The reading writer or the writing reader

We are surrounded by words. They are there on the side of your breakfast cereal packet, full of persuasive ideas or nutritional information. They are on the wall of the lift as you make your way from car park to shopping mall. ‘In case of emergency DO this or DON’T do that…’ They are on our clothes – a logo, a designer’s name; they are on the label – how to wash the garment, the size, the fabric constituents.

As I say, we are surrounded by words. We as humans have come a long way from the days when we communicated through pictures. The concept of communication fascinates me. Why do we communicate? Is it to know our allies from our enemies, or to form friendships, assist pair-bonding, or create a safe environment for our children? We developed words because if a buffalo or something similarly huge is rushing towards you, no one’s got time to whip out a slate and chalks to create a nice little scene to indicate the usefulness of running away. So words are more efficient, maybe.

But words change us. From our earliest days on the planet, gazing fondly at our mothers, we learn words. We learn how to physically say them by watching and listening, and we learn what they mean by observing consequences and effects.

We connect not just words together to form a sentence, but ideas together to create a narrative or story. We might hear the words, ‘Let’s go to the mall’, but what we really hear are ideas based on prior knowledge of that as a situation. ‘Let’s go to the mall’ becomes a narrative: ‘Let’s go to the mall – where we will walk about the shops, talking as we go, laughing and enjoying being together, and discussing life issues or relationships, or personal goals and dreams, where will we notice and comment on the latest trends, where we will exchange currency (or more likely swipe a small piece of plastic) for new goods, that we can then take home and discuss at length, creating a new shared experience. Whilst at the mall we will likely go and get some food somewhere, so it will become a social event, we will sit and eat, and talk some more, possibly on a deeper emotional level, and this day will become part of our shared memories and we will often revisit the occasion in our thoughts, and enjoy the time over and over again, and the whole experience from beginning to end will enhance our relationship and sense of closeness.’

It doesn’t always work like this. Sometimes we have a row as soon as we get there, sulk all the way round the shops and come home later frustrated and disappointed, still in a frosty silence. The great tapestry of human experience!

Where am I going with this? It’s just this: simply, words are key to the storytelling of human life, whether an ordinary trip out to buy new jeans, or whether we are sitting curled up in our favourite armchair reading words on a pages, pages bound together in one book, a book enclosed by a hard or soft cover, possibly enhanced with a relevant image on the front.

This is not the first time I’ve pondered on the weird and truly wonderful impact of words on my life. At the moment I’m wrestling with the final edit of my novel The Spy Within, (coming soon to an internet store near you), but I’m making time to read. In the last few weeks I’ve read my dear friend Emma Baird’s romance, Highland Chances, and another good friend’s Paul Nelson’s Cats of The Pyramids, yet another writer friend’s book Undercover Geisha, by Judith Cranswick. I’m now reading Mary Stewart’s The Wind Off The Small Isles, as well as P G Wodehouse’s A Damsel In Distress, and dipping in and out of non-fiction books: The Great British Bobby by Clive Emsley, and The 1960s fashion sourcebook by John Peacock. 

Each of these books will leave a lasting imprint on my life. I’ve blogged before about how what we read–especially when it’s something we love–leaves its mark on our soul, a fragment of its written beauty that will see us through the hard times. And this year has been one of hard times, hasn’t it? I think in the coming months we will all need as many beautiful phrases, sweet or witty situations, dastardly intrigues and happy-ever-afters as we can get our hands on.

Happy reading!

***

 

The Audience Were The Winners!

As I’ve mentioned before, not only do I keep a journal, but I sometimes find useful or interesting stuff in there and it gets rehashed as a blog post! I’m an avid people-watcher. People fascinate and astonish me in equal measure. This is a journal entry I wrote in July 2011.  Remember those heady days when we used to go out of the house, unmasked, and sit perilously close to complete strangers? That’s what my daughter and I did that evening. I swear this is all absolutely true.

Wed 20 July 2011:

My daughter and I had the most bizarre experience at the theatre this evening. The play was a ‘murder mystery farce’ called Death By Fatal Murder.

