Monday, 17 February 2020

Seeing – or not seeing – things rather differently, by Elizabeth Kay

I booked a New Year’s hotel break for myself and my husband in the Lake District, somewhere I’d never been before. I didn’t realise I’d chosen a hotel that caters mainly for the partially-sighted, and it was a revelation. The staff were the nicest, most caring people I have ever met, without exception, and the building, although elderly, was designed with the blind in mind. The notices were all in Braille, as well as conventional script, and the paths outside all had handrails. There were guide dogs galore, the best-behaved dogs you will ever see, who frequently knew one another but never let anything distract them when they were at work. The exception, I was told, was when people stayed for Christmas, and the dogs had their own presents which arrived in a sack that they instantly recognised. They were allowed to go mad for half an hour, after which they all went straight back on duty. I was surprised by the upbeat atmosphere – and boy, did everyone know how to party when it came to New Year’s Eve! We really enjoyed being able to assist in small ways every so often, and there was a boat trip and a visit to Beatrix Potter World.

 Beatrix Potter has always fascinated me, as she was a multi-talented woman way ahead of her time. Many years ago I saw an exhibition of her illustrations. Not Jeremy Fisher and Peter Rabbit, but her precise and detailed watercolours of toadstools, many of which are still used by mycologists today. She was scientifically accurate, and discovered the fact that fungi reproduce with spores. No one believed her, because she was a woman. She also led the way concerning the preservation of rare sheep breeds and local farming practices, and bought up a lot of land which she left to the National Trust. The exhibition consists of models of her characters, in beautiful settings. They can all be touched and stroked, and the building is full of sounds and smells as well.  It would work equally well for the deaf, and was thoroughly delightful. Outside we went into the garden, where they grow many different herbs, all there to be smelled and touched. The garden won a gold award at the Chelsea Flower Show a few years back, What hadn’t occurred to me was that partially-sighted people can find their way around a garden by the scent of the flowers, and strongly-scented herbs at the top of a flight of steps are an important safety feature. It was a highly educational visit, and enjoyed by all.

Meals were an important element of the holiday, and the staff were always there to ferry cups of coffee and make toast. It wasn’t gourmet fare, but it was of a high standard and plentiful. The bar was surprisingly cheap, and there was free Prosecco and whisky to welcome in the New Year. There was entertainment, too, which was equally well thought-out. A singer, dressed in white and silver, who moved around a lot and could be seen by those with peripheral or fading vision. Lots of Abba songs, and much audience participation.
The holiday wasn’t what we expected, but it was a totally new experience, and we felt privileged to be part of it. I felt as though I had made a lot of friends, and if I went back again I would be remembered and greeted with enthusiasm.
Some years ago I wrote a blind character in a book. But I now realise that although I think I made a good stab at it, there were so many things I didn’t consider.
“The pile-up on the M25?”
            “You remember that? Everyone remembers that. Apparently the footage of the fire was spectacular.” She was still looking over my shoulder. Suddenly the penny dropped.
            She was blind.
            “I was driving,” she said. “Isabel lived in the flat upstairs, you see; we’d become… friends. We were on our way to a festival…”
            I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “You’re Angela?” I said, speaking for the first time. “Angela Curtis?”
            The woman turned as white as a sheet, and put out a hand to steady herself. A yellow Labrador suddenly appeared at her side, summoned by some sense unknown to us that’s capable of detecting distress.
            Isabel,” she said. “My God.”
            “I…” I wanted to say, you had brown hair the last time I saw you, but it sounded crass, mentioning something visual. I could now see that there were snow-white roots beneath the hennaed bob.
            “You didn’t recognise me, did you?” she said. “I’m not surprised. But I’d have known your voice anywhere.” A hint of anger was creeping into hers. “Where have you been? What have you been doing? Why didn’t you come and see me?”
            “Can we talk about all this inside?” said Tony.
            “Is this your bloke then, Isabel?” There was real bitterness in her voice now.
            “No,” I said. “He found me in a bus shelter.”
            “It’s true,” said Tony. “She’d lost her memory. She was only wearing a raincoat and one shoe. I thought she was a hooker.”
            “Really.” The sarcasm was almost palpable. But she stepped back from the door, and ushered us inside. We followed her down the hall and into her sitting room. I felt like Alice going through the looking glass, only I was stepping back into my past rather than another world. Little had changed from the last time I’d seen it, eleven years previously.  
            “Okay,” said Angela. “You talk, and I’ll listen.”
            So I did.
            Tony appalled me at one point by taking a couple of photographs – he’d finally twigged  that Angela couldn’t see the flash. I didn’t let on. I still didn’t know how to talk about something visual to someone who was blind.

