Of Strippers, Guns, Cauldrons and Celebrities

Some bizarre incidents lately. Last week I was scheduled to give a talk to my local family history society. Owing to an oversight, the venue had double booked our room and we were expecting to meet in the smaller room next door. I had duly reminded members that we were to be in a different room, so that we didn’t keep barging in to the other function. In the end it turned out that we were given our usual room and the other booking was moved next door, so I then had the task of intercepting my audience on arrival. Oddly, given that we meet at 2.00pm, the other function was a hen-party, who were awaiting the arrival of their male stripper. Many a joke was cracked about the potential defection of my audience to the room next door. I think some of them were hoping that the ‘entertainer’ would be as confused about which room he was supposed to be in as we were.

Then yesterday it was off to Dorset, via Somerset where I was to collect a cauldron, as you do – well as I do anyway. The car was already full of deactivated guns that we were delivering to Dorset (as with many of my activities, it really is best not to ask). There had been some sort of terrorism scare in Devon. Despite it being legal to carry these guns, we really didn’t want to be stopped and have to explain ourselves. The journey passed without incident however and I am very pleased with the cauldron, which will probably be a more effective weapon, should I need one, than the deactivated guns.

We were heading for a seriously posh hotel to celebrate a young lady’s very good examination results. I don’t really do posh. Don’t get me wrong I can clip my vowels with the best of them, I can do posh I just don’t very often. If I tell you that items on the wine list went up to £6445 a bottle (and no I haven’t left out a decimal point there) you will get the idea. Even I (a non-wine drinker) know that a £50 bottle of wine is better than one for a tenner from a supermarket near you but £6445, really? How is that possibly £5395 better than one for £50? There was a visitors’ book in the reception of the hotel and the last signatory was Lady somebody or other – are you getting the picture? We are tempted to talk about when we met Princess Anne in resounding tones and we loudly recite a list of our televisual appearances, so we are probably holding our own. A random guest, with gold rings the size of knuckle dusters approaches our guest of honour asking what she was celebrating. Initially, we all think he must know someone else in our party but it turns out that he didn’t and that this was his ‘local’. He weaves off to order more champagne. The staff have spotted cards and gifts on our table and come out with a cake, candle and birthday greetings. We debate maintaining the fiction with a rendition of Happy Birthday to You.

Half way through our meal I start to feel a bit peculiar. This is not like me and not wishing to faint in front of the minor aristocracy, I go outside for some air. Typically, this is the ten minutes during the day when the hot sunshine has given way to thundery rain. I clearly look less than well as the staff are proffering glasses of water and chairs under the pergola. They are probably keen to usher me to an inconspicuous corner before I vomit on their patio. I sit on the chair before I realise quite how wet it is, so I now look and feel as if I have had an unfortunate accident. Equilibrium restored without being embarrassingly unwell, I return to my seat, thinking that, if I have a relapse, I can put the cauldron to good use in the way home.

We learn that Chris Evans is about to bring round some million pound cars on which people have bid tens of thousands of pounds in order to drive (that is drive for a hour or so, not drive away). This is in aid of Children in Need, so the maitre d’ is sporting Pudsey ears. Now I may be odd but to me a car is a means of getting from A to B as safely and economically as possible, with as little damage to the environment as can be achieved. I am totally unimpressed by makes of car and no way would I be interested in parting with any sum of money to drive expensive Aston Martins, Bentleys or whatever they were. They have four wheels, just like the battered Nissan Micra we arrived in, so what?

Anyway, people seem to be impressed and Chris Evans arrives on a motor bike. Pudsey appears from somewhere. It is about 28 degrees; who would want to be wearing a bear suit? People start trying to take surreptitious picture of Chris Evans and some simpering sycophants are saying how much they enjoy his radio show. Someone a little closer to home is muttering, none too quietly, ‘We never liked him in The One Show.’ So not everyone is dazzled by celebrity then. It is time for us to extract the battered Nissan Micra from between the Range Rovers and Jaguars. As we leave the car park we narrowly miss knocking Chris Evans from his motorbike as he zooms across our path. Never let it be said that life is boring.

