Van-Demonians: The Repressed History of Colonial Victoria

I was delighted to receive a copy of Van-Demonians at the end of last year (and also to find an acknowledgement of my small contribution to the research). Here is my review.

Reading this book, I realised how fortunate our family branch were to have been successful emigrants from Van Diemen’s Land into Victoria. Was it because they were amongst the earliest to move? So many fell foul of the demon drink, or of families which imploded with violence, abuse or various recessions. And yet, it explains so much. Only one daughter of our family succeeded in rearing a large family of her own and of avoiding prison or destitution. Luckily it was the one we call Granny Jane. Did she succeed because she married a Scottish Presbyterian settler? There were certainly larrikins amongst her siblings who ended in prison, bankrupt and itinerant once the gold dried up.
This book is not only a very readable tale of a variety of characters Dickens would have been proud to write about. It also explains so much about society from the slums of Britain to the struggle to make a living in a new land where so much is stacked against you. The impossible situation so many women found themselves in where it was preferable to escape from an abusive family to the uncaring streets and a lifetime in and out of prison which offered some respite from destitution.
It also touches on the impact of this onslaught of new colonists on the aboriginal peoples of Victoria. Again, I have evidence of this in our family story.
Painstakingly researched from the records of Tasmanian Convicts. I am proud to have been involved in some very small way in this project which has resulted in a book which adds significantly to the historical record.
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January Blues

Marketing books is such a chore. I know I ought to be doing much more with my new book due out on February 5th. The paperback will be later, I think. I keep getting sidetracked. I do want to share this pretty brooch which I found on Etsy. I wanted a brooch to wear for a speaking engagement in September, which celebrates my new book, The Bluebird Brooch. I fell in love with this and it’s charming.

Today, I finished a piece I have been writing for my parish magazine. Considering the size of the village, the monthly magazine is full of interesting articles on the ecology of the village, the history and other things which bear no relationship to the village but reflect the diverse interests of its readers. I decided to research the female convicts which had been sent from Norfolk to Australia, none from the village itself. The most interesting one was a girl sent out on the second fleet. I began researching her life and it’s worthy of a novel or a film. The most astonishing life. And a side note is that I know one of her descendants – that was a shock. I have met her, dined with her in Tasmania, she was my mentor when I was researching women for the ships project and I included the story of one of her other ancestors in my book, The Digger’s Daughter. How weird is that?

After a disappointing December, sales are creeping up in January. People don’t have time to read when they are preparing for Christmas, especially one which was so special after two years of this virus. I have learnt that after a dry period, things will change. I have never paid to advertise my books and am just grateful that people decide to read them. So far I have not noticed any effect from my first book being on Amazon Prime Australia (not the film site, just the book).

The weather today is cold and wet. We have had trouble with our septic tank. I now wonder if the cleaners who came in before we moved, used lots of bleach and destroyed the enzymes which make it function. The previous owner recommended throwing in a dead chicken every now and again. He kept chickens. In the absence of that, we have ordered something that will hopefully substitute for a chook. We also need to divert the rainwater from it. There’s no point in paying to have rainwater taken away. This property is one big learning curve.

The new greenhouse is waiting to be erected but we are still waiting for someone to build the base. Our trench must be filling up with rain today. See potatoes have been ordered ready for chitting and the start of a new growing season is exciting. In a few days it will be a year since we left our previous life. We know what to expect, what plants we have. Let’s hope we can do more justice to our vegetable plot this year.

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Definitely Not Bah Humbug

It felt like Christmas was touch and go again this year. But we did it. The first Christmas in our new house with all our immediate family. We had all been isolating for the previous week, keeping our fingers crossed. The family did their lateral flow tests and we bought a Hepa Filter to try and keep everyone safe.

I can only describe Christmas Day as a joy, probably the best one we have had. I don’t know who had the bright idea but present opening became pass the parcel with music. If you ended up with your own present you had to open it with oven gloves. That will become a family tradition. The presents were apt. I received three new cook books and my husband had a pump for the cess pit. Not to go into too much detail but we have had a blockage.

I was shuffling things around in the oven, putting veg in, taking it out and then putting it back in as the turkey came out, trying to keep everything hot. It worked. The food was perfect. with an hour off between main course and pudding – offering a quick snooze for the cook.