I’m not sure how well I did that. The dog would have gone to the front door with her, not appeared later on. As writers, we’re meant to be able to imagine what it would be like to be deaf/lose the use of our legs/become disfigured. And researching things like that can be intrusive, tactless, and distressing, however laudable our motives. The one thing I learned over the New Year that really shocked me was how often blind people are robbed. They put a purse down when they’re paying for something, and they can’t see someone else pick it up and walk off with it. It’s hard not to simply be overwhelming glad whatever it was that took away a person’s sight didn’t happen to us.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Another string to my bow? by Alex Marchant

I started writing fiction again, after a few years’ gap, after a ‘big’ birthday – a time when many people take stock of their lives and wonder if they should make ‘big’ changes. I had two young children and my work as a freelance copyeditor allowed me to be flexible around their school routines and holidays, so a career change wasn’t a feasible option. However, the decision instead to kick-start my writing led eventually to a further decision – to self-publish the results.
That was in 2017, and it has led to changes in various parts of my life, as detailed often in this blog over the past couple of years. Most of my income still comes from my freelancing, which now allows me the flexibility to travel to events across the UK to give talks and readings and sell my books. I also decided a year or two back that, with my children’s increased independence, it was time to pursue another interest.

Bosworth medieval festival

My early teenage dreams involved two possible careers – writing and acting. I loved films, TV, theatre as much as I loved books. At home I scribbled stories or gazed at the icons of the silver screen shrunk to a height of a few inches on our family television; outings to the cinema or school trips to the theatre were less-affordable, but hugely enjoyed treats. I enthusiastically threw myself into every aspect of English department drama productions at school. But stage-management and lighting became my domain when it sadly became apparent that perhaps my talents didn’t lie upon the stage itself.
Having said that, I still recall the thrill at seeing my name on the casting sheet of our very last sixth-form production – next to the very role I coveted: the Fourth Tempter in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. That may sound like the infamously insignificant ‘fourth spear-carrier’ in stage productions, but anyone who knows the play may recognize it as the plum role after St Thomas Becket himself – the insidious voice that tempts him ‘with [his] own desires’, encouraging him to actively seek martyrdom for personal glory. Not much of a claim to fame, perhaps – although a minor one comes from lighting school productions starring a certain Alex Kingston, who herself went from playing the Third Knight in an earlier production of Murder to the heights of the Royal Shakespeare Company, ER and Doctor Who! But I digress…

Alex Kingston as River Song (copyright

Acting may not have been for me, but my fascination with film-making continues. For a long time I’d toyed with the idea of becoming a ‘supporting artiste’ for films and TV – otherwise known as an ‘extra’ – not so much for the chance to see myself on screen as to find out just what happens on a ‘shoot’. Is it really as it’s portrayed in Ricky Gervais’s eponymous sitcom? The chance finally arrived about eighteen months ago when I happened upon a casting call for extras for a film being shot not far from where I live. I signed up with the agency doing the recruiting, congratulating myself on being self-employed and therefore offering the flexibility they needed.

An exciting new world appeared to be opening up. A world of casting calls for an intriguing variety of productions – all of them secret. (I think I can now reveal some of the titles, but during filming you have to sign up for confidentiality. No phones or photos on set, no posting anything identifiable on social media.) Did I want to be put forward for the role of a housekeeper in a period drama? Or that of a ‘dock person’ or sailor in the same production? (I received a total of nine separate calls for that particular drama – and given that it turned out to be about a cross-dressing Victorian landowner, perhaps inviting a female extra to be a nineteenth-century sailor wasn’t as far-fetched as it first appeared!) A factory worker for a tea advert? A Polish woman in a World War II drama? An office worker in a major new science fiction series?

Suranne Jones in Gentleman Jack

Flexible I may appear – but that’s not how it’s turned out in the world of supporting artists. The calls are often last minute: ‘Can you make a costume fitting this afternoon in Liverpool, for filming tomorrow?’ read one text that arrived when I was driving up the A1 to drop my student daughter in Newcastle; ‘Can you get to this airfield on the outskirts of York tomorrow at 6.30 am?’ And far too often they’ve clashed with family activities or book promotion events (that housekeeper role – it had to be the same weekend as Bosworth medieval festival…). Sometimes, I’ll be honest, I’ve just not fancied driving in the dark to and from a winter’s shoot in an unknown town.
So extras work hasn’t quite provided the new string to my bow that I’d hoped, although the availability requests still trickle in. The latest near-miss was being shortlisted for a certain popular series about the royal family – on the weekend when an old friend asked to visit to take her daughter to a nearby university open day. Old friendship and the chance to catch up won out – and then relief when Storm Ciara hit. At least I didn’t have to fight through its devastating winds and rain to try and find the shoot location in early morning darkness.

To date I’ve had just one day’s filming, but it has to be said it was fascinating – and has certainly whet my appetite for more. I was one of a hundred extras, mostly female, playing workers in a Lancashire cotton mill. All kitted out in authentic corset and wooden clogs (neither of which would be seen, even in any close-ups), I hung around chatting to other extras about their various filming experiences while periodically being called to hair (authentic bun – despite being out of sight beneath an authentic cap), make-up (a dusting with dirt), breaking down (where the freshly laundered skirt and blouse were smeared with mud for that authentic millworker look), a health and safety talk, and finally rehearsals and filming itself in the historic mill (now a museum). With the looms going full tilt and a hundred workers performing their choreographed roles, it was quite an awe-inspiring sight. And one I estimated might be seen for all of about 30 seconds in the final drama – given how long the principal actors took to walk the length of the mill delivering their lines.