Actually the bizarre experiences began well before we got to the theatre, when we went for dinner at Pizza Express. When we were seated at a table for two in the pretty busy restaurant, a couple were soon seated next to us. They were a bit odd.  Or maybe they had just never eaten out before. Anyway there they were, seated at the table next to ours. We soon became aware that there was a discussion between them about money. He had a £20 note and a huge handful of change which he counted out on the table twice.

The waitress brought them a large-print menu, and after leaving them for a while to choose, another waitress came to take their order.  The chap told her he only had £20 and so had to be careful not to overspend. Also, he said he didn’t like mozzarella. For at least twenty minutes–we had ordered drinks, waited, ordered food, waited, received and eaten our food–he asked the waitress questions about the menu items.

She tried to persuade him to have a pizza without cheese but with ham and peppers. She suggested chicken on his pizza. He asked for chicken wings. She explained they didn’t serve chicken wings. She suggested a chicken salad, but he thought that was too expensive. He asked what goat’s cheese was like, but was afraid he might not like it. He asked what parmesan was like. Again, he thought he might try it, but what if he found he didn’t like it after all?

The waitress was helpful in the extreme. If he’d been the mystery shopper from hell, she must have passed the test with flying colours. But instead the chap and his girl decided they would go and eat somewhere else. As they left they told her they were going to try Nandos.

That was the warm-up, now for the main entertainment.

At the theatre, we got to our seats at 7.10pm for a 7.30pm show.  I’d thought we were cutting it a bit fine. Others cut it finer. To begin with we were virtually the only ones there, but the place filled fast. A massive lady sat on the other side of my daughter, so she was pretty squashed as the seats were narrow and she had me (also massive) on the other side.

A tall well-dressed man with a HAT (it’s Derby Playhouse, not the National Theatre) entered and sat three or four seats along from us with a tiny little old lady we presumed was his mum, wearing her best outfit, and with handbag and theatre programme too. She looked very excited. Along from them, a middle-aged chap and his wife and their 20-something daughter, both wearing lovely frocks, took their seats.

The curtain went up. The set was lovely, the music was 20s/30s, but pretty good, the story set during WW2, so not quite right, but never mind.

It was the most farcical farce to end all farces. It was awful.  The main stars were Leslie Grantham, Dirty Den from Eastenders, no doubt he’d done loads of other stuff, but that’s all I knew him from, I don’t watch a lot of TV.  And there was also Richard Gibson, Herr Flick from ‘Allo ‘Allo.

But… the audience was definitely the main attraction.

Behind us and slightly to one side, sitting next to two utterly mortified late teen-early 20s women, was a chap. As soon as the play began, he opened and began to eat from a HUGE bag of Quavers. He made the most incredible amount of noise grabbing them out of the bag and eating them. It took him ages, and it wasn’t just me who turned to glare at him.

Also behind us was another guy who kept saying very loudly ‘What the f**k?’ and doing huge nausea-inducing snorting sniffs through his nose. Whether he was referring to Quaverman or the play or the Little Old Lady, I don’t know.

The Little Old Lady. Well. Every single word, action, expression or movement brought gales of laughter and guffaws from her. And her laugh was a cross between the Granny in the Tweety-Pie cartoons and Barbara Windsor in the Carry On movies. She laughed longer, louder and more frequently than anyone else in the place. She clearly had a wonderful time, and I have to admit, some of the time, it was her everyone was laughing at, not the play.

Then came the intermission.

Some people had bags of sweets. Some, including Little Old Lady, came back from the reception area with an ice cream tub with a little plastic spoon sticking out of it. Quaverman had another big bag of quavers.

But Dad, Mum and Daughter in the posh frocks had…

…peas.

Yes. Peas!

During the intermission I glanced along the row to see Dad with a huge bag of something long, thin and green. I thought at first maybe it was a kind of jelly sweet, like those little  sugar covered very tangy bootlaces or sticks. He opened the bag and pulled out a massive handful and passed them down the row to his family members, holding out their eager hands. Whereupon they popped the pods and scooped out the peas and devoured them.

