About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Oven Bottom Cakes. Family Secrets, My Irish Nana and Me


The Irish Famine by George Frederick Watts
I recently spent some time rewriting the blurb for Bird of Passage before a forthcoming free promotion (16th, 17th and 18th August). It's one of the big advantages of Kindle publishing that you can go back and refine something in the light of reviews, reader feedback, or just general intuition. The novel is set in Scotland, but it's probably the most Irish thing I've ever written, with the exception of a sad little story called Civil Rights, first published in the Edinburgh Review some years ago, and scheduled for another airing during the Edinburgh eBook Festival. 

I was born in Leeds, and my nana was Irish. Her name was Honora Flynn. Anne Honora, to be precise, although everyone called her Nora. Her father, James Flynn, was registered in Liverpool although later records mention Ireland as the place of his birth - maybe he was just off the ferry! - in 1856 or thereabouts which means that the migration of the family was probably related to the after effects of the Irish famine. 

Family tradition puts their place of origin as Ballyhaunis in Mayo and Flynn is certainly a Mayo name. By 1887, though, James was living in Leeds. He was a 'paviour' as the records state - which means he built roads. At the age of thirty, he married one Mary Terran or Terens who was a widow with children. His father Timothy was dead by then, but the marriage was witnessed by Charles and Mary Flynn, (his brother and sister?) who couldn't write, so marked their names with an 'X'. My nana, Anne Honora was born the year before their marriage, but it's a fairly safe assumption that she was Mary Terran and James Flynn's child. They went on to have more children, Timothy, Michael and Thomas. 

Later, my nana met my auburn haired grandad, Joe Sunter, in Holbeck, in Leeds, but at some point, she went to Canada looking for work and a new life. She didn't find it and sailed back again, to find that Joe was home from a trip to Singapore with the Merchant Navy. They were married not long after and had five children of whom my mother, Kathleen Irene, was the youngest. 

My grandad's family had been dalesmen - of Norse descent in all probability - from the upper reaches of Swaledale, lead miners turned coal dealers and farriers, and they were staunch Methodists. My nana's family were Irish Catholics and there was always a certain Irish element to my upbringing. I think the Catholic Church is a bit like Hotel California in the song - you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. I went to a small Catholic school, although we weren't what you might call 'red hot' in our religious observance. But when, at the age of 16, I first went to Ireland, working for a family in West Cork, looking after their children for the summer, it felt strangely familiar. 

The extended family, two sisters, with their husbands and assorted children, were renting an apartment in a big, beautiful, tumbledown house. It was a farmhouse but it must once have belonged to some minor Anglo Irish gentry before the 'troubles' changed everything. There was a dusty ballroom, an overgrown fountain in the garden, and a fearsome sow who would come galloping through the undergrowth in pursuit of strangers. The big holiday apartment had once been the servants quarters and the mice partied in the attics all night long. I was one of two nannies, temporary nursemaids, mother's helps, whatever we were. I looked after eighteen month old triplets and three older children by day,but at night, when they were mercifully in bed, the other nanny and myself went dancing in the nearby villages escorted by various local boys. I fell in love, just a little bit, and walked back down the long drive in the moonlight with a good looking boy called Paddy (what else?) who kissed me beneath the damp buddleias. I can never smell that honey scent now without remembering it. 

Later, I worked in Dublin too and everything about that time and place fed into the fiction which would come after. But much as I loved Ireland - much as I still love the place and its people - I didn't realise until years later that the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries and the cruelty of the Industrial Schools was still going on, even while I had been innocently holding hands with Paddy on that moonlit lane. Which is a chilling thought, even now.


Tattie Howkers
Tied up with all that is the story of what happened to my beloved nana, and how we - my elderly aunt and I, because my own mother was dead by that time - came to find out something about Nora which she had kept secret her whole life - which she had taken with her to her grave. Nobody knew, until much later when somebody, ferreting through official records, found it out. Later still, I wondered if that had been why Anne Honora had decided to leave for Canada. Maybe she felt that she had no more to lose. But she had come back and married my grandfather anyway. 