Queen Street Mill, Burnley

It was 35 seconds in the end – so I wasn’t far off. I watched it on the BBC I-player at Christmas with half an eye on the time counter – twice, just to be sure. And of course, just to check that there really was no chance of spotting me in the distance – let alone my clogs or corset. All that effort, all those people, all those once-immaculate costumes, all that (fantastic) catering – for such a fleeting glimpse. To be sure, some footage was used in the background of a longer scene in the mill office, and the principals also shot a ghostly scene with the looms working but no one operating them. But overall it was a fascinating insight into just how much work and effort (and people and money) go in to filming a complex drama – and I got paid reasonably well for what was mostly sitting around chatting – it definitely felt like money for old rope.

I won’t be giving up the day job any time soon for either of my new ventures, but I’m very much enjoying the new experiences they’ve brought. Who knows what might be round the corner with either of them? I’m currently waiting to hear if I’ve landed the part of a ‘mourner at a high-end funeral’ in what may be ‘the action film of the year’. Please keep your fingers crossed for me!

Alex Marchant is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name and Right Trusty and Well Beloved…, two anthologies of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). She's also available for panto ... 

Alex’s books can be found on Amazon at:

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

The Dark Side by Misha Herwin

The Dark Side

It’s a grey stormy afternoon in February and I am contemplating the dark side.

 “Comparison is Death” said my friend Jonathan and in terms of artistic endeavour he is so right. Jonathan was talking about acting, but it’s as true for writing. There is nothing more debilitating, or eroding of confidence as comparing your work with other more successful writers.

In that lies misery and perdition. So many of us find ourselves asking why when we look at novels, no better no worse than ours that reach the best seller list. Even worse is when a writer you don’t really rate sells millions of books.

Reading their novels won’t help. You might get an idea about what they do that appeals to their readers, but more than likely you will be plunged even further into the depths of…is it envy? That has to be part of it, but there’s something else operating here, which is to do with the vulnerability of being a writer.

We all write to communicate, but the process of writing is solitary and unless our work is published in some form other people won’t read it. So working away day after day, week after week, for years to produce something no one will ever share is not good for our view of ourselves.
A response to what we have written validates our view of ourselves. The best reviews ever are those spontaneous ones from readers that just have to tell you how much they loved your book or story, but in our society we have been programmed to expect or rather to need more. Which is why we crave the million book sales, why we yearn to “live the dream” – a poisonous phrase if ever there was one, because this dream depends not on self-approval, but the approval of others. What is worse, fashions change. Readers move on to new writers others drop out of favour. Who now reads M J Farrell, Kate Chopin or Shirley Conran? What happens to the dream then?

The trouble is it is almost impossible to rid ourselves of these expectations, because from the moment we are born we are being compared to our peers, to our friends to other pupils, fellow students…it goes on and on.

When we grow up we compare our jobs, our incomes, our homes and living in the capitalist world that we do, the advertisers do their best to make sure that we are never satisfied with what we have.
Unless of course we can break free. Decide what path we want to take and stop worrying about what everyone else is doing.

Outside my window the wind is still blowing but the sun is breaking through the clouds.

Monday, 10 February 2020

Mindfulness | Karen Kao

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
Thus intones the website Google the word mindfulness and you’ll find a world of coaches and retreats, a series of TED Talks and even The Mindfulness App.

It all sounds pretty goofy to me. I’m here, aren’t I? What more do you want from me? But lately I’ve been thinking about how much my life has changed over the past 7 years. How much I’ve changed. Was it quitting my law practice or starting to write that did the trick? Somewhere, somehow, along the line, mindfulness entered my life.


writing mindfulness
Marcel Proust. Image source:
In the winter, I spend most of my time in bed. Some of that is sleep but most of it is reading and writing. I like to write with my papers and books and photographs spread out around me, the cat curled at my feet. My husband calls me Marcel Proust though my nightwear is decidedly less lacy than his (Marcel’s). I’m also not picky about my writing implements: quill and ink, a laptop, a pencil and my journal, hell, crayon and a paper napkin will do, too.

That scene may look like hibernation (or just plain laziness) but that’s not how it feels to me. Bed is where the border with dream blurs. I’m awake but not, alert and not, open to whatever the gods or my characters whisper in my ear. I suppose you could call it a state of mindfulness.

None of this would have been possible while I was a lawyer. Time ticks. There are business hours, meeting times, departures and arrivals. As a lawyer I was always acutely aware of the passage of time in six minute increments. I worked under a deadline or not at all.

Beneath all that sound and fury, it seems to me that my mind was hibernating. It was awake but not, alert to everything that moved but unaware of stillness. I don’t think I was open to anything anyone cared enough to say.

the insanity defense

Maybe law and mindfulness just don’t mix. Like nature, the business model of a law firm abhors a vacuum. Billable hours are meant to be billed. There is no other measure of time.

When I was a lawyer, I had no time for hobbies. Early on in my career, while I was still in DC, I danced. After that, it was sheer nervous energy and a nicotine habit that kept me thin. Thin looks good in a business suit.
exercise mindfulness
My tai chi jacket made by Tigres Silk. Image source:
I’m not so thin anymore. The power suits have retreated from my wardrobe, ceding territory to yoga pants and an official tai chi suit. It amazes me still to find myself cross-legged on a zabuton, my hands cupped and eyes half-closed, trying to meditate.

