Thursday, 20 October 2011

A Family Reunion

As self-appointed family historian I was recently invited to a reunion of descendents of my great aunt Ethel. With all my other history-based commitments the Shorthouses have had to take a back seat just lately. The weekend turned out to be hectic with much travelling across London, followed by a gathering of enthusiastic cousins. Old hatchets were miraculously buried, skeletons rattled, promises made and information pored over and circulated.

So there I was during the preceding week, on hands and knees, rummaging through two very full boxes of documents and photographs, in search of suitable material to take with me on the train to Southampton. Not surprisingly I discovered a few “projects” I'd begun and not completed – they'll wait for another time – and the following “self-portrait”. Since I've teased many sensitive stories out of near strangers over the past dozen years, I thought my children might appreciate reading a little family history of their own.

This is the earliest photo of me of which I know. I can only assume it was taken after my parents, Dorothy and Eric, were married on 23rd December 1948. My birth certificate gives the day I was born as 11th June 1948. Considering I look about six months old in the studio portrait, this would seem about right. The “guilty secret” was at last being officially acknowledged!

In the 1940s my birth would have been called “illegitimate”. I was never told about it, and only worked it out after my mother died and I gained access to her divorce papers which, of course, contained interesting facts like the date of her marriage to my father. What was my mother more ashamed of – me, or her delayed wedding? I don't know as my parents never gave me a hint. Another assumption I have had to make is that my father was awaiting a divorce from his first wife, who was living in South Africa with their child, June: that may have been the reason that I was kept a secret for a while. Following my birth in Scarborough, whilst my parents were living under the condescension of my paternal grandmother Elizabeth, the new family retreated to an old house called “Top th'hill” at Blackshaw Head, out in the wild landscape between Yorkshire and Lancashire close to Hebden Bridge.

My parents never ever celebrated their wedding anniversaries as that would have given the game away! For an inquisitive child I was remarkably dumb about this fact. I only once asked my mother about her wedding. She told me it had been at a Register Office and that she had worn a suit rather than a white dress. I also remember her telling me about an incident in a Dorset cottage when a domestic fire flared into a chimney blaze, due to petrol having been thrown on it. I had always believed this took place on her honeymoon, but on reflection it does not tally with events – she probably never had a honeymoon, not with a sixth month old baby in tow! Perhaps Dorset was the site of my conception...

I was a product of post-war English morality and hypocrisy. Lovers' plans have always, and continue to be, thwarted. Nowadays, though, few people go to such lengths to disguise the simple facts of nature from their children. Through their denial of reality my parents deprived me of the opportunity to empathise with them. More importantly, my mother missed a chance to deepen our relationship at a time when I desperately needed it: in late 1969 I became pregnant with my first child by the man who would later become my first husband. Though my son was very much a desired baby, my marriage turned out to be no better than my parents' in that it offered my wider family a spurious respectability that was utterly dishonest: it, too, faltered and collapsed as their's did, leaving unhappy children in its wake.

The lesson I eventually learned was not to do what others expect, or even demand, of you but only what feels right for you and those you love. Do not deny your history. Be open and brave enough to defend your principles in the face of sneers and contempt. But I'll never be sure if I could have risen to the challenge, only that my mother missed giving me that chance.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Count your blessings while you can

This week I have been almost ashamed to be English as news of the recent looting and criminal damage has spread across the world's media. Then I remind myself that most of us are decent, hard-working and mindful of the feelings of others. Yet none of us should forget the lessons of history – that anarchy creates a vacuum, and that extremism often fills that void.

Intoxicated by their exploits, looters admit they are not poor and justify their actions by asking what fool would turn their nose up at the chance of “new stuff”. They say they loot because they simply can. These excuses remind me of the bankers, MPs and News Corp journalists as they tried to dig themselves out of their various holes – they knew how to profit, so they did. This, I think, is sufficient proof that criminality exists over the whole of society – indeed, being poor has never been a reason to be a thief. What an insult! Thieves generally have more than they need, or steal to feed expensive addictions.

Apologists cite isolation, disconnection and marginalisation for the looting – rubbish! They might be valid causes if perpetrators lived somewhere that quite literally had no jobs or shops or public transport – or free education, libraries, health care and refuse collection, or access to social security and other financial benefits – or even just clean water and crops that will grow! Why don't they think of this before they truant from school or take sick-leave for no good reason?

Some of us no longer seem to understand the meaning of simple words like shame, need, merit, empathy or sympathy. You don't have to be religious (but if it works for you, fine) to look into your own heart and make sure you have not prepared a seedbed for negativity. Above all, parents, don't nurture attitudes that allow your children to assume that everything they see can be theirs – unless you also emphasise that nothing worth having is ever achieved without effort or hard work. Respect has to be earned, not bullied out of people by sheer force of numbers. Rights are wonderful, but are worthless without responsibilities. Much of the language I've heard recently – from adults and children alike – has been the posturing of the school playground. When someone has raised a family, nursed a sick relative, fought a real war, given something up in order to help another, only then will they have earned respect, not because they ganged up and threatened someone vulnerable “behind the bike shed”.

I know my sentiments are not new or revolutionary. But I feel they need recording. And if more people in our very fortunate society spoke out then our country would not now be staring into a terrifying abyss.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Good Samaritans

I am intrigued and moved by the image currently being used in Samaritans' publicity.

It reminds me of something I was compelled to create during my troubled teens at boarding school in the depths of Norfolk.

Many years later I was equally compelled to reach out to The Samaritans myself. I was given a calm and sensible ear in the middle of a horrendous night. I was encouraged to recognise and appreciate my personal strengths, though I hesitated to put that advice into action for quite a while. It was a rough ride at times, but I think I got there in the end.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

60th anniversary of Wymondham College

Am I mistaken in my taste for revisiting my past? It's inevitable, I suppose, for anyone past middle age. That's why I'm also relishing Maggie Nelson's Google-trip round her youth – brilliant!
[Read it on .]
Of course, you must always be prepared for disappointment when the beloved places of your memory no longer match the “improved” realities...

