Sunday, 30 October 2016

Off to Australia (not me, this time!)

This is my final post about the research that has gone into the new novel. (Yes, a novel - a bit of a change from the travel writing, but no less of a journey.)

The previous posts have seen my protagonist escape the famine in Ireland and sink into the squalor of Liverpool's Irish slums. And we know she died in New Zealand. In between, she spent time in Australia.

So here I had a problem. I've spent just three weeks in Eastern Australia, and - at the time - was more interested in learning about aboriginal history than the early European settlers. Which left me no choice but to wallow in books.

I learned about the challenges faced by the early deportees - and what impressed me most was the way they soon established a rule of law. At home they were labelled at criminals, but most were  driven to theft by poverty. With the opportunity to co-operate, in order to provide a safe space to provide for their basic needs, they flourished. There was the odd vagabond, of course, and some (like Ned Kelly) have achieved cult status; but most settled into respectability.

However, I know we cannot ignore their deplorable treatment of indigenous peoples. The ripples of these early years still ruffle Australia today. History provides reasons (ignorance, the tendency of one group to look down on another) but that can never make it right.

Then came the gold rush. Which brought a whole new influx of people, driven by the lure of adventure and the prospect of riches. And it transformed the lives of many of those early settlers.

So, that, I thought, gave me all the background I needed. Until I checked the dates of the deportations ... And discovered that by the time my protagonist must have left Liverpool the only place in Australia that still accepted felons was on the west coast - thousands of miles across the desert. I've not been there, nor had I read about it. It was the biggest of my 'oh shit' moments. Could I wing it, and hope nobody checked the dates? Or go back to my storyline and rework it completely?

What would you have done?

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Refugees, and how Liverpool could teach us a thing or two.

Research - is there no end to it? I knew that Barbara Weldon died in New Zealand but was born in Ireland - and for some reason she travelled via Liverpool and Australia. (If you're wondering who Barbara Weldon is - I came across her in a bleak gold town on New Zealand. You'll have to scroll back a post of few to find out why she intrigues me!)

Once I understood the misery of the Irish famine, it was reasonable to assume that starvation had driven her across the Irish Sea. So it was time to turn my attention to life in Liverpool for those who escaped the stinking potato fields in Ireland and crossed the Irish Sea to look for work, and food, and shelter - just enough to fulfil their basic needs.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that the residents of Liverpool didn't welcome them with open arms. There was a conviction that they came to take jobs, to demand homes and so deprive local people, and they brought diseases associated with poverty - plague and cholera. (Sound familiar? Let's not allow needy people anywhere near our own doorsteps ...)

I struggled, trying to fill in the details of life of the Irish refugees in Liverpool. I suspect that, in retrospect, the city is ashamed of the squalor in which they were forced to live. However - to the credit of the powers that be (and prompted by a growing union movement pressing for change) -they did eventually realise that the solution lay in improved public health and better housing; Liverpool introduced some of the earliest public health provision in the country.

However, there is nothing left of the streets where the Irish were ghettoed; not even a blue plaque on a wall. I found only passing mentions in museums and one small reconstruction (without what must have been terrible smells).

But then I had some luck. I went to visit the city for a few days, staying in a B&B away from the centre. I got to chatting to the landlord (as I do) and discovered that he was researching his family history and knew all about nineteenth century Liverpool. He drove me round those streets that still survive, and gave me two laminated maps of the city, with the old road systems and docks - so very different from the layout of Liverpool today. (Bill, I owe you!) And from that I could find enough photographs online to give me the details I needed.

So, I knew that Barbara Weldon spent time in Liverpool, and she went from there to Australia. Why Australia? And was there a warmer welcome the other side of the world than she'd found here?

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.