Thursday, 20 December 2012

Ronald and Richard

I wrote this account of my father (Ronald) and uncle’s (Richard) early life in India and what is now Pakistan a few years back. It’s based on fact but embellished by fiction! The photos are of my family.

On a fine day in 1925 Ronald and Richard set sail on the Raj Patan with their parents, Alfred and Sarah, from the port of Karachi in India to return to England. This marked the very start of their adventure. Their “home” in England was not really their home, as the two boys and their mother had been born in India, and its backdrop of palm trees and brightly-coloured birds and flowers was quite ordinary and familiar to them. But to the boys especially, England lured them with a weird kind of exoticism and for weeks beforehand they dreamed of apple orchards, country churches and soft summer rain on dry, red bricks as if these were jewels from the orient.

Richard (left) and Ronald (right)

Alfred had decided to bring the family to England for the very reasons that Ronald and Richard thrived in India. The boys received no formal education and spent their days in the care of their ayah or mother, scrambling freely around the dusty garden, enjoying trips to the beach in Karachi or sailing to the nearby island of Minora in the family’s yacht. The island was magical and unspoilt, nothing but sand and an outlook to miles of ocean. After dark the moon and stars reflecting off the waves distorted the pale night-time hues and coloured the surrounding landscape an eerie shade of blue. By day, picnics on the beach were a regular occurrence. A crude canvas windbreaker would be hauled up to shade the party from the heat. They would sit for hours there, the family and their extended group of friends, their picnic spread out on a pristine white tablecloth, which soon became stained with sand and mud, sipping tea from bone china cups and saucers and mixing dates and mangoes with fruitcake and scones.
Picnic on Minora
Alfred managed a kerosene factory and another favourite trip would be down to the wharf to see the huge ships pumping oil in and out. In those days, the city was an incongruous mix of old and new. The oil business was fast expanding and the sight of monstrous tankers against the steep cliffs and immaculate sands was quite a contrast, but to the boys, fascinating.
Alfred, back row, second right, and factory staff

The house in Karachi was spacious and cool, and had the luxury of a garden where Sarah would sit in the late afternoons reading. Although the climate was almost rainless, proximity to the coast meant that it was possible, with some coaxing, to grow bougainvilleas, rhododendrons and other tropical plants and flowers, and the odd fruit or sandalwood tree, and so the air would be scented in layers, in much the same way that expensive perfumes would be put together. To Alfred, used to the more restrained English gardens, these plants seemed menacing, but to Ronald and Richard they provided perfect hiding places and fuelled their imaginative games.
My grandmother, Sarah
The garden, tropical and beautiful, was far from peaceful. Apart from the shouts of the boys as they played with the servants’ children, the supernatural echoes of nameless birds and insects would reverberate day and night. Parakeets could often be seen perched in the trees. They were far from shy, and had been known to swoop onto the veranda and interrupt afternoon tea to steal a treat. Every evening they would gather in a coven high above the treetops chattering, screeching and chanting until they tired and would settle to sleep, emitting the odd squawk as night caught up with them. 

The tropical garden
The family’s pet lemur, Felix, presided over the garden. Felix was a pet far superior to any ordinary cat or dog. He would happily balance on one’s shoulders and be carried aloft with quite a regal air. Apart from being kingly, he could be naughty too. He would snatch a banana or other treat from innocent hands and position himself on the veranda, taunting its original owner.
Felix the lemur on my grandfather’s shoulder

The boys were quite familiar with the local people who worked for the family, and Richard was especially fond of his ayah. Her husband also worked for the family and Richard would often warn him that if he didn’t look after his wife then he would take her off and marry her himself. This freedom made Alfred decide that the boys were growing wild and needed the discipline of an English education to set them up in life, and so the family packed up and headed for a more subdued climate. 

My dad as a baby
The journey back to England was an adventure in itself, and for the majority of the trip the weather remained as clement as the family was used to. Occasional stopovers would be made along the way, and Alfred would often bring back treasures from the local markets. One time, when the ship stopped in Egypt, he returned from the souk with an octagonal wooden table inlaid with brass and coloured enamel. It became a favourite piece of furniture back in England, perhaps because it always seemed to radiate warmth from the polished wood and reflect light from the metal. As the ship sailed closer to Europe, colours became more muted and the climate chillier. Arrival in Southampton couldn’t have been more disheartening. The day was cold and the fog was everywhere and nowhere, unseen but snapping at the boys’ heels and filling their lungs. Over time the sparkling colours and sounds of India faded in the boys’ memories, and the black and white photographs became even more monotone, but the unexpected heat of an English midsummer day would occasionally revive these impressions with tantalising intensity.   
Back in England

None of my family returned to the subcontinent after this, a source of much regret to my grandmother, Sarah, who spoke Hindi as well as she spoke English. That is, until my sister and I went on our own adventure to Pakistan and India a few years ago, where we found the site of our grandparents’ (long-since demolished) house in Karachi, bought a wedding dress, and shouted, “Pakistan zindabad!” at Wagah. And just to square the circle, I married a man from Karachi!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Queen of the Woods

It was a cold, sharp morning, and a tramp through the woods was prescribed after the previous day’s rain. Though tepid, the sun was eager, and the moisture conspired with the fallen leaves to produce a rich scent full of the promise of dormant life.

We were on the look-out again—this time in better conditions than The Foggy Day—and we hopefully surveyed the bare canopy above and the woodland floor below, the few fungi hinting at the occult life below the decaying leaves.

A little way into the woods and we stopped in our tracks as further down the avenue a dark form appeared, and stared and froze. We did the same. There was a long stand-off. This fallow deer was handsome and sweetly unaware of his appeal—all chocolate-brown and velvety-looking, even from a distance. He was soon joined by his companions, a handful of young, fit-looking bucks who sniffed at the ground and the air, and stopped stock-still and stared. And then another figure amongst the herd…this one a reluctant and striking beauty, as pale as the winter sun—shades of bone, ivory and vanilla layered upon one another to produce a dazzling white. She was less bold, advancing and retreating, unsure of herself, and half-hidden between the trees and the rest of the herd.