Our granddaughter organised a murder mystery game so complicated that none of us understood it, involving a murderer, an assassin, a detective, a medic, a sidekick (pronounced psychic) and a survivor, but with modifications, it ended up with us all in stitches. To finish off the festivities, we played hide and seek and once again, thanks to my son’s sheer genius of a hiding place (suffice it to say, it involved a disembodied head and fairy lights) so we were crippled up with laughter by going home time.

Christmas Tree

We have learnt over the last twenty months, that the most important things to cherish are the little things, a good meal, time spent around the table enjoying each others company, home grown produce, a roaring log fire and the gift of friendship, whether in person or zoom or telephone. Family and friends come first and we need to keep each other safe. Who knows what 2022 will bring. It looks gloomy but hopefully it will improve. One thing I have learnt, is that we can cope as long as we have health, food, warmth and friendship.

Stay safe and wishing you all the best for 2022.

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When a Novel is More like an Essay

Beautiful World, Where Are You – I enjoyed Sally Rooney’s Ordinary People and was looking forward to this new book despite mixed reviews. I guess this book is like marmite. You love or you hate it.

This year, I have read several books which I would call radical – in that they break the rules of what we are told a book should be in terms of writing, punctuation, form etc.

If I wrote this book, without the name of Sally Rooney, my editor would have scored a red pen all through it. The story is simple – two couples fall in love. That’s it. The format is a series of letters between the two women, interspersed with a chapter from each woman about her love life. The letters are philosophical polemics about literature, religion, art, climate change, consumerism, the world and complicated love. Huge long paragraphs of – to me – self indulgent author’s voice. The ideas may chime with many readers but I have to say after the first couple, I skipped them.

Now I admire an author who is willing to take risks with form and structure and Sally Rooney is a good writer. Her characters are complicated, not always likeable and she doesn’t pander to the reader. However, this one was not for me.

As sun peeps through the misty morning, I approach Christmas with trepidation. All is ready but will it happen? We only need one of the family to take a positive lateral flow test and it will be over for another year. I confess, I have had enough. We have been keeping ourselves safe for almost two years. When will it end? I do hope everyone manages to have a happy Christmas. I will keep my fingers crossed.

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A Short Story

In my new Book, The Bluebird Brooch, there are several minor characters. Some never appear in person but are ghosts remembered by Peggy, Laura’s grandmother. One is Peggy’s father, a casualty from the first world war. Shell-shocked, he is mentally incapable of being a father and figures only as an unwelcome shadow in Peggy’s life, until he disappears at the beginning of the second world war. This story features a snapshot of time before he arrives home in late 1919.

Lost Souls – A Short Story

Elsie hesitated before lifting her hand to make a fist. Her knocking on the door echoed and bounced off the corridor’s tiled walls.

‘Come,’ a voice boomed through the heavy wood.

She turned the brass knob and stepped inside, pleased to exchange the strong antiseptic smell for furniture polish. ‘Doctor Parfoot?’ Her voice soft and tremulous.

‘Mrs Brown, do come in, dear lady. Thank you for travelling all this way. How was your journey?’

She shrugged. ‘You know how it is. So many changes.’

The doctor looked at his notes; Hartlepool, not far as the crow flies, but an awkward journey. ‘Yes, I can sympathise. Do take a seat.’

Elsie picked at a loose thread in her gloves. Time was short and the kindness in his pale grey eyes encouraged her to be forward. ‘Can I not just see him?’

Doctor Parfoot stood and perched on the corner of his desk. Lines of tiredness marred his forehead. ‘You know it’s a long shot, don’t you?’

Elsie nodded. ‘You told me that in your letter. I don’t understand why it’s taken a year. We’ve been writing and writing. No one seems to know anything about Paul. Mam’s in pieces. She can’t take much more of this.’

He sighed and rubbed his eyes. ‘So many lives ruined. They don’t call it the fog of war for nothing. He’s out in the garden. We prescribe fresh air and the gardens produce a calming effect. Shall we go?’ He strode to the door and opened it for her. She brushed through, the brim of her best hat barely reaching his shoulder. Elsie hesitated until he pointed left. ‘It’s this way.’

Flustered that her boots were muddying the freshly scrubbed lino, she hurried to keep up. ‘You didn’t tell me why it’s taken so long.’

The doctor paused and fell in step beside her. ‘We thought he was Canadian, you see. They broke through at Havrincourt. Our man was discovered near there, badly concussed, insensible, and taken to a Canadian Field Hospital. But they couldn’t match him to any of their missing personnel, so they handed him over to us.’

‘But his uniform, his tags?’

