Daisy Writing, Holding Forth to Enraptured Audiences and the Sorry Saga of my Dispute with a Well Known Electrical Goods Retailer

First let’s tackle the enraptured audiences, not literally of course, that would be counter-productive. I can’t really vouch for the ‘enraptured’ bit but I have been hither and yon regaling unsuspecting history groups, U3As and the like, with tales of the past. Great fun as ever, even if ridiculously horrendous traffic did mean that we were almost late for one booking. ‘Almost late’, in my world, means we weren’t there half an hour before the start time!

Upton RoadBarefoot on the Cobbles is now a few thousand words longer. Just as well really as my deadline looms ever closer. Since my field trip, aka writer’s retreat, to the soft south, I have been leading my heroine round the streets of Torquay. There is no way that I would have been able to write this convincingly without walking in her footsteps. I have already made good progress today. It was one of those great days when you wake up at 5.00am (normal sort of time for me) with fully formed sentences rushing round your head There’s only one thing to do, abandon all thoughts of granola and yoghurt until you have put fingers to keyboard and captured the words before they drift in to oblivion never to be retrieved. It isn’t just writing of course, or the geographical verisimilitude (yep, that dictionary was very tasty thanks), I am obsessive about portraying the historical era accurately. So, by 8am this morning, I had discovered that my heroine would not have purchased a powder compact in 1918, nor would she have bought it in Woolworths, at least not in the town I am writing about. All this to get one sentence historically correct! I have however found a suitable contemporaneous department store but I do have to come up with an alternative for the compact.

Then the sad saga of my run in with the well known electrical goods chain near me. Some of you have been following my social media rants on this one. I once taught GCSE law (ok it was sort of by mistake but I did) I can quote consumer rights acts. Said rants, along the lines of, ‘if not illegal, your policy is most certainly not ethical and to the total detriment of your customers’ and ‘deplorably poor customer non-service’, did bring responses but not resolutions. In short (and believe me you don’t want the full version) here is the sorry tale. An item that I paid for in store on Boxing Day got lost between their warehouse and their store, where it was supposed to be available for me to collect from 3 January. 9 January I send my personal shopper to collect said item. He was told it had been delayed, I would get an email. Slightly irritated by the fruitless 32 mile round trip, I waited until 18 January and having heard nothing, attempted to telephone the store. If you are ever similarly tempted, make sure you have a good half hour to spare and that is just the time it takes to get a real person. ‘Can I have the direct number for the store?’ I ask. Oooooh no, the temerity of my innocent question, these are closely guarded secrets, never to be divulged to mere customers. I am put through to the store who will investigate and ring me back – so far so good. They even do ring back and Barry (I think it is was Barry) says the item has been mislaid but if I don’t mind having a different colour (I don’t) they can replace it. Although I ordered it in store it counts as an online order raised by them on my behalf. ‘All’ I have to do is ring the number I first thought of, listen to how important my call is to them (but not important enough for them to answer) for another half hour and change the order. Oh and they might try and charge me another £50 because the price has gone up now the sale is over. Like **** they won’t thinks I.

After prolonged effort to speak to a real person, drawn out by the fact that the automated system put me through to the wrong department (I definitely pressed the right number) meaning that I had to start all over again, I ask to change my order. Ah no. This is not possible. I have to wait until the mystery of the missing item has been investigated before they can replace or refund. I could write pages about this conversation, which was somewhat circular and less than amicable in nature but I will summarise. The call handler was obdurate. I was furious. He was adamant that ‘their policy’ would leave me hamstrung until their investigation was complete. I ask to speak to someone above his pay grade. Allegedly there is no one. Clearly the MD of a major retailer has nothing better to do than answer phone calls. I ask to whom I should make a formal complaint. He’s the man apparently – what a multi-tasker, give that man an employee of the year award. ‘Right,’ say I, ‘I wish to make a formal complaint.’ Ah no, I can’t do that until the magic week of investigation is up. This ‘investigation’ is clearly something big, are Interpol involved I wonder?

