‘The past lies like a nightmare upon the present’ Karl Marx
Barefoot on the Cobbles, a ‘based on fact’ novel set in various parts of Devon, is due for publication by Blue Poppy Publishing on 17 November 2018. Details of the launch and other promotional events are available. Talks about the research that underpins the novel can be booked. I will have copies at all my UK talks after publication date. It would be wonderful to hand these over in person on such occasions but for those who are further afield, you can reserve a first edition copy by putting in a pre-order. Kindle editions can be pre-ordered for the UK, USA, Australasia and Canada. Although printed copies will be available from Amazon, if you are in the UK, please consider using another option, such as buying from Blue Poppy Publishing, from your local independent bookseller or directly from me. That way we are not funding the multi-nationals! Of course, if you do buy and enjoy a copy, from whatever source, it would be wonderful if you could find time to leave a couple of lines of feedback on the reviewing platform of your choice. Thank you.
Photographs of the characters and their beautiful setting are being posted here over the coming months. Look out for #100daysofbfotc posts that began on my blog on 9 August; these tell you a little more about the characters and their world.
In the euphoria of the armistice a young woman lay dying. Daisy had grown up, barefoot on the cobbles, in a village on the rugged North Devon coast; she was mindful of the perils of the uncertain sea. Her family had also been exposed to the dangers of disease and the First World War but for Daisy, it was her own mother who posed the greatest threat of all. What burdens did that mother, an ordinary fisherman’s wife, carry? What past traumas had led, inexorably, to this appalling outcome?
Vividly recreating life at the dawning of the twentieth century, Barefoot on the Cobbles is based on a real tragedy that lay hidden for nearly a hundred years. Rooted in its unique and beautiful geographical setting, here is the unfolding of a past that reverberates unhappily through the decades and of raw emotions that are surprisingly modern in character.
More about Barefoot on the Cobbles
I was completing my last non-fiction book, Remember Then, when the conviction sprouted and grew. I knew then that my next project would have to be a novel. What I did not anticipate was that I would write this novel, in this style, in this way. It was always going to be something historical of course but perhaps a witty time-slip with a genealogical twist. Oh no. This rather different story came up and grabbed me, demanding to be written. While you are waiting for it to appear on your bookshelf, or for it to download to your electronic device, I thought that I would whet your appetite and tell you a little about it.
I came across the incident that underpins Barefoot’s narrative in the course of some family history research. No hint of the tragedy had come down to the present day and that in itself intrigued me. The story is set primarily in rural North Devon where, both then and now, everyone knows their neighbours’ business. Additionally, they will probably tell the world about it in a millisecond. Not in this case. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the main protagonists were completely unaware that their ancestors, ancestors they had known in person, had been accused of a terrible crime. I was immediately inspired to attack this wall of secrecy and find out more.
I am often asked what the book is about; I am encouraged to make it fit in to a particular genre, with all the pre-conceptions that that entails. For want of anything more appropriate, I usually say that it is an historical novel, as it is firmly rooted in a carefully researched time period, the early twentieth century. It is emphatically not a romance, although relationships do unfold, including relationships between parents and children. Nor is it a crime novel, although it does involve a crime. It is certainly not a mystery, as the reader knows from the outset who ends up in court. You have to wait for the end of the book for the verdict and I leave it to the reader to decide if the outcome was the just one.
I sometimes refer to the story as a ‘why done it’. The novel opens during a trial and then looks back to the incidents in the characters’ pasts that led them to be in that place, at that time, to become accuser or accused. It is essentially a book about people and what makes them behave in a particular way. The characters and their backgrounds allowed me to explore such issues as anorexia, shell-shock, mental health, alcoholism, the menopause and infant mortality. You will find evidence of my interest in the history of medicine and of my love of the Devon landscape, hidden between the covers of this book.
The Characters and the Plot
However hard you try, you really could not describe this novel as plot driven. Instead, it focuses on the characters, the complex interactions between them, their motivations and the incidents in their pasts that contributed to this tragic outcome. Unlike most novels, where you find a disclaimer about the characters being fictional, all the people who are named in Barefoot on the Cobbles actually existed. A few have had their first names changed but this was purely because there were rather too many Marys or Williams. I have made every effort to contact living descendants of the main characters and have had their blessing to write this book. I do hope they feel that I have done their ancestors justice. For some of the characters, I had an overabundance of information, including, in some instances, the actual words that they used. In other cases, it was difficult to uncover many details, so I had to use my best judgement. I have tried to be faithful to the historical record; where I have had to fill in the gaps, I have endeavoured to invent scenarios that I feel sit well with the characters’ personalities as I perceive them.