Colour flared briefly in his cheeks. ‘How do I put this, Mrs Brown? His unform and tags were gone. He was as nature intended.’

It was Elsie’s turn to colour. ‘Do you mean he was na…’ She could not bring herself to finish the word.

‘I do indeed.’

‘But why? Surely that’s unusual.’

‘The common reason would be a blast severe enough to shred his clothes, but there was no sign of that on his body. We think he removed his own clothes and walked towards the Canadian lines, probably at night, a highly dangerous thing to do.’

Elsie faltered, a shameful question that she barely put into words. ‘You don’t think that he was running away, a coward?’ She blinked away a tear.

Doctor Parfoot stopped mid-stride and put his hand on Elsie’s arm. ‘Please Mrs Brown, don’t even think that. The most likely reason is that he was shell-shocked and that is nothing to be ashamed of, absolutely not. What the lads in this hospital have been through – well, I can’t begin to describe – but none of them are cowards.’

They arrived at a glass door. The russet colours of autumn against a blue sky brought a moment of normality to ease the tension in her shoulders. As the doctor selected a key from the chain at his waist, Elsie hung back, reluctant before licking her lips, and steeling her spine. This mission was for her mother, most of all. Her brother was missing, not missing in action – just missing.

Two men in uniform, guided by nurses, shuffled their way across the grass. Others sat in chairs, their drab uniforms contrasting with the last orange dahlias in a well-kept border. Elsie scanned their faces for traces of her brother. Lost empty souls stared back, one shaking so badly he had been tied into his chair. A car a hundred yards away backfired causing one of the men to fall to the ground,  with hands pressed against his ears, he began rocking back and forth, sobbing. A nurse sank beside him, crooning comfort.

Elsie’s heart sank into her boots. If this man was her brother, how would she cope with him and her two children, the piano students providing her only income, apart from the miserly widow’s pension? How would her mother cope? For half a second, she thought about lying and not recognising her brother. But how can you deny your own flesh and blood? ‘Will any of these men get better?’

‘We’re learning more all the time. Electric shock seems to have good results but mainly it’s time, peace, gentle nursing and work.’ He pointed to a man chopping back the flower bed. Sensing her concern, he continued, ‘The men have a home here for as long as necessary, but we aim to return them to family.’

Elsie tried imagining her mother agreeing to keep Paul in the asylum. She would as soon dig her own grave.

They stopped and the doctor nodded towards a man sitting with a book in his lap. ‘He uses the book as a crutch, never reads a page but won’t let it go. You wrote that your brother was a teacher.’

Elsie’s heart began to thump. She turned towards the soldier, holding her breath then let it out with a sigh. The description matched, square faced, pale blue eyes, dark brown hair, even the mole on his left cheek, the likeness was uncanny. Relief mingled with guilt and sadness. She shook her head.

The doctor frowned. Disappointment evident in his face. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. I would know my own brother anywhere. There is a strong resemblance, but his skin tone is too dark and my brother has some pale freckles on his hands.’ Elsie dropped to her knees. ‘Eh lad, what have they done to you?’ Now that she did not have to care, her heart burst for him, lost and lonely, a fractured, bonny man. ‘I’m Elsie, what’s your name, pet?’

He shrank away from her and started to hum.

The doctor moved towards Elsie. ‘It’s no good, we still haven’t been able to get a word from him. He hums that dratted dirge whenever he’s stressed.’ A nearby church bell began to chime.

‘I’d best get off, ‘ She may as well catch the next train home. A second chime and the humming became louder, strident, tuneless, but the bones of the rhythm tapped into her mental keyboard. Turning back to the soldier and gambling she had heard right, Elsie began to sing. ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do.’

‘No, no,’ he leant forward to push her away. Elsie persisted, singing louder, ‘Daisy, Daisy…’

‘No, no, Doris, Doris.’ His humming became demented, his face stricken with pain.

‘Is Doris your sweetheart, your wife?’ Elsie began to sing softly, her tone low like a lullaby, replacing Daisy with Doris. The soldier sat back in his chair and closed his eyes, his features relaxed, the tiniest smile on his lips.

‘Well, I never. I’m surprised that happened.’

‘Why not?’ Emboldened, Elsie added. ‘Since my husband died on the Somme, I find solace in music. It has a language of its own; we just need to listen to it.’

‘Quite.’  Despite the recent chime, the doctor looked pointedly at his pocket watch. ‘At least we have a breakthrough and the best clue yet to his identity. Your journey has not been wasted. I’ll go back through the records to see if I can find a Doris mentioned as next of kin. Let me escort you back to reception.’

