More Life Writing: When I Was Four

Of course, I don’t wear the anorak all the time. It’s for special occasions.

My piece a couple of weeks ago about my auntie, Zonya, has inspired me to share more of my life writing. Life writing is a form of non-fiction we often call memoir or diary writing.  I did a module of life writing when I was studying, and although I’m a fiction writer at heart, I do love to reminisce, so here’s another life writing piece. It’s called When I Was Four. (Sorry, it’s a bit long!)

When I Was Four

More than anything, all those years ago, I remember the buttercups. I was—what?—four years old? And standing in the gently sloping field, I remember the delight I felt, the astonishment of being surrounded by all these tall flowers—almost shoulder high, and I looked about me in wonder at the bright golden flower heads, interwoven with ox-eye daisies and other, unknown meadow flowers. All were almost as tall as I was, and I felt I had strayed into a magic kingdom. I’ve been trying to recapture that feeling all my life.

There were bees, and butterflies. I don’t remember much else about that time really, except for two things: the river and the caravan.

All the mothers who worked on the farm brought their kids with them during the holidays. Some of us, the littler ones, were there all the time, too young to go to school. The group of children ranged in age from toddler to pre-teen, or possibly teenage. I remember the big boys seemed very big, but they may have been just 10 or 12. The school-age kids weren’t there all the time, just during the school holidays, and when they weren’t there, life was a bit boring, to be honest.

While our mothers worked in the fields, planting or earthing up or digging up potatoes, or cutting cabbages, or training beans or hops or picking them, or laying straw beneath the strawberry plants or—joyous task!—picking the strawberries, we kids roamed the countryside freely, day in, day out, while the long days of the school holidays lasted, and then the big kids went back to school and there was just me and a couple of babies.

We may have been bored much of the time, but I don’t remember it. We may have squabbled and fought, but again, I can’t remember it now. And very likely it rained, but I only recall days of sunshine and warm soft breezes, of laughter and happiness and freedom, the way you do many, many years later. I remember how we kids roamed around in a big bunch, chasing one another, and hiding and climbing and running. I don’t remember any fights or bullying, I remember laughing a lot. I remember one of the big kids pulling me out of the river when I fell in. (I fell in a lot actually, water and I always seem to want to come together.) I remember standing on the little bridge and staring down at the water, and that my Dalek, from Woolworths, fell in and it was borne away a short distance before disappearing from my sight. I was inconsolable. My mum was furious.

Yes, the river. Bodies of water have always seemed to draw me—perhaps a link to my Cornish seafaring ancestors?—and between the ages of 4 and around 17, I fell in pretty much every body of water I ever went near. I spent many hours sitting in the sunshine, and even in the cold of a January day, waiting for my clothes to dry so I wouldn’t get into trouble when I got home.

I don’t remember the clothes I first wore when we used to go ‘to the fields’, but after a short while, or maybe after payday, my mum bought me something new, exciting and truly wonderful—my first jeans. I remember the waist was elasticated and that the broad stretchy band was soft and fuzzy on the inside and I loved the feel of it. I doubt the new jeans stayed stiff and dark blue for long, what with scrambling up trees and over stiles and gates, crawling through dirt and up and rolling down hills, plus falling into rivers of course, but I never stopped loving my jeans. I still wear them almost every day.

Of course, for the hottest part of the year, there were shorts. And I did love my shorts, even to the point of insisting on wearing them at Christmas, with long socks and a jumper and my knees turning blue with cold. I hated skirts and dresses and girly stuff. A few years later, to get my head around the misery of wearing skirts, I used to pretend I was Jamie from Dr Who – he was Scottish and wore a kilt. Thank you, Frazer Hines.

Footwear was again a choice of two simple pleasures: red T-bar sandals for the summer and black wellies for the winter. I loved both of these. I’m fairly sure I tried to wear my new wellies to bed once, though that may have been one of my cousins.

So, it was stripy t-shirt, shorts and sandals by day during the summer, my dark hair done up in one long fat plait down my back. And for the winter it was a hand-knitted jumper, jeans and wellies, with an anorak, if needed. What was not to love?

As I’ve said, the river used to draw us kids, and we enjoyed the countryside, chasing, climbing, hiding, but the best, most amazing thing about this part of the farm was what lay at the top of a sloping field. Something I had never seen before, something that seemed at once magical, yet homely.

A caravan.

