Sunday, 16 October 2016

What happens when people are starving?

So, I now knew a bit about life in nineteenth century New Zealand. But I also knew that Barbara Weldon came from Ireland, so it was time to find out about where she came from and why she might have left.

I knew she was born in Ireland in the 1830s ... and in the 1840s Ireland suffered three years of potato famine. So - that gave ma a context. And it wasn't difficult to find out plenty of details about the famine - from the stink of rotten potatoes to the mass migration of starving people.

But ... it was the Catholics, as tenant farmers, who were hit hardest by the famine, and I knew that Weldon was a Protestant name. As landowners, they farmed huge estates, growing a variety of crops and thus protected from the ravages of the famine. What's more, many grew grain, which they exported to England and America - while their tenants starved. (Imagine that happening today:  rich people with tables taken with food while people are starving on their doorsteps ...)

Not all, of course, were quite so hard-hearted. There were Poor Houses (often over full, with people banging on the doors waiting for people inside to die so that they could come in. I can think of a nursing home like that.). There were soup kitchens, with bowls of broth for those who would give up their Catholicism and pray to a Protestant God. (Imagine that happening now ... When I was in Nepal I heard of missionaries giving rice to starving Buddhists on condition they prayed to Jesus).

And in the middle of all this was a mass migration, hundreds of thousands of hungry people looking for work and safety and enough food for their families. The more I read about this migration the more familiar the difficulties seemed - and the more I learned about the commonality of migrations. Many of the challenge faced by the Irish in the nineteenth century are mirrored by those leaving war-torn zones in the Middle East and Africa today.

But what of the welcome awaiting them? Have we learned anything from the mass migrations of the nineteenth century that might help us provide for those in need with compassion or generosity? (Maybe you know the answer to that.)

Those Irishmen and women with enough funds went to America. But many could only make it as far as Liverpool. Which was my next stop.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Research ... well, you asked for it!

I have, at last, introduced you to the novel. And  I've been asked to write about how I researched it.

Oh Val, do you have any idea what you've asked for? I love research, the general digging about and discovering all sorts of unnecessary detail. It's one reason this book has taken forever.

I had four different settings to uncover, and so kept them in very distinct folders. I shall tell you about each one in the order I worked on them. (And have no doubt this will spread over several blogs - that's how much fun I had!) What I'm not going to tell you is how much of this is in the novel!

I began with New Zealand - because that's where I 'found' her. (If you've no idea what I'm talking about, scroll down to the last post.) I had the notes from my own stay there, and so know just how the wind blows from the mountains, and how cold the sea is (the current flows up from the Antarctic - I paddled for three whole waves before retreating to the beach with blue feet). And I'd seen pictures and stories from the gold rush days, and so had some idea of the chaos - and how difficult life was for the few women who lived there.

Once back in the UK I contacted the curator of the museum in Hokitika, to see if she could tell me any more about Barbara Weldon than I already knew. She couldn't, but she was kind and encouraging, which was good enough for me. Next, I accessed court records from the time (available online) - and could see just how often my heroine had been before the magistrates, and - given that these were rough times - the efforts that were made to support her. Her fines were often significantly lower than other offenders, and her prison terms shorter. Her offences - pilfering, drunkenness, and trying to kill herself by walking into the sea. (Some poor policeman had to wade in after her and pull her out, then bring her to court as attempting suicide was illegal. Prostitution, however, was not.)

From there, it was a question of reading as much background stuff as I could and piecing together details about transport, dress, etc to give me enough to make fill in the blanks.

And then I wrote the chapter set in New Zealand. But she died there - where did she come from? My next blog will take us to Ireland.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

I've written a novel!!

I've written a novel.

There, I've admitted it. I've not talked about it here before - partly because the whole process has been so tortuous that only someone mildly obsessed with it (as I have been) could have stuck with it. But - as it won't be long before it sees the light of day - I'll tell you a bit of its story.

Some of you may have read Over the Hill. Some of you may recall me driving round New Zealand in a campervan as big as a bungalow with good-to-know-Cath. We spent one night in Hokitika - which is one of the bleakest places I've ever been. Once a gold town, the streets are still lined with banks and jewellers, but there's almost nobody there. I can't blame them: the wind blows from the Antarctic and the sea is wild and dangerous.

We went to the museum to get out of the cold, and found memorabilia from the gold rush days. There, among the vignettes (almost all about burly men who had come to find treasure) was the story of Barbara Weldon. She had been born in Ireland in the 1830s, made her way to Liverpool and from there to Australia. She was deported from Melbourne to New Zealand for 'obscene language in a public place' and ended up here. She was, from all accounts, quite a character - well known in the Courts (she had countless fines and short terms of imprisonment) but was also hugely popular. She died tragically (I've not fictionalises the way she died so I'll not give you details).