Dismissed, Elsie Brown sighed. The carelessness of those in authority, as if her time and money were of no consequence. No matter, the quest for her brother would carry on. How could she ever give up?

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And Another Storm

The wind would arrive at 2.00 they said. It’s now 2.30 and it’s howling above my head. The rain hasn’t arrived yet…

Two weeks ago, I sat by the sea drinking a cappuccino on a mild, sunny day. If you notice the red tape, that marks the edge of the sand cliff which fell into the sea the week before. Note the position of the benches on the right hand side. In the second photo, the benches are at the edge. Where I was sitting has all gone. We are praying that more doesn’t go in this storm but we have lost metres of sand cliff so far this winter. An area which was used as the only beach carpark. If more goes, there will be no visitors car park. The toilet block is at risk and the village could lose all tourists. It’s not just the village.

We also have hundreds of seals. Last storm, several baby seals were washed away which is devastating for their mothers and for the wardens who sometimes find baby seals washed back on shore, crying for their mothers then dying of starvation.

This is what climate change looks like. There are no plans to shore up the coastline here. The dunes are there to protect us, an area of special scientific interest, the home to larks and adders and a multitude of plants. The dunes should move back as the sea encroaches but there is a village in the way.

I moved here almost a year ago. Our house is above sea level and two miles inland but there is talk of letting the sea in at Horsey and the area between us and the sea becoming salt marsh to protect the Broads. It will be interesting to see how the landscape changes over the years to come.

Our field is now much tidier. We have found a 17 year-old wunderkind. Never let it be said that the young don’t know how to work. Our young man over the last three weeks, has performed a miracle. Just today, in five hours, he strimmed what was a jungle, removed some saplings that were in the wrong place. Removed five fruit trees and replanted them in a better position, mended a fence and put more rubbish on our bonfire. Plans for the new year include rotavating the vegetable plot and a path down the field. laying wood chips on the path, creating a wild life pond, and improving the wildflower meadow. None of this could happen without help and now we have help, I hope the field will soon look after itself. Way to go, Dylan!

Field in June

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Two Big Announcements

Yesterday, I uploaded The Bluebird Brooch to Amazon for pre-order. I can’t tell you how relieved I am to have positive feedback from beta readers on the story which has taken so long to write. The book is going to be published as an e-book and paperback on Feb 5th, in time for Valentine’s Day – well, it is a romance. My friend and colleague, Kate Sharp, has created a beautiful cover which captures the story perfectly. A dual time-line mystery, this is a different venture for me because it’s set in 2019 with ghosts from the past. You can pre-order the book for the minute sum of 99p for a limited time only. My next job is to work on the paperback.

The Bluebird Brooch

The other big news is that my first book, Search for the Light, is now free on Amazon Prime, Australia. I hope that will lead to more sales of the Currency Girls Trilogy in Australia. I am delighted that Amazon have selected the book to promote.

I will also be working on an article for a parish magazine on the first female convict to be sent to Australia from Norfolk. The title is Two Handkerchiefs and it is an amazing story, worthy of a book in itself. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I know one of her descendants, the lovely Colette McAlpine, my mentor when I was working on the ships project for the Female Convicts Research Centre. Colette has very kindly given me additional information and tells me she often does talks on her x times great grandmother. I hope to bring her to a Norfolk audience.

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A Nature Walk

A blue sky this morning invited me to walk. Three times, this week, I have sallied forth, but this time I had a purpose in mind. I need to write and have decided to rejoin a short story group but as an absent member, to instill me with discipline. I am not sure how this will work, however. We will see. I have been given two titles for stories and inspiration was sadly lacking, so I set off determined to banish my writer’s block.

Not sure how far I will go, I aimed for the beach. Across a farmland track, through the cutting between houses I turned left, stopping to admire an oak tree, golden against the blue sky. Soon it will discard its remaining leaves and stand skeleton like until May when bright green leaves will cover its branches again. I wondered how old it was, older than me for sure and it will long outlast me.

Onwards I trudged, my wellington boots avoiding the the muddy puddles until I reached the concrete farm road. I turned left again, following a Landrover which quickly pulled ahead, my mind wandered and a story began to populate my thoughts. My eyes spied a bird of prey hovering above a patch of uncut maize until it swooped and was lost from view.