I first attended an Old Wymondhamians (say 'wind-hay-me-anz'!) reunion in 2006 and experienced a mix of that let-down and excitement. After a gap of 40 years I had been surprised at how many people I could still recognise through the wrinkles and grey hair – both mine and theirs. But I'd also been fazed and a little embarrassed by not knowing those who claimed they remembered ME! The weirdest thing had been hugging my former English teacher and calling him by his first name.

On this second return there were even more impressive new buildings and old familiar faces. And I was better prepared as I went as part of a group who have been in tenuous contact during those intervening 5 years. There was one woman I recognised for whom this event was a 'first time' – and she had the look of a rabbit caught in headlights. She'd always been a nervous type from our days as Primary School playmates, and being away from home at boarding-school had added to her worries. I was a bit surprised by her opening remark that I was to blame for the way things turned out. She did say it in a throwaway manner, and perhaps meant it as a joke. Our fathers had both been strong-minded, and I guess neither of us had much choice in where we were being sent to be educated. The 60th anniversary reunion was clearly a watershed and an ordeal – hope she goes back as I think the ghosts will have been laid.

 My old school seems nothing like it used to be in the Sixties. The buildings and the ethos have changed – Victorian values flew away with the retirement of its first headmaster, Raymond V. Metcalfe (known as Muz to his not very respectful pupils). My English teacher had confessed this had been as much a relief to the members of staff at the time as it must have been to the students. Almost wished I could go back for a term or two! Hmm, perhaps I'd better not get too carried away...
The old school as I knew it back in 1959 - all black corrugated iron!

                                                                           Splendidly transformed by the time of its 60th birthday...

Elizabeth Fry Hall - my hall of residence

The fabulous new Sixth Form complex

If you're curious read more about it on

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Who really owns art?

Well, well – the Wildenstein's are in the news again (Independent, Friday 8 July 2011) for all the wrong reasons, and very aptly considering my previous post about the Edmund de Waal book.

I have now finished reading The Hare with Amber Eyes, having become totally engaged with its unassuming author and his respectful exploration of his family's history. And how much he seemed to have learned about himself during this retrospective journey, both physically and spiritually. He followed a trail right back to Odessa and the 19th century Russian pogroms. And always the Ephrussis seemed to be there at the start of significant developments – the expansion and cultural regeneration of the great cities of Paris, Vienna and Tokyo.

Whilst I had initially cringed at the conspicuous indulgence of the Ephrussi art collections, by the time the Nazis had done their worst in Austria and beyond, I was wanting to hug poor Edmund. He kept discovering little caches of letters or crumbling official documents that marked his family's dispersal across the world. I was so pleased that, by the close of the book, Edmund had found a new resting place for the 264 netsuke – at home with his wife, children and dog in London.

So where do the Wildensteins come in? Well, apparently Guy, the current head of the institute that has taken on the authentication of art works by Monet and Manet, has been discovered with his illustrious pants down! A police raid at the Paris institute – a raid intended to uncover art works “concealed” by the late Daniel Wildenstein's stepsons, discovered instead a stash of “missing” artefacts belonging to other family collections. Some of these wayward items appear to have been looted by the Nazis in 1941. Who knows, perhaps some of Charles Ephrussi's former treasures are amongst them?

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

A strangely captivating book

I am reading an extraordinary book – The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. It's not extraordinary in style, being accessible and straightforward. Neither is the genre difficult, for me at least, being classed as “biography/history”. And the subject is not controversial, simply the author's attempt to trace the movements of a collection of 264 netsuke that have been left to him by his late great uncle, a Jew of Russian extraction who was living in Japan. De Waal, a potter, finds himself writing an intimate history of his wealthy and artistic antecedents as they progressed out of Odessa and across Europe.

However, what is extraordinary is de Waal's unearthing of connections, financial and artistic, between the first European owner of the 264 netsuke and those at the core of the Impressionist movement in France, and then their journey towards the home of his 84 year old uncle and his male partner near late 20th century Tokyo. De Waal, raised on and guided by the aesthetic principals of Bernard Leach, gently and sympathetically probes the private thoughts and prejudices of the art world and those who commissioned works. He can do this with authority since he is bound up in this world himself as a creator and emotional interpreter.

I can't help but draw parallels with my recent experience of reading A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, in which the careers and motivations of a fictitious literary and artistic family are laid bare for our inspection. Both books came out in print around the same time, so I'm sure one did not consciously influence the other. But the similar emotions they have both evoked in me also make me value each one as highly as the other. Coincidentally, a new series has begun on BBC1 called Fake or Fortune?, and the first article to be scrutinised was a painting of the Seine at Argenteuil purporting to be by Claude Monet. I think the programme was intended as a logical “spin-off” from The Antiques Roadshow, but curiously it has revealed the tensions and passions arising from tracing the provenance and history of an art work. Why would anyone care who actually painted an atmospheric and beautiful scene if not interested in its future sale price? Why was the Wildenstein Institute so adamant in its denial that the scene was by Monet in the face of almost overwhelming evidence, if not fearing more for its reputation than any possible truth?

These are some of the questions that de Waal incidentally raises in his pursuit of the history of his family and the netsuke collection he has inherited. And along the way he turns over the rock of anti-Semitism in the spheres of art and finance that pervaded most of Europe before the World Wars, not just Germany. Apart from the pernicious jealousies de Waal also presents the reader with bizarre images, one of which was a sight that impressed Oscar Wilde of “a tortoise whose shell was encrusted with gemstones so that its slow passage across a room would enliven the pattern of a Persian carpet”... Naturally Damien Hirst's For the Love of God sprang instantly to mind, and forced me to consider what on earth art is for when even artists have to eat, yet the money always talks the loudest. And I cannot draw any satisfactory conclusions, except that corruption surely begins with the very first sale of any artefact. Can anyone enlighten me?