An old gypsy caravan, it had been parked there, I suppose, as a refuge from the weather for workers or whomever. We kids found endless hours of amusement in it. The girls particularly, were keen to play house and furnish the bare walls and floor from their imaginations.

The caravan had been completely stripped of all the colourful and ingenious fittings that normally make a caravan a home. And I don’t remember if it was brightly painted outside or not.

I can remember how much I loved the echoey noise my feet made as I clomped up and down the bare boards, and how we used to put dusty soil into the abandoned grate and as we stirred it up with sticks, we’d pretend the dust that rose was smoke from the embers of our stories. And I enjoyed sitting on the top step looking out across the fields.

I wasn’t brave or adventurous like some of the other, bigger kids, and they could never persuade me to jump from the top step as they did, it was scary-high. But I managed to jump from the bottom step and the middle step.

There was a handsome young man called Roy. He wasn’t one of the kids. At sixteen, to me, he was one of the grown-ups and he worked on the farm, driving the tractor. He always waved to me, and would often stop and talk to me. I—of course—followed him around with the worshipful devotion of a small puppy. He used to stop the big kids picking on me, so there must have been squabbles and rivalries after all, and I still remember his kindness to a little kid with gratitude.

But looking back to that time, the overwhelmingly pervasive memory of those days for me is that of standing shoulder-deep amongst a crowd of buttercups and feeling as though I were part of something magical and beautiful. I’m still trying to recapture that moment when I was four.

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More vintage magazines for women

Last year I posted a couple of articles about women’s magazines from the 1930s. (If you missed them, you can find them here.)

Over the last two weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to acquire two more vintage magazines aimed directly at women. what impressed me about these was first of all, that this magazine – Woman’s Own – is still in circulation and massively popular today. The second thing I noticed is that there really isn’t a lot of difference between the WO of 1934 and those of 2021.

Have women’s concerns changed very much in 90+ years? I’m not sure they have. for many women, the home and family is still one of the most important things in life, and I’m not saying that in a patronising way, nor ignoring the fact that women today have many more opportunities to have a career, and that the concept of ‘the family’ is miles different – and rightly so – to that of the 1930s.

But at rock bottom, many women are interested in and still worry about how to care for, manage or improve their relationships, their attractiveness, their budget, and their partners and children.

My Woman’s Own mags are from Feb 1934 and this week’s copy – by chance I nabbed a ‘diet special’. Here are a few snippets that struck me as interesting:

Hubby Management: It’s the wife’s job to make her home as welcoming as possible to induce the man (and man ONLY!) to stay at home instead of going out gallivanting. tips are given on how to do this, though the mags expert – whoever that was, possibly (we don’t know!) a bloke – comments that some men will always stay out and shouldn’t get married in the first place. Too late if you’ve got one of those, girls!

We have the readers’ letters, essentially a problem page. My faves are ‘should cousins marry?’ (Surely they know the answer to that?) and the ‘worried wife’ letters. I feel for the worried wife. She knows exactly what the answer will be but doesn’t want to admit it. Poor woman. Did she sling him out? Or – as I feel is more likely – did she just suffer in silence?

There’s a load of fashion tips and ideas, mostly, I was interested to note, clothes you could make at home. This magazine is aimed at the upper working class and lower middle class, women who have a little money but not enough to buy off-the-peg items and certainly not bespoke. ‘Home economy’ was one of the watchwords of the day, and it included apparel.

I personally think this looks absolutely horrid, and a cross between a Christmas panto costume and something out of Red Riding Hood. This one below is slightly nicer, but again, still all your own work.

Although the models in the designs look about 35 to 40, in fact some of these are aimed for teenagers from 14 years of age. not much difference in those days between what mums and their daughters were wearing.

And of course, the eternal battle with the scales. I was interested to see things haven’t changed much here either, although some of our modern ingredients – chorizo and the whole gluten-free plan would have been completely alien to women of the 1930s.

Looks like this lady – a nurse, not a nun as I first thought – was following the crap-yourself-thin diet. 18lbs was a good result! Was she just a bit constipated after Christmas? All those mince pies…

Looking good appears to be a perennial issue for many women. We want to keep our looks as long as possible, after all, and keep ourselves in good condition. So I suppose it’s not surprising magazines for women contain so many hints, tips and advice. With the growth of city populations, the expansion of the suburbs, many women would have been cut off from their usual channels of information: mothers, grandmothers, aunties. Equally, magazines adopt a sisterly or motherly tone to offer the advice so desperately needed in those times. Today, magazines are more likely to have a friendly, conversational tone, inviting you to confide and share like a friend coming alongside to offer a sympathetic ear.