The handsome buck

The purity and beauty of these creatures is quite beguilingits easy to see why white deer have enjoyed a mythical status in history, representing a whole spectrum of powerful and life-affirming notions—good fortune, protection, a disaster averted.
The Celts believed these ethereal animals to be messengers from The Otherworld, while the Native Americans believed, and still believe, that the appearance of white animals of any description represent prophecy. Both cultures saw them as harbingers of cataclysmic changes in the lives of those who spotted them…
In Arthurian legend white stags or harts were said to lead knights into battle and off on quests. One was said to have led King Arthur himself to a magic well, and another guided the knights Bors, Galahad and Percival to a forest chapel where it transformed into a vision of Christ. Indeed, they were believed to represent man’s eternal spiritual quest as they were perpetually pursued and never captured.   
In Christianity the white stag came to symbolise Christ and His presence on Earth after the Roman soldier St Eustace converted to Christianity after encountering a white stag with a cross between its antlers.
Richard II was said to have adopted the white hart as his heraldic symbol after his huntsman was fatally wounded while defending him against such a creature in Windsor Forest. The king’s symbol was most famously depicted on the exterior side of The Wilton Diptych. (By a wonderful coincidence I have just discovered that the Diptych also portrayed Edmund, King and Martyr, subject of my last blog post!) The hart, wearing a crown and chain around his neck, sits in a grassy meadow strewn with rosemary believed to be in memory of Richard’s first wife, Anne of Bohemia. (Another delightful coincidence—see my recent blog post Pray, Love, Remember on symbols of remembrance, including rosemary!) Richard was also himself portrayed in the Diptych wearing a brooch with a white hart emblem. Association with Richard also explains the great number of pubs named “The White Hart”—in 1389 the king passed an act ordering inns to display a sign outside to identify themselves to the ale taster, and many adopted the white hart as their mark after Richard.
In literature, a white stag featured in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe—described as both an ally of the White Witch and the creature who led the children out of Narnia, so adopting a dual role. And in Tolkein’s The Hobbit a white deer startles Bilbo and his dwarves in Mirkwood Forest, while in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, just as in the legends of Arthur, a silver doe leads our hero to the Sword of Godric Gryffindor.
While the white deer may be the Queen of the Woods, she’s not the only supernatural creature dwelling there…she’s attended by blue pheasants, so I’m told, each as arresting and dazzling as a flock of peacocks. And the trees are full of little owls and tawny owls, a thousand pairs of eyes watching and waiting and taking note, miniature angels and scribes who will write down your thoughts and fears and deeds.
The reclusive "Queen of the Woods"

And was it coincidence, I wonder, that only hours after encountering the white doe I was rushed to hospital with a potentially life-threatening condition…but somehow luck was on my side, disaster was averted, my suffering minimal, perhaps due to the morphine and certainly due to the elusive but real feeling that some beautiful creature, pure in body and soul, was by my side protecting me? It’s fanciful, I know, but who’s to say that my dreams aren’t reality? After all, I featured in another patient’s drug-induced hallucinations and metamorphosed into a Russian Tsarina, not propped up in bed but seated on a golden throne…and I was as real to her as the tea lady, the doctors and the porters who trooped through our ward. And I fancy I had a pure-white familiar at my side—this beautiful white deer— a silver collar around her neck, resting her soft head on my arm every now and again to remind me she was there…

Heading homewards that day, the balls of mistletoe high in the almost-bare trees reminded us of the season and what it represents—the celebration of life old and new, of hope and redemption…how fitting, then, that the Queen of the Woods chose that day to appear to us and to follow me on my challenging journey of the subsequent hours and days, her beauty and gentle presence imprinted on my memory…

With thanks to Dom Kiddell for the inspiration and photography!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Historical Heroes & Heroines: Part Four, Edmund the Martyr

It’s high time we revisited this series, and what better subject than Edmund the Martyr, also known as St Edmund, ruler of East Anglia from 855 to 869 AD, posthumously of my home town Bury St Edmunds, on today, St Edmund’s Day!

In rather a defeatist tone, Wikipedia tells us that ‘Almost nothing is known of Edmund’. But what we do know of him, or can surmise of him, is quite fascinating.

There remains no contemporaneous material on Edmund following its destruction by the Vikings, so common knowledge of the man and martyr is naturally a mix of truth and myth, making his story all the more enticing.

What we lack in detail about his life, we make up for in his death. It’s a weird mix of fact and fiction, with a bizarre reference to a well-educated wolf, which I think you will enjoy!

The first reference in history to Edmund sits in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle for 870, put together 20 years after his death in 869, and referring to that dreadful incident. (His inclusion in the Chronicle, and the existence of coinage dedicated to him dating from 885 to 915 AD confirm that Edmund was indeed a real person, not one of those made-up saints with no basis in reality.) He met his end at the hand of the Danes, supposedly in Hoxne, Mid Suffolk (although several other sites in East Anglia have been suggested), after he refused to renounce Christ; he was whipped, pelted with arrows (which were said to make him bristle like a hedgehog) and beheaded. (I love the names attributed to those dastardly Danes—“Ubbe Ragnarsson” and “Ivar the Boneless” aka “Hubba” and “Ingwar”.) Legend has it that his head was thrown into the woods and only recovered by his followers when a wolf called out in Latin, ‘Here, here, here!’ and there they found him nursing the severed head. The wolf allowed Edmund’s men to take the head, and they buried it nearby. When some years later they went to recover the body, they found that it was intact, with head attached, as if he had died a peaceful death. The surreal image of the wolf calling out in Latin is just wonderful—did he utter the words in a proper Suffolk accent, I wonder?
The slaying of St Edmund

By the way, chip away a little at its surface and you’ll find Hoxne has a rich seam of history bubbling away underneath. You know the Hoxnian Interglacial (the major interglacial period 375,000 to 425,000 years ago)? Named after Hoxne. The Hoxne Hoard? The biggest haul of Roman treasure ever found in the UK. Earliest recognition that hand axes were made by humans, not by meterorites? Discovered in Hoxne. It may be a little close to Norfolk for some, but Edmund’s tenaciousness has emboldened me and I can sense a research trip coming on…

Anyway, back to our hero’s story. Edmund’s remains were eventually transferred to the nearby town of Beodericsworth in 903, at the pre-existing monastery. This act elevated the town to a super power of its time. Miracles were said to occur at his shrine (a would-be thief got stuck to the shrine when trying to steal precious stones by kissing it as if he were a pilgrim; Edmund appeared beyond the grave to kill a Danish invader, with the miracle being recounted by a dying mute man miles away), and it soon became a centre of pilgrimage. In 925 the town’s name was changed to St Edmund’s Bury (“Bury” referring to “fortress” or “city”—no reference to the fact that Edmund was buried there) to reflect its connection with Edmund, and later Bury St Edmunds.