It doesn’t usually work. Instead, I keep asking myself: how did I get here?


When the weather gets warm and the planting season opens, I spend my time in the garden. I continue to surround myself with books and papers, though there may be seed packets mixed in there, too. I may stop writing to tidy up a hedge or turn my sunflowers so they’ll grow straight and tall. Or I’ll listen to the birds whistle to each other in the trees while I ponder which word to plant next.

According to, you don’t need gizmos or special outfits in order to practice mindfulness. It’s essentially meditation and breathing exercises. But there are also other ways to reach a state of mindfulness like writing and, in particular, handwriting. There’s something meditative about that physical act, the crossing of the t’s and the dotting of the i’s. Handwriting is also said to stimulate the brain in more ways than pounding a keyboard can.

journaling mindfulness
My journal. Photo credit: Karen Kao
If you keep a journal like I do, you’re probably writing it by hand. In that case, you may be reaping a double benefit. Journaling isn’t necessarily a form of mindfulness but it’s generally regarded as beneficial to our mental health. A journal can function as an outlet for anxiety, stress or depression. It can be a way to connect with yourself in an unmediated, non-judgmental fashion.

Julia Cameron is a big fan of journaling. She’s an expert in creative unblocking. Her twelve-week process begins with Morning Pages: three pages to be written by hand every morning. Other than that, there are no rules.
They are to be strictly stream of consciousness, no “high art” here. You simply move your hand across the page and write whatever thought comes into your head. Even “non-thoughts” are fine. Don’t expect or demand that you have a writing style. Any style at all will do. So fret, gripe, worry, scold – or celebrate. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages.
Journals are Cameron’s next step. She urges her students to use their journals to vent, pray, become adventurous or just smarter. She even says a journal can help you lose weight. This I learned when someone gifted me a copy of Cameron’s book The Writing Diet: Write Yourself Right-Size. Apparently, I’ve put on too much weight since my lady lawyer days.

writing mindfulness

That’s not the reason why I keep a journal. My journal entries are mostly rough drafts of blog posts, book reviews and newsletters. A pitch to impress the commissioning editor of a literary journal or query an agent. The best entries, however, are the ones that feed my fiction.

Right now, I’m rewriting my novel-in-progress, Peace Court. It’s the umpteenth rewrite and still I have questions to ask. Why is my heroine Song Li so intent on attending university? And exactly how high a price is she willing to pay to achieve her goal?

I wait for the moments when Song Li responds. I have to listen carefully. Shut out all the noise on the surface of my life. Dive deep to hear the water murmur in the cold. If that’s a state of mindfulness, then let me live there forever.

Note: Mindfulness was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir

Sunday, 9 February 2020

(while writing) Intelligent Irregulars by Julia Jones

This week began on Monday (as they so often do). Private Eye magazine was almost ready to go to press and Francis, who was in charge, was privately congratulating himself that everyone was likely to get away for home in good time. Then in came the Metropolitan Police, clearing the building. An unexploded WW2 bomb had been discovered in neighbouring Dean Street and the Soho area of London was being evacuated. The office is in Carlisle Street, one of those hit on ‘the longest night’ – that raid May 10th-11th 1941 when 550 bombers, dropped 700 tonnes of high explosive on the city, killing 1500 civilians and taking the death toll since September 1940 over 43,000   ‘The explosion tore through the western end of Carlisle Street, damaged Richmond Buildings – two streets south – and blocked off Dean Street. The heavy blast also completely demolished Carlisle House, an elegant eighteenth century city mansion, home to the British Board of Film Censors from 1936.’ Two volunteer firewatchers were on duty in Carlisle House that night, both were killed. One of them was 14-year-old Martin Hyde, an ARP messenger,watching with his father George. At the beginning of the war Martin, like so many other London children, had been evacuated to the country for safety, but his parents had missed him so much that they had brought him home.

The first civilian casualties of WW2
were at Clacton in Essex April 30th 1940
when a bomb-carrying Heinkel
hit a house
(cf The Oaken Heart p299)
Not that the countryside was invariably safe. My father, George Jones, returning home in December 1943, debilitated after a long spell of naval duty in Sierra Leone, was shocked to find all the windows blown out of the family farmhouse near Chelmsford in Essex. There were fatalities across the county and when Margery Allingham, writing The Oaken Heart during 1940-41 from her home in Tolleshunt D’Arcy, Essex, sent her manuscript to the Censor’s office (May 1941), the only passages cut were from those sections describing the bombs that had come down and the frequent foolishness of the country neighbours hunting for souvenirs.