I’m in awe of the fact that this magazine has been around so long. It’s fascinating to read that the same ideas preoccupied women before my mother was born, as they do now. We may have Smartphones, the Internet, Netflix and Just Eat, but at the end of the day, we still want to look good, feel good, and keep our man where we can see him.

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Everyday life in the 1930s

I’m fascinated by the 1930s. That’s why I write a series of detective novels set in the 1930s and featuring Dottie Manderson, a young female amateur detective, as the protagonist. I write cosy mysteries, or cosy crime, and therefore there’s not a lot of space for too much social reality. Besides which, life is already tough enough, we all could do with a bit of escapism now and then, right?

I wanted to show just how different life was back then for everyone, not just women, in the 1930s. I’m writing from a British perspective, as that is my own nationality and my research and my writing centres around this.

Loretta Young, the actress whose soulful expression gave me the character of Dottie Manderson

I often portray the glamour of the era–the fashion, the socialising, all the dancing in long flowing gowns, the polite flirting with gentlemanly fellows in smart evening wear who offered one a drink or a cigarette and didn’t (most of the time) immediately pinch our bums. This glamour and glitz is what I love about it, but even I as a die-hard romantic idealist would have to admit this is the stuff of dreams—of the wonderful cinematic fictions of the time. It’s largely a gloss put over real life to get us through tough times and keep us keeping on. In reality we didn’t dance down to Rio or sip champagne, we were too busy trying to put bread on the table and keep the rent man happy.

So let’s go back to Britain in the 1930s. What was life like for the majority of people?

It was very much a time of transition. Things were still getting back to normal after the war. Attitudes were poles apart with very liberal ideas sitting at the same dinner table as conventional, very reactionary, right wing beliefs. And these differences would grow to a huge divide that came to a head in the 1940s, although as many other things, many of the same issues still rumble on today.

To set the scene for this inter-war period: the gaiety and extravagance of the 20s was over. The harsh reality of the 30s set in with mass unemployment, vast financial meltdowns that would devastate the economies of the richest nations and wipe out many fortunes leaving plenty of millionaires bankrupt and desperate. For the poor, things went from bad to worse, with job cuts and losses, and the increased mechanisation of tasks previously done by human beings left many without work and therefore without the means to feed themselves or their families. But for many middle-class families—those with money, skills and professional qualifications and the less demanding costs of keeping up their homes and lifestyles, things were not too bad at all.

Gary Cooper, irresistibly ‘cool’.

The Great War, as WWI was known, was becoming more of a distant memory, and the Second World War was as yet undreamed of. In fact, there was a common consensus regarding the Great War that ‘it could never happen again’. It was ‘great’ in the sense of huge and terrible, not in our modern sense of brilliant and something admirable. Even language has changed since then! It’s no exaggeration to say that millions of lives were changed forever.

There were an estimated 40 million casualties, a little less than half of whom died, the rest were injured, many very seriously. 40 million. How could such an incomprehensibly vast sum of people die in the space of just a few years? Is it any wonder that people, especially the young, were a little bit crazy, a little bit over-exuberant in the 20s? Yet even in the early 30s, there were already the rumblings and murmurings that would lead to a repeat of the disaster.

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Anywhere in the world!

You might have noticed I sometimes get stuck for ideas for a blog post. When that happens, I usually sneakily use an old one and hope you won’t notice, or I put in an interview, or a short piece about my books etc.

BUT… (and you’ll be proud of me for this) I actually decided to research ‘what to write about on your blog’ and hey presto: Write about ‘If I could spend a month writing anywhere in the world, where would it be?’

That’s easy.

I love to write in cafes. But with lockdown the way it is, I’ve become a stranger to that. And I do have an office where I do most of my writing (picture the smallest bedroom in the house, no longer needed after the children grow up) and I sometimes write at the dining room table, or in the sitting room, snug on the sofa complete with snoring cat.

Many years ago, we lived in Australia, in Brisbane. It’s hot and sticky there, but I enjoyed it. And our first house there was an absolute hovel (sorry Aussies, but it was, honest), but when the kids had gone to school, I used to sit on the front steps with my morning coffee, a few dozen tiny lizards around half the size of a pencil, a couple of plants in pots, and my notebook and pen.

