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!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

How I Got Where I Am Now (Part 2 - Edinburgh Days )

Edinburgh was a revelation to me. As far as I remember, only one other girl from my school went there and we were in different faculties. I never saw her. I was reading English Language and Literature and - for my first year anyway - staying in the East Suffolk Road halls of residence. It had the air of a rather superior but chilly girls' boarding school. It was an all female establishment and the formidable warden would periodically issue a summons to the top table at dinner. Boys were frowned on in general and definitely had to be 'out' by a certain time, although we didn't always obey the rules. In fact we didn't often obey the rules. We were reading about feminism and the world was at our feet. I made real, enduring friendships in Edinburgh, people I still see and write to, people I like very much indeed. The kind of friendships where you can just pick up where you left off, even if you don't see each other for a long time. You can tell who they are, because they all call me Cathy even though just about everyone else uses Catherine, now. But I still answer to Cathy!

Top Withens in the 1920s
I'd been writing plenty of poetry before I went to Edinburgh: lots of deeply romantic adolescent stuff. I'd also tried my hand at writing for radio, which I still loved,  though I hadn't done anything with the fairly dire results, just filed the scripts away in a drawer, most of them typed on an elderly Remington which my dad had bought for me while I was still at school, and on which I slowly but surely taught myself to type, faster and faster.  I still have the machine and it's practically an antique. Nobody has typed anything on it for years. It looks like a prop from a movie and I love it to bits.

I even had a go at dramatising Wuthering Heights, just for the fun of it. I had a special relationship with Wuthering Heights, and it's one that has never really gone away, even though in all my years of writing radio plays and dramatising classics, the BBC has never, ever let me get my hands on this one. It was my mother's favourite novel. When I was just a little girl, she and my father had taken the bus to Haworth and trundled me over the moors in my push-chair, as far as Top Withens, the ruined farmhouse which was said to be the place, although not the building, which Emily had in mind for the Heights.

It was while I was at Edinburgh University that I wrote poetry. Lots of it. And stories and reviews and parodies. Between lectures we would sit in the basement cafe of the David Hume Tower in George Square, setting the world to rights and making plans for the future. We girls wore long skirts and maxi coats, bells around our necks, flowers in our hair - the guys were in old army greatcoats or shaggy, smelly, Afghan jackets and bell bottom trousers. We listened  to Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell on the Juke Box and smoked Gauloises, a little self consciously. One of the bookstores in the town was such a hotbed of another kind of smoking altogether that you couldn't browse there for more than half an hour without feeling light-headed. Outside the Fine Art department, beautiful Ian Charleson held court, admired as much by men as by women. There was a sit-in in the old Quad. I was there, but can't for the life of me remember what we were protesting about.

One of our lecturers, the late and much lamented Paul Edwards, who had translated many of the Icelandic sagas with the equally lamented and ever kindly Hermann Palsson, encouraged me to carry on writing. Paul used to hold court most afternoons in his big, untidy room at the top of a stair in Buccleuch Place. By the time I was in my third and fourth years, specialising in Mediaeval Studies, a friend and I would be invited up to what was essentially his literary 'salon'. There was home brewed beer and home made wine, and it was a place where visiting writers and lecturers hung out and talked about books and politics and new writing. He was clever, charming, iconoclastic, a little dangerous, but very protective of us younger visitors. Even then, these meetings were  frowned on by the authorities. I can't imagine that anyone would ever get away with sessions like this now in our deeply sanitised academic worlds, but I remember them as some of the most exciting and inspirational times of my life.


With John Schofield, Brian McCabe and Andy Greig among others!
Poetry was flourishing in 1970s Edinburgh. A friend called John Schofield organised a series of big poetry festivals and I participated in them, reading my own work, helping to organise sessions and publicity, herding poets from one venue to another, occasionally attempting to mediate between literary giants who clearly loathed one another. They were incredibly well attended, with poets coming from all over the UK and beyond. Robert Garioch and Norman MacCaig were writers in residence during that time, neither of whom, alarmingly enough, would now be sufficiently 'well qualified' for the post in an academic sense. After graduation, I stayed on in Edinburgh for another year, working part time in a small art gallery on Rose Street and writing obsessively. I had several collections of poetry published: one an anthology called Seven New Voices (Liz Lochhead was one of the other new voices!) one with Andy Greig, called White Boats, and a third solo collection, called A Book of Men, which won a Scottish Arts Council New Writing Award.



Much later, I would use some of these experiences to describe Kirsty's time in Edinburgh in Bird of Passage. She wasn't me, but I can tell you that I saw her one day, sitting with a friend, in a cafe, not far from the university, saw her in her long Indian cotton skirts, which I sometimes wore too, with her long red hair (mine was much darker) remembered her for thirty years afterwards, and eventually put her in a novel which also, oddly enough, turned out to be a homage to Wuthering Heights.