Edmund was fast becoming an icon for all things patriotic—his banner was brandished in battle, including the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and the feverish cult that sprang up around him culminated in him being named as the patron saint of England.

His connection with the abbey of Bury St Edmunds meant that it grew from a small community of Benedictine monks at the time of his burial to one of the richest and most powerful monasteries in England, beautifying and glorifying the town in the process. At its height of powers during the early fourteenth century, the abbey owned all of West Suffolk and kept a firm grip on the townsfolk, even charging tariffs on the collection of horse droppings in the street. No wonder that in 1327 the people revolted! After attack and counter-attack, they invaded the abbey, marking the beginning of its end notwithstanding a few episodes of restoration and revival along the way. Finally, the abbey, and Edmund’s shrine, were destroyed in 1539 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Sadly a recent campaign to have Edmund restored as the original saint of England, ousting St George, have failed, but he is recognised as the patron saint of good ol’ Suffolk.
The Abbey Ruins, Bury St Edmunds

The history of Edmund the Martyr and Bury St Edmunds the Town are intertwined: one cannot exist without the other. For that reason alone, I nominate Edmund as our fourth historical hero. We have him to thank for elevating our town—then and now—to an über-community. The glories that you can enjoy on a trip to our magnificent town include the Abbey Gate, the Abbey Gardens (spooky ruins providing a perfect setting for your picnic), the Norman Tower and Gothic Revival cathedral, the Theatre Royal—a Regency gem, the Nutshell, the smallest pub in Britain, not one but TWO Gregg’s outlets (can any other town of similar size make a similar boast?), the sugar beet factory, its sugar cloud a beacon to homecoming Bury folk—what the Angel of the North is to the Geordies…really, I am inviting you to come and see for yourself for I cannot do justice here on my blog!

It thrills me to think that I sit writing in the very heart of Edmund territory, a little patch of Suffolk that is now mine but was once ruled by this king and martyr and once part of the lands of the abbey so closely connected with his story. His dedication to his beliefs is inspirational, his story a curious one, and inspiration for tonight’s dreams of talking wolves, boneless warriors, sugar clouds and all those lovely caramel doughnuts from Gregg’s…

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Pray, Love, Remember...

For many, these past few days have been a time for reflection and remembrance. The uniforms, the military music, and of course, the iconic poppy, have all featured as symbols to remind us of those who sacrificed their lives for others.

It was the poem In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae that renewed the adoption of the poppy as a tribute to soldiers who had died in conflict. Red poppies had been associated with the war dead since the Napoleonic Wars when a contemporary writer noticed how they grew on the graves of soldiers. Disruption to the soil in Flanders meant that the lime content increased, providing the perfect environment for the poppy to grow. 

A wreath of poppies was resting against the modest war memorial in our local churchyard this morning as I took a look round. Gloomy in the mist today, the place was illuminated more by the ochre leaves strewn across the ground than by the sun, an anaemic disc. Aside from the main memorial, a separate headstone dedicated to a young soldier lost in the Great War declared: ‘He fought and endured’.  It illustrated how it’s impossible to extricate one’s own loss from this communal grief.  And however you have lost loved ones, it’s hard to escape the poignancy of this time of year, joyful red conflicting against the milky sky.
The poppy is not the only flower to symbolise remembrance throughout history. One of the earliest examples is the bed of flowers on which a mother and her two children were buried in the Sahara 8,000 years ago.  Poppies, cornflowers and mandrake feature on the walls of Ancient Egyptian tombs while here in the UK, meadowsweet flowers and pollen are often found in Bronze Age graves.
In literature, Arviragus, the shepherd in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline pledges to bring specific flowers to adorn Imogen’s grave: ‘The pale primrose, that flower most like thy face; the bluebell, like thy clear veins; and the leaf of eglantine [sweet briar], which is not sweeter than was thy breath; all these will I strew over thee’.

And, ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember,’ goes the famous quote by Ophelia in Hamlet as she alludes to her father’s—or even forewarns of her own—death.  In days gone by it was common practice to place rosemary on the dead, though the herb has also throughout history featured in bridal wreaths, so its symbolism could equally be joyful! And in a more recent twist, scientific studies of aromatherapy have confirmed that rosemary stimulates memory…so it’s officially an appropriate symbol for remembrance!
The Victorians, of course, elevated flower symbolism to an art form, and every emotion had its own specific flower to represent it—a neat way to express oneself under the strict etiquette of the age. Used most commonly to symbolise aspects of romantic love, the remembrance of a lost or unfulfilled love, for example, could be expressed in a bouquet of gardenias (secret love), pink carnations (remembrance), honeysuckle (devoted affection) and pink roses (desire).

For me the rose is a symbol of remembrance for my mother, most especially the delicate Cécile Brünner that she propagated in the gardens of every house we lived in. It’s obvious, I suppose: their delicacy and sweetness take the edge off grief and transport you to happier times.  Now I’m rose-mad…I faithfully promised my husband that I would redecorate our bedroom to suit his more alpha-male constitution…but here I am, surrounded by blowsy pink and red rose printed fabric, but, of course, he’s kind enough not to complain. And for my father, it has to be his army cap, still well-preserved after its issue nearly 70-odd years on. Although his episode in the Royal Artillery was relatively brief (during the Second World War), I believe his experiences at El Alamein and elsewhere shaped the rest of his life. Old soldiers never die…


Of course we don’t need symbols to remember…remembrance surely is as natural and spontaneous a process as the beating of our hearts or the inflating of our lungs, and the sum of our memories describes ourselves and our souls. But a symbol validates, comforts and brings something tangible to our memories, whether it’s as universal as the red poppy or as personal as an item of clothing, a special flower, a trinket, a talisman.
Or, put simply in the words of J. M. Barrie: ‘God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Autumn, A Second Spring

‘Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower,’ said the great French writer Albert Camus. A time for rejoicing, then, and to have a quick peek at the seasonal treats in this season’s Vintage Script.