Happy Birthday #Daisy

I am watching the turbulent trees and the torrential rain pounding an uncaring tattoo on the window panes. One hundred and thirty two years ago Devon’s August weather was similar, heralding fears that the cool temperatures would keep tourists away and worries about how and when the harvest could be garnered. At some point, amidst the storms of 20 August 1894 a first-time mother held a moonflower child in her arms. Newborn cries drowned out the crashing tide that raked pebbles shoreward and then hurled them, uncaring, back to the darkening sea. Today is Daisy’s birthday.

So today I have learned that British Summer Time was introduced in 1916. If I am going to write about dawn and dusk, I need to pin-point them at the right o‘clock. I have read historic weather reports and discovered a ‘summer’ season, reminiscent of that of 2016. I have had to draw a blank on working out the state of the tides at particular times. Since my last #amwriting report, I’ve made a couple of site visits, roughed out a chronology, looked into the history of some of my characters, written some fragments and a more substantial piece. I can’t tell you how many words as it was longhand. In the unlikely event that I can actually read my own writing, I’ll let you know the running total when I have typed it up. You are looking at someone who wrote ‘ravioli’ on the shopping list and the hapless shopper returned with carrots. No, I have not been allowed to live that down.

Garden 1 August 2016At present, Daisy is as embryonic as she was in the early hours of 20 August 1894 but she is on her way and I am looking forward to my role as midwife. Creativity has also been channelled towards constructing a special place to sit and dream. This may lead to procrastination rather than productivity and today is certainly not the day for outside musings. Check back for more #daisy updates.

Of Writing (by me and potentially you), Books and Health History

DSCF3269.JPGThere are diminutive sandy shorts on the washing line, the pile of washing-up stretches from here to there (where there is a very long way from here and the only dishwasher I have is human), toilet rolls are disappearing like fairy dust and I have just tripped over a plastic hippopotamus for the third time. This can only mean one thing, yes, the descendants have descended, hence the dearth of posts recently. I have had great fun collecting shells, dressing as a gnome, identifying breeds of plastic puppies and trying to sound like I know the difference between a telehandler and a front loader (no, no idea). I have played a very small part in persuading a two year old boy that teeth cleaning is not an ordeal; the real credit goes to his patient parents. A whole menagerie of animals have had their teeth duly scrubbed and what a joy for us all when the stress free teeth cleaning session was followed by him beaming, ‘I made it!’ (no plastic creatures were harmed in this process).

This does mean that ‘work’ has taken a bit of a back seat. Mind you, nothing I do to earn a crust ever actually feels much like work. This week has seen the start of my Maps and Surveys course for Pharos Tutors and I look forward to our first online chat on Saturday. With students from five different countries picking a time when we are all, nominally at least, awake has been a challenge but we are giving it a go. I am also putting the finishing touches to my Are you Sitting Comfortably?: Writing and Telling your Family History course, to be presented by Pharos in September. If you feel that you need extra encouragement to put fingers to keyboard (other formats are available) you can sign up now. No excuses, you can do this from anywhere in the world. You know you owe it to your extended family to create something special from all your research efforts.

I took a break from being smeared with peanut butter and reading Meg and Mog in order to meet up with local authors and other booky people. What a wonderful afternoon, networking at Killerton House, thanks to organisation by Devon Book Club. There were bubbles, there was Eton Mess and plenty of book chat. I spoke briefly about Remember Then and it was well received, with interest in its use by people caring for the elderly and those with memory problems.

Then, an opportunity to make use of my forays into the history of medicine, as we are interviewed by a PhD student in connection with family health history. A fascinating morning. After spending three hours with two of us, we learn that a previous interview had taken the researcher only seven minutes. Surely we cannot be accused of talking too much? We did seem to be particularly relevant to the study on several counts. It also made us think again about how the information about health and death that we glean as a result of our family history research could be used. If we discover what appears to be a tendency to suffer from a particular health problem, are we interested or scared? How do we feel about telling other relatives for whom this information may potentially have personal implications? If these discoveries reveal mental health problems, is this more sensitive than the realisation that many ancestors died of heart disease, for example? Definitely thought provoking.