Someone, somewhere, suggested that a novel should only have twelve named characters. Well, I broke that rule in the first few pages. Particularly as these were real people, I felt that even the passing milkman deserved to be named and commemorated and maybe some readers will enjoy finding a relative in these pages. Most of the characters are ordinary people, people who experienced emotions that we would recognise: the troubled daughter, the grieving mother, the tenacious fishermen and their anxious wives, the reluctant soldier, the traumatised engineer, the gauche suitor, the young people on the brink of adulthood, the shopkeepers and the servants. Then, ‘above stairs’ you will come across the lady of the manor and her aristocratic guests, the gentleman’s wife who is trying to maintain an illusion of affluence, her alcoholic husband and other members of the respectable middle-classes. Readers will also encounter more well known people: the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, three impassioned suffragettes, Elsie Howey, Vera Wentworth and Jessie Kenney; the careful reader may even spot a cameo appearance by the crime writer Agatha Christie.
It is not just the characters who are rooted in reality. The narrative is woven around actual incidents. Authentic events, such as the shipwreck and the suffragettes’ campaign, sit alongside based-on-fact tales of Leonard’s courtship of Annie in the tea-shop, Rosie failing to find her way home and Eadie’s unofficial adoption. Some chapters required me to be more inventive. In sections where there was greater scope for my imagination, I tried to create believable scenarios, crafting circumstances that fitted comfortably with my knowledge of the characters involved.
The characters take centre-stage but the landscape through which they walk and the streets they inhabit, form an integral part of the book. With the exception of the Western Front, I made frequent visits to the locations that feature and it was very important to me that these should be described accurately and with an amount of detail that would allow the reader to accompany the characters on their journey. You will travel with them through the lanes of Clovelly, Bucks Mills and Peppercombe; escape with them to the towns of Bideford and Torquay. You will join them on a battlefield, in a courtroom, in a workhouse and on the hazardous waves.
Getting the historical context right was of paramount importance. I was adamant that I was not interested in writing an anachronism laden jolly tale where the characters just happened to be wearing old fashioned clothes. Well you can forget ‘jolly’ for a start; there are some very dark days for the cast. It may be that an eagle-eyed expert will spot a lingering anachronism but it won’t be for the lack of effort. The book spans three decades but the emphasis is on the 1910s. This particular era provided me with plenty of scope, encompassing as it does, the First World War, the fight for women’s suffrage, the influenza epidemic, the dawning of a social conscience and medical care in pre-NHS days, all of which feature in the book.
The historian in me meant that I sought to verify the tiniest detail with ferocious tenacity. I really struggled with the concept that, as this was a novel, I could make things up. I take pride in the fact that incidental comments about minor characters are grounded in the truth. I spent ages trying to find out exactly what the Scottish land agent’s accent would have sounded like, despite the fact that he only speaks a few lines. The local doctor really did have an interest in chicken genetics, the cousin’s beau worked in the ironmongers and Granny Smale really did run out of cream.
I have tried very hard to get the language right. Every era has its own vocabulary and turns of phrase, creating another anachronism trap for an unwary author. Reading contemporary diaries and novels was very helpful in this respect. I religiously checked every idiom to ensure that that a particular expression was in use in the early twentieth century. In places, I have attempted to give a suggestion of the accent that my characters would have used and I have included a few dialect words to give a flavour of the place. Where I have done this, I hope the context will make the meaning clear. I did resist the temptation to take this to more realistic extremes, as it would have rendered the dialogue incomprehensible to all but a few.
Where possible, I tried to write chapters at the right time of year, so that I knew that I was capturing correctly the twists of the seasons and the wildflowers in the hedgerows. I became obsessed with the weather and endeavoured to reflect actual heat waves or rainstorms of the time. The sea is a recurring counterpoint to the story and one Sunday, I spent the whole afternoon discussing tide times with a local fisherman in order to make sure that my lifeboat launched at the right state of the tide.
My research quests included seeking the answers to an eclectic range of questions. Amongst many other things, I was led to investigate which songs would be sung in a Methodist Sunday school; exactly when tanks were first used on a World War I battlefield; if telegraph boys would have been provided with bicycles at a particular date; the precise words of a police caution in 1919; the thorny question of whether Clovelly donkeys carried loads downhill; the symptoms of a particular illness and when daylight saving was introduced, so that I could get dawn at the right time.
