10th February 2022 As you’ve probably guessed from the subject of my books, I’m very interested in Family History. In fact, all history interests me. Unfortunately, the options I took in the third year at Risedale school meant that History was not one of my chosen subjects, as I wanted to do Shorthand Typewriting and Book-keeping to earn a living. That meant the ‘Humanities’ (as I think they call it nowadays, which also encompasses Geography, RI and other subjects) was off the table after the second year. This was a real pity as I loved history, and our teacher, Mr Postlethwaite, was a real hunk, very easy on the eye, not that that was any incentive, of course!
When I was very young, my older brother owned a weighty tome that named all of the Kings and Queens of England, going back to William the Conqueror. It included portraits and likenesses and a brief history of each that I found compelling. My favourite, of course, was my namesake, Elizabeth I.
There was something intriguing about this woman who had overcome such odds to take the throne, and I found her fascinating. As I got older, I started to read more widely, and I distinctly remember when I was 16 in the summer of 1974 when we were on holiday in Cornwall, I came across a book called ‘Penmarric’ by Susan Howatch. It was a novel which told of the eponymous old house in Cornwall, and the generations of people who owned it loved and fought over it. I didn’t realise until later that the story was based upon the lives of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry III, which started an interest in that period. When I was older, later readings also prompted the purchase of fourteen volumes of ‘The Oxford History of England’ so that I could delve in and read about the actual people upon whom the characters in the book were based. Susan Howatch also wrote ‘Cashelmara’, similarly fictionalising Edward I and his descendants. She also wrote many more wonderful books, but these two remain my favourites. Not long afterwards, I read ‘The Daughter of Time’ by Josephine Tey, and became a fan of Richard III, then came back to Elizabeth I after reading ‘Legacy’ by Susan Kay, which put a far more human face on the Queen, albeit a fictional one. I’ve been a big Plantagenet and Tudor fan ever since.
I’ve become a die-hard fan of fiction based on Tudor History; I’ve read countless books by Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir et al. – and merged my love of murder mysteries and the Tudor period by reading all the CJ Sansom series of ‘Matthew Shardlake’ books, which I’ve read over and over again. The writing is just so good – Sansom paints a picture so vivid of the life and times of Tudor Society you can almost smell the atmosphere. So, you see, possibly my favourite genre of reading material is historical fiction as well as biographies about the real people. But not always about Royalty and the aristocracy. Though I’m not a huge fan, I have read several of Catherine Cookson’s and that ilk, but sometimes find them a little formulaic, I have to admit. Nowadays, there are so many authors writing historical fiction that we’re spoiled for choice – I’m glad!
After caring for my mother during her Alzheimer’s illness, it got me thinking about what makes good historical fiction. She told many stories from when she was a girl – (at the time, she was reliving them!) and it interested me. She and my aunt and a few of their cousins are left, but once they’re gone – who will be left to tell their stories? Come to that – who will be left to tell my story and that of my generation? I know my brother’s daughter is interested in family history, but Ancestry UK can only tell you so much, in dates and significant events, but what about daily life?
I can vaguely remember my grandmother, who died when I was ten. The opening Prologue of ‘Grace’s Story’ where Grace is doing the family laundry, is fact – I can remember standing alongside her as she swished the ‘dolly’ in the tub and scrubbed the garments on a washboard before putting it through the mangle and hanging it on the line. The yards and yards of clean laundry blowing in the Walney breeze is real life in my own experience – but after me, that memory would be gone forever. My daughter’s generation might vaguely remember their mothers using a twin-tub, but the following generation will only remember the automatic washing machine or going to the launderette. I might sound like I have a fetish for laundry, but that’s the thing that first spoke to me of the changing experiences of everyday life within an ordinary family, hence the title of the trilogy – Monday is Washing Day. And that seems to be true for so many families like ours – I’ve had numerous people get in touch to say that Monday was wash-day in their house too!