Honestly, they were peas. See, even now, it seems too mundane yet bizarre to be true. You know when in a daydream you think, what if I stumbled into a parallel world, how would I know? This is how. Real life is the most peculiar experience imaginable, and fiction cannot possibly live up to it.

Then I thought, maybe they are just trying to find a useful way to pass the tediously long intermission? Shell the peas, save time later when you arrive home from the theatre starving and ready for your slow-cooker chicken casserole or whatever, whack the peas into the microwave, and hey presto, a lovely quick vegetable side dish.

But no, it was their intermission snack.

Don’t get me wrong. I love peas. And straight from the pod–yummy. But ever so slightly odd for the theatre, wouldn’t you say?

And it’s not like they were organic hippies, rejecting the modern commercial and industrialised production of food. They drank Coke.

The people sitting next to me frowned at my almost convulsive laughter as I took in the whole strange scene, and for a minute, as I tried not to pass out, I couldn’t remember if the play was what was happening on the stage or in the rows of seats.

The girls were commiserating with one another on getting stuck next to Quaverman, apparently he wasn’t just loud, he sprawled, too.

Then the intermission was over.

Quaverman was clearly high as a kite. He screamed with laughter and called out comments such as, ‘Yeah, you tell him!’ to the bumbling detective. He was practically standing on his seat and completely oblivious to anyone else. Even the cast were sending him sidelong glances.

One of the actors–the bumbling detective–had to ‘accidentally’ spit tea on his junior colleague. Then he couldn’t keep a straight face, and for several minutes both of them kept corpsing to the delight of the audience who laughed and applauded.

Eventually the ordeal was over–the play was awful–sorry Leslie and Richard, not your fault, guys–the ending nonsensical even for a send-up of the detective-farce genre. The audience was definitely the winner. I felt a bit as though I had taken part in one of those live-action, unrehearsed, ‘theatre of the absurd’ type things.

Little Old Lady trotted out happily with her programme in her hand to mark the occasion forever. Someone said, as we left, ‘What great writing’.

Only if the dramatist wrote the lines for the audience as well.

***

Anyone for Mock Turtle soup?

So in these weird times, when we are told to keep three feet away from everyone or to stay at home, and your dodgy neighbours down the road have now acquired two years’ supply of toilet paper, I thought it would be appropriate to see how an earlier generation dealt with this kind of upheaval.

I immediately started thinking about the rationing our parents/grandparents endured during the war years. This week, even the Queen has announced that she will ‘do her bit’ and has urged everyone to adopt a ‘blitz spirit’ of the usual muddling through that we do so well in this country.

My German pen-friend’s dad, when I was 17 (going back into the mists of time, more than forty years ago) told me proudly that they survived war-time rationing by eating daisies from the lawn. I told him that my grandparents had eaten dandelions in salad. It felt a bit like a competition as to who had it the hardest. If I’d known a bit more about it, or had the guts to stand up to this guy, I’d have said that people dug up their lawns to plant vegetables. But it didn’t seem a good idea to have a Germans versus Brits conversation about the war. (He brought it up!) I’m guessing it was a terrible time for everyone, whichever side of the channel you happened to have been born on.

But leaving aside the actual trauma of death, injury, destruction, and uncertainty, there was, it can’t be denied, a sense of ‘all pulling together’ which only conflict with an outside enemy can bring, no matter where you are geographically.

So it’s not surprising that many older people look back with almost fond memories of the war, hopelessly idealised, of course, with dance band music, dreary clothes and an urgent sense of seizing the moment that we just don’t experience today. We hear about our grandparents or great grandparents meeting and marrying within weeks instead of months and years, of 48-hour pass honeymoons in Brixham or Bognor rather than the Algarve, and the uncertainty of ever seeing one another again after that. Is it any wonder that wartime romance, of all things, stands out as a bright moment, like a jewel on a dirty piece of string?