Meanwhile, I had also gone back to writing radio drama. But that will have to wait for next week's episode.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Amazon (Part 1 - Early Years)

Catherine in Blue Organdie
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to do a talk loosely themed on 'how I got to where I am now'. Quite apart from the fact that I'm not quite sure where I am now, the actual exercise of looking back over all these years of writing, producing and publishing was a salutary experience. The wonder of it is that I'm still here, still writing. Clearly, it's an obsession. I can hardly remember a time when I wasn't writing, and I definitely can't remember a time when I wasn't happier making up stories than living in the real world.

 I was severely asthmatic as a child. Books, radio and the power of my own imagination were my salvation back then. I've looked at my old school reports and it's clear that I spent far less time at my primary school than I ever did at home. Those were the days when you were kept at home with asthma. The available medication was ineffective and had unpleasant side effects. We lived next door to my grandparents and my mother helped out in their tiny sweet and tobacconist's shop in smoky Holbeck, not far from the centre of Leeds, so there was always somebody to look after me: my mum, my aunt, my nana or my beloved grandad.
Aunt Vera, Dad, Mum and Me
As well as the asthma, I had a string of other illnesses, one after another it seemed: whooping cough, mumps, serious measles, influenza. (I'd like to give them all to the milkman's horse, instead of you, my grandad used to say, only half in jest.) The world of make believe was so vivid, so enticing, that it became a place of retreat for me from the miseries of sickness. Actually, if I'm honest, I hardly remember being ill at all, although I have vague memories of the sense of 'unease' which was always the preliminary to some nasty affliction or other. I do remember struggling to breathe, the hideous, concentrated panic of it. And being delirious, and seeing, quite literally seeing, dark horsemen galloping across the foot of my bed. But I also remember the pleasure of being at home, of beginning to feel better, of being free to listen to the radio and read my books and play complicated and inventive games with my toys. I remember the time my Polish father spent with me, lots of time, even though he was working by day and studying by night. But he always seemed to have time to tell me stories, and draw with me and read to me and make things for me.

Then, when I was twelve, we moved to Scotland where dad had secured a new job in a scientific research institute, and everything changed - except my need for make believe. Nothing in my life till then had prepared me for the cruelty inflicted on an awkward, ugly duckling of an English thirteen year old by her Scottish schoolmates. One with glasses and a Yorkshire accent at that. I didn't help myself much, it's true. I was naive, shy and desperately homesick for Leeds. I suffered two years of misery, leavened only by the bright beacons of vacation in a sea of educational despond. None of it was physical. They just froze me out.They mocked my accent, they mocked the way I looked, they sniggered and passed clever, insulting remarks just loud enough for me to hear them, while I stood like a rabbit, caught in the headlights of their self satisfaction, and all the time, as bullied children will, I blamed myself and told nobody. Afterwards, as an adult, I thought what hell it must be to be a bullied child in a boarding school. At least I got to go home at nights. Sanctuary. Not that I told anyone at home what was happening at school. I used to pray for the illness I had suffered when I was younger, but on the whole, I could breathe more easily in Scotland.

I did very well academically. The classroom was another, lesser refuge. I can remember wishing that we had no break times at all. I spent even more time living inside my head, and I began to write poetry. Things improved during my third year in Scotland and when we all changed schools for our final two years and travelled out of town by train each day. I was beginning to find my place, lose weight, make a few friends, although I was always aware that I didn't quite fit in and possibly never would.

I was still writing. And starting to be known and acknowledged within the school community as the girl who wrote stuff. Then, in spite of a longish spell in hospital with another severe bout of asthma when I was sixteen,  (during which I had a couple of only-half-joking proposals of marriage from two kindly young male nurses from Mauritius!) I managed to get a place at university and set off for Edinburgh where, once again, everything changed. For the better this time.

Next week: Poets and Parties and Protests: Edinburgh in the Seventies.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Eliza Marshall's Tale - For National Short Story Week

We first moved to Scotland when I was twelve years old and - although I've travelled about a bit - I've considered it my home ever since. Much of what I write is set in Scotland. But recently, I've begun to want to go back to my Yorkshire roots. Memories of Leeds are tugging at me, especially the place where I spent the first seven years of my life, industrial Holbeck, demanding to be explored and examined. Next year, therefore, I plan to write Yorkshire Girl,  a very personal memoir of what it was like growing up in Leeds back then. It's something I've tinkered with and thought about for a long time, but now it's positively demanding to be written! Meanwhile, for National Short Story Week, I'm posting a short piece of 'made up truth'. Poor Eliza Marshall gave her testimony to the Factory Commission in 1832 and you'll find her true story here on the wonderful Leodis website. Eliza's story is heartrending. I took some of her words and shaped them into a monologue with a Yorkshire accent. I remember Marshall's Mill from when I was a little girl. Even then, it seemed to be a strange place, one set apart from the clearly industrial buildings round about.

