Tuesday, 26 December 2017

The Joys of Rediscovery

Last week I was listening to an interview with 100-year-old Diana Athill, editor and novelist (Woman’s Hour, I think), and she talked about the potential joy of losing her memory, forgetting she had read a book and being able to discover it all over again. It reminded me of books I have been able to discover twice, not as a result of failing memory but thanks to the word “Abridged.”

When I was a child, I was invariably given a book for Christmas. There were Puffins, of course, but a great many were red-cloth hardbacks of classics, published by Dean & Son, or Regency. They must have been going for some time, because my mother passed on some of hers (with titles like Phyllis of the Fourth Form and featuring a lot of hockey). They all had pages like blotting paper (the lingering results of wartime economy production, maybe), and they usually had one or two pictures. Just enough to intrigue. I particularly remember the picture in the Regency edition of Jane Eyre, which struck me, even at a very young age, as bearing no resemblance whatsoever to Rochester and Jane.

It was that edition of Jane Eyre that first opened my eyes to that word “Abridged.” Much of the story made no sense at all, but I put it down to me being young and the writer being Victorian and nothing in the adult world really making sense. Why did Jane get on a stage coach, get off it a few hours later and almost immediately be found starving by St John Rivers? I knew that I could get quite peckish in a couple of hours, but I’d never swooned with hunger after one coach journey. Years later, I read the Penguin classic version of Jane Eyre and discovered all the vast chunks that had been left out of the Regency edition, including the days Jane spends wandering on the moors, resorting to pig swill in her desperation. It read as a completely different book. After that, I was able to go back over all the books I’d read in my childhood and discover the full unabridged versions. Like coming across a book for the first time.

I have never understood the reasoning behind the abridging decisions. It had nothing to do with shielding children from naughtiness or nastiness. I think it was just an exercise in randomly saving paper. As well as the Dean and Regency classics, I also inherited a few Everyman’s Library little volumes from my grandfather. I learned to read far more effectively from struggling with Alexander Dumas’ Twenty Years After (because it featured the absolutely fascinating execution of Charles I) than I ever did ploughing through the tedious Janet and John series. As I discovered later, they too were abridged. Ironically, the Everyman versions (intended for adults) coyly left out the sex scenes, and the children’s version kept the sex but left out the most humorous scenes.

I have yet to tackle the unabridged version of Moby Dick. Maybe that’s because I never could bring myself to tackle the unabridged version. Sorry about that, Herman.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Christmas at Castell Mawr 1938

As it's that time of year, and it's actually snowing, and they're already playing Christmas songs in supermarkets, and I am bored with adverts about carrots, here is an extract from A Time For Silence:
Christmas, 1938 at Castell Mawr.
© Thorne Moore 

Gwen has been busy because it’s second nature, she cannot be still. There are plates to carry, cups to wash and she must help, that is only right. But there are more than enough George daughters and George aunts and cousins to do all that is required, and Betty John has been firm with her. ‘Go and sit down, Gwen. Rest your feet. You deserve it.’

So she is doing what she has almost forgotten how to do: nothing at all. She sits, out of the way, soaking up the warmth and the exotic experience of being still, watching the scene with a sense of faintly wicked contentment. The children of Ted Absalom, one of the Georges' hands, are huddled nearby over the unspeakable luxury of an orange. Gwen leans down to help them with the peel, the small business helping to assuage the sinfulness of being idle.

The smell of orange. When did she last savour that? Christmases of long ago, happy faces that have vanished forever, her mother, her brother before the TB, her father still hale …All recaptured by the sweet sharp spicy warm smell of Christmas at Castell Mawr. The frosts have set in with a vengeance, but inside the old farmhouse, all is cheerful flickering warmth. A monstrous fire flames in the huge hearth, roaring up the massive open chimney. The oak beams are festooned with greenery and paper chains made by the children. Candles twinkle on the Christmas tree and the sideboard is groaning under the spread of hams and mince pies, cakes and cheeses and preserved fruit.

Rosie and Jack are red-faced with pleasure and overeating, romping among the other children with squeals of delight. Tom, smallest and slowest of the Absaloms, triumphantly bolts down the last of his orange and struggles over to join them.

Light and warmth and laughter. The resinous smell of greenery, flickering flames, a feast for the entire parish. The Georges are as careful with their money as their neighbours, but maybe that is why they can afford this annual prodigality.

It is all a far cry from the spartan Christmas chill of Cwmderwen, though Gwen has done what she can, saving up spare coppers from her housekeeping, and attempting rashly to roast a scrawny old hen, past laying, that should have had two days slow boiling in the stock pot to render it edible. They ate it regardless and the children had presents.

Not toys. John would never tolerate that sort of thing. Their gifts from the Chapel tree on Christmas Eve, dispensed by a Father Christmas looking strangely like William George, disappeared within hours of their return home. Jack’s tin trumpet was confiscated as he came through the door and Rosie’s bead necklace was gone by bed time. Toys have no place in the house. Rosie’s doll, Maggie May, survives only because she lives secretly in an old biscuit tin concealed just over the garden wall. But John permitted the mufflers, mittens and tam-o’-shanters that Gwen has knitted out of old wool and he accepted the new boots that Rosie must have for growing feet, with the old ones falling to pieces. He sniffed in disapproval at the sprigs of holly Gwen brought in from the woods to brighten the hearth. Christmas is a time for chapel and reverence, not for bawdy frolics and pagan merriment.
His disapproval, she notes, is reserved for the hallowed soil of Cwmderwen. No such censure for the celebrations here at Castell Mawr, but then who would dare criticise with Mrs. George presiding over the revelry from her rocking chair? One glance at her solemn bulk strapped into her best black satin will dispel any idea that there is anything ungodly about this gathering.

After all, they have spent most of the day at prayer, up at six, chapel at Beulah, then at Caersalem over at Felindre, then back to Beulah for the children to recite the pwnc and be catechised. And now the minister is come, to prove that all this feasting and laughter in a God-fearing house is perfectly righteous.

Mrs. George’s eldest daughter, Annie Lloyd and her sister-in-law Evelyn are organising the children into a choir. Hymns and carols around the Christmas tree, while Annie plays, thumping on the piano with joyously inaccurate goodwill. Rosie’s little voice rings out clear and pure above the others. Mrs. George looks across to Gwen, with a nod as if to say, ‘I told you so.’