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Tonight the Village Hall - tomorrow the world?

For the first time in around six years I have been paid to speak about history. It has taken me roughly six months to prepare an illustrated talk based on my research into a local Early Modern manuscript. Since no-one seems to want to publish the fruits of that research – 65,000 words of transcription, evaluation and analysis – I decided the best way to recoup some of my expenses would be to offer myself up to the Local History circuit for £30 an hour. Of course, it's about more than the money, which honestly is fairly limited in its availability. No, I want people to accept that I'm a real historian, in a way that won't involve me walking round with a tattooed forehead. And I eventually enjoyed the experience of “coming out”! This was in spite of my initial doubts that I'd lost my touch – I had once been, after all, a Further Education history lecturer.

However, I am not a natural public speaker. Even a school play at the age of ten had turned me into a gibbering wreck, and caused me to relinquish the starring role to my understudy. Yet in grammar school days I was happy to stand up in front of any kind of audience as long as I was part of a well-rehearsed choir – and, of course, never the soloist. For me the thrill was in the close harmonising and the feeling of being an important thread in a rich fabric. When I was about fifteen I mistakenly entered a speaking contest at my school. This involved delivering a passage from Shakespeare – Viola's soliloquy from Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene II: 'I left no ring with her: what means this lady?' etc. - followed by an unrehearsed two minute monologue on a random topic given you on the day. My mouth dried, my voice died, I fled... Never again, I promised myself.

So why did I become a lecturer all those years later? I was 53 and had just come through an Access course and a B.A. I was offered a job in the place where I'd studied, and felt comfortable and confident with familiar surroundings and colleagues. Of course, it wasn't an entirely scare-free exercise, training to teach whilst actually teaching! I apologise now, and probably at the time as well, to my first batch of students for being such a useless tutor. But there were other subjects and other tutors, and I must have provided a little comic relief for my guinea pigs. But I got there without harming them too much, and gained my P.G.C.E. So I was utterly deflated when, as a reasonably competent part-time lecturer, I was one of the first to be made redundant 5 years later. I had learned to enjoy “going on stage” and holding forth in my favourite field.

I have had to get up and briefly address small groups a few times since then, but the thought of presenting an hour long exposition of my latest research, with Powerpoint, rattled my cage somewhat, even though I'd willingly accepted the invitation. I think the worst prospect was of some clever-clogs challenging my assertions. So I had to firmly remind myself that I'd been in similar situations before; that I'd thoroughly prepared both text and illustrations; that I'd absorbed some advice from my more outgoing younger sister; and that anyway the subject was mine and I'd done all the hard work! No-one else had examined my particular source I knew for sure, and my research had been meticulous.

And so it turned out to be an exhilarating evening for me, and I've already got three more bookings.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Does history tourism really work?

I'm not long back from a week spent in a Grade 1 listed country house, and am now analysing the experience.

Littlecote was established in medieval times, grew to prominence in the Tudor period, had strong Parliamentarian connections later, and eventually developed into a Victorian gentleman's family home with extensive gardens and parkland. In the late 20th century it fell into the hands of business man Peter de Savary. Financial difficulties saw it become part of a holiday chain that caters for child-free holidays. It's possible to sleep in one of the few “historic” bedrooms, but main accommodation is in a purpose-built and sympathetically designed apartment complex close by the old manor house.

South front and entrance

North front from gardens
Arriving privately by car is part of the experience – as you leave the nearby town of Hungerford the road leads you deeper into the countryside around the Berkshire/ Wiltshire borders. Rolling green farmland is topped off by groves of large trees, and woodland springs up as you meander along. The ground rises steeply, then falls again and around a bend you come across a pair of brick pillars in deep shade. The winding leaf-littered drive suddenly turns 90 degrees, descending steadily, and Littlecote is laid out before you. The house lies quite secluded in the broad sunlit natural basin of the valley of the River Kennet which flows through the grounds. I suspect that, should you arrive in a coach party, the experience of arriving is somewhat spoilt since the shock of the view is obscured by all the other heads: and then you are tipped out into a courtyard to be surrounded by Craft Shops and everyone else's luggage.

Our room overlooked the old carriage yard, and in the near distance was the jumbled roof-line of the old house. A magnificent peacock stalked the lawns below. Original features are blended relatively seamlessly with modern convenience. There are venerable pig sties, a walled garden, and clipped box hedges that rub shoulders with the modern dining and entertainment suites.
Peacock displaying in the carriage yard

The old house is preserved yet accessible, less like visiting, say, Ickworth or Longleat – little is roped off or “forbidden” territory. A team of re-enactors are employed to stroll about the grounds looking “authentically” Tudor, the era chosen by the new owners to be emphasised as part of the historical aura of your stay. They also conduct you on guided tours of the house – though you are free to wander and relax on your own if you choose – or they perform vignettes throughout the day relating to Shakespeare, or Henry VIII's first meeting with Jane Seymour. It's best to let yourself be “taken in” by these antics, and they did seem reliably informed as well as being wittily delivered. More serious local historians conduct you around the mounds of the medieval village, erased in the early 16th century to create the deer park, and they explain the Roman ruins complete with genuine mosaic floor.

Your stay at Littlecote can be as cerebrally stimulating as you wish. But there are also activities such as archery, rifle shooting, bowls, a fitness suite, dance and art classes, opportunities to indulge in a variety of handicrafts. Littlecote is now, after all, in the business of providing holidays and making profits. But wait – I'm beginning to sound like a copy-writer for their bulky brochure!