I turned right down a track bordered by a hedge. A large animal emerged from the hedge and ran in front of me, too large for a hare, it had to be a muntjac. I wished it would turn and look at me but it scooted off, out of sight.

I began to hear the pop pop of guns. As I veered left towards the farmyard, the stench of gun smoke began to fill my nostrils. A line of beaters walked through the cabbage field calling and waving white flags and the story in my head, set just after WW1, took a grisly turn as a line of gunmen took aim at the poor pheasants being driven their way. The smell, more acrid now, the bullets flying, the dogs waiting, I cheered on the pheasants flying low over my head, praying the gunmen wouldn’t turn and take a pot shot at one. I expect they are well trained enough not to do that. But I didn’t fancy being on the menu tonight. Funnily enough, the menu, was one of the titles for the story story, so behold, I had two stories from one walk.

A few hundred yards further, farmland and woods gave way to the dunes which protect us from the north sea. I had a decision to make. Would I turn round once I reached to sea and face the guns again? I walked through deep sand, the dunes full of the sound of skylarks but I doubted that I would ever see one. Notices told me that the beach was closed, I knew the reason why and wanted to see for myself so I climbed the final dune and there they were – hundreds of seals, few babies as yet, and they still arrive. Four ladies in jackets which were marked Seal Counters stood a few yards away, clipboards in hand. My decision was easy. I would walk along the dunes to the next village, admiring the sight which brings tourists from near and far. A mile of walking, a mile of one of nature’s phenomenon.

As I walked, a sound I had never heard, accompanied me, the mournful song of seals, or silkies, or mermaids, my imagination took flight. I thought that if I tripped and fell, my cries for help would merge with the seal song and I would become one of them.

Luckily, I had my phone and arranged instead to meet my husband at the pub in the village. I was tiring now, the church steeple guiding me towards civilisation and a welcome drink sat under a silvery sky. A perfect November day for a nature walk, instead of doing my tax return. I will put that off to a rainy day.

Home at last, I discovered that they are muck-spreading in the field opposite. The stanch of manure, worse than that of gunpowder. The joy of living in a rural area hits home but it will be a long time before I forget that walk and I have a story.

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Two and a half years but I think I have cracked it. I need to wait for some beta reader reaction, however, I am looking to publish The Bluebird brooch in late January / early February. This will give me time for some marketing and for the finishing touches to the book cover etc. I hope to reveal the cover next month.

Last weekend, we had a small bonfire party which helped clear all the old wood from sheds and tree prunings. Unfortunately, it began began badly when our son-in-law hit a deer on the way here. The deer ran off but managed to severely dent the bonnet and doors of his new electric car. This is a peril of living in Norfolk but also a concern that wildlife don’t hear electric cars. Luckily no one was injured and hopefully, the deer has lived to see another day. Our granddaughter was heartbroken to think it may have been injured so our son in law went back to check and then scoured the surrounding fields the next day. No sign of it, thank goodness.

We are planing next year’s jobs. Top of the bill is to order a new larger greenhouse so we can grow more tomatoes and cucumbers and bring on cuttings and seedlings, second is planning what to sew, third is ploughing the field to level it and begin rewilding. Luckily, we have found a young man who can help with all the labouring. Finally, we have to take down one old greenhouse to mend the other one near the house and begin to plan for our big project – which is still a secret.

Unfortunately, I will miss the book event in Bognor Regis tomorrow, where are A Feast of Christmas Stories will be featured in a new booklet of books set in Bognor, It is still available in paperback for 7 pounds and as an e-book from Apple and Kobo.

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Autumn Skies

Norfolk is renowned for its big skies but anywhere can enjoy wonderful skyscapes. I spend hours watching them. They change more than the landscape, hour by hour, minute by minute sometimes. My camera cannot capture the sunsets nor can a word or a phrase describe it adequately. They say that Eskimos have almost 50 words for snow. Surely skies deserve more.

Autumn Sunset

This evening, just past sunset, I look out on a clearing sky. A band of dark grey cloud to the north, overhead whiffs of cumulus, like puffs of smoke, scatter the pale grey of dusk. To the west, the last rays of lemon sunshine paint the trees black. To the east the sky is flushed candyfloss pink, highlighting the poplars cloaked in copper and russet.

In the few minutes it took to write that description, the pink has spread to the north and orange striations have appeared to the west. Overhead the sky is now a deeper blue. Outside, the first owl hoots, a chain saw gives its last gasp and smoke from a wood burner scents the air. How do you capture all that in a sentence so that the readers remains interested?

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