The gesture of approval is dear to Gwen, but she does not need to be told that Rosie has musical talent. Of course she would have, with a singer like John for her father. It is his turn now. He is standing solemnly in the background, hands clasped behind his back, aloof even here, but they are having none of that, summoning him forward.
The Reverend Harries claps his hands. ‘Yes, come now, Owen. Let us have some sacred music worthy of the season.’

John demurs and then complies, standing dignified by the piano as Annie anxiously leafs through the music. Should Gwen offer to help? There is no need. John’s repertoire, which she knows by heart, consists mostly of hymns that Annie mastered years ago, and a few pieces from the great religious oratorios.

Calon Lân to start with, because Annie can play it with her eyes shut. John begins and his audience joins in, a quiet accompaniment at first and then a rising crescendo of hwyl. Then The Messiah. Every valley shall be exalted. The roof timbers are ringing, threatening to exalt themselves into the night sky. John is in truly wonderful voice, his breast swelling, the liberated spirit within him finding its wings and soaring as only music allows. He finishes amidst a roar of applause. The Reverend Harries beams round proudly as if this prodigy of Beulah Chapel were his very own creation.

A pause. They are debating. Some Bach? Annie is not sure she can do it justice.

The Reverend looks up suddenly, in Gwen’s direction. ‘But of course, we mustn’t forget Mrs. Owen. Quite a reputation in her youth, so I’ve been told. Is that not so, Mrs. Owen?’

Gwen smiles and shakes her head, eager to divert their attention. The smile is a mask concealing a sudden flutter of pain. In her youth. When was that? She is scarcely into her thirties and her youth is already something barely remembered, a dream of long ago from which she has woken with a vengeance. ‘Oh no, don't think of me, I haven’t played for years.’ When was the last time she had been permitted time to play, on her fleeting visits to Penbryn? She cannot remember.

They are not listening to her objections. Evelyn and Annie and her sister Betty have gathered round, cooing and twittering and insisting that Gwen must perform too. She can accompany John. What could be more appropriate than that?

‘I really don’t think—’
‘Play us one of your father’s hymns,’ suggests Mrs. George, and no one dares to argue, least of all Gwen.

Tentatively she seats herself at the piano stool. Perhaps she can no longer play. Her fingers ache from scrubbing and boiling and mending and milking and the onset of rheumatism. They cannot possibly move smoothly enough.

But they do. They awake, at her command, as if they had been waiting. She plays, one of her father’s best compositions, and it all comes back as if she were practising still at her old instrument in her room over the grocer’s shop.

She is the focus of all attention. It is not right; she feels a guilty twinge. They should not be minding her. That had not been her intention when she had agreed to play. She had expected John to sing the words, but he has not understood her intent and is silent, so she plays while the others gather round in earnest admiration, humming along, the Reverend and Sidney Lloyd finally adding the words.

It is such a pleasure, to be playing again. She had forgotten how overwhelmingly pleasurable it was. Annie has her hands clasped in ridiculous admiration and William applauds loudly, though Gwen realises, with an inner smile, that he is not just complimenting her, but currying favour with Evelyn Lloyd, whose enthusiasm is gushing.

‘Why, Gwen! I didn’t know you could play. Play some more. Here, let me see.’ While Evelyn is rustling through the papers, others crowd round in ungrudging admiration, but Gwen barely notices them. It is Rosie she sees, Rosie sitting still with the other children but suddenly apart in spirit, thumb dropped from her mouth, eyes wide with astonishment that her mother can do this thing. It is Rosie’s poised expectant eagerness that persuades Gwen to go on, quickly, into a silly little song that instantly has the children jigging and dancing. Rosie laughs with delight.

‘You are going to play the Bach accompaniment for John,’ the minister reminds her.
Of course. The Bach. She looks at John.

He is standing, stony faced, waiting, and her innards freeze. Has she done something wrong? She senses his petrifying displeasure, but his audience is impatient, the minister is nodding and she must play and he must sing.

Gwen turns back to the keys with a shiver. Beautiful sacred music that must be treated with respect, and she plays with greater care, giving it its due, waiting for John to share with her.
But something is wrong. Is it her playing? He sings, but they cannot keep time together. He has to keep correcting, missing, slipping, and it all goes awry. He stops in mid-phrase, hand to his throat, coughing, and immediately they are all consternation. He should not have exerted himself, not after so much singing in the chapel. He must rest his voice.

Quietly, Gwen rises from the stool and accompanies Betty into the kitchen to fetch tea and a spoonful of honey for the cracking voice. It is enough. Nothing they say will persuade her to return to the piano. Besides, their idle hour is done, they must be going. No help on the farm tiding things over in their absence, and they have chores to do, the cows to see to. Everyone understands when John abruptly announces that they must leave.

Gwen gathers up the children, bundling them into coats and scarves and gloves against the biting winter chill. Jack is a sturdy little boy, thank God. He’ll manage most of the walk back to Cwmderwen on his own now, although she’ll have to carry him if he is too slow. She has just time to smile at the company, her arm patted in benediction by Mrs. George as she follows John out into the frost. The little Absalom faces, glowing with food and excitement, peer round the matriarch's bulk at her, a picture of warmth in contrast to the needle-sharp bite of the night air. In contrast to the beds the Owens are returning to. No roaring fire awaiting them at Cwmderwen. Gwen will have to heat the stone bottles as soon as they get in, or the children will be all night shivering.

Too dark to cross the fields on a December night, the mired footpath too treacherous with ice. They must climb to the road. Their breath clouds in the cold air, their boots ring out on the cobbles of Castell Mawr yard. She hurries the children along because John is striding ahead, not waiting, and he will not have them dawdle. They must keep up. The track up to the road leaves them panting, and Gwen has to carry Jack in the end. Rosie trots along, gripping her hand.

At the gate, John stops, turns, waiting for them impatiently. She can see the anger still simmering in him. Why? All she did was play the piano.

‘Are you content, then, woman?’
‘Content, John?’
‘Putting yourself forward like that.’
‘I did not mean to put myself forward, John.’
‘Flaunting yourself!’ He turned away. ‘Showing me up in front of my neighbours.’
‘I’m sorry that I played badly.’