She intrigued me. I had chosen to come to the other side of the world. I'd already had an adventure or two, even though I had the privileges of modern transport and communications. What had brought her here, on her own, to the (being brutal about it) arse end of nowhere - in the nineteenth century? What adventures had she had along the way? Did she have lovers? Children?

I couldn't let go of her. And so, slowly, I have made up her story. This novel is fiction: so little is known about her that her biography would be little more than two hundred words. I've changed her first name (but kept the Weldon - it's a Protestant name, which gave me clues as to her origins in Ireland). I've wallowed in research, and in writing, and editing, and rewriting - and it has taken forever. But the time has come to send her on her way.

Watch this space. The Planter's Daughter is almost ready for take off.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The rhythm of life is a wonderful thing, possibly.

For those of you curious about the photos in my previous post: the boats are Dartmouth, but taken from the castle and looking upriver. The second picture, taken into the sun, is Prawle Point, and the last is Start Point - from the west (so taking the footpath that takes you away from the path to the car park).

Here we go again - September. No more reading in the garden till gone nine in the evening. No more waking to the song of the mistle thrush. No more playing in the river or hunting for wild strawberries. Soon it will be crumpets for tea and the shops full of sparkles.

I'm not, as you know, good at winter. And I'm not good at picking up the rhythm of life in the autumn. I love the anarchy of summer, the feeling that anything can happen any time - just because it's light and the sun is shining (some of the time). Now the schools are back the term-time routines have resumed and I am, unwillingly, picking up the threads again. The writing group, the book group, the choir.

I know I need these rhythms. However much I love the freedoms of summer life can't be like that all the time. I need to wake up and know that, just because it's Tuesday, I need to get up and get out on time. I don't have to like the discipline of it. But I know that, if months stretched ahead of me without any sort of routine, I might slip into complete lethargy and become the doddery old soul in the corner drooling into my tea long before the years dictate.

Which is why, reluctantly, I am embracing September. It is an opportunity - I know that - to be more purposeful. And I do my best to see it like that. Even so, I can't help feeling as I did at the beginning of every school year as a child: do I really have to do this just because it's good for me.

Yes, I do. (At least until January, when I can go AWOL again!)

Sunday, 18 September 2016

So, how was Devon?

So, what did I do on my holiday, then? Given what I get up to in the winter, surely there was a tiger or two?

It was - as Devon is - all very peaceful and uneventful. The weather was scorching one minute and stormy the next (one morning I woke to thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening ... which was quite exciting, as it rolled in off the sea) - and so I had a couple of days when I wandered about between the showers, and more days when I wandered along cliff tops and stared at the ocean. No tigers; no crocodiles; though I did see a seal.

And, when I wasn't wandering, I was reading.

Not a holiday to live forever in the memory, but an undemanding sort of holiday and exactly what I needed. And so here are some photographs taken as I strolled along the cliff paths - brownie points to anyone who knows exactly where they are.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

On needing a holiday to recover from the holidays!

What sort of summer have you had? I've had a great time - so, for those who are weeping into their beer and don't need to read of other people having fun - here's a spoiler: mine has been so wonderful I have to retreat to Devon for a week to recover.

It's not that I've had adventures. There have been no tigers or crocodiles or blue-footed-boobies. I've not even caught a flight to somewhere exotic (though I have bought one). If I unpick my summer busyness there's not been much that was exceptional about it.

Though, to be fair, the visit from Tika and Shobha was exceptional. It's not every week friends from Nepal are able to fly over to see me! So there was plenty of preliminary planning and general excitement and numerous changes of plan and finally some lovely days sharing the delights of Wiltshire!

I've also spent countless wonderful days with grandchildren. I remember, when my children were small, I had no idea why my parents should be quite so besotted and able to drop everything as soon as a small person appeared. Now - I get it. I don't have to worry about work and school and if they need new shoes or how I must remember to ring the plumber. Grandparents have the luxury of time - we can pick up the rest of our lives when they go home (after wine and a good sleep to recover).

But the summer has been even more than grandchildren and visitors from Nepal. I've spent four days at cricket matches - which doesn't sound much, but, when you include the planning, the analysis, and general exchange of views about Buttler vs Bairstow, it has consumed days.

Nothing truly significant? - grandchildren and visitors and cricket. But I've loved every minute of it. But now I'm knackered and need a holiday to recover from the holidays.

So I've escaped to Devon, to wander about by the sea and read books. If I had remembered to bring the thingy that connects my phone to my iPad I'd be able to give you a photo - you will have to wait till next week for pictures.

I do know how lucky I am, being able to take off like this. What do you do, when you need a holiday to recover from the holidays?

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Summer holidays - yippee!

The schools are quiet. Children and young people stroll along the High Street in my market town - often with a supervising grandparent in tow.

So it's time for a blog-break till the Autumn. I shall still be reading and writing. But I shall also use the long days to flop about in the sun:

To watch cricket:

And to play with grandchildren:

All of this add up, in my corner of the world, to the best sort of summer holidays! What about you?