2020 Autumn Thoughts

If you’ve read any of my blog before, you’ll know that I love the autumn. My birthday is in October, so that’s why I think that for me autumn is the time for rebirth and growth. In the summertime, it’s too hot to work my brain, (apart from this year where in my area, we only had two hot days – but wow, they were soooo hot) so the cooler temperatures of autumn bring a welcome respite from the summer, and a new influx of energy.

Or maybe it’s just that thing that all parents have, where, come September the kids go back to school and finally you have the time to sit and think quietly for more than thirty seconds. My kids are adults with their own lives, but the old routine of the school year still lingers on.

I found this short passage on autumn in an old journal:

The leaves of the plum tree are turning yellow. Although most of them are still green, within a week or two the tree will be bare—how quickly the season marches on, and there is nothing any of us can do about that. In the garden at the bottom of ours, their silver birches are also covered in yellowing leaves.

In the last half hour, almost without me noticing, the world has lost its sunny autumnal afternoon look and is now overcome by the gloomy dullness that heralds the imminent arrival of evening.

The leaves are changing, turning yellow and orange, but mainly yellow. A sickly speckled unhealthy yellow. Soon the branches will be bare and we will be in the grip of winter.

One or two birds dash to the bird table and snatch some seeds. Their movements seem urgent, as if time is running out and they must hide before it’s too late.

The day is fading, night is almost here.

But I’m not the only one who mulls over what autumn means. Here are some thoughts from authors to inspire us all to take up our writing projects and search for the poet inside.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

Albert Camus: “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

John Donne: “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.”

Basho: “Early autumn–/rice field, ocean,/one green.”

But not all authors have the came rosy outlook when it comes to the winding-down of the year. Many portray it as a doom-laden promise of misery and gloom.

Dodie Smith: “Why is summer mist romantic and autumn mist just sad?”

Stephen King: “The wind makes you ache is some place that is deeper than your bones. It may be that it touches something old in the human soul, a chord of race memory that says Migrate or die – migrate or die.”

Francis Brett Young: “An autumn garden has a sadness when the sun is not shining…”

David Mitchell: “Autumn is leaving its mellowness behind for its spiky, rotted stage. Don’t remember summer even saying goodbye.”

So which of the autumn types are you? Are you a happy golden-hue embracing energy-filled person, or are you more of a Mr/Mrs autumn-is-the-end-of-everything? Let me know!

***

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!

***

 

My Life in the Criminal Underworld, or, What I saw from the bus…

It’s no secret that I live in a slightly dodgy part of town. In fact there are dodgier areas, but there are also–rumour has it–nice areas where there is little crime and people don’t let their dogs cack on your driveway.

I don’t drive. I passed my test back in the day, when Methuselah was a lad, but that marked both the beginning and the end of my driving career. I’m just doing my bit to keep road fatalities to a minimum. However, this means I use the bus a lot.

This week I was trundling into town, Riverside blaring through my earphones, blissfully drifting away on a happy cloud of bellowed F-words in Artificial Smile, and the bus made a stop in Allenton. For those of you who live outside of the city of Derby, it’s a busy ”low-income” suburb on the route to the city centre. Now I know that 95% of the residents of Allenton are pleasant hard-working people just trying to get by. But some of them are not.

Other writers may witness drug deals ‘going down’, as we hardcore crims say, on a daily basis. I’ve only seen a handful over the years, living in my book- and music-induced sheltered little world. So I was quite surprised that I saw a drug deal take place right before my eyes. I suppose it’s just about possible the guy bought a teeny tiny packet of popping candy or artificial sweetener, or indeed a single teabag. Those are so hard to get if you only want one; you don’t always want a box of 80, do you?

The bus stop at the stop (it’s what they do). No one got on. No one got off. But we were running five minutes ahead of schedule, so the driver had to make up time. So we sat there. Like a bunch of tourists on a not-very-exciting tour.

A scruffy weaselly little bloke was mooching around the stop, but not making for the bus. Then further away, an over-grown kid was doing wheelies on a bike and generally twatting about getting in everyone’s way, for all the world as if he was still a teenager.

Artificial Smile ended, Volte Face started, (I’ve got a number of tracks from different albums on my phone). I was still daydreaming. But the guy on the bike caught my eye, doing his stunts a wee bit too close to the rest of humanity. He’s going to hit someone if he’s not careful, I thought. Suddenly he made a dive for the weaselly guy, they shook hands in a weird way and one of them not-very-secretly gave the other a folded banknote and the other gave him a teeny tiny packet of drugs or a teabag. Maybe it was dried catnip, that’s supposed to help you relax. Not sure if you can smoke it, though. I think it was hash or maybe worse. Then, Weasel dived on the bus just as it was finally about to pull away.

He sat at the back. Right across the aisle from me. Great. I reflected it was a good thing I was listening to music on my phone rather than using it to film the ‘transaction’. A scenario ran through my head where said weasel followed me and mugged me for my phone, or whipped out a knife. The only weapon I’ve got is a one inch blunt penknife on my key-ring, given to me by my 82-year old Dad. I doubt it would cut through butter let alone a vicious drug-thug. Or a pen. Matt Damon and Daniel Craig know how to use a pen as a weapon, I however, only write with mine. It’s not mightier than the sword when someone else has an actual sword.