He does not hear her apology. He has already gone on.
Resigned, she follows. What has she done that was wrong?

Out in the open on the road, out from under the trees and the shelter of the valley, the sky arches over them, ink black, and strewn with a billion diamonds. A lid lifts off her world and her understanding. The stars twinkle with piercing clarity in the frost, so bright they cast dim shadows. A different light. A new comprehension. Revelation.

John is jealous.

The ice-cold knowledge washes over her. John Owen, her John, walking tall, upright and proud along the road, is a small man. Small and mean.

Immediately she pushes the thought to one side. It is not permissible, she must block it out, too humiliating for words. She cannot allow for the futility of it all, if that terrible thought is true. But for a moment it has touched, settling, searing onto her brain, a black treacherous scar that will not fade. He is not worthy of her.

Put it out of your head, Gwen, before it destroys you.

A Time For Silence. published by Honno 2012

and Moments of Consequence for a prequel story, 'A Time To Cast Away.'

Sunday, 12 November 2017

A short story - too short.

My blog is supposed to be about writing, and this one isn't, so I'll get round by saying it's a short story that I have written. Unlike any of my other short stories though, it's true.

Meet William Thomas Marshall, my great uncle.

Actually, I’m not absolutely positive this is William. It might be one of his brothers, but it’s generally assumed it’s him. I can describe him. He was 5’4”, weighed 10 stone, with a fresh complexion, brown eyes and black hair, a scar on his right forehead and a butterfly tattoo on his left forearm.

He grew up in a family of ostlers and cab drivers in Walworth, South London. In 1911, he was 22 years old, living at home, working as a messenger, although he also served for four years in the Territorials.

A year later, the firm he worked for went out of business and he decided to emigrate to Australia, where the boy done good. He became a farmer. I’m not sure where, but I’m guessing it was in the vicinity of Geelong, about 50 miles south west of Melbourne.

Being a farmer didn’t stop him enlisting with the Australian imperial forces and returning to England, on the Orsova, which arrived in Plymouth on 14th September 2016. He joined the Anzac forces at Hurdcott camp, where Australian troops certainly left their mark on the landscape, and spent a merry few months hopscotching between battalions and camps on Salisbury plain.

 Maybe because of his experience in the Territorials, he was rapidly promoted to corporal and then Sergeant, and, ominously, attended a course at the grenade school in Lyndhurst, where he qualified as an instructor, He wasn’t just a goody two-shoes though. In April, 1917, he was demoted to Corporal again, for allowing a prisoner, Private Phillips, to escape. I think this is my favourite detail of his life.

Finally, on the 25th August 1917, he was sent to Southampton to reinforce the 59th Battalion, preparing to cross over to France. On 6th September, he arrived at Le Havre and marched on to join the 59th Battalion. You can guess what’s coming. Just over a month later, on the 19th October, he was killed in action.

Considering how very complete his army records are, in every other respect, you’d think there’d be more about the when and where and how, but no, it’s simply ‘killed in action.’
He is commemorated on the Menin Gate, where names of those without graves are recorded. I thought this puzzling, because, below that last ‘killed in action’ mention on his army record is a line in scribbled pencil “buried 25th November, 28 NE J5 b 30 65.

I asked the Commonwealth Graves commission if this made sense and was told that 28 NE J5 b 30 65 is a trench reference, It shows that William was buried near the village of Molenaarelst in Belgium – i.e. bang in the middle of the Passchendaele mud/blood bath. Maybe he was shot, or blown up, or maybe he was one of those who simply drowned in mud. It took more than a month to bury him, so I doubt if there was much still identifiable apart from his disc. At the end of the war, 200 bodies were recovered from Molenaaretst and re-interred in military cemeteries, but many others, including William Marshall’s, were destroyed in later shelling. Hence the Menin Gate memorial.

Which would be the end of his story, except that the Australian records go on. There are two sad letters from a Miss Gay Fanning in Geelong, Australia, the first pleading for information about William, to which she receive a bald notification of his death, and a second asking for the address of his parents so that she could contact them. Some army blimp sent her an officious reply stating that it was not current practice to pass on details of next of kin, I don’t know if she ever managed to contact them or if they ever knew she existed.

I hope, too, that she didn’t have any urgent personal need to contact his family, because there’s another army record which might take some explaining for her. In 1916, while stationed on Salisbury Plain, William made an army will, simply leaving all his worldly goods to be divided equally between his mother, Mrs E Marshall, and a Miss Mabel Westlake of 121 Oswell Road, Ipswich. Who? How did an Australian soldier, in Wiltshire, come to be forming a brief but obviously serious attachment to a young lady from Ipswich? Maybe she was a volunteer nurse, serving in one of the army hospitals. I will never know. There are records of several Mabel Westlakes marrying in the 1920s, so I hope she moved on.

The last record in William Marshall’s file is a letter from his mother, asking the whereabouts of his watch and chain that should have been forwarded to her. It never arrived, which is a sad waste, as is this story. So this is for you, Great Uncle Bill, and for Gay and Mabel and everyone else who missed you.

Monday, 30 October 2017

What lurks behind the wainscot?

In the house where I was born, on what was then the rural fringe of Luton, we had gas brackets for lamps in the bedrooms. They were no longer connected to any gas supply (which didn’t stop me bunging mine up with plasticine, just in case), but I liked them being there, because they were a sign of the extreme old age of my house. I eventually discovered that it wasn’t particularly old after all, (built 1928) and it only had gas lamps because electricity didn’t reach the outer limits of the town until after World War II, but I still liked the illusion of a Victorian past.

I lived in a town where, despite a history dating back at least to 1086, everything seemed to be depressingly new and anything with a bit of antiquity was being knocked down to make way for the modern age.

I have always liked a sense of age (I was evidently born with historian genes). It isn’t that I have any fantasies about a golden past when everything was wonderful. Far from it. There have been moments of excitement and exploration in history as well as moments of misery and tedium, but I am happy to look back on it all from the present day. As a woman, I shiver at the notion of living in any time or place other than this one. But every hint of age in things and in places, every worn step, every bakelite switch under the stairs, every iron nail dug up in the garden,  is a tangible connection with all the famous, infamous and utterly forgotten, who lived in the past and who, brick by brick and atom by atom, brought us to where we are now. Everywhere around us are footprints that let us touch what went before.

