And Now For Something Completely Different

Why is it that when you retire from your day job, you become even busier? It is true that I no longer have the ghastly commute, which also means that I don’t have to leave the house before seven a.m. and often not return until after six p.m. My day no longer requires me to sit in management meetings or complete quality audits. Yay!

Looking back over the last year, at this point we were about to embark on a joint book launch, which was ridiculously hard work and the best fun, I have ever had. After that I took a break and then got on with the third book in the Currency Girls Series. Now I am about half-way through the first draft and praying I can get it finished by Christmas. But, and it is a big but – something else has come up – preparing a ghost book for the Littlehampton Ghost Tour in July, part of the CHINDI offering to the Littlehampton Arts Festival, LOCA.


So today saw me and a colleague meeting for a cup of tea and an orientation walk around Littlehampton. It’s the next town along the coast (8 miles away) and despite living here for 33 years, I know it not. We managed probably 50 yards of our tour before we popped into a shop (reportedly haunted) asked the owner for his help and an hour later, while the weak, wintery sun had changed to a cold, drizzling rain, emerged from our own personal ghost tour. We heard stories to scare, to make us giggle, stories to chill the blood and bring tears to our eyes, stories that made us angry at the injustice and cruelty of bygone ages. But the most significant find of all was that we have an even bigger job to do than we thought. This trip into the murky Littlehampton of yesteryear cannot be wrapped up in an afternoon or two. It’s going to take patience, listening and seeing time. We need to take a deep look at the town, listen to its stories and try to create something that makes people see it with our eyes. Next visit is on Monday. How many more will it take?

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I my inbox this morning was a request to fill out a user survey for Trove. Often I come across such requests and delete them. Why should I help Sainsbury’s or Tesco become more efficient at selling me stuff, when I’m wanting to cut down on spending? Trove is different, Trove is magnificent, Trove is a wonder.

What on earth is it I hear you ask? Well, if you are not interested in Australian history, I doubt you will know. Let me go back a few years, to 2010, before my first trip to Australia. I was still working as a university librarian and as a hobby was tracing family history. Of my husband’s Australian family little was known. All we really knew was that a large sheep station had been owned and all the money had disappeared. I had been searching for the family in New South Wales but found little to help in births, marriages and deaths. Eventually I found an uncle’s war record in the Australian National Archives and saw that his enlistment had been signed by his father in Adelaide. I had never searched for records in South Australia.  I began my search and somehow it took me to Trove Newspaper Articles Bingo! What I discovered was the history of the father laid out in thousands of newspaper articles – free of charge – and with the option to correct the scanned records, in a simple to use side bar. I think I spent the next year correcting and tagging,  becoming one of Trove’s top users.

Contrast this with the British Newspaper archives where you either have to take out a subscription or pay per view. What you get is access to an uncorrected scanned image of the broadsheet which is difficult both to read or locate what you are searching for.

Trove also brings together other resources such as photos and articles, again free to access as are the war records. Why is it that in the UK we limit access and make people pay for research?

After that first year of searching, I had built up an amazing picture of the family and constructed an itinerary for our first trip which took us to West Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria – all with family connections. We have still yet to visit the sheep station area on the Darling River but at least now I know where it is and found a review of the book which will help me write that chapter – where? On Trove of course.

If you use Trove, please do the survey.

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Happy New Year

Is this a year when I will release another book to the world? I’ll try but if it has to wait until 2019 then so be it.

I always start New Year with the will to clear out rubbish. This year it’s not me but my husband who is culling his wardrobes and cupboards, ready for some new furniture. Not totally new, just hand me downs from a neighbour, but it’s doing the trick. The piles of unused clothes ready to go to charity are growing. Why ever did we need to keep so many blow up pillows for aeroplanes, or a travel iron, or coins pre Euro days?

What am I doing while all this is going on? Reading the most gorgeous little book which came from the British Library for Christmas Eve. My best Christmas present, almost my only one as we decided not to go mad this year and bought for children mainly. Socks, the item of choice for adults.Product Details

Why is this book so gorgeous? It is The Dreadnought of the Darling by C E W Bean and very few copies exist in England. Mine came from the BL repository up in Boston Spa via Darlington Library. I wonder why someone in Darlington Library considered buying a book about the Darling River in Australia in the early 1900s. Thank you to that mysterious librarian and thank you to the person who saved it and sent it to the British Library.