He reeked of marijuana–it’s a horrid smell, especially when stale. And to keep up his hard-man image, he put on some ‘music’, sans headphones,which consisted of someone screeching profanities, making Artificial Smile sound like a lullaby. His knee bounced uncontrollably. He couldn’t sit still. He really needed that fix.

A lady sitting further down the bus with her small daughter, asked him to turn it down a bit. But all she got was a stream of obscenities in return. So she started to scream obscenities at him in her frustration. An elderly man with a hearing aid waded in, whilst Weasel began to defend his human rights to listen to vile, hate-filled stuff really loudly in public.  Ah the benefits of public transport. The council will never get people to give up using their cars until they get people to be pleasant and considerate towards others. I don’t see it happening, do you? Needless to say, the rest of the journey was a filth-addled nightmare.

This is why I like writing stories about a world when a gentleman would doff his cap and say, ‘Excuse me madam, please forgive the intrusion, but could you possibly turn down your Polish Alternative Rock for a moment or two, I’m trying to catch the jolly old cricket score on the transistor radio. I’d be most awfully grateful.’ Upon which I would say, ‘Gosh, yes, I’m so sorry, I had no idea it was so shockingly loud. How silly of me. I do beg your pardon.’ And we’d all get along swimmingly. That’s not much to ask, is it?

***

Don’t look back in anger.

4

When I was studying history as part of my Literature and Arts degree programme, we debated the the purpose of studying history, and decided on something like this definition: ‘we study the past to illuminate the human present and plan for the future’. The past is vital to humans. I’d say the past pervades our lives continually. If the past is an important part of our lives when we are young, I’ve been told that as people grow older, the past assumes even greater importance. Certainly I’ve seen this in people I know, and in my own life. The past can sometimes have an almost unbearable significance.

Why do we live in the past? Is it because the outcome is known to us? I sit safe? Or a source of disappointment with a sense of ‘the road not taken’? Do we seek to relive our ‘glory days’? Or have we left something behind that we haven’t quite finished with? I often wonder if the past is/was quite as I remember it, as our memories are so subjective. And I wrote ‘is/was’ because even as I put pen to paper, I realised that in many ways, the past is ongoing. As often as I remember it, it lives on, never ending, never a closed file but always, always, always being updated, catalogued, reviewed, reevaluated, upgraded and rewritten.

Does the past really fade away, or is it ever-present, a continuous ongoing exploration that runs in parallel with our own sense of ‘now’? The future is seen, in the words of Star Trek (or was it William Shakespeare ;D  ?) as the Undiscovered Country, and the past must surely be the air-miles capital of our emotions.

***

Making a Drama out of a Crisis

30217259447836f918e8e06e40c5ccf6

So…life eh? Doesn’t it just get in the way sometimes? You’re going along, minding your own business, about to launch a new book then a doctor says, ‘yes, I’m afraid the tests show it is cancer.’

That was the end of September. Since then I have been poked, prodded, hugged, barcoded, scanned, prayed for and operated on, and now, hopefully life is carrying on again. The writer in me always says, shyly and from the back of the room, ‘you can use this in a book.’ The realist at the front of the room says with loud scorn, ‘I’d rather not have gone through it personally in the first place.’ But what can you do? There were a few dark times, times when I sorrowfully wondered if it was worth bothering to finish up the new book and get it released. It felt like a trivial, transient, shallow kind of thing to bother about. My whole life felt kind of pointless. And I felt so guilty for putting my lovely family through so much anxiety. They have been amazing.

And I still don’t know if it’s all gone, or if there is further treatment waiting for me. But I can now smile, and think positive thoughts, and I feel pretty good actually, and yes, there really is so much mileage to be had from my experiences. Is there anything more sinister than a hospital corridor late at night? One person in a gown and mask looks pretty much like another – are they really who they say they are? What was that shadow that passed across the curtains surrounding my bed? Could someone substitute a poison for the meds I have to inject myself with? And then there are the life stories of the other women I met on the gynae ward. If anything I realised how good I had things: at least I didn’t fall over in the shower and set back my recovery by several weeks; I had a family around me, I was not alone like many; and I was not losing my womb at an age when I had yet to have my babies.

Many times lately, someone has said that thing about life and lemons and making lemonade, but it’s so true. And there no one as good as a writer for making a drama out of a crisis.

***

Write your memories to build a sense of setting

buttercup-1260803_1920

Last week I talked about world-building. I was talking about making any setting of your work of fiction real for the reader. It’s not just about how it looks, how you describe the setting for the reader, it’s also about an authentic emotional reaction. When I was trying to capture a sense of setting as part of a course many years ago, I wrote this piece called, simply, ‘When I was four’, it’s based on my childhood memory of roaming blissfully through meadowland in Kent, in the south of England. It is rather long – sorry about that.

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, 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 felt like a princess. 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. 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. I remember how we kids roamed around in a big bunch, chasing and hiding and climbing and running. I remember one of the big kids pulling me out of the river when I fell in. 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 and I was inconsolable.

Yes, the river. Bodies of water have always seemed to draw me – perhaps a link to a seafaring ancestor? – and between the ages of 4 and around 17, I fell in pretty much every body of water I went near. I spent many hours sitting in the sunshine waiting for my clothes to dry.

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 and exciting and 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, but I never stopped loving my jeans.

Of course, for the hottest part of the year, there were shorts. And I did love my shorts, even to the point of 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.

Footwear was again a choice of 2 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 – what was there 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, pretend the dust that rose was smoke from the embers. 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 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 attitude 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.