It’s houses that I find especially fascinating. A brand-new house would certainly have its appeal to me, especially if I could design it myself, but any house, whether twenty years old or two hundred, that has been lived in before, by someone else, must surely carry in its fabric an imprint of their existence. A whisper of all the emotions, hopes, arguments, griefs, shrieks of joy and gasps of passion that happened there. Houses don’t just contain ghosts. They are ghosts.

They have certainly been known to enshrine mysteries. When I first moved to Pembrokeshire, I lived in an old house that had once been a shoe-maker’s shop. When rummaging among the cobwebs of the loft, I was thrilled to discover a tiny child’s shoe, evidently at least a hundred years old. An old man in the village told me it would have been placed there as a charm and I should leave it in place if I didn’t want bad luck. I did leave it there, thinking it was a touching symbol of a previous occupant’s profession. Years later, I learned that children’s shoes, hidden in a roof, were mementoes of infant deaths.

I don’t know what child died, a century ago, in that house, but it is pretty obvious that any old house, dating back to pre NHS days, would have witnessed births and deaths, and everything in between. Someone will probably have died in the room I am sitting in to write this. 

Not all those deaths will have been quiet ones. Do their ghosts linger? Sometimes, their bodies do. Murderers seem to like burying bodies in cellars – whether Fred West or Dr Crippen.

Ightham Mote
 Ightham Mote in Kent is a house that dates back to the fourteenth century, and must have witnessed scores of deaths, timely and untimely. In the 1870s, the then owners were annoyed by a chill draught that emanated from a corner of one room, so they called in workmen, who discovered a hidden space behind panelling, in which the skeleton of a woman was found, sitting in a chair.

Theories have abounded. One is that she was Dame Dorothy Selby, a catholic who inadvertently gave away the gunpowder plot and was walled up by her family as punishment – delightfully gruesome but untrue, since Dame Dorothy died peacefully in her bed and her grave is marked at the church.

Another theory is that the skeleton belonged to a servant girl, seduced by the local priest, and walled up to prevent scandal. The truth is, no one knows, but it’s all very chilling and creepy. The other truth, unfortunately, is that there is no actual evidence of a skeleton being found, so the whole thing might just be a juicy myth. But if you ever visit Ightham Mote, you readily believe it should be true. 

Mummified cats are apparently quite common, entombed in old masonry, along with occasional mummified babies. And bottles of urine, hair and nail-clippings, presumably to ward off witches.

There is a legend, which has been the subject of ballads and poems for at least 200 years, sometimes known as the mistletoe bride, of a young girl who vanishes on her wedding day, usually during a game of hide-and-seek. Her skeleton is only discovered, long after, when someone opens an ancient chest, up in the attic, that had fatally slammed shut on her. Not the faintest evidence anywhere for this story, but it is claimed, as gospel, by Minster Lovell Hall, Marwell Hall, Bramshill House, Tiverton Castle and Exton Hall, amongst many others. It’s one of those stories that ought to be true, even if it isn’t.
If you accept that houses can hold physical evidence of past tragedies, how easy is it to believe that they can also hold less tangible relics, whether memories, vibrations, chill draughts or actual ghosts? After all, how could the most intense human feelings and experiences, the most burning desire for justice or revenge, simply vanish? They must still be there in the old bricks, the stained stone, the creaking timbers.

That was my premise when writing Shadows, which is a domestic noir mystery like my other novels, but with the paranormal twist of an old house that harbours all manner of ancient secrets. Secrets just waiting to be uncovered. It didn’t seem a massive leap, to me, to move from writing about the detection of the truth about murders to the detection of the emotions that accompanied them. Halloween is the day when the world of the dead and the world of the living collide. What would it be like, I wondered, if, for a particularly sensitive soul, it was Halloween every day?

Fellow author Alex Martin has also begun to explore similar themes in her new book, The Rose Trail. Over to Alex.

Thank you, Thorne, for allowing me to join in with this delicious exploration into the world of the paranormal. It's a fascinating one. I've loved all of your books, particularly 'Time for Silence' and 'Shadows', which demonstrate your understanding of this genre so cleverly.

(oh shucks)

I can't prove it, but sometimes I can see into the past. Every time it happens, and that is all too rarely, I have a physical sensation of cold - enough to make me shiver. And I see things. Images so crystal clear they create an indelible memory in my brain and can be remembered with clarity years later. Sharper than real life, as good as a film, these pictures are fleeting but all-encompassing and very vivid. They always take me back in time, sometimes hundreds of years.

The first time it happened I was four years old. We were on a family holiday in Wales, I'm not sure exactly where. Apparently I said, as we arrived on a deserted hill top, "I know this place, I've been here before with the Black Prince." Made Prince of Wales at the age of 12 in 1343, the Black Prince, eldest son of King Edward III, spent most of his life in France warmongering but took many Welshmen with him on an early campaign so presumably visited his principality at least once. My announcement that I knew him has gone down in personal family legend amidst much derision. Although that is an old memory, I can easily recall the moment and my confident certainty of recognising the place, although I had never visited it before - in this lifetime.

It happened again in Wales, when I was older with children of my own. We were on holiday in Snowdonia, which I love, and were visiting Caernarfon for the first time. I looked across the Menai Straits and that frisson of cold crept up my spine. I heard and saw the Druids desperately crying for help as the Romans approached before they slaughtered them. I felt their acute distress and their fierce anger. I knew nothing of their history but subsequently learned of the Roman's conquest of Mona, as Anglesey was called then, in around 57AD. My flesh crawled as I learned that the line of women and men keening and shrieking that I'd seen in my mind's eye had really stood on those shores as the Roman soldiers swam and waded across to wreak havoc in their spiritual haven. Reading about that diabolical massacre explained the horror of their distress as conveyed to me that day as I stood, ice-cream in hand, in the warm sunshine of an ordinary 20th century day.

In my work as an aromatherapist and Reiki practitioner I have received pictures second-hand on behalf of my clients. Unbidden, these images were also tremendously clear and crisp. Often I would not understand their meaning but would recount them in detail to my client. Without fail, they would have profound importance for them and help them make decisions or resolve personal issues.