We absorbed what the “resort” had to offer at our own pace. One day we drove into Hungerford and then busy Marlborough on market day, bought postcards and drank tea. But mostly we stayed in the peaceful seclusion of Littlecote's parkland and explored on our own. The margin of a nearby ploughed field revealed pieces of medieval tiles. The excavated Roman bath house, villa and temple were well-enough away from the hotel's other activities to produce a feeling of reverie. The immediately surrounding lanes and pathways were quiet, and lead back and forth across the rapidly flowing and crystal clear River Kennet with all its wildlife. Across the valley one evening I heard the sound of a cuckoo calling – something I once used to hear in my part of Suffolk but that has been missing there for many years. And, of course, there was the persistent and haunting cry of the peacocks.

River Kennett

The day we left Littlecote we were due to take up a night's stay at The Holiday Inn, Aylesbury, an item that my husband bid for at a charity golf-day last year. As I had often wanted to visit, but had only ever passed through on my way to somewhere else, we decided to spend the day in Oxford – as history tourists, naturally. If Littlecote had shown us the sublime, then Oxford shattered all my illusions. Where had the townsfolk gone? Had they all been replaced by alien bodysnatchers with tourists of every nationality in creation? It was like one of Dante's circles of hell, with bodies seething and surging, and the traffic aiming to run you down at every corner. I know – we were tourists too. And Oxford is not a museum. How many times have I reminded myself of that aspect of history trips?

In my teens my father gave me a book entitled simply “Oxford & Cambridge”, a book of photographs with an introduction by Raymond Postgate. My edition was published in 1961, but from the largely monochrome plates of the various colleges, I guess it spoke more of the 1950s. Postgate's opinion was that “Oxford is more beautiful piece by piece. Cambridge is more beautiful as a whole.” He also said that “Oxford is overcrowded and out noised (if that is a word) by an external and alien plague.” He was referring to the motor-car and the Morris car factory at Cowley. I should have paid more attention! Instead of leafing for years through those calm images of deserted quadrangles and near-empty streets, I should have been re-reading that introduction...

So I was quite unprepared for that hellish town on a hot day. After trying in vain to dodge Mr Morris's progeny we decided to climb on board an open-topped bus for an hour. There was a cool breeze, and surely we would see so much better from up there. Well, the microphone of the tour guide appeared to have been switched off – not a word could we make out. The personal plug-in headphone technology died halfway round the city. And a couple in front of us seemed determined to photograph every single brick and roof-tile, standing up and down, lunging and swerving, completely blocking all the views.

Bahh! tourists!!


What I mostly learned about Oxford was to come back in the winter. But we did meet an Inklings fan about to celebrate her eleventy-first birthday with her niece (she was 70½ and her niece 40½ it out!!). We helped her carry her enormous cake, decorated with a dragon in a starry sky, to the Park & Ride. Now that was magical!

Oxford meeting place of the Inklings. Otherwise known as The Bird & Baby.....

Monday, 23 May 2011

A Family Photograph

Well, that previous post was just an ice-breaker. I've been "away" for a month or two because I've been busy. Some interesting stuff, some work and something sad too. I've been time-travelling, and one journey was painful, stirring old memories.

The son of an old friend committed suicide in his thirties last month. My friend and I were already connected by marriage, and also by death - her husband died on my birthday and is buried yards away from my eldest daughter - a generation ago. And now we are both bereaved mothers. Her son has also left behind a young family.

My friend and I hadn't met for years since her widowing, then my re-marriage, occurred. But we'd always kept in touch at Christmasses and through the news of other family members. Then, quite suddenly, last summer we met in Blofield churchyard, and it was lovely to hug and catch up a bit.

The unexpected news of her youngest son's death had me reaching for an album I created after my little girl died in 1978 - birth congratulations, happy snaps, then sympathy cards. I was looking for one particular photograph - my friend's eldest daughter's wedding to my ex-husband's brother. Hmm, life is so complicated now, isn't it? There were three little attendants to the bride - my eldest son and late daughter, and the bride's brother, my friend's late son. Three little angels, and only one remains now...

The Threshold: Dorothea Rutherford

I've found her - or rather, she's found me - someone else who's read my most precious book! It had to be another woman, though I risk sounding sexist. But I can't imagine a man being so attached to this tender painful memoir of childhood - prove me wrong? Anyhow, welcome to an elite group - Chris and me!

Monday, 21 March 2011

Conference in honour of Peter Northeast 1930-2009

On the 19th March, Suffolk Local History Council held the first in a series of biennial conferences in honour of the late Peter Northeast, an amateur local historian who evidently had a massive influence on the accumulation and cataloguing of Suffolk historical data. His most solid achievement would appear to have been the transcribing and translating of 15,000 (!!) medieval wills. But, from what I gathered from hearing the tributes of his colleagues last Saturday in Blackbourne Hall, Elmswell, his more enduring gift to the study of local history is the encouragement he gave to students at all levels, from Primary school to Ph.D. He led by his example as an ultra-conscientious researcher whose aim was to unselfishly share everything he found. A fund has been established in his name to create and house an archive of documents gathered throughout his long life.

I wish I had known the man and not just his publications, useful as they have been to me personally. The glamorous sharks of the history world may partly be where they are today because of their voracious appetites for fame. But their world views have been informed by thousands of “Bob Norwiches” relentlessly plugging away, noting and editing obscure local records that form the basis of any broader analysis of our past. For all the Starkeys and Schamas, I know who speak to me best of our collective histories – the more democratic Keith Wrightson, Eamon Duffy and Michael Woods, whose studies of Terling, Morebath and Kibworth must be founded on their debt to local historians such as Peter Northeast of Rattlesden, Suffolk.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Article submitted to "Spotlight on Stowmarket"

The value of books

With Suffolk’s public libraries under threats of cutbacks or even closure, the public have been forced to consider the value of books in everyday life. Access to the traditional printed word in general is under threat from electronic books and newspapers on such gadgets as iPads and Kindles. These new toys may have their uses, lightening your load as you jet off on holiday or as you squeeze into a crowded commuter train. But, as one author said, during BBC TV’s recent ‘books’ season, you can’t really take them in the bath. And you can’t swat a fly with an electronic newspaper! But that is another argument, really. The important thing is that even techno-books require someone to have written them in the first place.