The Hand in the Dark
Katy Darby

Once again, Katy enthrals us with her controlled and beautiful prose, enveloping the reader in an atmosphere of menace, suspense and hope. This is one to read with the lights down low and the ivy tapping at the window…
Interview with Tracy Borman
Emma Louise Oram

Lucky me—I got to interview historian and author Tracy who has an incomparable talent for bringing historical figures such as Elizabeth I, Matilda of Flanders and Henrietta Howard, mistress of King George II, to life. My chat with Tracy revealed some fascinating insights into these women’s lives, and equally revealing details of the life of Tracy, who swears by British Library cakes as an aid to research...

In Which A Storm Rages
Geoffrey Heptonstall

Geoffrey expertly describes the appointment of the new schoolmaster, Mr Ellis, to Prospect Hill. A sedate and unassuming man, Mr Ellis’s arrival is to the backdrop of an autumn storm, the consequences of which will change his life forevermore. Dark, unexpected and surprisingly uplifting.
The Affair of the Necklace
Michael Montagu

The biggest piece of bling of its time, the necklace in question was a massive 2,840 carats, bedecked with innumerable diamonds, tassels and festoons, and was created as a gift from Louis XV to his mistress. Michael describes how the item helped to bring a country to its knees—it’s a story of deceit and subterfuge played out by the sort of curious characters we know Michael is an expert on!
India Rubber
Lucy Ribchester

In her first published short story (the first of many to come, I’m sure!), Lucy tells the tale of the armed bodyguard squad of suffragettes, a little-known phenomenon. Her descriptions are beautifully-observed: ‘After Mrs Fenton had finished her heated speech she got up to show us a few Ju-Jitsu moves…Her skirt kept getting in the way, and she has arthritic hands which didn’t help when she wanted to demonstrate a hold’. Bravo, Lucy!
What’s in a Name?
Edward Clark

Edward never fails to enchant us with his unique style and his precise, delicate prose. Here he goes on an odyssey to find the meaning behind an intriguing Newmarket placename. Jump on for the ride!
It's autumn in my garden!

Moma Ida Mae’s Shoes
Jacquese Armstrong

Jacquese’s story evokes the tense atmosphere of the 1950s Deep South. Her characters are beautifully drawn and her description striking—‘…Miss Daisy would tell her stories that made her hair stand on end and made her angrier than a disturbed hornet’s nest’. It’s an honour to include Jacquese’s story, which speaks for so many, not just Moma Ida Mae.
Paris, A City of Everlasting Delights
Hugh Oram
Forget Paris in the Spring—think Paris in the Autumn and allow Hugh to take you on a tour of some of his favourite—and little-known—places to visit. Cafés, art, life and death—it’s all here—and you can trust Hugh, who says he knows the Paris street map better than that of his home town Dublin, to reveal the quirkiest and most surprising spots.
The Whisky-Spinners of Haslingden Grane
Autumn Barlow

Not only has Autumn the perfect name for the season, she perfectly evokes the bleak and windswept West Pennine Hills where the “whisky-spinners” dwelt in times gone by. The subterfuge involved in concealing the illegal distillation was astonishing—elaborate pipes, metal waistcoats and special saddles! The way Autumn describes the hills makes you believe that the whisky-spinners are still there amongst the piles of stones and deserted farms…
Ration Books and Victory Gardens
Lynn Kennison
Lynn, our second American contributor this season, was inspired by her grandmother’s recollections of the Second World War in Florida—blocking out the light to outfox enemy ships in the Atlantic, the ration books and the victory gardens. The voice of Lynn’s story is warm and authentic, and her details delightful. You can smell the aroma of gravy and fresh biscuits as Nana settles down in front of the stove and recounts her memories!
The Lesson of History
Jennifer Foster
‘This is not an historical story, but a story about the importance of history,’ says Jennifer as she paints a charming picture of an 11-year-old boy on a trip to London with his monument-mad mum. Yes, at first her enthusiastic commentary is embarrassing, but by the end of the tale, mother and son have been united by the lesson of history.
The autumn edition of Vintage Script is on sale now.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Curious Incident of the Fog in the Daytime

The fog has lain thick in my corner of Suffolk for two days now…but far from being a nuisance, it has inspired a weird eerie-cosy feeling. It makes you hurry to get home and take a last, long stare into the translucent atmosphere (just in case those shadows move) before drawing the curtains, lighting the lamps and settling down early for the evening, with tea, toast, a purring cat and sleepy children.

It’s even more fun if you’ve been out all morning enveloped in it and finding things you didn’t know you were searching for, as I was today. The impressions of the day have followed me home like friendly ghosts and urged me to write their story!
It’s quite amazing how much the fog has revealed. As we set out on our treasure hunt the first thing I notice is the plethora of spiders’ webs, highlighted by drops of moisture and hanging like cradles from branches and between leaves. Suddenly I am aware of this fragile world that is everywhere, and slow my movements and watch where I plant my feet.

Up in the woods, the tap-tap-tap of moisture falling from above is the backdrop for other sounds travelling through the obfuscation. The cry of a tawny owl surprises us—owls in daytime always fascinate me—and the sharp cough of a rutting deer cuts through the blanket of fog.
This place is weirdly magical, especially so today. Further into our walk, our guide tells us that here ducks nest in trees (really, it’s true!) and points out a pair of Egyptian geese—naturalised, but somehow out of place. Considered sacred by the ancient Egyptians, they certainly have the air of the orient about them. Their rich brown eye-patches remind me of overdone kohl.