Over the last few years I have realised a personal dream of publishing several novels. Having written historical fiction up till now I wanted to explore this interweaving between past and present time in my most recent book. I used a spooky experience in Wiltshire, where I lived for many years, to provide the inspiration for The Rose Trail. Most of the book is fictional (although the historical sections are based on a real battle that took place on Roundway Hill in Devizes) but the seed was sown when I was working as a secretary in a legal firm and had to deliver a will to a house on the Wiltshire downs. With the errand achieved, I looked around the tiny village and felt drawn to one particular dwelling. It was a beautiful old house, larger than a cottage, but nothing grand. It stood, square and sturdy, basking in the sunshine and smiling across to the other houses skirting the village green.

As I approached its whitewashed walls, I noticed it was empty. I peered in through the warped glass windows, tucked deep under the thatched roof. Inside, a large room with a massive fireplace at one end had an uneven floor made of wide limestone flagstones, glossy from the hundreds of feet that had worn them smooth over time. I could see straight through into the walled garden through the window opposite.

Although the house was much humbler than the Meadowsweet Manor featured in The Rose Trail, it spoke to me of the era in which half the book is set, the English Civil War in the seventeenth century. I sensed a family at war with each other; conflicted and arguing, heard the clash of swords and the clang of armour. I remember vividly the chilling sensation that crept up my arms, making them spring goosepumps all the way up to my thumping heart. It took many years for the seed to germinate into The Rose Trail. The story took root as I delved into the past from where three ghosts emerged, one particularly vicious one bent on revenge. Fay Armstrong, the troubled narrator, is loosely based on my experiences.

With any historical novel much research needs to be done but for me that initial spark comes out of nowhere - or at least nowhere tangible. But that's where the fascination lies. How can the spirits of those long past communicate through time?

All I know is I love uncovering these ancient mysteries and weaving them into stories.

Alex Martin writes about her craft on her blog In the Plotting Shed


Her other books include The Twisted Vine and The Katherine Wheel trilogy - Daffodils, Peace Lily and Speedwell (a fourth part, Ivy and Woodbine, is on its way).
A small compilation of three short stories, called Trio, can be yours for free on her website.
Alex's Amazon Page

Monday, 28 August 2017

Judith Barrow coming full circle

I have written four novels and each has been independent - different settings, different characters, different themes - but I have begun to feel the allure of keeping a story going, beyond the last page of a book. I have written short stories that accompany my novels, but I've never yet been brave enough to take on a whole series.
That is what Judith Barrow has done, with her Howarth Family trilogy, covering the decades from the Second World War to the late sixties, and she has completed it now with a prequel, A Hundred Tiny Threads, covering the early decades of the 20th century. I am hugely impressed.

Pattern of Shadows is the first of the Howarth family trilogy. Mary is a nursing sister at Lancashire prison camp for the housing and treatment of German POWs. Life at work is difficult but fulfilling, life at home a constant round of arguments, until Frank Shuttleworth, a guard at the camp turns up. Frank is difficult to love but persistent and won't leave until Mary agrees to walk out with him.

Sequel to Pattern of Shadows, Changing Patterns is set in May 1950, Britain is struggling with the hardships of rationing and the aftermath of the Second World War There are many obstacles in the way of Mary’s happiness, not the least of which is her troubled family. When tragedy strikes, Mary hopes it will unite her siblings. Will the family pull together to save one of their own from a common enemy.

The last of the trilogy, Living in the Shadows is set in 1969. There are secrets dating back to the war that still haunt the family, and finding out what lies at their root might be the only way they can escape their murderous consequences.

And so to the prequel: A Hundred Tiny Threads: Winifred is a determined young woman eager for new experiences. When her friend Honora - an Irish girl, with the freedom to do as she pleases - drags Winifred along to a suffragette rally, she realises that there is more to life than the shop and her parents' humdrum lives of work and grumbling.
 Bill Howarth's troubled childhood echoes through his early adult life and the scars linger, affecting his work, his relationships and his health. The only light in his life comes from a chance meeting with Winifred, the daughter of a Lancashire grocer.

For the record, in my opinion, this is a great book, that places two people in the midst of some of the most earth-shattering and horrifying events of the early 20th century but shows it all through their very individual eyes, coloured by their own uniquely troubled situations. And, of course, knowing how it ends in the following trilogy adds a piquant regret to the tale.

Judith, like me, has lived in Pembrokeshire for many years and, like me, came here from a distant galaxy long ago and far away - Well, Yorkshire in her case and Bedfordshire in mine. Here, she tells how she came to Pembrokeshire.

We found Pembrokeshire by accident.
With three children under three, an old cottage half renovated and a small business that had become so successful that we were working seven days a week, we were exhausted. David, my husband, thought we should get off the treadmill; at least for a fortnight.
Pre-children, cottage and business, we always holidayed in Cornwall. But we decided it was too far with a young family and an unreliable van. We’d go to Wales; not too difficult a journey from Lancashire, we thought.
Once that was mentioned, David was eager to see Four Crosses, near Welshpool, where his grandfather originated from.
‘We could stay there,’ he said.
‘But the children will want beaches,’ I protested. ‘And I’ve heard Pembrokeshire has wonderful beaches.
We agreed to toss a coin and Pembrokeshire won. We’d call at Four Crosses on the way home.
I borrowed books on Wales from the library and, balancing our 8-month-old twins, one on each knee, I read as much as I could about the county. It sounded just the place to take children for a holiday. We booked a caravan and, when the big day came, packed the van to the hilt with everything the children would need, remembering only at the last minute, to throw a few clothes in for ourselves.
It took 10 hours.
In 1978 there was no easy route from the North of England to West Wales.
We meandered through small lanes, stopping for emergencies like much needed drinks, picnics, lavatory stops and throwing bread to the ducks whenever our eldest daughter spotted water. I’d learned to keep a bag of stale bread for such times.
The closer we were to our destination the slower we went. In the heat of the day the engine in our old van struggled; we needed to top up the radiator every hour or so. For the last 50 miles we became stuck in traffic jams.
We got lost numerous times.
All this and three ever-increasingly fractious children.