These little guys just need the water from your flower pots!

I could sit there for around two hours until the sun was so hot, I had to go inside. I used to water the plants in the pots, and the lizards would come and drink the water that ran out of the bottom of the pots onto the wooden steps. The lizards were so shy, I had to keep really still so they thought I was a tree or something. Occasionally a kookaburra would sit on the fence and stare at me, but usually it was just a pigeon or a magpie. I’ve searched my photos but can’t find the one I can picture in my mind that shows the steps and the plant pots. You’ll just have to conjure up your own image of front-step perfection, and write there.

Whereas these guys want to lie on your compost heap in the sun and stuff themselves with leftover fruit and veg

The road was called Farm Street, but I’m guessing that was to commemorate where the farm used to be before it was bulldozed to make way for the street. Neighbours would go by and wave or stop to chat. Gradually they got to know the new Brits at number 12. One guy was very sweet and kind when we were afraid to go past something that looked like quite a large snake in the storm drain by the pavement, but the neighbour explained it was a blue-tongued skink, and nothing to be afraid of. We were still pretty nervous to begin with, I can tell you.

Anyway, so I had two hours of writing most weekdays, sitting on the front steps. I can picture myself there, writing three novels in the time we were in that house, only one of which has been published (Easy Living) and the other two are very much still in the ‘I don’t know what to do’ stage of development. One was called Baby Girl and is about a well-known actress whose adoptive mother passes away and so the actress embarks on a search for her birth mother and finds a killer instead. The other one, referencing the new millennium we were about to go into (so a while ago now) was about a pensioner who goes on the run to avoid being legally euthanised because of the growth of population. Both these books were set in Australia and contain long, slightly wistful passages about my favourite cafes – Jimmy’s Uptown, Jimmy’s Downtown, and Jimmy’s On The Mall, all on the same long street in the city centre.

Life changes, and we weren’t really happy with where we were living, and we moved away. But the times of sitting on the steps and writing were as close to perfect as we could get. It was ‘very heaven’.

Jimmy’s On The Mall: It’s a lot more glamorous now than it was when we were in Brisbane over 20 years ago, they’ve added a whole top floor! If we go back, this is the first place I’ll want to go.

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A quick look at Art Deco

Exactly what we look for in an Art Deco building. Clean lines and plenty of light were important aspects of the design. Very reminiscent of a ship, I always think. I would love to live somewhere like this.

Is there any more evocative style than the one we know as Art Deco? It is immediately recognisable for its elegant lines, swirls, geometric shapes and high contrasts in both colour and texture.

A Tiffany lampshade

After appearing in the first decade of the 1900s, Art Deco actually only reigned supreme until the early 30s, but in the popular imagination it conjures up everything from the Titanic to Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective and his obsession with symmetry.

The Seven Stars pub in Earls Court, London. Unfortunately it looks as though it needs a little TLC.

We can still see Art Deco architecture and design all around us. From the smallest ornament for the front of a car to a massive block of flats, they share these characteristic lines of simplicity and brightness.

The iconic Chrysler building, once (and briefly) the tallest building in the world, built towards the end of the era.

It wasn’t just buildings or home decor that got the Art Deco treatment. This is a BMW R7 motorbike from 1934. Even I’d be interested in this! I can almost picture Dottie riding pillion with William.

Another Art Deco house, this time in Florida

another lamp

Even railway marketing adopted some of the principles of Art Deco, leaving plenty of clear space and using statement images.

 

The stunning Spirit of the Wind by Rene Lalique. I can’t imagine this on the front of my husband’s Ford Mondeo!

The term Art Deco came from the name of the Paris exhibition in 1925, the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts), and has come to mean pretty much all things to all people – anything which is white/cream/gold contrasting with black, anything where the design is uncluttered, or symmetrical, or consists of very straight lines.

The style was associated with glamour, new technology, modernity, and heralded a new era, moving away from the dark, fussy and cluttered styles of the Victorian era and moving forward to embrace the concept of progress. As a style it is still incredibly popular today, and for me, typifies the era of my Dottie Manderson books, a time poised delicately just before the second world war came along to change everything.

No more fussy old Victorian spinach and rust for us! We want something modern and bright!