Deep into the woods, all is quiet. We’re too far from roads for any traffic noise, and I shouldn’t be surprised to see a creature as rare and retiring as the Gruffalo emerge from between the Scots pines, pause and sniff in our direction, then retreat.

The almost-bare poplars make a melancholy scene. Once grown for match production, they now stand redundant, but so upright and regimented that you can’t help feeling pity for their blind and naked optimism.
A last treat as we leave the woodland is the sight of a majestic buzzard, wings outstretched, soaring then gliding through the trees.

On the way back to base we pass the Fairy Lake, trees hundreds of years old (including the Tea Party Oak) and a curious set of bumps in the ground that mark the site of the village precursor to the park. It had diminished over the years before the park was established in 1700, possibly due to the various outbreaks of plague prior to this time. Now I know why I felt so many eyes on me…

The grand, Italianate house is irrelevant today…you can’t see it through the fog anyway. Let its story be told another day.
I knew this place was supernatural but today the fog has elevated it to a Wonderland, revealing more than it has obscured. Hardly surprising when we’re so near to Hallowe’en, when the door to the Otherworld opens far enough to let through what normally hides in darkness. But rest assured, these curious beings aren’t harmful—they’re our link to another world—so remember to give them a friendly wink or a wave next time you’re in the deep, dark woods…

Do you know where I was today? Clue: big park near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk!
Vintage Script supports Visit Suffolk's Curious County campaign!

Friday, 12 October 2012

Happy Friday, All!

Happy Friday, all. Just wanted to apologise for anyone waiting for an email from me. I am at present overwhelmed by the number of dead spiders to clear up in my new/old house and my daughter's sleeplessness. I hope to be less overwhelmed next week when I'll be playing catch-up!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

New Beginnings

Summer may be drawing to a close, but for me this time of year has always marked new beginnings. Maybe because it’s the start of the academic year, or it could be the sense of satisfaction as the harvest is brought in and the fields are prepared for their next crop. This sense of well-being and optimism is at its peak in the late summer sunshine when the world is suffused in a mellow glow, the countryside a thousand shades of gold and green. The cool, dark evenings bring their own pleasure: a quiet, secret space, perfect for sorting and planning and looking forward.

And so we’ve spent the last few weeks clearing, dusting, moving furniture, painting walls and scrubbing floors in our new—and, God willing, “forever”—home. The house is a delight. Built in the early 50s, it is just on the cusp of “vintage” and bears many original features of the time—light switches, warm air heating shafts, door handles and parquet flooring (the cool, smooth wood underfoot is heaven). The house (our family home for almost 30 years) is already decorated and furnished to a concoction of my grandparents’ and parents’ taste—mainly Victoriana, some utility pieces dating from when our dad set up home for the first time in the 40s, lots of pink and lots of florals. Perhaps much of it is deeply unfashionable now—but it works because everything was chosen with purpose, love or both.

There are so many layers that make a house a home—details that are impossible to replicate, like the many notes my late mother left around the place. ‘UP for on DOWN for off’, ‘To lock turn RIGHT’, ‘Please pull shower curtain carefully’ and the number for the bird seed man in triplicate. There are no plans to take them down. I can never remember whether it’s up or down, left or right, I must stop tearing the shower curtain back dramatically and we’ll have to phone the bird seed man when the supplies run out.

Location, as they say, is key, and there is nowhere more beautiful than Suffolk in late summer. The agricultural landscape in which we sit is a reminder that life here is plentiful and tranquil. Our garden is semi-wild and perfect that way. Cultivated roses frame overgrown patches where deer, foxes and many species of bird make their homes. It’s the pheasants who are the most proprietorial: they stride up and down outside the kitchen window, trying to catch your eye, reminding us that we are mere lodgers in their home.

And so I have the pleasure of coming full circle to sleep and write in my childhood bedroom, and reproducing my adventures here for my own children. Nothing can mitigate the loss that has brought us back, but it is a privilege to live exactly where one’s heart desires, and a comfort to hear the house resonating with a loud creak every now and again, a reminder that it’s watching over us, like its absent matriarch.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A Review of Good Housekeeping’s Picture Cake Making (Fourth Impression, 1953)

Rifling through my late mother’s kitchen in search of ideas for a birthday cake for my son, I came across a pile of cook books bought in the 1950s in almost pristine condition (perhaps a testament to her scorn for domesticity when there are far more interesting things to do). Short of time as usual, I grabbed Good Housekeeping’s Picture Cake Making, picked out the Parcel Cake (page 145) and whipped it up (with a few tweaks—I couldn’t achieve the perfect butter cream writing under pressure so cheated and printed out an address label in a jaunty font instead) for my little cherub’s birthday tea. It was only a couple of weeks later when I had the chance to give it closer inspection that I realised what an absolute gem of a book it is—not just for the domestic goddess but for the sake of nostalgia, social history and the complete mouthwatering experience of 240 pages of cakes, cakes and more cakes…

Its opening gambit gives away its era: ‘Cake-making has an irresistible appeal to most women…Many housewives save up the necessary ingredients in order to give their families the benefit of good home-made cakes and to provide at moderate cost rich and exciting-looking cakes for special tea-parties and other celebrations’. The book was first published in 1952, so just at the tail end of rationing, and this seems to be reflected in the notion that cakes were for treats, and their making a special, almost sacred process.

Flicking through the book, I was impressed by the ingenuity in design of many of the cakes, given that the ingredients were pretty limited at the time: cakes shaped as baskets of flowers, fruit or mushrooms, hedgehogs, boats or cottages, for example. Several recipes suggest recycling stale cake to produce a new cake, indeed the foreword advises that, ‘The book is planned to demonstrate that cake-making is not a difficult art, and that innumerable varieties can be made from simple foundations’. And there’s even a whole section on ‘Economical sandwich cakes’.

The book’s tone is that of an old-fashioned, but encouraging, schoolmistress: ‘The most formal cake, and the most ambitious to make at home, is the tiered wedding cake. This calls for both patience and dexterity, but very satisfactory results can be obtained even by novices in cake decorating if they are prepared to follow instructions closely and carefully’. Despite the assumption that most women had an innate desire to stay at home and make cakes, which may seem slightly queer to us modern gals, the book actually makes you believe that anything is possible…even the notion of a novice baker producing a full-blown, traditional wedding cake!