We arrived at the caravan site in the middle of the night so were relieved to find the key in the door.
The owner, a farmer, had given up and gone home.
I woke early. Leaving David in charge of our exhausted and still sleeping family, I crept out.
The sun was already warm; a soft breeze barely moved the leaves on the oak tree nearby. Skylarks flittered and swooped overhead, calling to one another. 
Although the caravan was one of four in the farmer’s field, we were the only people there. It was so quiet, so peaceful.
I walked along a small path. Within minutes I was faced by a panorama of sea. It seemed so still from the top of the cliff, but the water blended turquoise and dark blue with unseen currents, the horizon was a silvery line.
Faint voices from two small fishing boats carried on the air.
The sandstone cliffs curved round in a natural cove. Jagged rocks, surrounded by white ripples of water, jutted up towards the sky.
I fell in love with Pembrokeshire.
I’d always liked living so close to the Pennines. The moors, criss-crossed by ancient stone walls, were glorious with wild rhododendrons in summer, heather in the autumn. Even when brooding under swathes of drifting mist or white-over with snow, I was happy there.
But Pembrokeshire has a powerful glory of its own.
Within months we’d thrown caution, and our past lives, to the wind and moved here, much to the consternation of our extended family; as far as they were concerned we were moving to the ends of the earth.
But it was one of the best decisions of my life.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Up the Amazon without a paddle

My first novel was published as a paperback in September 2012 and a few days later it appeared on Amazon in a Kindle edition, which was, apparently, the way things were going now. I didn’t have a Kindle, but to show my appreciation, I downloaded the free Kindle reader on my laptop. I didn’t really want an electronic version of anything at that stage, but an encounter with Hilary Mantell finally persuaded me to invest in a proper Kindle reader. A hefty hardback edition of Bring Up The Bodies smacking you in the face when you fall asleep, reading, causes serious concussion, whereas a Kindle reader merely bruises the nose. And you don’t lose your place when it slides to the floor and shuts itself.

So yes, I converted to an e-reader and now I use it all the time, at least for fiction. And as an author, I have really learned to appreciate its value. My books have been on Kindle deals and sold A LOT, as a result. I mean, a serious lot. Enough to keep me afloat and writing.

Other e-readers are available, to coin a phrase. I have been on Kobo deals too, and have sold… several. Almost into two figures. What I have learned is that Kindle is the only e-reading platform that matters.

And Amazon knows it. If you want to self-publish, use Amazon. Put your book on Kindle. Easy-peasy, give or take the agonies of formatting, and your book is available to the whole world. Let them publish it as a paperback too. It won’t get into bookshops of course, but bookshops are so yesterday, darling.

My latest novel, Shadows, has been taken on by a publisher who markets books solely through Amazon. Even I, as the author, cannot buy discount copies to pass on at book fairs or talks. (You can’t imagine how amusing I find this.) If you agree to turn your back on all other platforms, Amazon and Kindle will offer you all sorts of promotion options. What’s not to love? Amazon, after all, is the leader so far in the lead, that all the others can’t even be seen for dust. No wonder Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos was listed as the richest man in the world, if only for a few hours. His organisation goes from strength to strength. There is no stopping it. It would be idiotic not to buy into it.

But then, this is now, and as Scarlet O’Hara pointed out, so eloquently, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Remember 2001, A Space Odyssey?  Made in 1968. HAL, a computer, developing a mind of its own, takes on the humans it’s supposed to help and tries to eliminate them. It’s the perennial nightmare of out-of-control technology. Lovers of conspiracy theories have pointed out that if you move up one place in the alphabet, HAL becomes IBM. In 1968, IBM was the computer giant that was going to dominate the world. No-one could compete with it. Until, out of nowhere, Microsoft popped up. And now Microsoft rules the world, until…

My third novel, The Unravelling, is set partly in 1966, which I regret to say I can remember vividly, so no research was needed, and in 2000 or thereabouts, which is only seventeen years ago, but I had to research diligently to remember exactly where we were on our hurtling trajectory into a new world.

In 2000, in Britain, broadband was just being introduced. I didn’t get it until several years later. Accessing the internet, for me, meant hi-jacking the phone line late at night or early morning, and waiting in agony as every web page maliciously containing an image took half an hour to download.

The Unravelling involves a woman, Karen, trying to trace someone from her past. In 1990, what would she have used? Phone books? A trip to the records office in London to trawl through marriage indexes? In 2000 she did have the internet if she could get at a computer. She could try a search engine. The big one was Yahoo, or Alta Vista if you wanted to be really serious. Everyone on the internet used Yahoo, little thinking that a search engine called Google, dreamed up by a couple of Californian students in 1998 would soon sweep Yahoo into the gutter.

There was a new social networking website Karen could use in her search. It was called Friends Reunited, created in 2000. Still a very small thing in the period when my book is set but it grew and grew. It grew huge. So huge that by 2005 it was bought up for £120 million. Nothing was going to stop it. Except that now it no longer exists, because in 2004 a bunch of students including Mark Zuckerberg launched a thing called Facebook. Then there was Twitter. Then there was Instagram. And then, and then, and then…

So, in the publishing world, Amazon is top dog today, but who knows what will pop up tomorrow and leave it as a small smudge on history? Self-interest tells me, as an author, to take whatever it has to offer, because I and other writers, traditionally and self-published, would be fools to resist. But where will we be when the wheel turns and we are left dependent on a company that no longer matters? We need a strategy, to prepare. The trouble is, I have no idea what we should do. Any suggestions?

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Short and Sweet

The appeal of short stories.

Many, many years ago, when I did O level English Literature, we studied a Shakespeare play, a Victorian novel, a 20th century novel, poems – oh, and a book of short stories. I wasn’t at all impressed with the idea of having to plough through a bunch of short stories. At 16, my idea of a good read was something at least as long as The Lord of the Rings, something so huge that I could disappear into it and not surface for at least a month. Why would anyone want to read a snippet with no meat on it whatsoever?

Years later though, I discovered that it was the short stories that had stuck in my mind and made the deepest impression. Phrases, images and ideas had burned into my brain in ways that Dickens and Orwell failed to achieve. Perhaps it is because they can shine a blinding spotlight on a single moment, thought or character, in ways that a novel, with its elaborate lighting display, cannot.

