Hello, and thank you for visiting my site. I hope that you'll return often and always find something of interest about my world and what inspires me to pick up a pen. (This is a figure of speech, unfortunately. My handwriting is terrible!) Here's what I've been up to recently...

In the footsteps of Charlotte Brontë

NortonConyershouse

I first read Jane Eyre when I was twelve years old and wished for a long time that I hadn’t. However, my nightmares about the criminally insane Bertha prowling around while the rest of the household slept faded eventually and allowed me to appreciate the story as a whole. If I discount the improbable coincidence of Jane’s flight from Thornfield landing her on the doorstep of previously unknown cousins, this is my favourite Brontë novel. That is why I jumped at the opportunity last week to tour the ‘gentleman’s residence’ believed to have been at least in part the model for Mr Rochester’s house. Norton Conyers has been owned by the Graham family almost continuously since 1624 and Charlotte, who paid a visit in 1839, would certainly have been told the legend of Mad Mary, an unfortunate relative confined to an attic during the previous century.

NortonConyershall

The discovery of a major infestation of death watch beetle led to this ‘gentleman’s manor house’ being closed to the public for many years. On the day of my visit, Sir James, the 11th baronet, and Lady Graham gathered us all together in the hall (shown above) for a talk on the repair and restoration programme. They even handed round specimens of the offending insects – in plastic boxes, I’m glad to say – and fragments of wood that they had chewed. Disappointment was to follow when we were told that the fragility of the floors had put the attics out of bounds to visitors. The most we were allowed was a glimpse through a door on the gloomy first floor landing of a narrow staircase leading up to what had been the servants’ sleeping quarters. In use when Charlotte visited, it had been blocked up and its rediscovery in 2004 sparked interest worldwide. A photograph on display in the hall showed a sparsely furnished and cheerless garret at the very far end of the attic floor.

There was plenty more to see, including fine furniture, pictures, porcelain, 16th century painted boards and rare examples of 18th century wallpaper but, even on a fine summer’s day, I found the general atmosphere of the place oppressive. Standing on the landing and again in the dark panelled King James bedroom – while still Duke of York, the future James II and his wife are supposed to have spent one November night at Norton Conyers in 1679 – it wasn’t hard for me to imagine how sinister the house would have seemed without benefit of electric lighting. I was very glad to emerge into the sunshine and gather my thoughts in the glorious walled garden.

 

20 July, 2016 Make the first comment on this story

Remembering Jutland

Albert Edward Townley

My maternal grandmother was luckier than many women of her generation in that only one of her sons lost his life during the Great War. All the same, she nearly went out of her mind when the sad news arrived about her first born and she never really recovered from it. According to my mother, who was only nine at the time, she grieved for Albert for the rest of her life and never ceased to blame Admiral Sir John Jellicoe for his death and that of so many other British sailors.

A.E.Townley plaque

The fact that his surname was misspelled on the bronze plaque she received afterwards only served to add insult to injury and it’s a wonder that she kept it. Many families threw their ‘Dead Man’s Penny’ away in disgust. However, both it and the memory of Albert have been passed down the family and will continue to be so. His name is included on the war memorial in Brighouse, the King’s Book of York Heroes, which can be seen in the crypt of the Minster, and also on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

 

Jutland leaflet

I set off for the centenary exhibition knowing that I would be deeply moved by the suffering of the thousands of men and boys killed and injured during the biggest and bloodiest battle in naval history. Just like my grandmother, I would find myself in tears wondering whether Albert had been blown up on board his ship or drowned in the North Sea. What I didn’t expect to feel was sympathy for Admiral Jellicoe and Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty. Much has been written since about their tactical mistakes and willingness to sacrifice safety for speed, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. It’s only fair to remember that this was the first major battle at sea since Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. In 1916, the ships were much further apart and yet signalling was still largely done with flags and lamps.  During the film shows, which had commentary from serving crews played over original footage, it became clear that mist and then the smoke of battle made it very difficult for much of the time to see what was going on.

Portsmouth monument

It was dull and very windy by the time I made my way to the memorial and I apologise for the poor quality of the photograph.

Portsmouth monument Maggie

Touching Albert’s name amongst those of around 10 000 sailors lost during WW1 was a very poignant moment. My grandmother would have been pleased to know that, here at least, his surname is spelled correctly.

Portsmouthmonumentdetail

At best, the Battle of Jutland was a draw. The British lost far more men and ships, but the German High Seas Fleet never again challenged the Royal Navy in the North Sea. I hope that my poor grandmother derived a little comfort from that.

