One of several books I got to review last year, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, has won the Costa First Novel Award and justly so I feel. It was a book I was unable to put down and was quite different to anything I had read before.Facts and backstory were revealed only when they became necessary to the story so the reader didn’t feel overwhelmed by them and they never intruded upon the flow of the story. Each time a new detail emerged you felt you understood Eleanor and her current situation better and more than once I thought I knew how it might end. However, when the truth is revealed in the closing pages it is quite unlike anything I had imagined and yet on reflection I felt no disappointment at all. I simply admired the skill of the writer. I do hope we are going to hear of a new novel from Gail in the very near future.
A new year, a new start and a new computer. So Happy New Year.
Shortly after the last entry on this blog computer problems began and within a couple of weeks things were clearly terminal. I battled on using a tiny tablet computer but it was not for me and so began the rounds of computer outlets, website and review sites and endless conflicting advice from more knowledgeable friends until I finally bit the bullet and did the deed. A new laptop now to master. Everything is just a little different from previous models, short cuts that had come naturally now need thinking about and the need to back up work constantly looms upmost as the final drafts of several pieces lie locked away in the now defunct machine.
On the plus side I have the chance to be more organised in saving and filing work so that I will hopefully waste less time tracking down that carefully researched fact or locating that quote that seemed so apt to open/close a planned article. I still have my writing course to complete but alongside that I have requests for two more articles on topics already researched and I intend keeping up with the letters/tips/photo contributions to magazines as these produced a steady flow of cheques, vouchers and gifts throughout last year.
I don’t “do” resolutions as such but certainly I hope to be more structured in how I organise writing time and the resulting output. Maximising available time seems a better way forward than trying to create more opportunities. And with those random thoughts I will return to the work in progress.
Lots of National Trust properties have collections of some sort , usually within the building, but Upton House has a National Plant Collection of Asters and they make a visit at this time of year extra special. The garden itself is set on a south facing slope which is quite a challenge. The collection has examples of varying heights and colours range from white through various shades of purple and a few pink to cerise ones, too. Some flowers are quite small and star-like whilst others are open and particularly attractive to butterflies. Double flowers give a stronger splash of colour. In addition to keeping these heritage varieties available they are extremely attractive to insects such as bees and butterflies. During our visit we saw, red admirals, large whites and comma butterflies. The collection forms only a small part of the garden although there are more asters, or Michaelmas Daisies as some know them, in the borders, too. A real autumnal plant and important food source for insects at this time of year, they also feature in harvest festival floral arrangements.
Seasonal touches can be important in setting a scene. Being aware of which plants are in bloom at different times of the year can help to avoid unlikely combinations. Even with unusual weather patterns asters and daffodils are an example.
Visiting several National Trust properties recently it was clear things differ significantly today compared to twenty years ago. Then people walked through rooms following a guidebook purchased on arrival, kept away from the objects of interest by heavy red ropes and disapproving looks from room stewards.
Today the room stewards engage in conversation, where possible closer access to items of interest is available and the consequences of handling objects is explained through hands-on displays. Discretely placed teasels deter attempts to sit on furniture but the occasional seat is made available for those who need it.
However, it is the constantly changing exhibitions and add-ons that make repeat visits attractive. Hughendon Manor, for example, had a Forties weekend in progress when we visited. Various Enactment groups demonstrated weapons, fired a mortar and put on skirmishes to demonstrate aspects of warfare in World War II. A Home Guard group explained their equipment and shared moments of humour and entertainers sang and danced and encouraged people to have a go for themselves. The weather meant a Battle of Britain flight was cancelled but otherwise it made for a very full day. Worth visiting for its connection to Benjamin Disraeli and the recently discovered World War II role in map-making, there is plenty to offer background detail for writers in many areas.
Waddesdon Manor have a number of exhibitions in place at present but it was a small display of portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and some of her courtiers and portraits of Queen Elizabeth II that proved of particular interest. The text pointed out the symbolism in the paintings. Seeking out these small details meant taking a much closer look at the paintings and a greater appreciation of their execution.