I enjoy writing short stories. The first piece of work I ever had published was a short story, flattering me into thinking that maybe I could make it as a writer after all. It was The Accountant, which is the first in my collection of short stories, Moments of Consequence.  I have come up with images and ideas that I have toyed with making into novels, before realising that I don’t want to write an entire novel, I just want to concentrate on that one image or idea. Short stories don’t have to fit neatly into a genre, which is wonderfully liberating. My collection includes histories, comedies and tragedies.

But although short stories can occupy a different dimension to lengthy novels, they can also walk beside them. The moment you finish writing a novel, there’s a huge rush of triumphant relief, but that is rapidly followed by a wail of empty desolation. It’s very hard to shut the door on a world you have created, and nail down the coffin of characters you have lived with for months or years. Short stories, I discovered, offer a way of keeping that door open.

Moments of Consequence contains three short stories that stand as companion pieces for my first three novels. I had no wish to write sequels, or create a series, but I did want to dabble a little deeper into the untold stories merely hinted at in the books. So A Time For Silence, which deals with the murder of John Owen, is paired with A Time to Cast Away, which tells of the aunt who brought him up. Motherlove, which includes the story of lost waif and fantasist Lindy, is paired with Hush Hush, a story of Lindy’s lost brother. The Unravelling deals with the desperation and dreaded bogeymen of children’s imaginations, and it is paired with Green Fingers, Black Back, which glances at the same events through the eyes of an adult on the side-lines.

Judith Barrow, author of the Howarth Family Trilogy, shares my love of short stories as a means of keeping our created worlds alive and kicking. She is also holding a workshop on writing short stories at the Narberth Book Fair, 23rd September. Over to Judith.

Thanks Thorne.

Unlike my friend here I cannot for the life in me remember what I studied for O levels. But I do remember writing short stories in school from a very young age (well, they were supposed to be ‘short’. Looking back I remember them going on and on and on because I couldn’t decide on the ending…pity the poor English teachers back then wading through tedious narrative).

I always loved short stories because I could read them quickly and, being a day-dreamer, treasure the instant images they evoked for days afterwards So, from a precious copy of Enid Blyton’s Six O'Clock Tales and stories by Hans Christian Anderson I progressed to such diverse authors as Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Chinua Achebe, and V. S. Naipaul. I’ve enjoyed them all.

And I’ve written and had published short stories in the past, mainly because I didn’t think I’ve be able to hold all the threads of a novel together.

 But thirty-five years ago I became a mature student (by accident but that’s another story) and took an A level in English Literature, then gained a BA degree and then an MA in creative writing.

It was time to face the facts; was I a writer of small tales or could I tackle something longer?

Purely by accident (I’m sensing a theme to my writing career here) I discovered the setting for my trilogy (an industrial  town surrounding a German prisoner of war camp, found by  researching the first POW camp for Germans in the Second Word War).And then a protagonist developed that I couldn’t get out of my head; Mary Howarth.

I’ve lived with the Howarth family for the last seven years.

Which now brings me to the reason Thorne invited me to her blog post. Secrets.

 Like Consequences, Secrets is an anthology of short stories; of the lives of eight minor characters in the Howarth Family Trilogy. When I closed the last page on the prequel, A Hundred Tiny Threads, I felt stunned. What to write next? And then, daydreaming as usual (these days I call it being creative!) some of the characters started shouting at me; I was leaving them behind and they didn’t like it. So I wondered what they would have been like before they came to live in the gritty northern mill town of Ashford. In Secrets are the stories of their earlier lives; the secrets they carry with them.

 So, Edith Jagger, the nosey gossiping next-door neighbour to the Howarths, holds close her secret of being a young abused wife and the desperate measures she took to escape.

And Stan Green, the publican of the local pub, The Crown, desperate to leave home at fourteen, signs up for the army with his friend, Ernie, unaware of the horrors that face them in the First World War and the terrible consequences of their decision.

And then there is Gwyneth Griffiths, Mary’s quiet and helpful neighbour in Llamroth, Wales, whose whole life has been on the run from an abusive husband.

And more: Hannah Booth, Doreen Whittaker, Alun Thomas, Hilda Lewis.
 All have secrets - for you to discover.

If you'd like to dabble in our short stories, find them here.

Secrets               Moments of Consequence

Thursday, 29 June 2017

A sense of Entitlement

Choosing titles can be a tricky business but for me it owes as much to instinct as to careful thought. For my first novel, I went for a Biblical reference (not quite a quote), A Time For Silence, because it seemed appropriate for a story that involves a pious chapel community. And besides, the King James version, like Shakespeare’s works, sometimes seems to have been produced for no better purpose than providing really good titles. I toyed with using the correct quote: “A Time to Keep Silence”, but the rhythm was just wrong, so I adapted it and once I’d settled on it, I thought that it couldn’t be anything else.

My second book called itself Motherlove. That was its working title because motherlove, in various guises, is what it’s about. When I had finished it and sat down to think about what it should really be called, I couldn’t come up with anything more appropriate, so I stuck with it. I did discover, after publication, that there can be issues with some titles. Search issues. Search for “A Time For Silence” on Amazon, without automatically narrowing it down to “books” and you’ll get my first novel. Search for “Motherlove” and you get a nipple cream.

My third book had no title, while I was writing it, other than “the next book.” Once finished, I sat back, groaned and thought ‘now come up with a title,’ and hey presto, it appeared. It’s about a character mentally unravelling and a forgotten story unravelling, so The Unravelling presented itself and all possible competitors slithered away into the undergrowth.

My latest novel is called Shadows. Kate Lawrence is psychically sensitive – she can feel the echoes of past deaths embedded in the masonry and woodwork of old houses. She can feel death happening across many miles. She doesn’t like it. She refers to her unwanted feelings as shadows. Somehow, it seemed obvious to call the book Shadows.

However, I was aware that Shadows is a word that has had plenty of use in book titles – my brilliant fellow Honno author, Judith Barrow, claimed it before me for Pattern of Shadows and Living in the Shadows. There are other books called just Shadows, as well as Shadow Reaper, the Shadow Queen, The Shadow District, Shadow Kill, the Shadow Land… and I’m still on page one of an Amazon search. It was suggested to me that I should choose something a bit less generic, and I did struggle with alternatives. In the end I gave up, because the book is so very much about shadows that it would be absurd not to use it. There are Kate’s clearly weird shadows, which make her life a misery, but there’s also the private shadows cast on many of the characters by their own guilt at things they have or haven’t done. Later there are shadows of accusation and suspicion cast on everyone and there are shadowy secrets from the past that come to light. Lots of shadows, like the shadows physically cast by the old house, Llys y Garn.