I have a number of reference books about ‘life during the second world war’. Here are a couple of the most interesting, bought from the shop at Cosford Air Museum: If you enjoy browsing through reproductions of the actual information supplied to people’s homes, then these are for you as they contain dozens if not hundreds of ads, advice booklets and articles.

Above right is the back of a railway ticket – with the usual warning to not gasbag in public. And I think most of us have heard the ‘coughs and sneezes’ slogan (probably courtesy of Tony Hancock) featured on my favourite item: this post card (top). I blame footballers for the fact that these days everyone thinks it’s okay to spit on the ground – a revolting habit once punishable by a hefty fine for the way it (possibly) contributed to the spread of viruses and bacteria.

When we think of roughing it during the war, the main thing that comes to mind has to be rationing. Now kind of back in force at the moment in an attempt to stop greedy or panicking people from buying far more than they need, let’s hope the current rationing doesn’t continue for too long.

Here is a reproduction of a ration book: with the name and address of the recipient of the ration on the cover, and inside, the name of the specific merchants who were to provide the family with their food or other items.

If you were going to stay with someone out of your area, your auntie for example, or future mother-in-law, you had to take your ration book with you – or they wouldn’t be able to feed you. Not legally anyway! This is the kind of detail I love that crops up all the time in Agatha Christie’s books, and others of that era.

The government produced thousands of leaflets at that time to explain to people how to make their food ration last, and how to make sure family members got enough nutritional value from the diet to be healthy.

This tiny booklet contains a number of ‘healthy’ or ‘economical’ recipes for the housewife to use. But don’t expect anything exciting! A quick glance through will show you a heavy dependency on potatoes and for desserts or baking, dried fruit especially dates. I can only imagine the excitement people would experience of some ‘exotic’ food such as tinned fruit, or dairy products, or biscuits and chocolate. In many ways, it is a healthy diet – I’m pretty sure if I worked on the land five or six days a week and ate Ministry food, I’d be half my weight – definitely a good thing. But remember, rationing in Britain didn’t end until July 1954! Can you imagine eating this way, living this way for fourteen years? It must have been incredibly difficult, until after a while, it just became normal. I think many people would have been quite slow to go back to buying whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted once the rationing of food ended.

Some of the recipes make me feel so grateful I didn’t live through that time. Many of us today eat a very different diet to those of that of most Brits in the 1940s. Tripe and Liver Hot Pot? Eww! And as for the Mock Turtle Soup I’ve read about in various novels of the era… surely mock turtle soup has to be morally and gastronomically superior to actual turtle soup??? It must have been a very desperate person who decided to try eating a turtle. (Turtle soup: to prepare, first catch your turtle…)

In Eat For Victory there are also recipes for Potato and Cheese Flan (potato, cheese, celery and onion), Potato Stew (potato, onion and a tiny smidge of bacon), Potato in Curry Sauce (potato, apple, ‘one small tomato’, and the inevitable onion), Potato Sandwich Spread (??????????), Potato and Bacon cakes (patties I think they mean, there’s no icing on this guy), Irish Potato Cakes (same as above but without the bacon), Potato Soup (essentially just a potato, boiled but not drained…), Potato and Watercress soup (pretty that’s grass) (or dandelions).

So I’m guessing things got a bit mundane. No wonder everyone smoke and drank so much. I think I would have too. Try drawing a straight stocking seam up the back of your leg after a dinner consisting of potato soup and two glasses of 1930s cooking sherry.

But now I’ve whetted your appetite, here are two versions the famous Mock Turtle Soup, not at all a recipe for wartime deprivation as I imagined, but very heavy on meat and grossness and originating in the 18th century. Feel free to share.  And here is a brief history of that soup. 😦 I would definitely rather eat daisies or dandelions. Or Sainsburys’ Petit Pois and Ham, with a very buttery slice of toast – om nom nom.

Take care people and share your loo rolls, please.

***

No-more-blues-Monday.

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.

***

 

A Quick Trip To The Loo (bathroom, for you non-Brits)

A flushing toilet, almost the same as the ones that had a removable bowl.