15 July, 2016 Make the first comment on this story

Thoughts on the Somme – a tale of two boys

Uncle George's wedding

Who could fail to be moved by today’s commemoration of the Battle of the Somme? Watching the coverage from the Thiepval memorial, I was blinking back tears and it seemed to me at one point that Prince Harry was doing the same. Maybe he just had something in his eye? I’ll never know, of course, but how could he or anyone else present fail to be moved? Added to the million men killed or wounded in this bloodiest of battles were countless civilians who also suffered, including a whole generation of women left to carry on alone. One such was my music teacher, Miss Maud Denby, to whose home I trudged once a week for lessons. A faded photograph of the fiancé she had lost, forever young, stood in pride of place on the piano.

My Uncle George, pictured above on his wedding day, was one of the ‘lucky’ ones who survived to tell the tale. Having lied about his age, as so many eager youngsters did, he found himself in France at the age of sixteen. Family legend has it that his father interceded and had him brought home. Having experienced the horrors of trench warfare at first hand, Uncle George was apparently far less keen to go back when he was conscripted two years later. He had to, though, having first insisted on marrying his sweetheart Louie.

Uncle George in the news cropped.

Injured by a piece of shrapnel that left him with a deep groove in the side of his chest and a useless right arm, he lived into his nineties and had many a tale to tell about his wartime experiences. The cutting above shows him with Louie on their Golden Wedding day.

DRDdetail

Less fortunate was the young husband of one of my great-aunts, seen above posing with a Lewis gun shortly before being sent to the front. David Robert Davidson’s name is inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial. Sent up from a London workhouse in the early 1900s to toil on the Yorkshire coalface as a pit boy, he later married a widow ten years his senior to provide some security in the shape of his army pension for her and her three small daughters. Killed at the age of twenty-one and only a few months after their marriage, he will always be honoured by our family. I have written about David before, and you can read more about him by scrolling through my website to the post I wrote on Remembrance Day 1914.

In conclusion, I should just like to add how grateful I am that my own two boys were born at a time when conscription was a thing of the past. We once went to Albert in northern France to see the remains of the trenches and none of us could believe how close together the British and German front lines had been. Also hard to take were the ages on the thousands of headstones in the war cemeteries. Old men have always sent young men into battle and, a hundred years later, I have to wonder anew, ‘When will we ever learn?”

 

1 July, 2016 Make the first comment on this story

Bookmarking the Past

 

I’m delighted to have the Star Letter in the latest issue of Writing Magazine (June 2016), because it was inspired by one of my favourite pursuits and I enjoyed the research that followed this particular find. As a regular browser in libraries and second hand bookshops, I’ve come across all kinds of weird and wonderful things being used as bookmarks. The odd five pound note is a welcome discovery; a withered slice of bacon not so much. Not many have intrigued me as much as an airmail letter penned almost fifty years ago by a poet and playwright few may have heard of these days.

The hardest thing was to decipher his writing, particularly his surname, but all went well as soon as I’d achieved that. Men by the name of Robert Brady are certainly not in short supply on the Internet, but I only found one Robert K Brady to fit the bill. Head of the British Council in Colombo, Ceylon (the present day Sri Lanka) in the 1960s, Robert KILIAN Brady had already seen his poetry published by the Fortune Press, whose other writers included Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas.

As he was stationed in Malta throughout World War Two, it is hardly surprising that death is a recurring theme in R.K.Brady’s poetry. The following extract from a piece written in St Paul’s Bay in 1940 has stuck in my mind.

The long white finger

Of searchlights points the way where danger lies;

And still they linger –

The sea, the foe, the skies!

Also to his credit is a 1948 collection entitled Pulp in Bosnia, which went into three editions.

There is no mention of his poetry in the friendly letter written to a Miss Elizabeth White of Belsize Park  in 1967. He does tell her, however, that he has written a play about Mary Queen of Scots and that it has gone down well with local amateur groups. I was able to discover that Mary Stewart went into five editions.

If anyone connected with R.K.Brady or Miss White happens to come across this posting and gets in touch with me, I’ll be more than happy to forward this sample of what may have been a regular correspondence. Had it contained anything potentially embarrassing, I should not, of course have exploited it. A prolific writer of letters myself before the arrival of email, I do wonder how many of my own may be out there to discover! If any do turn up, I can only hope that the finders will be equally discreet. Which of us hasn’t penned letters we later regret, whether out of anger or passion, sometimes both?

1 May, 2016 There is one comment on this story

Mardi Gras in New Orleans finally ticked off my bucket list!