Shadows are dark. They might make you think of death, night, threatening places. But there’s another side to them. They don’t exist in total darkness. They are cast by a source of light. The brighter the sunshine, the stronger the shadow. As innumerable people have said (I’ve given up trying to trace the original quote), “Turn to face the sun and the shadows fall behind you.” That is what Kate has to learn to do. So I have called the book Shadows and I’m sticking with it.

Monday, 5 June 2017

On the House

My fourth novel, Shadows, is about to be published, by Endeavour Press. Honestly, any moment now.

So meanwhile, about Shadows… I write about crimes that have repercussions down the years and families in crisis, as I always do, but this one has a slightly Gothic twist, and a setting that is slightly more Gothic, to match. I have returned to North Pembrokeshire, my home, having had a ramble out to the Home Counties in Motherlove and The Unravelling and once more I am centring my story on a house. Not a derelict cottage, as in A Time For Silence. No, no, this time I’m doing something entirely different. This time it’s a derelict mansion, Llys y Garn.

In fact, the story features several houses, because, in case you hadn’t noticed, I really do like houses and all the history wrapped up in them: the mystery under the wallpaper.

Llys y Garn, the house at the centre of the book – in fact you could call it the main character in the book –is mostly a Victorian house that has slowly decayed around its former owner, an elderly recluse. When I first moved to Pembrokeshire, in the 1980s, the countryside was littered with such slowly decaying mansions, hidden from view, just off the road and lost in deep woods. They conjure up a lost world of squires and county society with hunt balls and croquet on the lawn. A world where peasants doffed their caps and respected their betters. That’s a world long gone, and the grand houses are now either totally derelict or have been put to new uses as nursing homes, hotels or art centres. One that was just up the road from me back then, empty after a serious fire, was Rhosygilwen, which has now been transformed into a thriving centre for cultural activities, weddings, concerts and the Penfro Literary Festival.
There were dozens of others around me – Coedmor, Cilwendeg, Ffynone, Cilgwyn, Glandovan, Llwyngwair…

They may appear to be Georgian or Victorian, but study the records and they all have roots going back to the Middle Ages. Here and there, among more modest houses in the area, you still find relics of older times. A farmhouse still has a massive Tudor door. Another has Jacobean panelling and plasterwork. A youth centre has a barn that was once a Tudor gatehouse.

My fictional Llys y Garn has a past too. Adjoining the Victorian house is a Mediaeval great hall, with panelling (oh, definitely panelling), and an undercroft that might, just might, once have been a dungeon.

There’s also a lodge cottage. Well, Llys y Garn is a mansion and all mansions have lodge cottages, where one of those cap-doffing peasants can usher the master safely back to his property, and slam the gates on the great unwashed outside. The lodge cottage I really had in mind is somewhere in Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire. Mini-Palladian – I used to pass it on my way across country to Aberystwyth university. But round here in Pembrokeshire, there are plenty of them, usually quaintly pretentious, or just quaint.

And then there’s a roundhouse in the book. A reconstructed iron-age roundhouse, which I can envisage without any trouble, because there happen to be some reconstructed iron-age roundhouses just around the corner from me, at Castell Henllys. It is my firm belief that they move around at night, when no one is watching.

Oh, and there’s a yurt, because this is Pembrokeshire and it’s the sort of thing you might find in a wood round here.

I haven’t included a castle, of which Pembrokeshire has many, some still lived in, but as Llys y Garn stands on the slope of a valley adjoining the Preselis (totally fictional, but picture the Gwaun valley if you like), there are, naturally, ancient standing stones on the hills above.

Seriously, anything could happen here. And probably has.

Monday, 1 May 2017

It's a crime

I took part in an interesting crime-writers panel at the Llandeilo LitFest last Saturday, which inspired me to ponder on the strange appeal of crime in fiction. Why do people, who have no intention to commit crime and no desire to fall victim to it, choose to read about it in fictional settings?

Of course there’s crime and there’s crime. Fiction tends not to dwell on crimes like parking on a double yellow line or shop lifting or tax evasion, and the reason is not just that such crimes are boring. Many people would feel that the law might make such action criminal but, well, you know, if there were an absolute guarantee of getting away it, maybe they might, just might, park on that line,  Pay by cash to avoid something going through the books, or even walk off without paying for something that slipped through at the till.

The crimes that feature in fiction are different. Murder. Rape. Abduction. Child Abuse. They are more than crimes. They are taboos. Even if the Law had no opinion on them, most of us would shrink from committing them because we understand at the deepest level that they are wrong. How the taboo develops is open to debate. Some people might say they are forbidden by God and that is written in our DNA. We apply words like Sin and Evil. Others might say that they are instincts drilled into us so deeply from birth by parents, schools, church and society in general, that we don’t question them. Whatever the source of the taboos, we know that to overturn them is to overthrow all security. If you knew, with absolute certainty, that you could commit a murder and not be punished, would you do it? I suspect that 99% would say NO!

And yet murders happen. People do break that taboo. Perhaps, if you found yourself pushed over the edge, you too could break it. Maybe our fascination in fiction is something to do releasing the dark waters that swirl in us, deep down below that taboo. It’s there in all of us. Murders are committed by sociopaths and psychopaths and the mentally disturbed – people who simply fail to share in that taboo – but the majority of murders are committed by very ordinary people who probably never dreamed they’d ever do such a thing. The majority of murders are not carefully planned but are a desperate result of a string of wrong decisions. Any of us could find ourselves in that position. So could everyone around us. It’s a scary thought.

That scariness is the appeal of crime fiction. We want to live secure and safe and happy, without worrying about what might lie around the corner, but we need to treat ourselves to a dose of scariness that won’t really put us at risk. Somewhere under our civilised veneers are primitive people whose survival programming needs to keep adrenalin on tap, ready to run like Hell when something growls in the undergrowth. Crime fiction is an adrenalin switch, that gives us a nice healthy jolt occasionally, without seriously disturbing our sleep. Because, best of all, it is fiction. It may be, should be, True in a literary sense, but it’s not actually real.