Haughley Reading Group recently joined World Book Night’s campaign to stimulate a passion for reading by giving away 48 free copies of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas at the King’s Arms in the village on March 5th. You may wonder how giving away books is going to encourage people to read more, or value what they read. Well, the point of World Book Night was not just to hand out free novels, but to ask that, once read, the book be passed on to someone else – it’s called BookCrossing [ ] and basically involves giving a book a ‘tag’ number that can be registered and tracked around the globe.

At the Trafalgar Square launch of World Book Night on March 4th Margaret Attwood declared that a book is inert until someone reads it, and then it begins to speak. So whether you buy your books at a charity shop, a supermarket or a bookshop, whether you borrow from a friend or a library, make the effort to read widely and you’ll find that you are educating yourself. And you will be connecting to the rest of the human race.

Join or start a Reading Group: we did in Haughley. Our books come from Stowmarket Library so reading costs us nothing but our time. Reading and then talking about it with friends is like pollination of the little grey cells. Buzz from book to book and ensure the fertility of human understanding – that’s the real value of books.

---just in case the magazine never publishes this!

Friday, 11 March 2011

World Book Night: mission accomplished!

                                                        (c) East Anglian Daily Times

Given the blanket coverage on BBC2 during the evening of March 5th, no-one can say they haven't heard of World Book Night now, even if they're not exactly sure what it means. For our Reading Group it meant a kind of 'coming out' – a celebration of our own existence as well as a celebration of reading for a wider audience.

There was a variety of different ways to give: one woman in Diss was going to literally take to the streets and hand out books – risky, I thought! I learned from the WBN website that others were having themed events relating to the title they had chosen: for example 'Tea & Toast' for Nigel Slater's book. We simply gathered at the pub where we have met for the past 3 years. This in itself was poignant as it was to be the last Saturday that the landlords, Jackie and Mick, would be there. New tenants take over on Wednesday while Jackie and her husband set off for a 'new' life running a bar in Lanzarote. Anyhow, our choice of venue meant a busy afternoon's trade at the King's Arms as guests and Saturday lunchtime regulars mingled, drank and talked. An iPad was produced and some discussion followed about the merits of electronic books (see my earlier post about Literary Luddites).

I was not unpleasantly nervous as the hour approached to finally convert words into actions. On reflection I had spent countless hours in front of my laptop, starting with my initial application last December to give away 48 copies of Cloud Atlas. World Book Night's website has been a fascinating and flawed creation, but they have staggered towards perfection and almost achieved it. Since March 4th it has metamorphosed into a multi-faceted social networking site for the nation's readers and, fingers crossed, will soon be tracking the progress of individual volumes as they are read and then passed on. Who knows where that will end? We at Reading Group know at least that one book will be shortly on its way to a bar in the Canary Isles!

As the 'official' giver I had planned quite precisely how I wanted the event to proceed. I arrived at the pub at 1 pm, my husband carrying the books which were quite heavy as you can imagine – we had picked one of the lengthier titles on offer from WBN. Reading Group members began to gather, and very shortly we had decorated the bar with posters and stacked all the Cloud Atlases on the very table where we hold our monthly meetings. I had spent the previous day laboriously inserting tracking data inside 48 back covers as requested by WBN to facilitate BookCrossing. Now Geoffrey and Brigit sat down and affixed his specially created Reading Group bookplates in the front of each book! We know that WBN is going to follow the 'journey' of each free book, but we as a group are also anxious to know where David Mitchell's novel travels and how it is received.

No sooner had we begun to arrange books in piles than the Bury Free Press photographer, a friendly young woman called Mischa, arrived and asked us to back-track for the sake of her pictures. Soon she had recorded some 'mock' giveaways and group photos, then she was on her way to a similar event at Waterstone's bookshop in Bury St Edmunds. Once order had been restored and each Reading Group giver allocated their copies there was little to do but drink and chat until the appointed hour of 2 pm. Lo and behold, just as I was about to open proceedings with some well-chosen words, yet another press photographer turned up, this time Phil from the East Anglian Daily Times. This gave us hope of some genuine action shots. Sadly the resulting press coverage was a little disappointing, the Bury Free Press containing nothing this Friday, and the EADT squeezing us into a small place at the foot of a massive article about threatened library closures. Oh well...

But on the day we cared little. I welcomed everyone, explained a bit about World Book Night, going on to briefly summarise Cloud Atlas and say why we had chosen it to share. Sally gave us a quick 'sketch' of her experiences at the Trafalgar Square launch the previous evening, although she had already been regaling all who would listen with tales of poor old Alan Bennett's cold fingers, of naughty Graham Norton, and the variety of authors on stage reading from their own work, as well as showing off her exclusive Antony Gormley T-shirt! The first book was presented to our host, Jackie, with our appreciation for putting up with noisy group meetings – we do hope the new tenants are open to a little literary culture in their future plans for the King's Arms. The next recipient, a Stowupland High School 6th former, also received 10 copies for some of their English Literature students. After that it was the turn of group members to distribute volumes to their chosen recipients. Suddenly it was all over, and more quickly than I had anticipated. Naturally people lingered and had a laugh or two, and then I dragged myself home at about 4 pm.