A significant percentage of the mines failed to explode so experts were sent to render them safe. Even today the Ministry of Defence expects to be called to about 60 unexploded WW2 bombs per year. On Monday this week (3.2.2020) the Royal Engineers arrived in Soho – highly trained professionals / very brave men.  In 1940-1941 the problem was new, the technologies unfamiliar, the training sketchy and the individual courage even more startling. Allingham’s home in Tolleshunt D’Arcy was also the local ARP headquarters and she describes one young man arriving to de-fuse a bomb: He was the sort of lazy-eyed lad one would normally expect to find lying on his back under an old sports car.  I told him where the thing was and that it was thought to be of considerable size.  He thanked me kindly and I offered him a drink. He said he didn’t think he would at the moment, if I didn’t mind, because he’d like to be absolutely clear-headed for a bit. At that moment I suddenly realised quite clearly and in precise terms what he must have known all along and it was a vivid and awe-inspiring knowledge. I said, involuntarily and idiotically, ‘Oh do be careful!’ (OH p238)

Allingham isn’t specific about his branch of service though she calls him a ‘lieutenant’. I’m currently writing a book about the WW2 experiences of some of the amateur yachtsmen who volunteered for the RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve). Many of them were immediately sent to sea in mine-sweepers: the first deaths at sea from underwater mines occurred on September 10th 1939 when the cargo ship SS Magdapur was sunk off the Suffolk coast, just north of Aldeburgh. Both sides had been quick to lay ‘conventional’ minefields. These were (in theory) charted and declared. Through the autumn and winter of 1939, however, deaths from a new type of magnetic mine, laid off the British coast, had escalated to a point where all shipping in and out of the Thames was suspended and the country potentially close paralysis. I hunch over my computer, my eyes widening and breath coming faster as I follow the stories of the people involved in investigating and averting this crisis: some of them ‘regulars’ (like the famous Lt-Cmdr Ouvry RN) but many of them lawyers, journalists, academics, people who had only been only in uniform for a matter of weeks. Men like Yachting Monthly editor Maurice Griffiths, Jewish activist lawyer Feldman Ashe Lincoln, Canadian chemist Charles Goodeve. I’m choosing my chapter titles from Erskine Childers’s Riddle of the Sands. These three RNVR volunteers – and their newly met RN colleagues – appear in draft chapter 7: ‘Courage to the Point of Recklessness’

I could have used that heading almost throughout but by the time Francis came home this week with his tale of an interrupted Press Day, I had reached draft chapter 10 – the later summer of 1940, through to spring 1941 – for which my working title is ‘Intelligent Irregulars’. It covers the involvement of some of these RNVSR yachtsmen in the post-Dunkirk evacuations (Operation Aerial), supporting resistance in Norway (Shetland Bus) and their (to-me-surprising) responsibilities during the period of the Blitz. I find them in London backstreets, Liverpool gasometers, Yarmouth beaches, Essex woods as well as at sea. They were away from their ships because, by the summer of 1940, the collective success of all those involved in countering the threat of the magnetic mines off the coast, together with increased patrolling vigilance, meant that underused stocks had began to accumulate in German factories. Realisation then came (probably to Herman Goering) that they could equally be dropped as heavy bombs on land, often floating down attached to green silk parachutes. As they had been designed as sea-mines, however, responsibility for rendering them safe if they had failed to explode remained with the Navy. 

In September 1940 Maurice Griffiths (attached to HMS Vernon, the naval department responsible for mine-disposal and countermeasures) found himself taken away from his mine-sweeping flotilla of ex-fishing-boats and given a dark blue truck and a naval diver to deal with bombs that had fallen into the London Docks. He remembered the scene that greeted his small team each morning as they threaded their way through the East End. Streets that the diving party had driven through the previous day were now avenues of smoking rubble and, on occasion the police had to show them how their van could reach the part of Dockland where an unexploded mine was reported. In places group of people with drawn faces lined the pavements but when they caught sight of the dark blue Navy truck hurrying through. Their expressions it up and they usually gave a cheer with Churchill’s victory sign. Yet none of them knew what horrors the following night would bring, what chance there would be of finding themselves and their families homeless or no more. (The Hidden Menace p106)

One of the 'fledgling sub-
Mines were soon being dropped beyond London ‘on Liverpool and Manchester, Coventry and Southampton, Chelmsford and Harwich, Birmingham Sheffield Hull and Glasgow’ (Griffiths) Increasing numbers of RMS (Rendering Mines Safe) parties were needed to deal with this increasing problem.  Griffiths explained ‘Fledgling sub-lieutenants emerging from HMS King Alfred, the RNVR training school at Worthing, were given the necessary instruction, issued with a standard kit of non-magnetic tools, and sent out with one of the experienced officers for instruction in the front line.’  (The Hidden Menace p106) 

Well, that was the theory at least. One of the yachtsmen whose story I’m following is John Miller, pre-war assistant secretary to the Northamptonshire Education Committee. He had gained acceptance into the RNVR by the simple expedient of refusing to accept the Admiralty’s letter of rejection. ‘I picked up a pen and wrote back to say that I had received their Lordship’s communication, but had noticed that it was on a standard printed form; was it possible that the clerk engaged in dealing with the applications had pulled a form by mistake from the wrong pile? This piece of expertise produced the offer of a commission by return of post and I had rushed off to Brighton before this second communication could be recalled.’  (Saints and Parachutes p14)

By September 1940 Miller was undergoing his RNVR training at HMS King Alfred, Hove (near Brighton). I was by then myself a class captain and had just paraded by squad for a period of drill outside in the yard when a secret signal was brought up by an orderly. The first heavy air raid on London had taken place the night before. The signal stated that twelve volunteers were required from the Fleet to attempt to dismantle a number of German magnetic mines which had been dropped on London by parachute. (These were the great mines which the public at once, though not really correctly, named ‘land mines’.)