Daisy – a Writer’s Progress

You know that theory, the one that believes that declaring your aims publicly helps you to achieve them; a bit like New Year’s Resolutions I guess. If the whole world knows you are trying to give up smoking, lose weight or run a marathon, then you feel you have a greater obligation to deliver. So, this is where I nail my own proverbial colours to the mast. A few people know that, since my last writing project finished, I have been toying with moving from non-fiction to fiction. I had a story in my head; I may still write it one day but then, suddenly, a new story has taken hold and won’t let me go. The characters and their lives have been whirling through my brain for a few months; I’ve tried to push them aside whilst other things needed attention but they hammer at my being when I least expect it. So, you heard it here first, one day there will be a novel, if I live that long. It was this or study for an MA in experimental archeaology – I may still do that. This is, in theory, cheaper and will be a more flexible commitment and anyway it just won’t wait. I don’t want to be the next best seller – that’s probably just as well – I just want to tell a story that is clamouring to escape.

I haven’t written fiction since my angst-ridden teenage years but I owe it to the heroines of my story to try to resurrect any talent that I may have had then, phoenix-like, from the ashes of my later middle years (I refuse to say old age). There will be no spoilers but from time to time, I will be blogging progress reports. Don’t expect tallies of thousands of words a day – oh well, if you must ask, 637 words so far. Predictably, this is a story set in the past, not the seventeenth century as you might expect but the more recent past, so I have plenty of research that needs doing along the way and progress in terms of words on pages will be slow. Periodically, you may see impassioned pleas for help from experts in x, y and z. The current x, y and z are diptheria, living with an anorexic adult child and coroner’s court procedure – any takers? You may even read of the harvest that I garner as a result of these research labours, or the frustrations as I furrow stonier ground.

My characters were all real people, dangerous I know. There will be none of this ‘any resemblance to real people living or dead is purely coincidental’ lark. The main events actually happened but the very raw, very real and in some ways very modern emotions, like the dynamics between the characters, I am having to weave from my imagination, empathy and best guesses. From the clues I have given, some of you will know whose story I am going to tell. I promise that I will try to deal fairly with all who tiptoe through my pages, or indeed crash boldly across my keyboard. I will not be altering the facts that I can uncover but this will be fiction not family history, so I will be inventing likely incidents and encounters to paint on to the factual canvas. Look out for the #Daisy to join the journey.


Maps, Surveys, Displays and Other Historical Randomness

I’ve been here, there and almost everywhere over the last few weeks. Trying to find various far flung places is not always easy and sometimes our not so trusty sat-nav fails us (see below for some of the gory details). Mapping our ancestors and the communities of the past is just as important as knowing where we are going in the present. Although it is not a course of my own devising, I am pleased to be tutoring the ‘Maps and Surveys – Locating your Ancestors’ course for Pharos Tutors, starting on 9th August. There may still be spaces, so please do book. The course is primarily about British sources but it is all online, so those of you with British ancestors can study it wherever you are in the world. Apart from a general overview, we shall be looking in detail at one of my favourite sources – the 1910 Valuation Office Survey, as well as the tithe maps and apportionments and enclosure maps. Do join me!

I certainly needed a map on several occasions recently. When we go out swording and spindling, which we’ve been doing a great deal lately, we take a vehicle of suitable dimensions – you try getting eighteen pikes (no not the fish) into a Nissan Micra. So not in the Nissan Micra then but for reasons we won’t go in to, in a vehicle with no way of charging the sat-nav. This means that, in fear of the battery running out, we delay turning on the sat-nav until we get to the point where we are almost lost. Sat-nav set for a school in south east Devon, via Crediton, to avoid as much rush hour traffic as possible and we are on our way. We get well beyond Crediton before we feel the need to turn on the sat-nav for advice. We follow Sally sat-nav’s exhortations to go right, left and ‘turn around where possible’ with only a few slight hiccups when we reach roads that have been built since she was last updated. Suddenly we appear to be miles away from where we should be. I resort to a map (once a girl guide …..) and we arrive with minutes to spare – good job I am genetically programmed to leave what is normally ridiculously early for any event. Later we realise the problem. Even though we were well past Crediton, we had asked to go via Crediton and that is what the sat–nav was trying to make us do – lesson learned.