For some strange reason, I love the level of detail about icing nozzles, with a whole plate depicting 42 examples complete with the icing they produce. Again, in line with the austerity of the age, the text suggests once you’ve practised your design on an upturned plate or saucer, the icing can be scraped off before it hardens, beaten up and used again.

The language is charming: ‘For a family party a jolly snow-scene cake can be quickly made, and will provide a gay decoration for the table’. How times have moved on.

How charming, too, that the cooking guide states that for gas ovens ‘standardised thermostats are not yet universal, so it is impracticable to quote cooking temperatures in terms of gas oven settings’. This statement alone transforms the cake-making process into a matter of alchemy, sixth sense and instinct (although it does also suggest using an oven thermometer to check up on temperatures).

Sweet, too, that the blurb at the back advertises the Good Housekeeping School of Cookery, its courses including ‘a special six-weeks course for brides, which includes choice and service of wines’.

As delightful as the book is, it would be wrong of me to gloss over one of its more startling recipes, the name of which I cannot bring myself to reproduce here. To give you a clue, the said cakes are mainly constructed from balls of cake mixture dipped in melted chocolate with ice cream cones for hats, emulating a dubious form of entertainment which was to enjoy a revival on television during the fifties. ‘These…cakes make excellent individual place cakes at a party; each child’s name can be written in icing on the cap, or if preferred the cones can be gaily decorated with icing and pieces of glacé cherries, etc.’ the author blithely suggests.

If you followed one recipe a day for a year, you still wouldn’t get through the whole book…although it’s an average-sized book, it was produced in the pre-celebrity chef era when a cook book really was a cook book and is packed with practical and creative ideas. And there’s something deliciously indulgent and comforting about leafing through the book late at night…it’s a visual feast, inspirational and aspirational, and, on the whole (but not entirely), packed as full of the charm of a bygone age that us vintage-lovers dream of. My recommendation? Have a rummage through your mother’s drawers and see if you can find a copy for a delectable late-night read!

Have you been amazed or inspired by old books you’ve stumbled upon? Let me know!

Thursday, 2 August 2012

An Afternoon at Moyse's Hall

I think I can say—without being boastful—that Moyse’s Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds, epitomises the spirit of Vintage Script…eclectic, unconventional and full of stories, some of them verging on the Gothic. Built in stone (indicating wealth) in 1180, the building is the oldest in the town, and the oldest domestic building open to the public in East Anglia. Originally a merchant’s house, and formerly a gaol, a tavern and a police station, it has been starring in its current role as museum since 1899.

I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon there yesterday. I experienced a frisson of excitement as I entered for a lady was in the throes of a “show and tell” episode with the man behind the counter. It seems she had discovered some artefact in her garden, and, eavesdropping as best I could, I overheard the gentleman declare that the item was officially “treasure”. How thrilling! The scene was so distracting that the lady at the admission desk ignored me and my entourage for a good five minutes before she acknowledged our presence. All was forgiven, though, as the circumstances were exceptional.

The ground floor of the museum houses artefacts connected to social and local history, with an element of the macabre throughout. Despite this common theme, the exhibitions feel disconnected and slightly random, but they are fascinating nonetheless. My favourites were firstly the lock of Mary Tudor’s (1496-1533) hair which was as luxuriant and golden as the ripened wheat in the Suffolk fields. (Her connection with the local area is that her second marriage was to Charles Brandon, First Duke of Suffolk, and she’s buried in St Mary’s Church in the town.)

I also loved the Anglo-Saxon pyramidal mount for a sword scabbard or sword belt, resplendent in gold, embellished with filigree and with a square garnet in the centre. It was tiny, but arresting, partly so because its shape reminded me of one of the sweets you get in Quality Street, but I can’t remember which one.

We turned the corner to the section on witchcraft and its morbidly fascinating exhibits—the dessicated cats found stuffed in walls to ward off witches, and the shoes (pronounced “shoowuz” in Suffolk) and witch bottles which served the same purpose. Interesting to learn, too, that the trials of 18 witches in Bury St Edmunds in 1662 influenced the Salem witch trials 30 years later.

Another ghoulish exhibition was that relating to the Red Barn Murder committed in Polstead, Suffolk, in 1827. William Corder shot dead his lover Maria Marten and secreted her body in the so-called Red Barn. Corder’s trial in Bury St Edmunds in August 1828 attracted a frenzy of interest. The man admitted his guilt and was hanged before a crowd of thousands (some say up to 20,000 spectators were present). The museum reveals that because it was unclear how Maria died, Corder was charged with every possible way of killing her, and that Maria’s decomposing head was used as evidence in the trial. If that’s not enough gore for you, you will be pleased to learn that Corder’s tanned scalp forms one of the exhibits, as does a book bound in his skin.

There is plenty more to see, most notably an exhibition relating to St Edmund, after whom the town is named. He was the king of East Anglia from approximately 855 to his death in 869. The poor old boy was slaughtered and beheaded by the Danes after refusing to renounce Christ. After death his head was reported to spontaneously reconnect to his body—weird.

I was also pleased to see that the man trap complete with partially-severed leg, which I remember from childhood visits to the museum, was still in situ.

I’m sorry to report that I found both the Olympics exhibition on the top floor and the Suffolk Regiment Gallery on the middle floor unimaginative, and I can’t think of anything more to say about either.

However, the museum’s flaws are far outweighed by the fascinating contents of the ground floor exhibitions, and all in all, I would definitely recommend a visit.