So, what happens now? Well, Cloud Atlas is not an overnight read, so we don't expect to hear any responses for just a while. World Book Night intends to repeat the exercise next year and, although we are registered as inaugural givers, I don't expect we will win the chance to give away books a second time. It was suggested that the Reading Group raises its own funds, in the way that rural enterprises can do, to acquire books to give away at an event to coincide with whatever WBN dreams up for 2012. Having seen, via TV and internet, how other giveaways were organised it would be lovely if we could come up with something original and attention-catching that might merit better publicity than it seems we got this time around! One thing is sure, Reading Group will continue to meet and argue and drink and explore a variety of books, deepening our understanding of world literature and each other.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Past talents

This one is for my children, who probably never knew that their mother could draw once!
If they think hard they may even recognise the sitter...

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

I have a book token to spend...

Should I go to Bury and spend it in Waterstone's, getting a cup of coffee while I'm there? Or shall I go to my local bookshop and order my new book, then wait? And go to the coffee shop down the street... The book I want, the latest Oxford Companion to Eng. Lit., I can get cheaper online. Going to my 'shop around the corner' means I have to order it and wait, so probably no different from Amazon for instance. I just don't know - the ladies at the bookshop are so worthy, but do little to draw in new customers. Their shelves are sparsely populated, but then they have little capital outlay. I have just collected my 48 FREE copies of Cloud Atlas for World Book Night from them, which made me feel kind of guilty. Yet they would never have sold 48 copies of that book I'm betting. It was the guilt that finally drove me to order the book through them, but will their business still be there the next time I make this agonising decision?

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

I hate pantomimes!

Oh, no, you don't!
Oh yes, I do!!
Even as a child I struggled to see the humourous side of this traditional entertainment. I know it's only a manifestation of the human urge to prick bubbles, to indulge in the carnivalesque. I'm not entirely sure why a panto doesn't make me laugh since I have a well-developed sense of the absurd. Not laughing at Dames and Principal Boys must come from an ingraained dislike of letting go, of wanting to control events. I find the humour too crude, too clunky, the costumes too garish - oh yes, I expect the fault lies within me! I'm more a fan of sophisticated witticisms.

And yet I have recently sat through our annual village panto. No, I didn't laugh all that much, and only joined in the time-honoured responses in a very quiet voice. I suspect the cast and their families had a fabulous time - and very good luck to them, doing something together that they all clearly love. My reason for going was to do with village solidarity. So the Am Dram Society's version of Snow White and the 7 (quite large) Dwarves achieved its purpose, and raised some badly needed funds into the bargain.

In centuries past I expect I would have been one of those know-it-all problem women who would have been plonked backwards on a donkey and driven through the streets to the sound of jeering, or strapped into a cucking-stool and dunked unceremoniously in a nearby stream. As it is, all I had to suffer was joining in a little with some booing and hissing, and a ribald version of English Country Garden...

Roll on next year!

Sunday, 27 February 2011

World Book Night

It's now the final week before the big day. Two boxes of special editions of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas are on my kitchen floor waiting to go to their new homes. It looks as though the Bury Free Press will be coming along to record the giveaway, but BBC Look East are being remarkably coy. They won't let us know till perhaps the day before. I expect they are waiting to see if an earthquake will interrupt the popular uprising that is now enveloping mid Suffolk!

We have invited some local people other than the ones who will receive free books. The hope is that they may join our little reading group, or that they will at least badger recipients into handing over their copies once read. World Book Night are keen for the free books to circulate as widely as possible. We are inserting a bookplate with contact details, though of course World Book Night have announced online facilities for tracking, and for recording feedback. Let's hope I don't regret this and end up with an inbox clogged with timewasting mail!

The ladies at our local bookshop, from where I collected Cloud Atlas last week, are convinced they will all end up on EBay. I'm a romantic - I see them floating around the globe much as the book's cover has it: "Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies", and touching lives everywhere. Besides, they have World Book Night's imprint all over the place. Oh dear, wait - won't that make them some kind of "collectable"? I beg you, if you come across this or any of the other World Book Night titles please just read it and pass it on to someone you like!

Tuesday, 22 February 2011


I LOVE quizzes - and I LOVE winning. So the best thing for a clever-clogs show-off like me is to win a quiz. I know this can be boring for others, even other teams that I go up against. But if you are in a competition, hell you just want to WIN, don't you? I was brought up in the days of competitive school sports days, of choir competitions, of trying to be top of the class. What is so wrong about accumulating knowledge and using that store to have fun? Does Usain Bolt apologise when he's just broken another World record? No!

Anyhow, I was in a (nearly) winning quiz team last weekend in aid of our local carnival fund. The declared aim of the organiser was to have an event which would be fun for everyone, and she mentioned those annoying teams who always seem to win everything. What a challenge! It was a very good quiz, I have to admit - a sort of cross between bingo and Blockbusters (give me a P, Bob?). You needed a line of correct answers to score points, so you can see how they were trying to keep down the "show-offs", can't you? We won one particular round, after which we were entitled to choose the category for the next one. Knowing our strengths we went for "Films and Literature". Pride goes before a fall, they say. We managed to achieve almost a full house of answers without creating a complete line - what rotten luck!!! Worse was to come when we discovered that all our answers were correct!!!!!! Ah well, we did get some extra points for being within 11 years of the date of the oldest surviving working English post mill. Being a historian counts for something... And we scored highly on "name the city where you can see this landmark", since one of our number has been round the world a few times!

So we came second, winning the chocolates instead if the wine. I will comfort myself that I, my husband and two friends (known as the Four Squares) have won the annual village quiz 4 years in a row, and still hold the trophy. And a new pub quiz series we embarked on last month we won first time! If we can hold our nerve to the end of the year we could be sharing £300. Yes, I LIKE winning.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Village Recorder's annual report

Whew, at last! All done for another year! As a Suffolk Local History Council Recorder for a nearby village I have to put in a couple of sides of A4 each year, summarising events there that might otherwise be passed over. I always fret, and feel guilty that I haven't been putting in enough time 'on the ground'. But they now have a fabulously enthusiastic History Group, so that gives me useful contacts.