Mardi Gras nails

Having always wanted to experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans, I finally made it this year, flying there from Manchester via a snowy New York !  The city was awash with the carnival colours of ‘purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power’ and I had the nails to match. Thank you, Studio 6!

Mardi Gras postcard Laissez les bons temps rouler

The motto of Mardi Gras is ‘Laissez les bons temps rouler’ (Let the good times roll) and that was certainly the case.

Mardi Gras door decoration

The days were sunny and warm, every building in the French Quarter was decorated and strings of beads cascaded down from the wrought iron balconies into the eager hands of the crowds below.

Mardi Gras Prince Conti postcard

Following a recommendation by publisher John Jarrold, who knows New Orleans very well, we stayed at the 3* Prince Conti. Although only just round the corner from the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Bourbon Street, the suites (!) we’d chosen at the back of the hotel were quiet and had every comfort. Pushing the boat out isn’t generally a feature of Cobbett economics, but this was a very special trip and the purse strings were relaxed for once. We only had four full days and were determined to make the most of it.

New Orleans 1968

N.B. On my only previous visit to New Orleans  I was a 20 year old student, it was during a hot steamy August week and all about the jazz. Four of us shared the cheapest room we could find, sat on the pavement outside Preservation Hall and existed on a diet of fries washed down with bottles of Dr Pepper. What a joy it was this year to be able to afford decent accommodation and food!

Mardi Gras breakfast

How about this for a breakfast, chosen from a very comprehensive menu at Café Conti and accompanied by jazz in the background?

Mardi Gras Cafe du Monde postcard

Sampling the famous doughnuts (beignets) at Café du Monde was also a must.

Mardi Gras beignets

Eating one without getting our clothes covered in icing sugar was a challenge we failed and I was the only one to try the chicory-flavoured café au lait. Here’s a tip! Don’t order a large anything in New Orleans unless you really mean it!

Mardi Gras Richard and David with menu

Several of the places recommended for dinner were either closed during Mardi Gras week or impossibly crowded, but The Bombay Club next to our hotel had a great atmosphere and good food for carnivores. As the odd one out, the pesky vegetarian, I didn’t have much to choose from, but the pecan pesto tagliatelle was delicious and the drinks menu excellent. I’d certainly recommend the dry Martinis and  Cocktail à la Louisiane.

Mardi Gras petits fours

If I mention that Sucré on Conti Street is probably the New Orleans equivalent of Bettys, my Yorkshire friends will know exactly what I mean and not be surprised that the price of a plate of petits fours in the restaurant made us blanch. However…

Mardi Gras Jackson Square David and Maggie

With limited time and many attractions closed down for Mardi Gras week, we confined ourselves mainly to the French Quarter but still found plenty to see without getting parade fatigue. (Every morning, afternoon and evening featured different ones, all listed in The Times-Picayune.) The area is quite compact and it was easy to walk down to Jackson Square.

Mardi Gras Louis Armstrong statue

From there, it’s a short walk to the ferry across the Mississippi to the neighbourhood of Algiers on the West Bank. It’s the second oldest part of New Orleans and has a separate small town feel. The statue of Louis Armstrong, very similar to the one in the airport named after him, dominates the skyline.

Mardi Gras Louis Armstrong Park

We also made our way up to Louis Armstrong Park and through to Saint Louis Number One cemetery.

Mardi Gras cemetery2

The high water table in the area makes it necessary to build tombs above ground. Some are well maintained, others in a state of disrepair and the most frequently visited that of Marie Laveau, the famous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.

Mardi Gras Nicholas Cage tomb

We also saw the giant pyramid tomb bought by Nicholas Cage to house his own remains when the time comes. Apparently some of his fans already kiss it. We didn’t.

Mardi Gras voodoo museum

The Voodoo Museum on Dumaine Street, although small, is well worth a visit. The staff know what they’re talking about and the items in the gift shop are authentic. This contrasts sharply with a lot of kitsch to be found elsewhere.

Mardi Gras Voodoo Museum Virgin Mary altar

Originally from West Africa and arriving in Louisiana in 1719 with the first slaves, voodoo soon became entwined with Catholicism.

Mardi Gras Voodoo Museum skull

However sinister voodoo may appear, practitioners are keen to point out that their spells are rarely intended to do any harm.

Mardi Gras Voodoo Museum dolls

Dolls such as these are designed to be used for Gris-Gris (magic) when a picture of the target, hair, nail clippings or a piece of clothing are is attached to them.

Mardi Gras Voodoo Museum offerings2

Many voodoo practitioners and visitors leave small personal objects on the altars, some VERY personal. I spotted a lone tampon – unused – in one collection!