By some bizarre twist of fate, as we left a man, this time, was standing at the front desk showing the museum gentleman some coin he had found. My eavesdropping this time determined that the find wasn’t as thrilling as the earlier treasure…but nonetheless, I left with a feeling of satisfaction that our visit had been sandwiched between two new discoveries for history-lovers everywhere!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

A Murmuration, Three Rules and Lots of Elephants

Summer’s here at last…and what better way to celebrate than with the summer edition of Vintage Script? Here’s a preview of what’s between the covers…

Death on Stephen’s Green
Eamon Murphy

Eamon’s tale is a thriller in a nutshell. A man is shot in Stephen’s Green, Dublin, to the backdrop of a tumultuous episode in Irish history. Eamon skilfully pulls together the threads of personal and national history, slipping easily between the detail and the bigger picture.
Of Time and Newmarket’s Heaths
Edward Clark

You can see Edward’s artist’s touch as he describes the heaths and training grounds of Newmarket, capital of horseracing: early summer mornings on Warren Hill, he says, ‘…were obscured by a veil of mist, rapidly erased by the climbing sun to reveal a splendour of colour. Pale greens, yellows and siennas of dry grasses and foliage becoming clear, vivid against the blue’. Edward can bring any subject to life with his visual and lyrical prose.

Smokehouse Fulton
Eamonn Griffin

Here Eamonn captures the spirit of musicianship and of Americana with a subtle supernatural twist. Our Eamonn’s a smooth operator—my favourite quote from the master of understatement is, ‘Man, he felt alive’. Merely reading his words makes you feel like one cool cat.
Bathing Machines and Bloomer Costumes
Kirsty Ferry

Kirsty’s known in Blaydon and beyond for her revealing insights into times gone by. Here she recounts the history of a trip to the seaside. She talks of ‘Victorian ladies tethered like dogs to bathing machines by a piece of rope tied around their waist’, and what the Victorians did—or didn’t—wear to go bathing.

The Pillbox
Alexandra Clare
Talking of the seaside, Alexandra’s story is set in the Suffolk resort of Southwold,
and describes the reaction of the home front to events in France in the summer of 1940. Alexandra succeeds in bringing a poignant tale to life, which is both entertaining and revealing.
Our House
Michael Montagu

You feel like you really are enjoying a very personal tour round Michael’s childhood home in Henley-on-Thames in this piece. The detail draws you in and makes you smile: his mother’s preoccupation with the pile carpet being constantly brushed to avoid untidiness, the antiquated heating system and the frost flowers on Michael’s bedroom window. Michael’s talent is to make you feel right at home—go on, sink into one of the comfy sofas in the morning (or “all day”) room, that’s it, right next to the fire, and help yourself to sandwiches, cake and a nice cup of tea.
Aunty Ettie’s Elephant
Jacob Edwards

Jacob—our first antipodean contributor—paints a warm portrait of forgetful Nanna, based on his own grandmother, and sets the scene beautifully with lychee and banana trees shifting in the breeze and a conifer creaking before the rainstorm.
Mr Stephenson’s Regret: A Review
Emma Louise Oram
Yes, it’s me, reviewing old Vintage Script favourite David Williams’ novel about railway pioneers George and Robert Stephenson. Here I describe David as a master storyteller, and revel in his taut and passionate prose. Go, David!
Three Rules of Newgate
Katy Darby

We are honoured to have a sneak preview of Katy’s novel in progress, Hannah Hawking: A Newgate Story. If the ‘rain-darkened granite steps and forbidding black door’ and the redoubtable Mrs Arcombe don’t keep you on the straight and narrow, then nothing will.

Strawberry Tea and Reversible Jackets: Martial Law in Poland
Michal Franaszczuk

In his informative article, Michal reveals what it was really like to grow up under martial law in Poland. His personal touches bring life to the history. I especially loved the image of a young Michal queuing up twice for butter, deftly reversing his jacket between purchases as if he was a completely different boy…
A Murmuration of Starlings
Neil Coley
A reluctant hero ponders a murmuration hundreds of starlings in the evening sky. He marvels at the patterns they create, their skill and synchronicity. A touching and thoughtful piece from new Vintage Script writer Neil.
The Blacksmith’s Wife
Janis Pegrum-Smith

A happy ending is always a good thing, and a happy ending set in the late Suffolk summer that tells of true love is a bonus! Janis makes you want to linger in that churchyard in Darsham, tasting the sweet, plump blackberries and watching the sun set. Ah, bliss!

The summer edition of Vintage Script is on sale now.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Vintage Script SOS!

We are reopening for submissions to the summer edition of Vintage Script…but only till the end of the week!

We’ve had more quantity than quality this time, and still have some space to fill with original and well-written stories and articles with historic themes—see the Submissions page on our main website for guidelines.

The new deadline for the summer edition is 11.59pm on Friday 29 June 2012.

To increase your chances of getting published, please note these tips. We are looking for:

Definition: a unique way with words, denial of clichés and a fresh take on history.

A good piece of writing should resemble a sprig of cherry blossom against a clear sky: understated and striking.

Thoughtful content
The topic we get most of here at VS HQ is the First World War and the Second World War. Of course, they are both deserving subjects, but you’ve got more chance of being published if your piece is both well-written and on less familiar ground.

We love both unpublished writers and those who can contribute regularly to Vintage Script.

I’ll be letting all writers (including those who contributed before the original deadline) know during the week commencing 2 July 2012 whether or not they’ve been selected.

Friday, 8 June 2012

A Letter To My Mother

It all went off well. There was a good turn-out—the tennis people, family, neighbours, even the solicitor came. Heavy showers gave way to sunshine and a pheasant walked in front of the hearse as it made its way up to the church, not a care in the world. The churchyard was so pretty—oxeye daisies and other wildflowers I glimpsed out of the corner of my downcast eye.

A skylark was singing its heart out as we got back to the house. We’d polished the wooden floors and brought flowers in from the garden. Oh, and we had a lovely Victoria sponge—you would have enjoyed that. ‘Not too sweet,’ you would’ve said. We’d had a good tidy-up as well—moved all your boxes of paperwork. The house was so alive with all the people who came back for the do. But it echoed with your absence.

Then yesterday we took you back to your South London roots to lay you to rest. It started to rain as we got to the cemetery. It brought out the lemony scent of the roses and the clay of the dug soil.

