliest readers competition.
Seriously, I hope they were happy.
The bit about Ruby ends with, ‘Ruby became a star–rather reluctantly–and although she’s a bigger star than Al these days, I’m thankful to say that it hasn’t spoilt her married happiness in the least.’
(naughty snigger: a comment later on: ‘I sometimes think that Dick is out of place in Hollywood.’)
Another feature in very much the same vein is ‘Untold Love Stories of The Stars’ – the byline says, ‘Intimate Gossip About Hollywood’s secret romances’. Not any more. Secret, that is. they talk about Joan Crawford, June Clyde, and of course, Ginger Rogers, Hollywood’s sweetheart.
”When I marry Lew, I’ll have to learn how to cook,’ Ginger said seriously.’ (Lew Ayres – yes I’ve never heard of him either. Soz Lew.) The caption to the photos of them (two separate ones – obviously Betty’s Paper’s Authority on Hollywood didn’t get close enough for a pic of them together) says ‘Ginger Rogers and Lew Ayres are married now, but kept the gossipers guessing for nearly eighteen months!’ They should have called in the person who did the Fortune Teller of Hollywood article.
I was thrilled to discover Betty’s did a problem page! None of that Ask Auntie stuff. the page is called ‘It Helps To Tell’ then adds, ‘write to Betty about that problem that simply won’t come right.’ The bait? Another freebie of course! this time a cute camisole and french knickers or something like that. ‘This Lovely Undie Set For A Reader’s Problem’. It doesn’t say one each, so I imagine this is for the most exciting, I mean, the most unfortunate problem of the week. All names and addresses will be strictly in confidence, we’re told, but send in your name and address, just in case you win the prize!
What kind of problems do the worried readers of 1935 have? Well, it’s boys, obviously. A worried 18-year-old from Manchester writes, ‘I’m in love with a boy who doesn’t notice me.’ Reading between the lines, it’s clear that said boy, having only recently discovered girls, is now walking out with that fast piece from number 26. ‘On no account,’ Betty cautions, ‘dear, must you do anything to steal this boy away from this girl he has chosen.’ Find someone new, is Betty’s wise advice. Other problems – ‘My friend and I are both unhappy in our home lives and want to go into service in London. We are both eighteen.’ Oh dear. That immediately triggers my maternal WTF response. Two young girls going off to London all alone…????? Take a deep breath, concerned mums, and read on:
What does Betty say in response? ‘First, dear, yes, you are quite old enough to go into service. As a matter of fact, there is a great demand for girls of your age (I bet there is!) But you will find it easier to obtain a position if you first obtain some experience int he province. Your local employment exchange will help you to do this.’
Phew. Looks like Worried of Bradford will stay out of trouble a wee bit longer, then!
Thanks Betty’s Paper for all the fun of yesterday, which seems so remarkably like the fun of today. My conclusion: we haven’t changed a bit. I hope you enjoyed this trip into the 30s. I loved it.
- The red and gold thoughts of Autumn
For me, it is not Spring, but Autumn and Winter that form my season of creativity. I have no idea why this is. I don’t know why, but for me, autumn is not the season for rest and consolidation, but of flights of imagination taking wings.
It seems as though the rest of the world is full of new life in the Spring. Is it because I’m an October baby, my lifecycle naturally goes from Autumn onwards? Or because when we lived in Brisbane, October was in the Spring? But how can five years there undo the habits of the other fifty-four years I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere? Or maybe it’s because for parents everywhere in the UK, Autumn is when the children go back to school and you at last get two minutes to sit in silence and just enjoy hearing – nothing. Ah, bliss!
New ideas are taking shape, even before the old ideas have been put to bed. I’m thinking about what I want to say in a new story. I’m having a wonderful time creating book covers, and though I’m struggling to come up with new titles, I have some ideas to mull over.
I’m always drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn backwards into the past. I’m thinking of tea-dances, afternoon picnics on wide sweeping lawns, I’m thinking of couples dancing on a veranda under the stars, the music softened by distance and the soft evening breeze.
I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of, of the guilty secrets of the past. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, Scarborough Fair, children’s songs and folk songs, ‘Bobby Shafto(e) Went To Sea, He’ll Come Back And Marry me… Bonny Bobby Shafto(e).’ Or the old folk song and pop hit from the 70s, Whiskey in the Jar – ‘When I was going over/the Cork and Kerry mountains…I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was counting…’’
I’m remembering the duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately able to plant one foot in each camp, never on any side but his own. A useful means for conveying information, often ill-gotten. And he can sing out in public everyone’s secrets, and how can you stop a man doing that?
I’m thinking of myths and legends, hillsides cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind, like a sigh, like a breath, or like a dragon’s terrible approach. I’m thinking about the returning home of the prodigal, how we carry the past with us, inside, even when we are looking forward and moving on, something draws us ever back.
I’m thinking too of that moment when you come home and you know someone else has been there. Someone who shouldn’t have been there. The stillness—too much—and the silence that waits. Your house feels guilty, complicit, hushed as if someone had been speaking and just this moment stopped when you opened the door.
I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, and I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who could come into being in my imagination. I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot put into words. I’m thinking of a woman, always waiting, wringing her hands in front of the window, her own shadow cast out across the lamplit stones of the yard. When will he return? Will he ever return? The waiting woman. The unspeaking man.