I scrape myself off the ceiling and take to social media. They ‘understand my frustration’. Believe me they really don’t but they toe the party like, ‘it is our policy not to refund or replace until we have investigated blah de blah.’ 20 January dawns, the sacred week is up. I can’t bear the thought of more pressing this that and the other, so I type away to the jolly types who have been responding on social media. Apparently now it takes a fortnight for these investigations. My reactions are unprintable. Finally, yesterday I get an email to say that ‘as your item is out of stock we will be posting you a gift card within the next 3-5 days.’ Another saga, which I don’t have the energy to relate but they are within their rights to refund in the form of a gift card. Due to circumstance beyond my control, that was how I was obliged to pay in the first place. Not a single word of an apology for their total incompetence, or my inconvenience. If you wish to avoid patronising this store and believe me you need to steer clear of it like the proverbial Black Death, think popular Indian dish and you have it in one. I was going to say rant really over but of course I haven’t actually got the gift card yet!


Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 21 Here be Witches, oh and a bit about Writing and Garden Sheds

I’ll be honest, today’s offering has just arrived on my book shelf, so I have only had time to skim through it but it looks like a gem. Accused: British witches throughout history, by the prosaically names Willow Winsham, is a little more ‘niche’ than some of my advent book choices. It is not the comprehensive study that the title might suggest but don’t let that put you off. Here we have eleven case studies from across the British Isles. Although most are seventeenth century accusations, the date span is 1324-1944. Through the stories of these women and these examples are all female, the author helps us to understand how individuals came to be the accuser or the accused and tells us of their lives before and in some cases, after, the indictment. At first, I felt that the very brief introduction was inadequate but Winsham’s aim was not to write yet another general study; there are a number of excellent ones already. If you regard this as a companion volume, that tackles the topic rather differently, then it can be viewed as an excellent book. Yes, we learn a great deal about the context through the stories if these eleven women but serious students of the historical witchcraft will need other books to get a fuller understanding of the background and the psychology behind this phenomenon. This is not a criticism of Accused, whose fresh approach adds a new dimension to our understanding. The author has used broadsheets, court reports and other contemporary sources to help us understand how human beings could revile their fellow men, or in this case women, in such an impassioned manner. The book includes extensive end notes, clear black and white illustrations and a bibliography.

Sadly, human nature does not change and although we might be unlikely to accuse our neighbours of witchcraft in twenty first century Britain, other forms of bullying and succumbing to peer pressure haunt our everyday lives. I am fascinated by people’s behaviour and what makes them act in a certain way. I am also keen on women’s history and the seventeenth century. With this combination, how could I not be interested in witchcraft history? I researched the topic carefully when I was writing Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs: the lives of our seventeenth century ancestors, which contains a chapter on witchcraft. The topic also forms one of our Swords and Spindles presentations and my own The Burning Time talk about historic witchcraft is one of my favourites to deliver. Living as I do within a few miles of the home of the last (probably) three witches to be hanged in England how can I not be fascinated? And yes, I will come clean, there is a tenacious nagging idea for a second novel in here somewhere. I really need to suppress this until Barefoot is finished but I suspect that it won’t go away!

No writing accomplished yesterday sadly. I was diverted just as I was about to put fingers to keyboard, a process which is usually preceded by re-reading, for the umpteenth time, part of what I have already written. I always read aloud as this slows me down to an acceptable level and I was just declaiming my flowery phrases to an audience that consisted of a Christmas tree, when I was called upon to assist the fisherman of my acquaintance. He is currently moonlighting as the gardener of my acquaintance. Pressures of time mean that we are giving up the allotment. I say ‘we’; it is officially my allotment but all the hard work has been delegated to said gardener/fisherman. The incoming tenant did not want the shed so this week’s task is to relocate a eight foot by ten foot shed to my garden. In a method that does not bear imagining, the shed assumed flat pack mode and single-handedly the gardener, now in his eighth decade, managed to get this on to a trailer and up my drive. Then it was my turn to help bring the panels in to the garden. I promise I was lifting when instructed so to do but I have to say there was not much sign of my end of the structure leaving the ground. Somehow we struggled down the path and negotiated over hanging trees and the washing line in order to bring three panels into the garden before my back clicked in protest. I have no idea how we are going to get the remaining four panels in today. Again this is the royal we, my protesting back means that I can barely put my socks on let alone attempt shed lifting. These occasions make you realise that you lack fit, healthy, dare I say younger, friends.

Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 15 – Tudor Women and the Anguish of choosing a Book Cover

How to be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life by [Goodman, Ruth]Behind today’s advent ‘window’ is a true social history by Ruth Goodman, of Victorian/Edwardian/Wartime etc. Farm fame. In How to be a Tudor: a dawn to dusk guide to everyday life, the author takes us through an average day for sixteenth century ordinary folk. From waking in the morning and washing – or not – Ruth moves on to getting dressed, eating meals, working life, for men and women and leisure before putting her Tudor folk to bed. The author’s experiences as an experimental historian mean that she has a personal, practical, knowledge of the processes that she describes. Her attempts at cooking, cleaning and living in Tudor times are described and it is clear that her insight into the period is far greater than that of most non-contemporaries. This book is grounded in serious historical study but it is written in a very accessible style. There are coloured plates but I don’t feel that these are really necessary, as inevitably, most of them portray life for a social strata that deviates from the focus of the book. The black and white illustrations are more relevant. The bibliography is also useful and will lead to yet more book purchases. This volume should be required reading for anyone setting a novel in this period. If your interests lie in a different era, then there is a companion ‘Victorian’ volume. Probably the greatest compliment I can pay this book is to say that I wish I had written it.

BotC-coveridea4-1Yesterday I managed to complete a very harrowing chapter of Barefoot on the Cobbles. Elation was short-lived with the realisation that there is still a long way to go. Then there was the thorny issue of the cover. I am well aware of how important this is and because Barefoot is so difficult to pigeonhole, conveying what is inside in a single image is particularly tricky. After a few preliminary attempts the publisher and I had a version we were pretty pleased with – for five minutes. I should point out that to get to this stage there had been plenty of ‘up a bit’, ‘down a bit,’ ‘make it bigger/smaller/darker’ moments. Then we threw the suggested design to the wolves of Facebook. Even though they don’t always make east reading, I am really grateful for all the comments. The fact that they weren’t all complementary, is exactly what we wanted. I was pleased that some of the themes were picked up by those looking at the cover. The consensus was though that these initial ideas were over complicated and that we need a slightly different font, which actually I was pleased with until someone pointed out that a key capital letter was ambiguous.

The rethink will be rather different and will incorporate the general feeling of those who expressed an opinion. It is incredibly difficult to come up with a design that will tempt the right readers (i.e. ones who will actually enjoy the book) to turn it over and read the blurb. It is all about managing expectations. I need the cover to be suggestive of the content. It is no surprise to me but if anyone thinks that being an author just means writing a book, you are oh so wrong!

Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 13 – Women’s Work

A Woman's Work is Never Done: History of Housework in the British Isles, 1650-1950As I sit down, having just finished the washing up and sticking what may well turn out to be onion-flavoured marzipan on my Christmas cakes (short but sad story), what better than to introduce you to a book about housework. Caroline Davidson’s A Woman’s Work is Never Done: a history of housework in the British Isles 1650-1950, takes us through three centuries of women’s unpaid labour. There are interesting chapters on ‘utilities’ – water, heating and lighting and the impact that the provision of these had on women’s lives. She considers the specifics of cooking, of cleaning and of laundry. There is also a section on servants. Her final chapters, which look at the time spent on housework (more in a day than I spend in the average month – unless of course I have visitors) and women’s attitudes to housework are particularly thought provoking. This book, with over 100 black and white illustrations, is a fascinating read for both men and women. Yet again it is a volume that will provide family historians with crucial context for those often overlooked female ancestors.

Housework really isn’t high on my list of priorities – too many books to read and write – too little time. When I was editing eighty women’s memories for Remember Then, it was no co-incidence that there was little editorial voice in the housework chapter. Despite being serially undomesticated I really enjoyed this book. Sadly it seems to be out of print but you should be able to pick up a cheap second-hand copy.

Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 12 – Food in History

Reay Tannahill is probably better known as an historical novelist but her Food in History is described as ‘a serious overview of food as a catalyst of social and historical development.’ Her account of what we have eaten over the centuries begins in the pre-historic period. The earlier sections will be of interest to social historians, to foodies (since when has that been a word?) and to anyone setting a novel in ancient Egypt or sixth century China (surely someone must be attempting the latter). From a family historian’s point of view, it is the last two parts (of six), covering 1492 onwards, that will be most relevant. Many foods that we take for granted were not available in Britain until comparatively recently. The impact of the age of exploration on our diet was unparalleled. It is not a coincidence that section five begins in 1492, when Columbus was sailing blue (or more plausibly grey) oceans. Tannahill also looks at the influence of the European Grand Tour, the industrial revolution and the use of pesticides, on what we ate and how we produced, prepared and stored food.