Cellar Dwelling
My name is Eliza, Eliza Marshall, and I live in Bayton Street. We live in a cellar. I pay a shilling a week for it. Nobody lives with us. Not now. What do I do? I do nothing and no, I have no mother. I live with my little sisters. There’s three of us. The youngest is going fifteen. The other’s sixteen. I’m turned eighteen. It’s cold, even in summer. There’s a range when we can get coal but we can’t always afford it. Sometimes we get given a bit. If the neighbours have owt to spare. Damp runs down walls. You can’t keep owt. It all goes black. And there’s bedbugs.  They smell quite nice. I don’t like them. No. But you can squash them if you catch them. What you must do is scrub beds down with paraffin and water, but they get into blankets and there’s nowt you can do about that. My sisters work. They’re spinners an all. I have two and six a week from town. That pays rent and a bit more but I can’t go out to work. Not now.
Yard off Meadow Lane
I were born in Doncaster. I were nine when we came to Leeds. We’d no father so we all had to work one way and another.  Later, we’d a stepfather but he were a great big waste of space. Great big lump of a waste of space. He’d take money and drink it. We lived on Meadow Lane first and I worked at Marshalls. Same name as me. That big mill with great pillars outside.  I thought I were going to church first day it were that strange. Like a palace or something. Then I went to Burgess’s in Lady Lane. That were where I learned to spin.        
I worked from six in morning till seven at night. There were a knocker upper went down street but you’d to pay him a penny a week so we didn’t always do it. Besides, everyone else in house were running up and down stairs so you’d hear them anyway. Nobody slept in. I got three shillings a week and then three and six. After a bit  Mr Warburton took over. I were a good worker so he set me on to doing five to nine. Five in morning till nine at night. You got half an hour for your dinner which you brought with you and heated up. And you knocked off at five on Saturdays. That were good.
Workers in Marshall's Mill
I weren’t lame then. I had my strength very well while we worked from six to seven. I had my health very well till I took from five to nine.  My sister were well an all. She began to fail when we began long hours. I were just turned ten when I began long hours She were turned nine. I tried to leave. I were like killed wi it. My legs were like to break in two. It were work and hours together and always having to stop  flyers wi your knees. It were having to crook your knees to stop flying shuttle as much as owt else. It were heavy and it went that fast and it clattered against your legs and you couldn’t rest.    
Marshall's Mill
Our mother tried to find work for us at Wilkinsons. Wilkinsons were better.But Warburton said I must come back and work for him. I asked Wilkinson what I should do and he said I should go an all. I didn’t know but they were hand in glove at that time. He said Warburton weren’t happy to lose a good worker and he were right. So Warburton asked for me and Wilkinson made me go. What could I do?
It were after I went back that he knocked me down. Warburton. He hadn’t struck me since I were little. He strapped me many a time then. It were a common thing for him to beat hands then. I’d been glad to get away from him. But not long after I went back, he came in and he were that vexed with me for having left him that he just walked up to me and hit me with flat of his hand and sent me flying against my machine. I slid down onto floor and lay there looking up at him. I couldn’t think. He knocked thoughts clean out of my head and I don’t think I've been same since. Mind you I were that weak I were soon knocked down.
I were about eleven when I started to go lame. By the time I were seventeen I couldn’t work in factory. It were just as well because my mother were ill by then. She got  very ill and I had to mind her. When she died my stepfather walked out and left us to fend for ourselves. He said we weren't his and that were true enough.
Timble Bridge
I used to go to Sunday school so I could read a bit. I were learning to write and I could sew. When I couldn’t work in factory any more I thought maybe I could be a dressmaker. I went to Mrs Darley of Timble Bridge to learn. Where that tall house is, near bridge end.  But then my mother fell ill so I had to give that up. And then I were very poorly myself. I’ve never been able to go backwards and forwards since.
The iron is so heavy. It supports me so that I can stand up but I don’t feel any stronger. Sometimes I’m a bit better and then again another day, I can hardly stir.
My sister says we should move closer to Timble Bridge so that I can start sewing again. There's money in sewing. But lessons cost half a guinea a year and besides  I don’t want to move. We’ve lived here seven year. We have friends here to help us if we need them. If my sisters need them. I shouldn’t like to leave them. Where would you be without your friends? No. I shouldn’t like to leave them behind.


If you would like to read more short stories, I have a couple of small collections available on Kindle
A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture 
and
Stained Glass.