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.

Please note the plunger handle beside the loo, (the little white circle, not the red and black thing at the back) This loo was flushable!

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.

The chamber pots waiting in the dumb waiter to be sent upstairs to bedrooms, and sent back downstairs in the morning to be cleaned. Also, as this is near to the dining room, gentlemen, sitting over their cigars and brandy or port, were able to pop into the corridor to ‘use the facilities’.

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.

More reading:

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

A stateroom at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire. This beautiful silk wall fabric disguises a glorious and ingenious design – a new bathroom was fitted for a royal visit that sadly never took place.

A curator holds up a photo of the bathroom hidden behind the walls of this stateroom. I would love to go inside, but unfortunately we weren’t allowed!

***

The bath that came in from the cold: the rise of the modern domestic bathroom: part 2

A baby bath now used for logs for the fire

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.

Jane Austen’s works are so popular these days.

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.

That long ditch in the middle of the street is the communal open sewer

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!

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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!

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‘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.

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A shameless plug to a captive audience.

The use of advertising media to sell products to customers is not something new, it’s been around for a lot longer than I ever realised. I think I vaguely knew that advertising ‘must have’ been used before I became fully aware of it in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and I suppose that most of us have seen those hilarious TVs shows featuring ‘how we used to be’ commercials from the 50s and 60s, showing a happy smiling housewife holding up a box of laundry detergent, or a pipe-smoking father in a suit sitting behind a newspaper.

A few years ago, it was so popular to collect old advertising boards, usually made of tin, or printed onto postcards, calendars, place-mats, mugs, mouse mats, you name it. Pears Soap ads appeared on tea-towels and even t-shirts. You know the ones? With the Millais-inspired pics of Victorian children, rosy-cheeked and curly-haired, with frilly collars or petticoats?

But until recently I hadn’t imagined that advertising was rife in the earlier part of the twentieth century, and I’m now convinced, even before that.

Last month I finally caved in and bought a few items I had been looking at a while – and I’m warning you now that this means you will have to look at these over the next couple of weeks. I’ve now received some gorgeous vintage items from Messrs eBay and Etsy.

These included two copies of Betty’s Paper: a magazine aimed at (young) (working class in the main) women from 1935, and one copy of The Picture-Goer. I love this vintage stuff, and as you know, I’m a bit obsessed with the 1920s, and even more so with the 1930s. I was so excited to get my hands on these items. And if you also like this stuff, they are usually not expensive, and there are quite a few of them around! But please don’t buy them all, there are still a few I’ve got my eye on.

Soon I’m going to have a more general look through Betty’s Paper, and maybe even, if you can stand it, through The Picture-goer. But right now, I’d like to take a quick look at some 1935 advertising, and what I discovered amongst the hallowed pages of these once avidly-read magazines.

Th first two pics I’ve shared are for ‘guidance from beyond our world’ – yep, clairvoyance was all the rage from the Victorian era up to…well, I think a lot of people still check their horoscopes and send for readings etc. Now we probably see more in the way of crystals and meditation, whereas back then it was quite literally written in your palm. Note that on the one hand a male figure offers information about the future in a pseudo-scientific manner, the maleness, the use of the title of professor adding authority to make the ad seem genuine and plausible. His odd kimono thingie is his robe of office, as is his hat. It all ties in with the late 19th century and early 20th century passion for culture and art from the ‘mysterious East’.

The second one, Madame Astral, looks far more like the contemporary modern young women’s look – if anything she looks like your sister who had a tent at the church fete last summer. So the reader is being invited to share a sisterly gossip about matters of the heart, just like a cosy and none-too-serious reading of the tea-leaves at home. Good old Betty’s offers coupons to give readers a discount!

I love this. We’d never do this today, would we? or would we? This is the Bettys’ Paper Loveliest Reader competition – complete with photos of the ladies, and… Wait for it – their names and addresses!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

What on earth??????