Mardi Gras Voodoo Museum Rougarou

There are plenty of alligators in the Louisiana swamps.

Mardi Gras Voodoo Museum priestess painting

A priestess is called a Queen and the sight of one dancing round with a python held over her head must be impressive. From the early 19th century, Voodoo dances in Congo Square (now Louis Armstrong Park) were a regular Sunday event.

New Orleans Voodoo Doll

The voodoo doll I bought, made of swamp moss and complete with instructions and sharp pin, may come in handy one day.

Mardi Gras Zulu crowd

The Zulu crewe held a huge and completely free music festival in Woldenberg Park on the eve of Mardi Gras itself. 60% of the people of New Orleans are black (with 30% white and 10% ‘other’) and I think most of them were there that afternoon.

Mardi Gras Zulu Krewe member and fan

Fans were queuing up to meet and follow their favourite Zulu characters.

Mardi Gras Orpheus float2

However, the parades were what we’d mostly come to see and we certainly weren’t disappointed.

Mardi Gras Orpheus float 3

I can well believe that it takes a whole year to decorate all the floats.

Mardi Gras Orpheus float

A helpful taxi driver told us that they’re financed by big business, members of the various ‘krewes’ paying their dues and those keen to ride on them contributing large amounts for the privilege.

Mardi Gras Orpheus Slope Dad receiving beads

Not wishing to be crushed by the crowds, we’d booked places in the grandstand outside the Lafayette Hotel on Saint Charles Avenue for three of them – Bacchus, Proteus & Orpheus and Zulu. Each had very many floats, interspersed with marching bands, and went on for hours.

Watching the techniques employed by some families afforded us considerable amusement. Many had stepladders with boxes on top, the better to see the parade and grab as many ‘throws’ as possible. (No wonder they’re generally known as ‘greed beads’.) The gentleman in the photo, his beer cooler safely stashed below the step ladder, had his family team fully deployed to pass any they caught up to him. Incidentally, the curtain to the left is there to preserve the modesty of anyone in the grandstand wishing to use the portaloo behind.

Mardi Gras David waiting for beads

I can’t claim superiority and deny that we weren’t out for our fair share. The evenings were quite chilly, by the way, something we hadn’t really bargained for.

Mardi Gras trio in beads

Back at the hotel, we were quite dazzled by all our shiny beads and the collection continued to grow!

Mardi Gras beads and doubloons

Our suitcases only just made it when they were weighed at the Louis Armstrong Airport on our way home via Atlanta.

Mardi Gras extras

Colourful beads are, of course, the main ‘throws’, but I was also pleased with these extra items, particularly one of the much coveted drained and hand painted coconuts from the Zulu crewe. The ball came courtesy of Mr Dorian Rawles, Zulu Mayor 2016.

Mardi Gras mask

Who could resist coming away with a Mardi Gras mask? Well, I couldn’t.

Now, we just need to get over the jet lag!

12 February, 2016 Make the first comment on this story

Happy New Year!

“Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” Mark Twain

All right, so we’re already halfway through January, but last month’s accident (see below) has  slowed me down considerably. Still not able to get back to dancing for the foreseeable future, I’m nevertheless determined to regain my mojo and keep to my own new year’s resolution. What is it? Whenever something particularly unpleasant needs to be done, do it straight away. The day will immediately feel much better!

Sales of my novel Shadows of the Past continue to go well and I was delighted to give a talk about the inspiration behind it to Ripon U3A Book Group on Thursday. One lady made a very valid point about the blurb on the back, which I shall certainly bear in mind for the next edition. Otherwise, all the comments were favourable and I left the session in a happy glow.

Pride comes before a fall, though, and my first short story submission of 2016 was rejected in the shortest space of time ever. Bloody but unbowed, I must admit that the fiction editor’s criticism that too large chunks were told not shown was justified, although I didn’t agree with all her other comments. However, she is the keeper of the door through which so many of us compete to pass, so I shall take them on the chin as usual and try again. Past acceptances have proved that I CAN reach the standard she requires.

Back to the drawing board now. Another story is brewing!

 

 

17 January, 2016 There are 2 comments on this story

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Not far from Paris lies the village of Saint-André-la Forêt, where three English schoolgirls disappear without trace during the summer of 1965.

Twenty years later, a stranded traveller stumbles across a skeleton in the nearby forest and ignores local people's warnings to leave well alone. The secrets she uncovers, some dating back to the darkest days of World War 2, are more than enough to put her own life in danger.

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