The idea about having such Recorders is to provide some reference points for future local historians. In my own village a group of us put together and published a book of reminiscences and photographs from the late 19th century onwards. It was amusing (and frustrating) how often certain events were mis-remembered, or had varying interpretations put on them. It is to be hoped that past Recorder's reports, kept on file at the Record Office, will eventually provide some solid evidence for future history writers. In this way, a community can be represented contemporaneously, not through the fog of frail human memory.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Name dropping

After I moved to Suffolk and began to take a more serious interest in history, I discovered a small out-of-print volume about our village written by a former vicar. Some years later it came to my attention that his son Diarmaid had grown up to be a historian too. In fact he was eventually exalted to be a Professor of the History of the Church at St Cross College, Oxford. In my time at Queen Mary he had chaired a seminar that I had attended, and later I followed his BBC4 series on the history of Christianity. I finally had the chance to meet him in person last year at a talk hosted by the Bury Past & Present Society on the topic of the historical forger, Robert Ware. The great man confessed he had once written a book in which he had relied on a so-called speech by Cranmer to the newly crowned Edward VI that had been concocted by the above scoundrel. Afterwards I couldn't resist doing the groupie thing, introduced myself and my friend, and got him to autograph one of his late father's local histories.

Friday, 11 February 2011

World Book Night developments

So things are gradually coming together! Pick-up point for our books will be the local bookshop. We might have preferred the library with all the bad news lately in that area. But our own branch looks safe. The Bookshop could also do with some interest as it struggles against the 'big boys'. That's another story, however. We are hoping to begin the actual give-away at our village pub where Reading Group has met for the past 3 years. Bury Free Press seem anxious to attend and take photos, so I am trying to gather as many people as I can for that. Look East, a local TV programme, might also be interested...

One of our group is designing a commemorative bookplate for each copy of Cloud Atlas, urging the recipient to pass it on to someone else once read. They are also being asked to contact us to say what they think of the book, which could result in a torrent of emails or nothing at all! All we need now is more information from World Book Night themselves. But, as this is the inaugural, I guess there are teething problems.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Adjusting one's aim

Six years ago when I began transcribing, and consequently engaging with, the 200-plus pages of a local sixteenth century manorial survey, I began to entertain the notion of producing a book about it. The source material compared favourably to the subjects of other published commentaries; I had a growing confidence in my academic skills; more importantly, I felt that, if I could attempt a competent analysis of the text, it would add to the existing body of documentary knowledge about Suffolk – and others might want to read it.

My self-belief drove me onwards as I proceeded to record the entries in the survey. In all I took several hundred digital images of its pages. I worked on these at home, zooming in on the unfamiliar scribal hands and scribbling furiously as I unpicked the language of Tudor England. There were some pages in formulaic Latin – not too many, thank goodness, as Latin is not one of my strengths – and I'm proud to say only a handful of lines escaped translation. Really, once you have 'got your eye in', the idiosyncratic letter constructions and spellings soon became as manageable as things one's grandparents might have written in a shaky, elderly hand.

Analysis of the content gradually developed through my physical contact with the book. A mental image of the sixteenth century community began to emerge, and thus questions formed themselves as to the nature of land use, or the functions of particular characters – the tanner, the miller, the local gentry. Finally, with the textual analysis complete, I pulled together five years of research, note-making and imaginitive reconstruction into a novel-sized whole. I was not done, however.

To keep my work focused I had frequently referred to The Field-book of Walsham le Willows (K.M. Dodd, SRS 1974), using it as a model of good practice. But I was hoping to produce something broader by adding illustrations and maps, as well as imitating Dodd's chart of tenants and holdings, and three indexes. Even with all this effort I still felt the temptation to go on tweaking, to overdevelop some aspects of my study. But eventually I had to be satisfied that I had created something worthwhile and stop 'fiddling'. 'By metes & boundes' was ready to walk unaided.

History writing is one thing – seeing it in a proper published form is quite another. I had approached Suffolk Records Society quite early on, shortly after completing a basic transcription of the manuscript survey. It was from them that I received my first kindly rebuff, on the grounds that my study was too similar to other SRS publications, my unvoiced response being that my source was what it was and I couldn't change that. Then I submitted an article to the Suffolk Local History Council Review outlining my work to date, and was gratified to at least see that in print. I also knew that it would be reaching something like the right audience. And so I worked on until the last stages of indexing, when I began to apply to other publishers, five in all. Thank you Boydell & Brewer; Manchester University Press; The History Press; Carnegie Publishing and the University of Hertfordshire Press. At least you didn't rubbish my efforts, but you did all reject me. 'By metes & boundes' was either too academic or not rigorous enough for their requirements. Ah well, time to adjust my aim!

What have I actually achieved? I have uncovered a long-hidden view of my community as English society was still wrestling with questions of the Reformation. There is absolutely nothing standing in the way of me disseminating my findings amongst local historians for myself. I have let it be known that I am available for lectures. So far three history groups have invited me to give illustrated talks. Speaker's fees won't cover my expenses of the past few years – time, travel, paper, postage, printer ink etc. - but it's a start.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Mad Men

No, not those idiots on 'Top Gear', but those impossibly suave egotists who persuaded the world to spend its money from sleek offices in Madison Avenue. I have hung on every word, every gorgeous image of the four series shown so far on BBC4. And what now? Only that series 5 has been gobbled up by Sky Atlantic, so for me it's all over! Never mind that this new channel has been trailed by the likes of Dustin Hoffman - what a low blow for one whose favourite film is 'The Graduate'! I don't subscribe to Sky or its ethics. Well, kids, you know what I shall want for future Christmases - DVD boxed sets. How could I survive without knowing if Don continues with his charade; if Betty and Henry make a go of it; if Sally grows into a liberated woman; if Peggy gets her own ad agency. I love their brashness, their faults, their perseverance, and the way I feel at the close of each perfect episode.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Developments re World Book Night