Amongst all the school bookings have been talks to grown-ups. One was at Devon Rural Archive. We needed a map to find that one too but what a gem. A really great set up, a full house and a very appreciative audience for my seventeenth century gardens presentation. A visit is definitely recommended. Then there was a talk to a Somerset WI who were celebrating their 85th birthday, a yummy birthday tea as well on this occasion! We decided to combine this trip with picking up a ‘collection only’ chest of drawers that I had purchased on eBay. Again we have the large pike-carrying non sat-nav charging vehicle. First finding the industrial estate where the chest of drawers is hiding, comparatively straight forward. Next, getting the chest of drawers into said vehicle – Ah. I had sensibly measured the space at home where it was to go and it fitted. Had I measured the vehicle. Err…. that would be a No. Well, in the end, with much manouvering, we inserted said chest of drawers into said vehicle. Had it been a centimetre larger in any direction we would have been in trouble.

Our local history society has been on display at various events in the village and beyond lately. A few days ago we were part of an open day at a nearby iron age hill fort. Actually getting to the display area by the fort was a logistical nightmare. We needed to get a table, display boards and various books and papers to what was effectively the middle of nowhere. You will note also that this was a hill fort, the clue is in the name. Our Iron Age forebears liked to have a commanding view. We did find the nearest point on the road with the aid of maps, directions and signs erected by the organisers. Sat-navs are no use for hill forts surrounded by woods. We then had to get our equipment along the footpaths to the hill fort. Chris manfully agreed to risk life and vehicle by driving along a bridleway but it was still a jolly long way to transport our belongings. I can verify that I am just too short to comfortably carry a pasting table half a mile without it banging on the uneven ground. Having been blown away at the recent Buckland fete, on this occasion, we were adamant that our display needed to be under cover and out of the wind. Sure enough, we were provided with a large tent, with jolly, retro curtains. Unfortunately, this was a hot day with no sign of wind or rain, so any perusal of our display was limited by how long the public could endure the heat and humidity in the tent! Luckily, we were helped by landrover transport on the way back to civilisation.

We now seem to have summer at last, just as I planned to do things to the house and garden that require temperatures of under 30 degrees, not that I am complaining. I also have visits from small persons to look forward to over the next couple of weeks – hurrah!

Harnessing the Facebook Generation: ideas for involving young people in family history and heritage and other news

Busy, busy, busy. What with the job I must not mention, now almost completed and Swording and Spindling like mad it has all been very hectic. It is especially satisfying to have spent five days in schools in the last fortnight and to have been so well received by staff and students (they all asked us back next year – what more could we ask for?). In the same fortnight, two talks for adults as well, so much for ‘retirement’.

TDSCF3191hings have taken a bit of an Australian turn lately. I spoke to the Society of Australian Genealogists about causes of death. Sadly this was not an all expenses paid trip; my presence was merely virtual. In addition, the Australian company Unlock the Past have published another of my booklets Harnessing the Facebook Generation: ideas for involving young people in family history and heritage, something I feel very strongly about. It can be purchased from the publishers.  It is also available as an ebook and it should soon be on sale in print form from UK and Canadian outlets. It is always exciting to hold the actual copies in your hand, even though you know what is inside! Australia are going to have their own Family History Expo in October; the down under equivalent of RootsTech or Who Do You Think You Are? Live. Unfortunately I won’t be going but if you are in the right hemisphere, do give it some thought.

I have also been ‘Racing’ for Life in aid of Cancer Research. Despite the temperature suddenly soaring to 10 degrees above anything I had encountered so far in what has laughingly passed for our summer, I survived. I was under strict instructions not to ‘race’; really difficult when you are as competitive as I am. So no trying to come in under 40 minutes as I usually do. Still I did get round the 5km in under three-quarters of an hour, so I guess I just have to grow old gracefully and be content with that. There is still time to sponsor me.