I read the signal out to my squad and asked any volunteers to take one pace forward. The entire squad of thirty moved a pace nearer. I dismissed the party and dashed to the Commanding Officer, hoping to reach his office before he had taken all the names he needed. I reported that all my squad wished to go but asked that I, as class captain, might be allowed preference. I was handed a railway warrant and told to go immediately to HMS Vernon, the headquarters of the torpedo and mining department in Portsmouth.   (S&P p16-17)

‘In the train for Portsmouth, as we slipped along in the September sunshine beneath Arundel Castle, it was borne upon me that I might not have much longer to live.’ Miller and his eleven companions duly reported to HMS Vernon, remained there 48 hours, were introduced to a few tools and given some brief instruction from Lt-Comdr Ouvry. They were then sent on to the Admiralty. ‘We politely pointed out that we had really received very little instruction and could hardly regard ourselves as qualified to deal with a live mine. This submission was waved aside, with the remark that we need not take things too seriously; we should be going out in the first instance with an expert.’ 

The volunteers were issued with sheaves of papers showing addresses, dates and times. ‘ “When you have dealt with those,” said the Captain, “You can come back and let me know.” We exchanged anxious glances. “But who is taking us, sir?” I asked. “TAKING YOU?” said the Captain, “You’re taking yourselves. Get out! But before you go pick up a set of tools from the table and choose a sailor from that row there against the wall.”’  

John Miller chose Able-Seaman Stephen Tuckwell (who turned out to be ‘the finest fellow who ever put in eighteen years’ service with the Royal Navy’). They were supplied with a large grey Humber car by the War Office and sent on their way. ‘I saw to my delight that my “parish” was the area lying between the Thames and King’s Lynn. A heavy proportion of the mines were down in Essex and my headquarters was to be Great Dunmow.’ 

The new teams soon discovered that the mines to be rendered safe were not laid out neat and clean as they had been at HMS Vernon, they were half buried in earth, stuck though roofs, blocking narrow passageways, awash in shallow tidal creeks. For his first three days of service Miller and Able Seaman Tuckwell had to return each night to the Admiralty confessing that, although he had managed to render some of the Essex mines safe, he had not actually succeeded in opening any of them - he'd made friends with the local Army Bomb Squad and used their resources to blow them up, a tactic which could only be employed when the mines had landed in woods or fields. I was becoming much afraid that I should be dismissed and sent back to Brighton. […] But it was all, in fact, a blessing in disguise: day after day other members of the party were bringing in every sort of exhibit – hydrostatic clocks, coils of copper spring, fuses, booby traps – and the pile on the table in the room upstairs grew steadily. The result was that when I was at last able to open a mine, I found that I was able to recognise much of what I found and to avoid making certain serious mistakes.

The mines were not assembled to an invariable pattern and every location presented its own particular challenges. At the beginning and later with any unfamiliar mine, our method was to station our sailor at least a hundred yards away behind some cover – a rise in the ground or a broken wall. He carried a notebook and a pencil. Then, taking a selection of tools, we started work, shouting to the sailor before each move and explaining as precisely as possible what we were going to do. We could call, for example, ‘I am now going to cut a blue lead.’ The sailor would write this down in his book and raise his hand when he had finished. If the mine exploded, he could return to the Admiralty and say, ‘Next gentleman must not cut blue lead’.  (Saints and Parachutes p57)

Miller and his fellow RNVR volunteers had been given instructions that the work ‘was to be done only by officers’ but unsurprisingly the varied demands of each task made this almost impossible to comply with. One night,  before what he knew would be a particularly dangerous and awkward job defusing a mine half buried in the mud of the River Roding, leading into Barking Creek, Miller was so certain that he was about to die that he asked Tuckwell to accompany him to spend a few last hours in his family home in Northamptonshire. The following morning they returned to Essex, collected a canoe which Miller had borrowed from the Barking Borough Engineer and paddled together up the creek to a point where one of the London sewers was ‘discharging a cascade of yellow foam’ and the tail of the mine could just be observed.

At this point I regained, with an effort, an official manner and asked Tuckwell to withdraw. I said he had better take cover on the bank opposite the mine and make the usual notes. He said he thought it should hardly be necessary for him to point out that it would take him at least two hours to reach the place that I had indicated. Besides I should have to work under about a foot of water and would need somebody to hand me the tools. I should have to stand over the mine all the time – we could hardly drag our feet through the soft going at this point – and it would be quite impossible in the time available to get away to do anything from a distance. In short, if my number was up, he would like to be with me. The tide was showing signs of slackening. There was no time to lose. I smiled and we got to work.   p65

Later in the process a group of crane drivers watching from the wharf of a nearby timber yard unanimously volunteered their assistance for the final stages of dragging the bomb from the mud. Generally, however, the official policy of limiting the numbers of people contingent on a bomb disposal and using distance wherever possible, would prove to be a better one. Two days after the big raid of May 10th-11th 1941 disregard of these principles may have caused an unnecessary number of deaths: eight people killed on the Erith Marshes on the other side of the River Thames as Charles Henry Howard, 20th Earl of Suffolk gathered assistants to support his defusing of a large but, he hoped, dormant 250 kg bomb, nicknamed ‘Old Faithful’. 