So encapsulated within this treasure of a book – which I would love to own – is the wonder of the Darling River and its surroundings,  in the era of paddle-steamers serving the sheep stations between Bourke and Wllcannia in New South Wales. It’s all here, the people, the flora, fauna, geology, economics – everything I wish I could know. For example, his chapter on His Majesty’s Mail.

“We dug it out – a battered old infantry bugle, minus a proper mouthpiece. The driver took it and blew a long call across the still night. A little later he blew it again. ‘My missus’d give it to me if I didn’t give her that call,’ he said. A few minutes later the coach climbed out on to a ghostly white sandhill and ploughed slowly up it. As we lurched over the summit, there lay, spread out beneath us a weird expanse of unreal white. It was the sandy bed of a small lake – Lake Yoe – absolutely dry. On a slope of the hill was a dark square from which glowed a smaller square of warm yellow light. It was the driver’s cottage. Inside there was presently waiting for us, warm and steaming, one of the most grateful suppers to which I had ever sat down.

There far back on the border of the Darling country, was the first place that I saw a coach horn used in earnest. …We had been somewhat surprised at it when we first saw it as rather an unnecessary affectation in a country in which the sentiment is dead against affectations.”

That last sentence is totally Australia. But I love the way Bean brings everything to life, and you can picture each moment. Much of what he writes about, was a last gasp of that life,  as the railways and air flight took over. Cobbs coaches and the river paddle steamers disappeared – the latter now used only for a tourist trip of an hour or so. Gone were six week journeys up and down the Darling /Murray river system or 36 hours nonstop mail coach rides twixt river and railway terminus, other than a brief stop for meals and ‘comfort breaks’.

I am trying to imagine what it must have been like for Jane Granny when she travelled from a small coastal town in England in 1916 and found herself a newly married woman on a sheep station on the Darling River, cut off from everything that she knew, cut off from other women, in temperatures that she couldn’t have imagined. I wish I could talk to her about it.

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At Chateau Yering

Six years ago today, we visited the Yarra Valley for the first time. We were half-way through our first visit to Australia. The drive eastwards from Melbourne was very busy until we got to Lilydale. Turning north onto the Melba Highway felt like driving into a different world. A lush valley of pastureland and vineyards with eucalyptus clad mountains beyond, was unlike anything we had seen thus far.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It seemed more like France or Switzerland. At that point we knew little other than my husband’s great grandfather had owned a house called Chateau Yering for a few years and that it was now an expensive hotel. We were booked in for one night for dinner, bed and breakfast, thanks to a couple of years’ Christmas present holiday tokens, which helped offset the £500 cost. Yes £500 for one night. Ouch! To compensate we stayed in a very cheap motel (£30) for our first night in the Valley. I fell in love with this magical valley and the history of the family right there and have been on a journey of discovery ever since. How did Joseph come to own the Chateau, why was it sold, Book Chateau Yering, Yering on TripAdvisor: See 255 traveller reviews, 95 photos, and cheap rates for Chateau Yering, ranked #1 of 1 hotel in Yering and rated 4.5 of 5 at wealthy was he? Why did it all go wrong? It wasn’t until we returned to England that I began to write the story of the family. To do that I had to go back to the beginning and use what I had found out on our next port of call, Tasmania or Van Diemen’s Land. That is where the story began, with convicts. How does the grandson of convicts get to be so wealthy that they end up owning 5000 acres of this fabulous valley? Little did I realise that it would lead to a trilogy and only now am I writing the story of Joseph Timms, who is commemorated with a suite at this hotel. We stayed in that suite, dined in the cordon bleu restaurant, sat in the lounge for pre-dinner drinks, soaked in the atmosphere and I want to do it all over again with notepad in handChateau Yering Historic House in Victoria, Australia..  I can’t, so I making do with Dreams of Yarra, Sadie’s story. (The present title of my WIP.)

Chateau Yering  had a sheet of information on Joseph which was sketchy and inaccurate. My aim is to retell his story so that he regains his part in the history of Australia. No longer will he be forgotten, buried in an unmarked grave in the Yarra Glen cemetery, a few graves from the monument to his second wife, Isabella.Digital Camera

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The Blitz

What an excellent series is the BBC programme The Blitz; the Bombs that changed Britain. I often find that there are programmes which feed into my writing. Last year, when I was writing Ranter’s Wharf, the was a programme about poverty through the decades of the 19thC. So thank you BBC for your excellent history programmes.