I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder. How long has he been away? How much has changed? Will anything ever change?
If I never have another new idea, I’ve already got enough to keep me writing for the next twenty years. I only hope that’s possible.
‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ Thomas Gray’s Elegy.
Autumn – not for sleeping but for creating anew.
- Stories for a 1930s audience.
Last week I took a look at the kind of advertising you might have found if browsing through an issue of Betty’s Paper, a popular magazine from the 1920s through to (I think) about the 1940s. It’s hard to find out much about the mag without doing some hardcore research (it might come to that), but I know it was at its peak in the 30s, and there are still quite a few issues left to be snapped up if you’re of a mind to buy this kind of memorabilia.
Betty’s Paper wasn’t the only one around. There was also Peg’s Paper (1919 to 40) English Woman’s Journal (1850s to 1910), The Gentlewoman (1890 to 1926), The Freewoman (1911 to 1912), The Lady’s Realm (1890s to 1914), Time and Tide (1920s to 1970s), Woman’s Journal (1920 to 2001) to name the most well known. There were others, often with a more targeted purpose, for example, campaigning women’s suffrage and letting women know what was happening in various groups. Mostly magazines were aimed at middle and upper class women, but Peg’s Paper, and Betty’s Paper were aimed at working class women, and had less educational and more purely entertaining content than other magazines.
Betty’s – and Peg’s – contained short fiction, sometimes as serials, that thrilled the imagination, and owed a great deal to the cinema. There were fashion and style tips, using actresses of the era as role models, and holding them up as examples of the right look to emulate, very much as all the media do today. We looked at the ads last week, and I concluded that, again just as now, many were fixated upon appearance: looking slim, budget fashion that stood up to scrutiny, easy health fixes for people who lived busy lives, working hard and with little time or money to spend on themselves. Perfect for the factory and domestic girls of the 1920s and 1930s.
But what were the stories like that were every week there to tantalise our girls as they took a quick tea break or read for ten minutes before going to sleep?
Firstly, I noticed that the stories were illustrated, a bit like a children’s comic. I know that still happens today, but these struck me as being more dramatic. The men often seem to loom over the women in a authoritative almost aggressive manner. The men also look very old compared to the younger-looking women. Pretty sure all these heroines are about 20 and all the heroes are about 48.
The headlines and taglines too were melodramatic and leaning towards the scandalous. I presume this was a good way to draw in readers and get them to spend their cash – Betty’s Paper was tuppence ‘Every Friday’. When wages were paid weekly in cash, I imagine this was one of the first ‘treats’ a girl would get herself before going home and giving most of her money to her parents.
Anyway – on to the stories. I’ve only got two issues (at the moment hahaha) but between these two issues of 36 pages each, there are eight stories, and seem to be serialised in two or three parts. Some of them masquerade as ‘real life stories’ (see me next week for more…) but the rest are presented as written by ‘well-known’ lady authors. The sensational headings are guaranteed to pique the interest of any normal woman: ‘One Hour of Love Then Tears’, ‘The Sin That Came Between Them’, ‘When Men Are Dangerous’, ‘But She Was Blamed’, and my particular favourite, ‘Back Street Blonde’, tagline ‘she was born to be a man’s girl’.
They read a bit like cautionary tales – be careful, be cautious, be modest, they seem to say. Keep away from MEN. And like Mary Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, they seem to hint vaguely at the dreadful fate that awaits a woman without virtue. This was probably useful information for a young woman with a little bit of her own money able to go out with her friends in the evening in the wicked city and not come home until – ooh – ten? eleven o’clock? The stories are about trying very hard to make a marriage work, about being honest, and morally upright, about protecting your home and family. So they are aspirational, inspirational and improving. But they can be a bit juicy, as this picture seems to show: ‘Guy held her close in his arms. ”I don’t care about anything else–I want you, Dawn,’ he whispered.” Oh Dawn, get out girl, while you can!
Mostly I’m in awe of the writers. Week after week they turned out 5000 words or maybe more, and (I assume) got paid for it. I’ve tried Googling some of the authors whose work features in these magazines: Denise Egerton (Secret Bride), Louise Randall (One Hour of Love – Then Tears), Stella Deans (The Sin That Came Between Them), Cynthia Loring (But She Was Blamed), Jasmine Day (Back Street Blonde). Of these, I’ve found a number of books from the 50s and 60s by a Denise Egerton, and they appear to be romance genre, so maybe it’s the same woman? I haven’t been able to find out anything about the others–who knows–maybe they were all Denise? Or possibly all these ‘lady writers’ were simply the pen names of a grizzled editor with pages to fill and a talent for writing totes emosh romance? I can picture him, tapping away at his typewriter until all hours, cigar ash spilling all down his shirt. I bet his real name was something like Isaac Peabody.
I think these stories offer an intriguing insight into the values and aspirations of working women in the 1920s and 1930s. They’ve actually been the subject of study in a number of British and American dissertations and publications, for example, Peg’s Paper was looked at in Class and Gender: The ‘Girls’weeklies’ by Billie Melman, a section in ‘Women and The Popular Imagination in the Twenties.’ And in this article in The Guardian by Kathryn Hughes.
But lest we forget, what they really were was an escape from the drudgery of everyday life for women with little opportunity to do anything other than dream.