‘Mad Jack’ Suffolk was not a member of the RNVSR, though his younger brother Greville was. ‘Mad Jack’ was not really a member of anything: he’d succeeded to the earldom aged 11 when his father was killed in 1917 at the battle of Instabulat and was essentially a freelance adventurer, admired by some, disapproved of by others. He had a first class science degree and, as the 1940 summer turned to autumn, he researched bomb de-fusion, Then, from the first days of the London Blitz Suffolk developed his own team and his own style. He smoked scented cigarettes in a long holder and wore his own flamboyant hats and coats. He travelled in a bright red van, driven by his chauffeur Fred Hards and took his secretary Eileen Morden with him to make notes. They called themselves ‘the Holy Trinity’. 

24-year-old RNVR sub-lieutenant Peter Danckwerts (later Professor of Chemical Engineering at Cambridge) who was busy defusing bombs in the Port of London area, disapproved of their style: 
The first I heard of Suffolk was in connection with a very expensive house in Park Lane. A bomb had gone through the house and penetrated a parquet floor at ground level. The Royal Engineers had done this excavation with respectful care, laying tarpaulins to protect the parquet and so on. When the bomb was exposed Suffolk took over. He used a gadget designed to deactivate the fuse by firing a bullet through it by remote control Of course the bomb went off and the house came down. Later on Suffolk was working on a bomb with his gang standing round the top of the excavation and up went the lot – Suffolk, secretary, chauffeur and all. Not good practice.  (Life on the Edge Varey p15)

Eileen Morden thus became the only woman to die in bomb disposal during WW2. And at least eight Royal Engineers went with them. This was on May 12th 1941 two days after the ‘longest night’ raid that had killed those ARP wardens and others in Carlisle Street. Morden was buried in Erith Cemetery: the others are commemorated on the wall of the Defence Explosive Ordnance Disposal Munitions and Search Training Regiment at Bicester near Oxford  and the Earl was also remembered in a poem by the Poet Laureate John Masefield:

He loved the bright ship with the lifting wing;
He felt the anguish in the hunted thing;
He dared the danger which besets the guides
Who lead men to the knowledge Nature hides.
Probing and playing with the lightning thus
He and his faithful friends met death for us.
The beauty of a splendid man abides.

‘Mad Jack’ received a posthumous George Cross and his eldest son, aged six, succeeded to his title, even younger than he himself had done in the first war. Ashe Lincoln, Maurice Griffiths, John Miller, Stephen Tuckwell, Peter Danckwerts also all received either the George Cross or George Medal. They, more fortunately, survived.

And early on Tuesday morning, this week, thanks to the Royal Engineers, Soho was re-opened, two of the Private Eye team returned to the office and the magazine appeared on time. 

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Friday, 7 February 2020

They're only words by Bill Kirton

I’ve always been – shall we say, sensitive? – to jargon. So when I read the following paragraph in an old copy of the Guardian, I thought a good cop-out blog for the jolly (despite the state of the world) post-Christmas season would be to share some of the remarks and writings that I’ve copied down in a book I’ve kept for many years. The Guardian’s piece was from an organisation called the Local Better Regulation Office, and it read:

‘We are hosting a master class to take local authorities through the process of developing outcomes and impacts dashboards against their developed pathways. The session will focus on local authorities who have gone through the process of developing their logic model, and now require additional expertise on how to develop indicators to measure achievements against outcomes.’

‘Outcomes and impacts dashboards’, eh? There’s an organisation that knows the power of language. We all love words, the things they can do, the magic they can unlock or create, and when they’re mangled, strangled and kicked to death by committees, evasive politicians and people who should know better, it hurts and infuriates us. On the other hand, the way they sometimes transcend the atrocities inflicted on them to suggest dimensions unsuspected by the speaker is delightful.
It would be too easy to take examples from the ghastly Trump or Johnson (or many of their predecessors, for that matter, although none were quite so far divorced from the norm). The ones I'm referring to were all eminent(?) public speakers who, rather than having a command of language, were in constant conflict with it.