Upton House near Banbury was for sale in 1927 and the eventual buyer passed the property on to the NT at his death. The sale was the central theme for 2017 and visitors were treated as potential buyers with the notable attractions of the house pointed out in the “details” provided and by the room guides. Significant alterations were made to the house following the sale and the property was extended. An interesting part of the visit was a display relating to the architect who brought these about with drawings, models, photos and sketches. Rather than look at them from the point of view of the owner this made a change and showed the stages involved in the planning and execution. There were even copies of plans of the gardens with planting plans included should one wish to try any of them at home.
This more relaxed approach is more informative and must surely draw the visitors in and encourage repeat visits. From a social history point of view there was much of interest for a writer. Background details and new lines of research often stem from visits of this kind. At other properties the domestic quarters have offered insights into the preparation and presentation of food. Recipes, napkin folding designs and menus are among the items that have proved of interest. Often it is the ephemera of life that offers the detail that brings a story or article to life.
Driving around the countryside the hedgerows are well laden this year it seems. In the past I have recorded estimates of how good a harvest is for a a list of species such as hawthorn, oak, blackberry and so on for the Woodland Trust. Whilst many of these will be feeding wildlife others, such as blackberry and elder produce fruits enjoyed by human and animal alike. I’ve already made a batch of blackberry and apple jelly this year. Whilst picking the blackberries we spotted a good crop of sloes and decided try making sloe gin. Always good to try something new.
Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn, a common hedgerow plant locally. In spring the blossom dresses the hedges as if covered in snow. The time it actually blooms is the subject of several weather sayings. In contrast to the sparkling white blossom the fruits are almost black, resembling small plums and carry a bloom similar to that found on that fruit. Beautiful blossom and useful fruit but the most vicious thorns attacking the unwary.
Whenever I try something new I take photos at every stage. If it’s new to me it is new to others and who knows when the pictures might not come in useful for an article. It worked when I made my first quince jelly a few years back anyway. So far the fruit has been washed and dried, pricked all over and placed in a sterile jar. Sugar has been added and then the gin. Sadly it will be a while before the product can be tested. The recipe suggests leaving it for at least three months in a cool dark place, just giving it an occasional shake. After a week the liquid has already turned an attractive deep red. At least the blackberry and apple jelly was ready much sooner and has already been enjoyed on toasted muffins and will fill a Victoria sandwich this weekend.
Enlisted the help of some younger family members to gather blackberries at the weekend. I had gathered a trayful of fallen apples and thought blackberry and apple jelly would be a great recipe to use them up. Having convinced the picking force that blackberries did not have to be eaten on the spot but could be used in other ways sufficient blackberries were picked for the task.
No time like the present for using the fruit so it was weighed, washed and added to the pan with the chopped apples and simmered gently for a while to soften the fruit. As we all enjoyed the sweet fruity aroma I was soon transported back to my own childhood.
Every year relatives would visit laden with bags of cooking apples. Much as we loved apple pies there had to be other uses found that would preserve them as we had no fridge let alone a freezer. The solution was to go blackberry picking and for the black enamel cauldron used as a preserving pan to be dragged out to boil up the fruit for jelly. I loved it on bread instead of our usual jam but it was the smell that pervaded the house as it cooked that brought back these memories this weekend.
The strained juice just needs to be boiled up with sugar to reach setting point and then the jars of deep maroon jelly can be lined up in the cupboard just as my mother used to display them on the larder shelves. I suspect that I won’t be salting beans or bottling tomatoes as she did, however.
Sometimes we overlook how important our lesser senses are in evoking memories. Smell, taste and touch are just as important as sight and sound.
The latest issue of Best of British magazine carries an article I wrote after years of collecting snippets of information and photographs on a topic. It is about the drinking troughs provided for horses in towns and cities from the mid nineteenth century until the fifties. It all started when visiting Shropshire and spotting a trough with an inscription including the word Metropolitan, a word which suggested our capital rather than a town or city location. After spotting a few more on our travels – have you noticed how often once you have seen one example of something they keep cropping up – I delved a bit further into their history and gradually built up a collection of photographs and individual stories that suggested an article might be possible.
Whilst this piece has been simmering away for years others reach boiling point more quickly. The photos from a week in Devon included a number on a single theme and it didn’t take long for them to come together into a finished article which was submitted only a week after our return.