I wrote about it when those most closely concerned with it were dead even my dear aunt, who had been deeply upset by it. I wrote the poem below, Oven Bottom Cakes, before ever I wrote Bird of Passage. But although it's quite different, and Anne Honora's story is nothing like Finn and Kirsty's story - I still feel those little connections and inspirations, nipping away at me like midges on a summer night. For Bird of Passage is a story about secrets and lies, about concealment and shame as well. 

And I think the inspiration for these two quite different pieces of work must come from the same beloved place. 


 OVEN BOTTOM CAKES

My Irish nana made oven bottom cakes
with the last of the dough,
furiously working the elastic on
cold marble, her hair thrust back
like a schoolgirl’s with a clip.
I see her print pinafore and her body
flex as she presses her thumb into
the middle of each cake then
leans across the rag rug to throw
deft flour into the oven to judge
if the temperature is right.

On a February morning in smoky Leeds
in 1910 my nana, a shirt maker,
gave birth to twin girls Gladys and Ethel.
She named no father and they died within days.
Later, she told nobody.
They were erased from our story
as surely as if they had never lived
until years after her death when
some  remote cousin gleefully
excavating the family tree,
sniffed them out and spilt the beans.

Toddling, I would nap with her
in the afternoons and she would
push me out of her bed for
fidgetting, my soft breasted nan.
Did she see in me those
babies she had buried?
My nana baked bread for me.
How she loved to feed me good things,
made oven bottom cakes and we’d
eat them with the best butter
and blackberry jam that
nipped your teeth with seeds.

Catherine Czerkawska.

Magdalenes

Monday, August 06, 2012

Buried Treasure



As you can see from the picture above, if you look closely, even my doll's house has books in it! I'm seriously considering making some tiny, bound manuscripts and stacking them on shelves in various other rooms. Maybe the lady of the house - which is my current pride and joy and refuge from all things online - could be a writer in her spare time. This idea occurred to me because I spent a couple of days last week climbing up and down a real stepladder in my real house, my upstairs study to be precise, with a nice view of the garden and the woods beyond. I've been storing folders and box files on a high shelf that runs the length of the whole room for years now, and I decided I needed to investigate and take stock of exactly what I had in the way of material.

With three full length novels, a couple of short story trios and a few plays already published and selling quite nicely on Amazon, I've been considering what I'm going to publish next and what my future publishing strategies might be.  It seemed to me that I had a lot of work just sitting there. Moreover, I suspected some of it might be good work, not just those early 'bottom drawer' novels you cut your teeth on and then hang onto out of sheer sentimentality, not because you think they're any good, but because it's hard to destroy something you've spent so much time on. So I thought it was time for an assessment.

I know that my PC has two (almost) completed but unpublished novels sitting on it. To be more accurate, the novels are on a PC, a laptop, various flash drives and stored in DropBox and on a Norton Cloud somewhere. So - I'm paranoid. There are also printouts. One, called The Physic Garden, is a historical novel set in Glasgow around the turn of the 1800s. It's related by an elderly bookseller who was once a gardener - although he's remembering the events of his youth - and it's a book about male friendship and extreme betrayal. I'm very fond of it. In fact, I think I'm probably more fond of it than anything else I've written. Oh, it definitely needs work. And it needs more words as well as less, additions as well as pruning. This novel was read (I assume) by a young intern at my previous agency. Her response was that it was 'just an old man telling his story.' Which is true. This casual, stupid remark so influenced me that I wasted several months trying to tell the story in the third person.

It didn't work.

There was no way that my narrator was going to allow his story to be told in anything except his own strong voice. Now, the possibility of publishing The Physic Garden as an eBook has allowed me to go back to my original plan and make this the book I intended it to be. It should be coming to a Kindle near you before the end of the year.

Also on my PC is a rather odd piece of contemporary fiction called Line Dancing, part romance, part literary fiction. I don't think anyone at any of my agencies ever wanted to read this, for the simple reason that it's about an older woman having a relationship with a younger man and none of the young women and men who inhabit agencies ever found anything to interest them in the proposal. But again, when I reread it now, I get that little kick of excitement that suggests the book is OK, probably worth publishing. And aren't there lots of older women out there who haven't quite given up on love?