The Blitz looks at specific bombs in specific cities and tells the story of their (sorry about the pun) impact. I have watched the ones about Hull and Clydebank and they are both heart-rending and offer an insight into their longer-term consequences. Both cities suffered immense losses of population and housing stock and both were bombed in the same week in March 1941.

So here I am, writing about a specific bomb that dropped on Bursar Street, Cleethorpes in the same week in March 1941 and then this programme appears on TV! Often the bombs that fell on Grimsby / Cleethorpes were left over from Hull and dropped on the way back. Hull was the bigger prize. Grimsby was mainly a fishing port. Although the trawlermen played their part in both world wars.

My Swedish grandfather skipper (whom I never met) captained a minesweeper off Aberdeen in WW1. My great-grandfather skipper was blown up by a mine in 1919 after serving through the war. Sailors from Grimsby took their small boats to Dunkirk and helped to rescue troops from the beaches.

There were raids on Grimsby but they were not catastrophic as the Clydesbank one was. Just 12% of its housing was left undamaged after two nights raid. Virtually the whole population had to self-evacuate but then the men returned to be at work on Monday. Unimaginable and heroic.

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On Canaan’s Side

I rarely read a book twice. I know I should but there are so many books, too many for one short lifetime. If my book club selects a book I have already read, I usually wing it. But this time, they chose an author I had recommended and, in my view, the book which has

Product Details

stayed with me longest, On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry. The other reason I have read it is that I vowed to have two days away from a screen because I have a problem with my right eye. Suddenly, I am faced with ridiculous thoughts – what if I can’t read anymore – or write? How would I cope with losing that? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

To return to the book. All of Barry’s books are connected in some way. Characters reappear, sometimes out of the blue, but On Canaan’s Side is really a sequel to Barry’s WW1 novel, A Long, Long, Way From Here. Lilly, the sister of soldier, Willie, becomes engaged to Tadg, a soldier buddy, who comes to tell the family how Willie’s died. In the complicated politics of Ireland after the war, Lilly and Tadg have to flee Ireland for America.

I don’t like to give away more of the story than that. Suffice to say, Lilly’s life is hard and full of loss but she never gives up. This story reveals what war does to women and to men.  But there are more wars than the physical ones; civil rights and the how powerful men treat powerless women, also come into play. This very understated book lays bare the huge questions and issues which affect the lives of ordinary people. It does it with language, so full of poetry and imagery that it makes the heart stop and pause. It does it with an intimacy of a  life, lived in the service of others, with little thought for herself. So much so that you feel that the writer speaks only to you. You leave it feeling as though you understand the world better, although that understanding makes you feel raw while at the same time, blessed.

This book goes into my top ten.

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Historical Accuracy

There’s always such a lot of discussion on accuracy in historical novels. Readers will always find fault with some aspect even for respected best-selling authors. I recently listened to a very amusing talk by a well-known crime writer on letters he had received, calling him to account for what the reader perceived as wrong or offering to help him get it right next time. And yet, cinema-goers rarely display the same critical level of awareness about film. I’m thinking of Braveheart and U-571 which do their best to rewrite history. Surely a film reaches more people than most books and how many people go away with false information from a film thinking it’s true? They tend to criticize continuity errors more than the accuracy of the subject matter, it seems to me.

I recently read a book, Villa Mimosa, which I got free. I read it as a lighthearted spoof about the war in 1944 in the Pas De Calais. I doubt that anyone would consider it bearing any relation to the truth and yes there may have been historical inaccuracies, even faults with the French language but I enjoyed reading it as entertainment. It was

Villa Mimosa by [Tickell, Jerrard]

well-written, had good characters and made me smile.  You can read my review on Amazon.

I beat myself up about getting historical facts wrong but it is bound to happen. We novelists do not purport to be non-fiction writers and research historians. We aim to tell a story set in a particular time, bringing a flavour of the times to the book without overpowering the reader with a long list of facts. The story and the characters are what drives the book. If it makes the reader think and draw comparisons, so much the better.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts.


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