When I first started writing it, I worried that no one would be interested in reading my stories – they are indeed SO ordinary. Spoiler Alert: there are no rapes, murders, homosexuality or anything extreme in my work; as far as I know, nothing like that has happened in my family. The most disturbing it gets is a bit of domestic violence and a smidge of adultery here and there. Wait, that’s not strictly true – I think one person in my family I know of is gay, but it has never been spoken about. It was just accepted, no formal announcements or declarations; life just carried on regardless. Absolutely no scandal! Which is why it’s doesn’t appear fictionalised in my books. I’m sure my family is not alone in this either – we’re all just a bit nondescript, just like everyone else. So why would anyone want to read my books?
Well, it seems that many people are interested in other people’s lives. I think it’s reassurance that, whatever we might be going through, many other people are going through it too – it’s all perfectly normal. You’re not alone! And people are truly interested in past social history within their parents’ or grandparents’ lifetimes. Obviously, there were two world wars to contend with – everyone has a story from those days – but apart from that, I can vouch that people really want to say – ‘I remember my grandad doing that!’
To promote interest in my books, I post old photographs on my Facebook page each week. They show either previous generations of my family or depict buildings or areas in my hometown of Barrow. I also post other things – announcements or snippets of information – from time to time. According to the Facebook statistics on my page, the snippets reach maybe up to 500 people if I’m lucky. The old photos reach up to 20,000 and sometimes more! This is totally mind-blowing, considering I have just 350 followers of the page.
I feel we just can’t let the lives of our close ancestors pass into oblivion. And while it’s true that my books are actually fiction – I’ve had to use my imagination for so much of the books because I don’t truly know what happened in my grandmother’s life. Apart from what I’ve picked up on Ancestry and the documentation and photos that my second-cousin Leasil has been so good to pass on to me, I have no idea. So, I’ve had to do loads of research. Research about Barrow for a start. When my book starts, it’s 1903, and Barrow had just begun to become a boom town in the last couple of decades. Centuries before that, it was a small village – part of the Parish of Dalton in Furness, under the auspices of the monks of Furness Abbey, the way it had been practically since the Conquest. Then with the discovery of Iron ore, it soon became famed for being the site of the largest Iron and Steel Works in the World at one point during the 19th Century. I’ve had to make sure that the places I have written about were in existence at the time they’re set in the books!
The town grew so fast it became known as the ‘Chicago of the North’, and Walney changed from being open fields with one or two properties to the home of ‘Vickerstown’; hundreds of houses built for the growing workforce of the shipyards. To think my grandmother lived through all of those changes is amazing. I often wonder what she would think if she could see how we live today. Can you imagine what she would make of something we believe so simple every day, maybe like a microwave oven? To her, it would seem almost like black magic! The woman didn’t even have a fridge until the 1960s (the bit about keeping milk bottles in a bucket of cold water under the sink is true too – I remember it well!)
Technology has changed the way we live in every aspect of life in the last fifty years and shows no signs of stopping. To get back to books, for example – my Nana would certainly not have been able to envisage a device small enough to fit into a pocket or handbag, yet can hold thousands of books! Some people don’t like the Kindle or e-reader, but I love mine! I still love real books – you can’t beat the feel or smell or sight of them. I’ve had to have shelves put up above every doorway in my flat as I have no more floor space for bookcases. There are books on every surface in my spare room (which thankfully is unoccupied), including the top of the wardrobe and inside every draw in the chest of drawers and dressing table. I have thousands of books, most of which were inherited from my late beloved, and I wouldn’t dream of getting rid of them, though I know I should. A friend was looking through them just this afternoon and found a set of poetry books dating back to 1825! But regardless, I still love my Kindle. Going online and downloading new books is something I will always appreciate. And the days of packing a suitcase full of books and a few clothes in hand luggage to go on holiday are now over, which is a blessing too. But I doubt my Nana would be able to believe it.
So, I guess the moral of this blog today is that we really mustn’t forget the past generations of ordinary lives as well as those of the rich and famous. They are our roots, part of what makes us the people we are today, and we need to let our offspring know about them too – to carry on the family folklore, just like the old storytellers did in the days of yore.
I’d love, as always, to hear your views on this or any other of my blogs. Please tell me in the box below!
Till next week!