If you want to make sure that the characters in your novel are not chomping on an anachronistic tomato, if you want to know what great great granny might have served for dinner or if you are interested in the way in which food and historical events interrelate, I can recommend this book. There are line drawings, notes on sources and an extensive bibliography to take you further. I particularly like the way in which the author weaves the history of food in to the wider historical context. This is a true social history.

Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 11 Women and Work and a bit about the History of the early Twentieth Century

The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (e-Book) book coverThis comprehensive account was first published in 1919 and was written by Alice Clark, of the Quaker shoemaking family. Clark (1874-1934) herself is an interesting character, rising to become a director of the family firm in an era when this would have been very unusual. Her Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century is, justifiably, still regarded as a key work on this topic. Sadly it is not currently in print, although the publishers, Routledge, do offer a Kindle edition. You can get copies on online auction sites and various facsimile reprints are available.

The book considers the vital role of women in the family economy, in a century when we tend to imagine that all women were downtrodden housewives. Women’s roles in business, in agriculture, textiles, crafts and the professions are all considered. Clark’s stance is that seventeenth century women enjoyed an equality with men, that their role was complementary, rather than identical and that they played an invaluable part in the family economy. She has used account books, diaries, letters and other sources to illustrate the central role that some women played. She goes on to argue that women began to lose their place in the economic world with the rise of capitalism. By the end of the seventeenth century, she feels, women were increasingly constrained by household duties. The author’s feminist stance and her interest in economics and I suspect socialism, is in evidence but does not detract from the narrative. My Routledge edition has an valuable introduction and bibliography, contributed by Amy Louise Erickson. These enhance Clark’s own list of contemporary and secondary sources.

I enjoyed this book because it provides information about my favourite (well one of my favourites) century. Although this book is about the seventeenth century, it does also give us an understanding of aspects of the early twentieth century too. Clark was actively involved in the women’s suffrage movement and unusually, was a mature student at the London School of Economics. That a woman could write a book like this at this time is insightful.

A couple of things about the early twentieth century while I am here. First of all, it seem likes a long way away because of the seasonal celebrations in between but it is just five weeks before my online course about researching your family and/or locality in the early twentieth century begins. To save you clicking through to the blurb I will copy it here (see how I look after you). “Family historians often neglect the twentieth century as being ‘not really history’ but there is plenty to be discovered about individuals and the communities in which they lived between 1900 and 1945. Twentieth century research brings with it the difficulties of larger and more mobile populations as well as records that are closed to view. This course sets out to provide advice for finding out about our more recent ancestors and the context for their lives. This course would be of interest to those undertaking one-place studies as well as family historians.” It may surprise you how much there is still to be found about a comparatively recent period and the course contains plenty of hints for investigating the social history of the time. What ever time period you choose, focusing on just a few years really pays dividends, whether you are a family historian or a local historian. Sign up, you know you want to. Put a course on your Christmas list.

The early twentieth century is of course when Barefoot on the Cobbles is set. In between writing these blogs, which take more time than you might think, I am of course writing further chapters (I put that in in case my publisher is reading this). No, I really am writing. This week it is the harrowing death scene of one of the main characters. I am also trying to compose something that I can add to my Barefoot page on this website, to give you more information about what you can expect. The first attempt may even be there by the time you read this.


Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 10 – for those with an interest in agriculture

Henry Stephens's Book of the Farm: concise and revised edition by [Langlands, Alex]This one is for all those family historians with agricultural labouring ancestors and for writers of historical fiction who are using a nineteenth century rural setting. The lavish production and copious illustrations also make it ideal for history lovers in general to browse. Henry Stephens’ Book of the Farm, was first published as a guide to mixed farming in the 1840s. It became the handbook used by the historical interpreters working on BBC TV’s Victorian Farm (DVDs of this excellent series are available). One of the presenters, Alex Langlands, had an abridged version of Stephens’ work reprinted to accompany the TV series. He included an introduction and many coloured illustrations that I assume were not in the original. There are also copious line drawings, which may have been part of Stephens’ work. If you require regional farming specifics, you will need to look beyond this book but here is a wonderful general introduction, written at the dawning of the age of agricultural mechanisation. You will find a season by season account of the many and varied duties on a farm. You can learn how swine were fattened, driven and slaughtered and there are clear instructions for forming a dunghill (always useful). There are sections on training sheep dogs, sowing flax and hemp and making butter. Amazon have a ‘look inside’ feature, so you can see the full extent of the contents. A few short chapters in to this lovely book and you will be treading in the footsteps of your farming ancestors – but beware of the dunghills.