It is not just a case of keeping your eyes peeled either. A chance remark, often in the scene setting for an event or TV programme, can set the cogs turning. Introducing Antiques Roadshow on one occasion the presenter mentioned the name of the alley he was standing next to. I already knew of a few local names for alleys and soon collected enough for an article. I hadn’t found them all, though, as one reader responded on the letters page next month I had missed one from the neighbouring town to the Antiques Roadshow example. It did tell me that at least one person had read it!
A few months ago when our speaker cried off at the last minute I was persuaded to give a talk about the articles I write. It went down quite well given the little time I had for preparation and at the end I mentioned that everybody had at least one story to tell… their own.
Several people commented afterwards that they were always being pestered by family to write down their stories or they had themselves considered writing them down “when I have time”. Recently the topic came up again and I asked how many had made a start. I wasn’t greeted by a show of hands. I offered to give a few pointers and it ended up with a group coming together for a chat. The rule was no actual writing, although notes of stories they were reminded of were permitted, and I offered one or two ideas to start people off.
I found a great quote to start off the session. There is never a right time to do something so do it now. The first thing I did was produce a box of prompts – items I had collected from a different era that might spark memories and indeed they did. A school beret had us going down the route of school uniform, the school day, getting to school, subjects people enjoyed or hated, and so on. After about half an hour, and lubricated by a cuppa, we switched to words or phrases that might inspire discussion. Lost was a particularly productive one with most of those present having been lost at some time. I found it interesting that no one talked about the loss of a person, pet or object, let alone a lost opportunity.
To end up I suggested a couple of ways stories could be recorded without a lot of writing which seemed to be the most common factor holding people back. We talked about photographs and not just listing the names of those in photographs but also the date, place and occasion that made it memorable. Q & A sessions with family members using a recorder was another possibility considered.
The time passed quickly and the group want to continue with more sessions which was not my original intention so now wracking my brains for new approaches and ideas. There must be others who have run such sessions …
Some of the earliest articles I had published were about entering consumer competitions. Some were advice pieces whilst others were about specific wins or types of prize. A number of these prizes have been for “a year of…” a product and have included breakfast cereals (52 packs) Bread (vouchers for 104 loaves) and tights (52 pairs). Wine proved to be a disappointing 12 bottles but it was very good wine and a recent win of chocolate is still arriving at intervals.
Sometimes prizes allow you to do something new and maybe not generally available to the general public whilst product prizes can introduce you to items new to the market as in the case of the chocolate. These are hand-made chocolate bars made without additives, supplied by bean chocolate, London.
The first delivery of four introduced their first four options of salted cinder milk chocolate, milk chocolate with bacon, 60% dark chocolate and dark chocolate with hazelnut. None of the chocolate is very sweet and it therefore blends well with the savoury options but my preference was for the dark chocolate which again is unlike any chocolate I have tried before. They have expanded the range now to include some white chocolate versions, too. My only difficulty, apart from how quickly they disappeared, was with breaking up the bars which did not have moulded divisions but I understand that may be addressed shortly. Of course, writing and chocolate go hand in hand so this was a welcome opportunity.
World War One Grave Markers
Watching a local news report on soldiers from a local village who lost their lives at Passchendaele which included scenes from inside the church I spotted several Grave Markers from the Great War. I couldn’t see exactly how many were displayed but it was more than one or two.
I have seen a similar group elsewhere when looking round churches when visiting new areas but generally there are just one or two simple plain crosses, with occasionally those of an officer which are more elaborate. These markers were erected to mark the spot where a soldier was buried where he fell on the battlefield. As the Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries developed the original markers were available to the families. Displaying them within the church was quite common, given there was no grave in the churchyard to visit.
Airmen often had a cut down propeller formed into a cross as these were made of wood, too. I have only come across one of these locally.
I recall seeing one for an army officer when visiting Kent, possibly Hythe, but the majority of those displayed are simple plain crosses recording the name and regiment of the fallen along with the date.
After a hundred years it is perhaps surprising to still find these on display. Often they have been cleared away during refurbishment of churches and indeed some I have seen have been found in the porch or in the ringing area rather than alongside the church Roll of Honour.
They are very poignant reminders of sacrifice and a direct link to the battlefield.