A word about the language. Readers of my blog might be expecting short sentences and the occasional witticism. Sorry. You will be disappointed. Our language is so gloriously rich and I wanted to exploit it in all its beauty. So there are long sentences, plenty of adjectives, adverbs and alliteration and yes, there are three words where one might do. Some might call it ‘wordy’ or ‘flowery’. One of my beta readers used the less pejorative term ‘literary’; I think that I will stick with that! I am convinced that our vocabularies are gradually shrinking. Yes, we are adding new, often technology based, words but many others are falling into disuse. Primarily, these endangered words are evocative and descriptive. They are the words that convey subtle nuances of meaning. Our spoken language and our reading matter is becoming increasingly bland. Writers have a unique opportunity to push the linguistic boundaries of their readers and to bring light and shade to their narrative whilst doing so. At times it might sounds as if I have swallowed a thesaurus and my initial readers have likened some of Barefoot’s passages to blank verse, rather than prose. In fact, one chapter does contain poetry. I had to immerse myself in the verse of the First World War in order to compose lines that could realistically have been written by one of the characters. I did console myself with the realisation that he didn’t have to be a very good poet! I can do short, pithy, fast-paced sentences. I can. Honestly. I have however made a deliberate decision to write this novel in a hyperbolic style. Firstly, because the emotions and the setting are at the heart of this book and I need to run the full gamut of my vocabulary to recreate the subtleties of these for my readers. I also feel that the language that I have used helps to place the novel in its historical context. So if you favour quick ‘easy’ reads and are adverse to looking up the occasional word that is new to you, then maybe you won’t find that this is your sort of novel.
Unusually, as I began to move from my initial outlines to actual writing, I found that I was not writing the book in the right order. I had in no way anticipated this. My poor beta readers had to cope with reading chapter 12 then chapter 3 and then chapter 9, before getting a feel for the whole story from beginning to end. In some ways, each chapter stands alone as part of a series of inter-linked short stories, all contributing, inexorably, to the unravelling of the how and the why. Inevitably, I have had crises of confidence along the way, when I have wondered whether anyone will actually want to read about the characters who have taken over my life but overall, I have done what I set out to do. I have told a story that needed to be told. I have looked beyond the veil of secrecy to try to understand the pressures, the incidents and the emotions that led troubled people to act as they did.
A few years ago, I was commissioned to work on the history of a local shipping disaster, that took place in Clovelly in 1838. This resulted in a meeting with Princess Ann but I digress. My brief was to trace the descendants of the victims. This was harder than it sounds as many were young unmarried men. In the course of the research I got to know Dan Britton, whose family members were amongst those who perished. He wrote a haunting song The Storm about the tragedy and this became the title song on an excellent album Safe Harbour, which Dan, together with the other half of his duo, Chris Conway, launched in 2016. Whilst I was working on Barefoot on the Cobbles, Dan got in touch with a family history query and I said that I was writing a novel that was partly set in Clovelly. Almost as a throw-away line I suggested that this too might make a song. I sent a brief synopsis along the lines of ‘it is about a murder, motherhood, the Devon landscape, a shipwreck, the women’s suffrage movement, World War 1, the death of a child, oh, and a few lighter moments.’ I also sent a couple of draft chapters. Almost within minutes came back some incredible lyrics. The uncanny thing was that somehow Dan had included hints of things that I was intending to write but hadn’t actually told him about. We will be holding a joint novel/recording launch on 17 November.
I do have to pay tribute to a number of people and there will be proper acknowledgements in the book itself. Firstly, thank you to my characters’ relatives for letting me lay bare their ancestors, in all their frailty. Thank you to The Clovelly Archive and History Group for their assistance and for allowing me to use items from their impressive collection of photographs. I am grateful to the publishing collective Blue Poppy Publishing for taking me into their fold. Thanks go to Dan for a truly amazing song. The lovely ladies of my writers’ group have been unfailingly helpful, providing advice and support to a comparative novice, at least as far as fiction is concerned. I am very grateful to those who have read drafts of Barefoot on the Cobbles and who have been constructively critical, chasing errant commas across my manuscript and ironing out the clunky bits; any that remain are my own fault. Finally of course, thanks to my nearest and dearest who have had put up with me as Barefoot took over my life.