Walking in time with Nan

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Recently in the real world (after advice from another writer), I’ve tried not to be ashamed to be proud. Even more lately, I’ve realised there are other people around who are simply proud to be themselves, which has encouraged me. People who’ll laugh as you stumble, but catch you before you fall. Those are people I’ve been spending some time with in writing too, as I’ve travelled back in time to the era of a barbed but cuddly matriarch…

Fairytale CottageNot my Nan’s house

Back in the 1970s, and mum’s mum’s war memorial bungalow in Tudeley, it was small, basic and communal. There was a living room, a kitchen and a double bedroom. When us kids stayed, we’d sleep on the living room floor. It was like camping.

There was no bathroom, just an outside toilet. The bath was a tin one, hung by the coal shed out the back. Water was boiled in a kettle on the stove, and in a water heater over the sink. Us kids tended to eschew a bath on the odd night we stayed, with my mind at least assuming that baths would be very shallow and very hot. And the way Nan sometimes sat in that chair, and that cat…

Nan’s oven apparently had two settings: Incinerate, and off. Fortunately, we had roast beef most Sundays, with potatoes roasted in the dripping, and home-made Yorkshires.

Before my radical auntie Margaret started renting X-rated films for the teenage me, we’d all go for long family walks on a Sunday afternoon, sometimes to other countries it would seem, to little legs. One such journey into foreign lands was to “The Old Church”, St. Peter’s in Pembury village. This from the church website:

The first known record of Pembury, originally Pepingeberia, is to be found in the ‘Textus Roffensis’ (c1120). It tells of the manors of Pepenbury Magna (Hawkwell) and Pepenbury Parva (Bayhall).

The Advowson was granted by Simon de Wahull to Bayham Abbey c1239. (Advowson is the right in English Law of presenting a nominee to a vacant parish. In effect this means the right to nominate a person to hold a church office in a parish).The current Patron is Christ Church, Oxford University.

Pembury has two churches dedicated to St Peter. The oldest, known as the Old Church, stands outside the modern village in the woods to the north of the A228 bypass. The newer building, known as the Upper Church, stands in the heart of the village on Hastings Road.

The plan of the Old Church and the little Norman window above the South door indicate that the original Church dates from 1147 at least, or even 1100AD. Most of the present Church was built in 1337 by John Colepeper of Bayhall. He also built the chantry chapel of St Mary in the churchyard in 1355 but this was pulled down at the Dissolution of the smaller Monasteries in 1547 and three windows in the body of the Church were inserted with the money gained from the sale of the lead which had covered the chapel.

There was another church, nearer to nan’s house: All Saints (now Capel United Church). From that church’s website:

Tudeley has had a church since the beginning of the seventh century – it was one of only four in the Weald at that time. The earliest parts of today’s church are the sandstone footings of the nave and tower, which date from before the Norman conquest. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book under Tivedale – one of its many name variants:

Richard de Tonbridge holds TIVEDALE of the bishop of Bayeux. It is assessed at 1 yoke. There is land for 1 plough, and it is there on the demesne and a church, and woodland (to render) 2 swine…”

It’s where granddad Funnell and uncle John are buried. They both died from consumption (tuberculosis), with John aged only four (it’s from my uncle that I get my own middle name). Their graves are un-marked, just a large and small grass mound. Occasionally they were decorated with flowers, side by side, a young man and his son. There were many more graves like granddad’s and John’s, mainly farm workers from the area.

There’s a ‘Prayer labyrinth’ in the churchyard:

Labyrinths were a feature of many medieval churches, most famously Chartres Cathedral in France.

Their origins go back much further, long before the birth of Christ. They were adopted by the church to be used as shortened pilgrimages, probably because of their cross-like symmetry.

The labyrinth has no walls and only one path. The path way leads to the centre and then continues outwards. There are no dead ends.

The labyrinth at All Saints is based on a design found in a fountain in Damascus. At the centre is a carving designed by Frances Hawken and executed by Joe King, depicting The Cross and the hands of God:

“The eternal God is our refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deuteronomy 33: 27).

To earn some extra cash on the side, my dad would sometimes go foraging. Back then, fly-tipping wasn’t a scourge, but neither was the country big on recycling. So official dumps were dotted around, and there was one just down the road from All Saints church. It was a children’s adventure playground cavalier to health and safety. This was the rubbish of the wealthier, away from those upper class homes my parents worked at. These were middle class treasures, as the late 1970s and early 80s saw a rise in consumerism with increasing earnings among white and blue collar workers.

In the days before reclamation yards became an industry, and long before the internet, there was a make-do-and-mend working class, and the beginning of Sunday boot fairs. For a while, my dad was a bit of a trader and many exciting cardboard boxes would find their way home to the house in Ightham, including once, when a box the size of us kids was full of Scalextric track.

Back at Nan’s, we’d have Sunday tea, which included optional beef dripping on toast, from the congealed joint juices. There was an open fire in the living room and a coal scuttle in the back garden, topped up every few weeks by a coal man. One of my dad’s many talents around the houses (besides the gardening), was as a chimney sweep, and he was nan’s sweep.