Equally easy targets would be those ‘Instructions for use’ translated from another language, such as the one for a toy car, which warned:
‘on occasion by using it as pushcart for the toddling baby about 12 months since born, the leg comes into contact with the car’s speed and accordingly the baby may be overturned’
or the cleaning fluid for glasses which suggested users should:
‘apply less than one drop to both sides of the lens’.
But I prefer examples from people trying hard to make the words work for them. Like the engineering union official interviewed on the BBC who said:
‘our members’ mood is one of very seriousness’.
And these gems from a British football manager famous for his loquacity. Of his team’s disappointing position in the league, he said:
‘we cannot expunge the last 20 games. What we can say is as a result of the last 30 games, whatever the variables, excuses or praises one wishes to implicate, our position is as it is.’
He also said of another team which just managed to avoid relegation and which we’ll call Acme United:
‘Only a very, very few people were aware of the demeanour of Acme in 1986. Reminiscent of the eerie old haunted house that had been empty for years and was begging for life. No different to the dodo. How joyful for them not to have acrimoniated in the non-league. How delightful for them to be making a success of defeating extinction. Let us hope we are all able to be pulmonic!’
Another football manager – again British – whose team was winning 2-0 but ended up losing the match 3-2, remarked:
‘As I see it, if you’re going to commit suicide, you don’t do it yourself.’
In fact, British sportspeople seem to have a gift for speaking English as if it’s a foreign language. One boxer claimed that;
‘the British press hate a winner who is British. They don’t like any British man to have balls as big as a cow’s like I have.’
A Formula One driver said wisely that:
the proof of the pudding is in the clock’.
One reputedly intelligent footballer’s contribution to the sum of human knowledge was;
‘Football’s football; if that weren’t the case it wouldn’t be the game it is.’
 And yet another football manager, coaching a team in Spain, who wanted to stay there because of his garden, told his interviewer:
‘Look at that olive tree – 1000 years old. From before the time of Christ.’
It goes on and on and on – but in each case, it’s words that provide the delights, even in my final example, perhaps the silliest of all. The first names of a succession of managers of one English team in the Midlands were:
Don, Johnny, Ronnie, Ron, Ronnie, Ron, Ronnie, Ron, Johnny, Ron and Ron.
Or maybe it just shows how sad I am that I have a book full of stuff like that which I’ve bothered to copy.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Is it inappropriate? Debbie Bennett

Serious and potentially controversial topic this month: Cultural appropriation. Hear me out.

I read somewhere in the news way back about a pretty, young middle-class white girl wearing a Chinese dress (specifically a cheongsam) to a party. There was outrage and the poor girl was vilified online for cultural appropriation. I’m sure she simply thought she was wearing a lovely dress and in many ways paying a compliment to any Chinese friends and the Chinese culture in general.

And what was wrong with that? I have no real idea. So Chinese women wear cheongsams too. But apparently she was insulting anybody Chinese, by daring to wear their (national?) dress while being white. Being middle-class probably didn’t help either as the cheongsam is allegedly a symbol of female empowerment. 

It’s a cultural minefield out there. We move into the literary sphere and suddenly we can no longer write about things of which we have no personal experience, in case we are taking away the voices of those that do, those that have struggled to be heard. Surely there is room for everybody? Surely writers from a minority background would like to think their achievements are due to talent and not to being a tick in a box. Brilliant Books Publishing: Have we published our quota of women/ethnic minority/LGBTQ+ writers this year? Yes? OK – well let’s go with white middle-class guys for the rest, then… I rarely complete the optional bit of surveys that asks me to identify my gender, religion or race – I don’t see how it is relevant to anything other than box-ticking.

Does that sound extreme? Maybe. It’s something I think about a lot. This article from 2012 talks about 1 drop of African blood identifying somebody as black at the start of the 20thcentury. Many Native Americans self-identify based on at least one grandparent. So culturally, I can probably claim mixed-race status as my paternal grandfather was Cantonese. But it’s not something I’ve ever done – I’m proud of my heritage (something which has caused ructions in my extended family in the past), but I’ve always identified as plain white. Does it qualify me to write about Chinese people any more than anybody else? Of course it doesn’t. And if I chose to, I’d like to think that anything I wrote would be taken on merit and not because of who I am or who my grandparents were.

It’s the same at work. I work in IT, in a team of which I am the only woman. In the department as a whole, the women make up a fair proportion of the admin and project manager roles, but the techy jobs are mostly men. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. What does bother me is that I know for a fact that at other points in my career, I have ‘got the job’ because I am a woman. I’ve done panels at literary events and again, I’m pretty sure I was there to make up the numbers. Insulting to me – and all women – and just wrong on all counts.

So back to the article. White woman writes about Mexican migrants. And she’s committed the crime of not being Mexican. Or a migrant. I assume, since the book was published by Headline and got great reviews from Oprah Winfrey and Stephen King amongst others, that it was a well-written novel and she’d done her research. How then, does that penalise or otherwise harm Latinx writers? Surely there is room for all good books to rise to the top, whatever the nationality/ ethnicity/religion or life-experiences of the author? If they are good, if they have a market, if people buy/read/review - is that not the true test? The article claims some of her facts were wrong, which may be a factor. But then not all Mexican migrants want to write novels. I’ve read some amazing books by minority writers and I’m sure I will continue to do so. There is space for everyone.

When a publisher or agent reads a submission, do they consider the background of the writer at the start, if it’s not mentioned in any query letter? If the book is amazing, I get that they might want to find out more about the author, but at the beginning of the process? Would that not influence the way in which the submission is read or treated? Does it? Do you need to be qualified to write a novel these days? I genuinely don’t know these things as I'm not a minority writer. All points of view welcome and I certainly don’t want to do a disservice to any writers or offend anybody. Tell me it matters, if it does. Help me understand.

On a lighter note to close: If I’m stuck with the write-what-you-know, my stories are going to get really boring … and who on earth will write about the aliens?