#EUref A Historian’s Perspective

I am making a once in a lifetime exception to my self-imposed embargo on blogging about politics or religion, on a day that I feel may be marked by the historians of the future as a memorable day. Undoubtedly today is a watershed, perhaps a watershed on the scale of the Norman Conquest, Henry VIII’s capricious decision to divorce Anne Boleyn, or the loss of America as a colony. You are probably aware that these were not events that resulted in peace, prosperity and religious freedom for all. Whether today will be memorable for good or ill remains to be seen. In a recent Facebook post, I referred to one of the historical quotations that adorn the headers and footers of my website. Now I would like to draw your attention to the one at the top of the home page, George Santayana’s ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfil it’. Time will tell quite what we have condemned ourselves to fulfil in the wake of the whole referendum debacle. I am not writing this as a passionate advocate or adherent of either ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. To be so would be to ignore the all too apparent flaws in one scenario or the advantages of the other. As the campaigns lurched uncertainly into action I sat firmly on the fence. I tried, I really tried, to balance emotional gut reaction with economic reality. Both sides bombarded us with rhetoric, invective and contradictory information. As a historian, I am all too aware of propaganda and spin and we had both in good measure. My working life requires seeking evidence, verifying sources but it seemed that, for much of the information, there was none. It all boiled down to a frying pan – fire decision. The EU is clearly restrictive and broken but the isolationist alternative was fraught with uncertainty and bigotry.

I am actually not so concerned about the outcome of the vote, hardly the overwhelming endorsement some would have us believe. In the end, after much thought, the ‘winner’ wasn’t actually the outcome that attracted my X in the box but that is largely immaterial; I could see pros and cons to both options. My fear, concern and profound sadness today is because the campaign has been accompanied by so much intolerance, bigotry and downright hatred. No one, on either side of this deeply divisive debate, can feel that the run up to what some are terming ‘Independence Day’ has been anything but dirty. The prejudice and fanaticism has been fueled and proliferated by that double-edged sword, social media. Even people I believed to be perceptive have seemed to accept what was clearly errant nonsense as the inveterate truth.

I can respect anyone who cast their vote, in either direction, following thought and deliberation. Sadly many have voted on the basis of scaremongering, or have made their choice because of the alleged charisma of the leading advocates of one cause or the dislike of those fronting the other. Unsupported statements have been hurled by both sides, things got personal, childish, ridiculous. Where was the evidence? The convincing data? Twentieth century political history has never been my favourite period but it doesn’t take an historian to draw the parallels that have already been drawn with the blinkered adulation of Herr Hitler, who was hailed as the saviour of post world war I Germany. He was going to make Germany great. It seemed such a good idea at the time. Now are we heading for our own hate-fuelled Kristallnacht or have the ultra right-wing, who tarnished others who believed ‘Leave’ was the right option, been placated by today’s result? If so, for how long?

I can’t help feeling that those claim that Brexit is the solution to all our problems are being blinded by euphoria. Leave or Remain – either route would have been beset with uncertainty, faction and the need for hard work and compromise. The divisions in our country have become a chasm and it is far from being over yet. There is a mutual back-patting amongst those in the Leave camp and talk of ‘getting our country back’. Beware of what you wish for. We have not ‘got back’ the country of the halcyon pre EU days. Days which lie largely in the imagination. The country we have ‘got back’ is a shadow of its former self; diminished by what will inevitably and understandable be the defection of Scotland. A country fractured by the attitude that those of different opinions, cultures and faiths are somehow of less value. A country where distorted stereotypes are applied to those of a particular ethnicity, belief or sexuality. A country where political hatred sees the murder of a woman who was working for what she believed to be the greater good. A country that seems to have forgotten the concepts of compassion, of compromise, of caring. As for one gloating Leave activist who commented that we had won the country back without a shot being fired, insensitively ignoring Jo Cox’s murder, in one respect he is right, a war has been created. War is never pretty, there are no winners and we can only speculate on who will be the casualties that Brexit and the aftermath will leave in its wake.

If the new Britain, for it will be many decades before it can become Great, is to work it will need every iota of forgiveness and fortitude that we can muster. We will have to learn to accept others who are outside our comfy ‘exactly like us’ sphere and learn to work in harmony. We need to stop moaning about what is wrong and strive to put it right. America is no longer the land of the free, Britannia has long since ceased to rule the waves. World events of the past weeks are destroying people’s faith in humanity. However much you wanted to leave the EU, this is not a time for unadulterated elation. When cloud nine bursts it will become clear that we are embarking on a hazardous journey without sat-nav, survival kit and for some, without a moral compass. We may have done the right thing, this may be an unremitting disaster, while it all unravels and it become clear which of those alternatives is the actuality, the UK needs the healing balm of kindness, understanding and forbearance.

Rant over. If anything is ever normal again normal service will resume shortly.