The vicar said something about the frailty of the human body and the release of the spirit at death. You’re free now from this world and we should wish you well. But still I long to hear the creak of the floorboards in your room, your careful tread downstairs, the click of the kettle as you switched it on. This is a new beginning, though, for you and for us, and I wish you bon voyage and I’ll see you there when I’ve finished what I’ve got to do.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

My Beloved Mother Patricia

In memory of my beloved mother, Patricia, who passed away peacefully on Sunday 13 May 2012.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012


I felt like Odysseus, returning home to Ithaca after his years of travel as I turned the key in the door. Well, I suppose it would be an exaggeration to say that five years living in the north east of England is akin to the Trojan War. Perhaps more like Dorothy, tapping the heels of her ruby slippers three times to magic her home to Kansas. (And I swear I’ve met the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion in the Bigg Market on a Friday night.)

At Christmas I wrote of the joy of returning home for the festive season. Imagine, then, the bliss of coming home to Suffolk to live. Here the air is milder, the landscape comfortingly flat. (Teetering on the steep banks of the north east only reminded me that we are mortal beings clinging onto a globe hurtling in an orbit in a black and frightening infinity.)

Now the view to the front of our house is of a sparrow hawk hovering above a fluorescent field of oilseed rape, the village nestling in one direction, the church in another. Nothing could be more East Anglian. As I step outside on our first night, the combined smell of a wood-fuelled fire and the post-rain crop remind that I am truly home. This is my Camelot.

But it’s not just my imagination—this place really is magical. Where once the Angel of the North stood guard over us, now a whole roof-ful of angels in a neighbouring church protect us. And within just a few miles legends abound: the mysterious green children who emerged from an underground land, a lost gold mine, subject of a failed excavation by Henry VIII, and a village named after pits for trapping the wolves that once roamed the land.

But I cannot say that the north east has been unkind. We bring home our two children, both born within earshot of St James’ Park, and both gifted with contradictory Geordie characteristics. My son, with his permanent sense of impending Armageddon, and my daughter, with her ability to entertain herself under even the most trying of circumstances. We had many adventures up north—Holy Island, Durham Cathedral, Jesmond Dene and Crook Hall must count among the highlights. And there are many adventures to be relived here.

There’s a whole summer’s worth of rediscovery to come, bombing down the country lanes with the radio on full blast (no doubt my son will protest with his habitual, ‘Too loud, dear!’). Give us a toot if we drive past—we’ll be the only car in Suffolk with a Newcastle United sticker in the back…

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A Maverick Surgeon, RMS Titanic, The Witch's Ladder & More

It's spring, and that can only mean one thing—the latest edition of Vintage Script is out, full of little joys to be unwrapped and devoured. As well as a time of anniversaries, this season is one of reminiscence, discovery and a look forward to delights to come. Here's a quick taste of what's on offer.

The Work Is Not God's
Richard Smyth
A Gothic tale, this one—not for the fainthearted. If you like anatomy and have a taste for the macabre, this is a story for you. Richard's vivacious prose transports you right to the very point where blade meets flesh.

The Unsinkable Rose Ellen Murray
Kirsty Lee

We all think we know the Titanic story, says Kirsty, but there are as many mysteries about it as there were lost lives. Here we meet an imaginative "survivor" of the disaster with a penchant for sea travel (and storytelling), despite an unfortunate propensity to sink a ship.

I Remember Harry Bagnall
Bill Carr

A poignant love story, set in Byker, Newcastle upon Tyne, at the outset of the First World War. 950 men from Byker alone were killed in the war, and Bill here pays tribute to lives loved and lost.

The Age Of Wood
Max Adams

Max tells us the story of wood, and the people who have worked it through the ages. It's a delightful reminder that that woodlands are a vital resource for raw materials, for history and for stories.

The Age Of Wood

The Flying Boy
Edward Clark
Inspired by an old photo, Edward recalls the long, hot summer days of his youth spent at the open-air pool. His writing makes you believe that the Flying Boy of the title could jump out of the page before you, and you really can smell the chlorine and feel the heat rising up from the flagstones.

Exhibit M.218-1978
Joanne Ogden

The centrepiece of this story is a brooch of enamelled gold, whose secret brings about a satisfying conclusion to a gripping tale. It's a delicate thing that proves powerful in troubled times.

A Knock At The Door
David Williams

This extract from David's novel Mr Stephenson's Regret gives us an insight into the private lives of railway pioneers George and Robert Stephenson. Fame and fortune may have come later in life for George, but here David—a fluent and sensitive writer—gives us a sense of the struggles he faced as a father, son, brother and man.

George Stephenson

William's War
Mavis Lee
Mavis has created a collage here from letters, postcards, programmes and other snippets that her grandfather, William, sent or brought back from the First World War. The details are touching—he tells of how he clung to a raft for over six hours after his ship was torpedoed, and talks later of the souvenirs he hopes to return with. And there's a happy ending too...

Chewing Gum
Sue Mackrell

Sue has happy memories of visiting her aunt's sweet shop in South Wales, and her tale vividly recalls the fusty shop and the treasures therein—Rainbow Drops, Flying Saucers and Everlasting Toffee. It will strike a chord with anyone who remembers the joy of a paper bag laden with their favourite sweet treats.

1912 Overture
Kim Charleston

Not only is this year the centenary of the Titanic disaster, but also that of the death of Bram Stoker. Here Kim deftly combines the two in a series of letters from one of his domestics. The parallel strands of the story remind us that where there is hope and imagination, there is also frailty and tragedy.

Bram Stoker's famous book

A Stroke Of Luck?
Michael Montagu

Michael turns "genetic detective" here to trace the medical history of his famous family—kings of Scotland and England descended from the House of Stuart. Fascinatingly, he reveals that Charles II most likely died from acute mercury poisoning—he was a keen scientist, it seems, and loved nothing better than a session of experimenting with mercury in his lab...

The Witch's Ladder
Claire Fuller

A witch's ladder made with cock's feathers and human hair...could it at once cause a destructive inferno and bring the best of good fortune to its victims' neighbours? Read Claire's story and decide for yourself...

The spring edition of Vintage Script is on sale now.

No blog post next week...Vintage Script will be en route for our new HQ in Suffolk. Normal service to resume week commencing 7 May...catch you then!