It was definitely a different era. What, I ask myself, is to prevent any ruthless person rocking up to Miss Metcalf’s at 144 Wanstead Park Road, Ilford??? It seems naive in the extreme, but I can’t decide if that was perfectly okay for those days or was it the height of idiocy even then? Or was it Miss Metcalf’s design, in the hope that a gorgeous single man with a good income, good sense of humour, own home, would arrive on her doorstep with a bouquet of flowers and a pleasing smile? Mind you, the £10 prize money for the winner had to be a big bonus.

Speaking of a pleasing smile, in the corner of the Loveliest Reader comp page there was another ad – for toothpaste. Surely what we get from that is, if you want to be Betty’s Papers loveliest reader, and have strange men turning up at your door, you’d better follow the trend for wavy dark hair, perfect skin and you’d better have fabulous teeth too.

You can tell that Betty’s paper is all about appearance, inspiring women and showing them how to look Silver-Screen-great on a limited budget. In the first half of the twentieth century many young women were earning their own money and had disposable income for the modern commodities that science and technology had created.

So it’s no surprise that these ads are all about looking right. They address clothes, skin, hair and teeth, as well as the hope instilled by the stories and the ads for clairvoyant assistance. It’s all about looking as good as you possibly can – not for yourself, obviously, but so you can catch a man. These were not the days of sisters doing it for themselves.

When I first saw this next ad, with the woman drinking something and the slogan ‘slenderising and modish’ I assumed it was for some kind of diet or weight-loss supplement. But no. It’s for wool. To make your own slim-look sweaters and cardis. Not sure this ad would work so well today (leaving aside the fact that most women simply buy their woollens now) as it immediately sent me in the wrong direction. Or is that just me, coming to the ad with my 21st century eye? Again, here it’s all about looking right – and that means thin. Maybe nothing changes, after all.

Interesting that the slogan is a ‘quote’ from one Lady Georgiana Curzon – her title gives authority to her pronouncement, and yes, she is the wool manufacturer’s ‘fashion adviser’. Note also the family-empire sounding name – well, it probably was a family run business at least originally, but these days everything is General something, or Associated whatnot… no family businesses any more. Again, I feel, but this might be my contemporary perspective, but this sense of family-run, long-standing, aristocratically-endorsed seems to add to the authority and trustworthiness of the ad and the product.

Two more. One is an ad for the cheaper new stockings made from a man-made fibre rather than real silk. They ask,’Which is which?’And add that only your purse will know the difference. The use of the pictures of men to imply that males are looking at your legs, girls, and they’d better be worth looking at would doubtless have worked better if, a) they’d used different pictures of men and b) the men were actually facing the legs in question-or would that have been too risqué?

Lastly, my favourite ad of all. It made me spit coffee all over my t-shirt. Scroll down and take a look at the pinnacle of Betty’s Paper’s fine advertising material. It’s from the back page. It’s the one with the lady purporting to be over one hundred years old and still ‘enjoying’ good health.

Bless her. Mrs Elizabeth Clayton, she doesn’t look as though she enjoys anything. I know we all want to live forever, but this is funny. Again, I love the use of the lady’s address. Did people go there to marvel at the lady and her great age? Surely it’s fictitious, put in to lend credence to the advertisement? But part of me really wishes I could go there and witness the spectacle of Mrs Clayton enjoying life to the full and a hundred years old. I really hope it’s not just cynical advertising but that the old girl had a brilliant life and earned a fortune from companies using her face to astonish the world.

 

People Watching for Writers

Inspiration comes from all different places. And I’m often asked where I get my ideas. It’s more that ideas come looking for me than I go looking for them. I’m incredibly nosy about other people, and I am an incurable people-watcher.

I don’t advocate, as a writing tutor in Brisbane once told a group of creative writing students, that you should actually follow people to get ideas for your story or to experience what it’s like to ‘shadow’ someone a la detective fiction. BUT I must admit I do covertly eavesdrop and watch people, especially in a coffee-shop situation. I don’t actually record conversations or film people, though it is SOOOO tempting.