Well, we have been accepted to give away 48 copies of Cloud Atlas! The books will be shortly arriving at our local bookshop, and we must try and whip up some press interest - in our part of Suffolk at least. I'm hoping all members of our Reading Group will turn up to the handover. They are now submitting their lists of recipients. I have been in contact with our local High School where ten lucky students will be accepting free copies. What I hope for are two things - that we encourage a few more people to join our group, and that those who read David Mitchell's book will tell us what they think of it - really!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Literary Luddites

At an earlier meeting of our Reading Group a reckless soul suggested we collectively buy a Kindle. I was prepared to hear some dissent, and we do have mixed feelings about abandoning paper for a microchip. However, some of us conceded it could have its uses - those who habitually pack a stack of books for their holidays could lighten their load; a Kindle could facilitate reading for particular kinds of disability; techies always like a new toy. But one or two have become almost panicked at the thought of the devil's handiwork in electronic form. I have found someone willing to lend us one for an evening so we may see what all the fuss is about, and you would think I had opened a coffer of plague-infested bedlinen! By the end of February I should be able to say whether the pestilence has taken hold or not!

Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Threshold: Dorothea Rutherford

My most precious book is not my oldest; it is not my most beautiful; nor is it my most expensive; it cannot be found amongst my youthful school prizes, nor in my handful of autographed history volumes. No, it is a slightly scruffy, slightly 'foxed', pale blue cloth-on-board book that my mother bought for herself in 1959.

It is called The Threshold, translated from the German Vor Tag, written by a mysterious author called Dorothea Rutherford, and published by Rupert Hart-Davis in 1954. It is a memoir of childhood in Estonia at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The subject of the memoir is a small girl, Liesbeth, who gives us a view of her world that is so tender, innocent and full of wonder, yet is never mawkish. Through her eyes we see her coming to terms with the world of adults, with love, religion, family relationships and celebrations, even death. It is a society before two World Wars and Communist control.

I feel as if I am the only person who ever read this book, since no-one I speak to ever seems to have heard of it. Occasionally it appears for sale on some used-book website valued at around £15, so not exactly sought after. Googling permutations of author, title and publisher has unearthed a mention in a list of periodical contributions at Wilkes University, Philadelphia, and as a topic of discussion at Oceanside Library, Nassau County, New York, , in September 2007 when it was compared to Wunderkind by Carson McCullers, amongst others. Oh, how I would love to discuss this book with another smitten reader! Are you out there somewhere?

Thursday, 27 January 2011

A dictionary should be a friend

I have described myself as an 'occasional pedant' because sometimes I get annoyed with the way people mis-spell, or use the wrong word. I am also quite fond of good punctuation, which is really not so very hard to learn. Of course, practice makes perfect, and those who largely communicate online, or by text and phone, may see no good reasons to stick to grammatical rules. However, for someone who loves the look of words on paper, who thinks form and comprehension are not outdated, such a rationale is anathema. And even if you write but rarely, there's no harm in owning at least one good dictionary.

For me that one good one has to be the Concise Oxford English Dictionary with its centre section that 'explores the richness of the English language past and present'. And a writer should never be without a Thesaurus to add variety to their outpourings. Remember, too, how language changes, adapts, adds to itself over the years. This means that an out-of-date dictionary is almost as bad as no dictionary at all. In trying to keep abreast I have consequently accumulated several different kinds of wordbooks.

At school everyone seemed to have a tiny Collins Gem at hand for its portability. Then when I was 21, strange girl that I was, I treated myself to Collins National Dictionary. In later years along came a couple of Oxfords, concise and compact, an encyclopaedic Longman's with charts and diagrams, as well as crossword and anagram dictionaries. I found Lemprières Classical, as well as a collection of German, French, Italian and Latin dictionaries, arriving on my shelves as studies and holidays demanded. Also lurking there is a Descriptionary , which describes itself as 'the book for when you know what it is, but not what it's called'. When I won a cash prize during my first year at University it was invested in the weighty Bloomsbury Encarta dictionary. Later, as a history teacher, I was obliged to 'do time' organising Study Skills sessions. Naturally I always encouraged my students to 'look it up' rather than just ask a friend, since any dictionary worth its salt gives etymology or derivation, helping to explain that word's origins. During this time I found Oxford English language guides and the Guardian Stylebook to be useful, but more fun were Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary, or why can't anybody spell? (check those three capitalised nouns for yourselves), and Eats, Shoots and Leaves ((remove that comma for a completely different meaning...). Until I began this wordsmith's inventory I hadn't realised just how many lexicons I had! But, just as a mechanic would not hesitate to select the correct tool, so I too need the reassurance of the precise word when I write. And yes, I am a pedant...

Without a doubt the swankiest dictionary I own is the very expensive online version of the OED that was a joint family gift for my 60th birthday. It is an invaluable resource when I am working on 16th century manuscripts. More than that, though, is the way it connects me to generations of users of the English language from its earliest days, reminding me that spelling, sense and meaning must inevitably evolve to fit the lives that language expresses.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Name dropping

Being an alumna of Queen Mary allows me to keep in touch with events at the Mile End Campus. One such was to have been a guided tour of Bow, followed by lunch and a talk by women's historian and author, Jane Robinson. The day before my friend and I were to set off to London I was contacted to learn that the whole thing was off due to a burst water main at the Olympic site – Stratford is just up the road. This meant no running water for catering, and no loos, so no lunch. My friend and I had read Jane's book, Bluestockings, and knew she was researching another about the Women's Institute, of which I had been briefly a member: Sally still is. How could we get to meet Jane before she'd finished researching her new book? How else? - we contacted her via her website and, lo and behold, she accepted our invitation to come to Suffolk. We dug up as much as we could about our local WI history, and she charmed us for a couple of hours over coffee and chocolates until she had to depart for Cambridge to give a talk at Newnham College. You see, it never hurts to ask!