That's just on the PC. It was when I started rummaging in all those old folders and files that a pattern began to emerge. I would climb the ladder and lift them down a couple of boxes at a time. Many of them hadn't been opened for years and there were not just cobwebs but dead spiders lurking inside. I had to use antihistamine for the sneezing and a vacuum cleaner for the spider skeletons.

Here's what I found:
First of all, there was a huge manuscript called Salt Sea Strawberries. Many years ago, I wrote a trilogy of dramas for BBC Radio 4, called The Peggers and the Creelers. It was about a Scottish fishing community and an inland boot and shoe making town, (not a million miles from Dunure and Maybole, in Ayrshire) and the plays constituted a densely woven series of dramas about the sometimes stormy relationships between the two communities and the demise of traditional industries. This was well before I ever had a PC. It had been written on an old electric typewriter, and now here it was, printed out on that flimsy old fashioned paper. A huge box of it. 130,000 words of it.

I read a few pages and remembered that the original radio series had elicited lots of fan mail. People had loved it. The novel isn't half bad either. Actually - like the plays - it probably amounts to a trilogy of novels, or it will, by the time I've rewritten it. I don't remember my agent - whichever agent I had at the time - reading this one either. She 'wasn't keen on family sagas. Nobody wants family sagas.'
And you know what? I had forgotten all about it! I hadn't forgotten the plays, just that I had actually spent a year or two of my life writing 130,000 words of a novel based on the plays that nobody then would even look at.

Another folder contained a novel called Snow Baby, a manuscript full of my own scrawled annotations. This is contemporary fiction, literary, lyrical, quite poetic. Extracts from it were published in Carl MacDougall's beautifully designed 'Words' magazine, way back in the 1970s. Which was a difficult magazine to get into. We're talking about a very youthful work here, written when I was supposed to be a 'literary' writer but in reality wasn't quite sure what kind of writer I was. I was a mid-list writer for sure - desperate to tell well written stories that would appeal to all kinds of people, but perhaps to women in particular. The problem with Snow Baby was that it was set in Finland and - you've guessed it - 'nobody wants to read anything set in Finland.'

There were also some 70 pages of a novel called The Marigold Child. This was a novel with an intriguing Mary, Queen of Scots connection. I had done the research and although the premise on which it is based is outrageous, everything fits. My agent's eyes lit up when she heard about it. I wanted to write it as a historical novel, but 'nobody wants historical novels' - or they didn't back then, though they do now - so I spent a year wrestling with it to try to give it a contemporary framework. The 70 pages is set in the here and now. I read it through and thought it read pretty well, spooky, with a couple of engaging central characters, but I'm still not sure that it shouldn't be a straightforward historical novel. That may be what it wants to be. We'll see. The point is that now, I can do what I want with it, not what somebody else is telling me might be flavour of the month.



There are besides this, files full of single plays and series with detailed background material. All these were made and produced on BBC Radio 4 and well received. Among them there's a series of plays about a Scottish family of yacht builders, and another set in Roman Britain, all well researched, all vividly written, albeit in dramatic form. By the time these were written, even though I knew in my heart I had material for more novels, I had had enough of soldiering through thousands of words and hoping for the best. There are folders full of detailed ideas and plans for novels, whole plots, meticulously worked out. There are short stories and even some non-fiction pieces. There's a young adult novel - the publisher no longer exists although my television serial on which it is based is still available on YouTube. There's a backlist novel which I always felt was published in the wrong way. Now it seems horribly dated and needs extensive rewriting. But somewhere inside it is a good piece of contemporary fiction - and that too seems a bit like finding buried treasure.

'I wish', said my husband, wistfully, surveying the great heaps of manuscript, 'all this had happened twenty years ago.'
So do I.
But we can only work with what we have and, as of now, I think I just have to get my head down and get more work out there. Lots of it. Once I've whittled my way down the pile I can stop, take stock and decide what might be best to do next. CreateSpace is calling, for instance, since I can't deny that I'd love to have paperback copies of all these.
There's a lot more to come and much of it is already written in some form at least. Editing and polishing takes time - years, probably, but there's an excitement about it all and a freedom that I haven't known for a very long time.
Kindle, other platforms, CreateSpace  - all I can say is, watch this space.