I remember overhearing one yoof talking to another about his baseball cap. Yoof #2 was admiring the cap and trying it on. Yoof #1 said, rather anxiously, ‘Don’t you lose my cap, man. That cap is my identity.’

It’s these kind of scenarios that fuel my imagination.

Here’s what happened one day. I must just add, as a disclaimer, that all I saw were two people in a coffee-shop—my imagination, tawdry and cynical, and my love of detective fiction did the rest!

So I was sitting there with my cappuccino and my triangle of ‘tiffin’, in a Coffeebucksta Emporium in the town where I live. And I saw this:

A smart young man, late twenties, in a very modern suit, latest hair-do etc., all smiles and full of conversation. With him a frail and bent old lady in a wheelchair. She was also smartly dressed and her white hair was short and chic a la Dame Judi Dench. But she was way too old to be his mother. Grandmother? Great aunt? Great-Great-grandmother? I mean, she was OLD.

I’m already plotting a story around them. He parked her at a table and went to join the queue. She was reading the paper. I’m thinking, maybe she’s not a relative but his Sugar Mommy?

The idea appeals to me. I can remember several detective novels where scandal ensues due to an inappropriate attachment between a favoured young man and an older, vulnerable (or perhaps not so vulnerable) woman. I like the idea that even in this day and age, a young man can still cash in on his good looks, and an old lady can still enjoy having someone to dance attendance on her.

I decide she probably has someone at home to help with her personal care. And to take care of the cooking and cleaning. I’m picturing a large sprawling mansion, empty of people but stuffed with suits of armour and gloomy, grimy portraits of people who have been dead for hundreds of years. Glass cases of long-dead animals. Lots of wood panelling. Surrounded by vast expanses of grass and tall dark trees. Maybe some peacocks? An old uneconomical car, with her cosseted in the back under blankets, and him in front at the steering wheel.

if you try people-watching, just make sure you don’t get caught, people don’t always enjoy being spied on.

And I don’t want to think there could be anything sexual involved (eww!) but that he acts as chauffeur, secretary, assistant, companion and entertainer. He flatters her, makes her laugh and she pays him for his smiles.

I think of the people that know her, local villagers? I imagine them talking to me. Or to a policeman sent down from Scotland Yard to investigate some awful crime. Perhaps she’s been murdered? Or him? Perhaps he’s the victim, not the perpetrator? Over our coffee, my informant tells me, (this is in my head, you understand,) “Well of course she gave out that he was her great-nephew, though I’ve never believed it. But she said it—you know—for appearance’s sake. He certainly is a charmer. And so patient. Well all I can say is, he’s worked damned hard for the money she’s left him. If there is any money. No one seems to be too sure about that.”

Was he a little too friendly with the nurse who looked after the old lady? Is that what they’ll say when her body is discovered? Did the old lady resent him giving those smiles to someone else?

Back in the real world, I’m picking up on tiny details. He returns with a coffee for her. Nothing for himself. Which seems odd. He sits. She leans forward and says something to him, and he takes her cup and has a sip of the coffee, and shakes his head. He returns it to its saucer. Too much sugar? Not enough? Does this taste a little odd to you? I’m not sure what is going on, but she doesn’t drink it.

They don’t stay long. I think he was actually in the queue longer than they sat over the drink that went almost untouched. Why didn’t she have her drink? Why even bother coming into the cafe? Why didn’t he have anything? Does she hold on a little too tightly to the purse-strings?

Even though he is smartly turned out, perhaps his shoes are showing signs of wear? Not quite as new or of such good quality as they first appeared? Perhaps she doesn’t pay him so well after all? Are there arguments over money? She thinks he spends too much, or asks for too much. He thinks it’s unfair that he has to beg and plead and justify what he needs, thinks she is too keen on having power over others. Perhaps it’s just not worth it after all? Perhaps it’s time for this ‘arrangement’ to come to an end?

For one mad moment I think about taking her cup for analysis before the table is cleared. Then I remember. Only in my imagination am I a detective. Here in the real world, I’m just another person sitting in a cafe. But in my mind, and in my notebook, I have the bones of a story.

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