Dad’s kit was that of the traditional sweep: a bundle of interconnecting bendy sticks, with a wide brush on the end. There’s a long and fascinating history of the chimney sweep to be read elsewhere, and a small trade survives today, with many practitioners hiring themselves out as good luck omens at weddings. It’s a profession which included many humanitarians, eventually leading to The Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation Act 1840, which made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to sweep chimneys.

This was a Britain long before the NHS and when the mean life expectancy was 41, a low figure weighted by the size of the poor population. Before that 1840 Act of Parliament, boys as young as four were sent up chimneys as narrow as nine inches square. If they got stuck, they’d be prodded from below, and some master sweeps weren’t averse to lighting a fire in the fireplace to encourage the boys up. Of course, many perished and large numbers led only short adult lives, because of the impact the job had on their health.

The best bit for us kids, was seeing the sweep’s brush pop out the top of the chimney, not after dad pushed us up ahead of it, but when we stood in the garden and dad waved at us and all around, with his chimney sweep’s brush a conqueror’s flag.

Silent Gardens is published in March (ISBN: 978-1974367900).

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Theory of relative generality

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Writing history can often require a lot of self-discipline, especially when the researcher is keen to learn much, about many things. And so it is with a character I’m creating in a new story, and with me. In science fiction and in fact, there are links, concentric circles and cycles, which give a thing structure.

Relative generality

It’s a fact that all links on Wikipedia eventually lead back to philosophy, and Wikipedia is a very pleasant way to spend a few lost hours, just clicking on links and reading more and associated articles around a subject. Most of my family history research has been in online archives, censuses, and local history groups, but Wikipedia is also useful (and distracting) alongside.

I was researching my maternal nan’s house in Tudeley, Kent, and the records are thinly spread, but I’ve concluded that the house was originally built as a farm house for farm workers. This would be entirely in keeping with my family’s farm labourer roots.

The first family I can find living there were the Bowles family, listed in the 1881 census. Given the size of history (it’s as big as space, and that’s very big indeed), I can only research and write so much, when it’s going into a book based around my family. So tempting as it is to wander off, I’ve tried to restrict myself to the relevant details, including the first recorded use of buildings and the more interesting stories of those who lived within and thereabouts. But like the universe in sci-fi, and philosophy on Wikipedia, everything can eventually link back. I like to form circles in writing, at the same time metaphorically placing rings around things for further reading.

History and economics are cyclical, and it was by coincidence that I watched a documentary on British invasion recently: Not the days of empire and slavery (none of my family’s employers’ families have links to the slave trade, but if they had, I’d have delved further. As it is, they were wealthy but self-made, and with a social conscience), but further back in ancient history. Most of my ancestors were farm labourers, with housing that came with the job. Like my family life, it was communal but not communist. It’s the farm workers and farming itself which led me on a digression into the further past.

I looked at invasions of Britain, or immigration into the country. Thanks to recent advances in DNA technology, research has found that Britain has a long history of immigration and invasion before that which is generally known, as it’s only now being discovered. Long before the Roman and Norman conquests, Britain was home to prehistoric natives, as far back as the Stone Age. In Ightham, where we lived for 12 years, there are remains of Palaeolithic settlements. Recent discoveries suggest that one of the first invasions of Britain was an altruistic and evolutionary movement, when Stone Age implements became tools. The hunter-gatherers of the time developed farming, eventually growing crops and raising livestock. As an aside, the so-called Celtic invasion was more one of fashion invading culture, as humans became more artistic.

Pinning down a definitive family line is especially difficult when the family played mainly supporting roles in history, rarely making it into anything recorded outside of the census. But it’s romantic to think that our ancient ancestors may have been some of those friendly invaders who taught the cavemen to farm.

Having researched my family name already, establishing it as (in our case) either an occupational one (we fished from lakes), or residential (lived beside lakes), I decided to take another quick digression back in time, to find the origin of the word the name is derived from: Lake.

The word has its roots in Anglo Saxon, so it’s logical to conclude one of two things, even with the little recorded history of individuals I have: Either we were part of the Germanic tribes from continental Europe from the 5th century, or we were here already, living by lakes, or fishing, and then we took up farming. It’s impossible to confirm either way, but returning to romanticism, we were always a peaceful folk, either exploring and discovering, or working in communes to improve a way of living. We were always a bit left-wing.

In the family history book post-digression, I’ll be in Ightham for a while longer, recalling more personal stories from the past, linked with wider events in history. As it moves forward, it will end in the 1980s, times of change for the country, and for us as a family, when one of the owners of the big house becomes involved in a Stock Exchange scandal, and we have news reporters camped at the end of the driveway. It was also the time of the Cold War, and the eve of great global changes, in politics and elsewhere.

Back in sci-fi land, I’m writing the last two stories for The Unfinished Literary Agency (out in January), with one set in a post-human world of animals and machines. There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on her own home planet. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Each of us is linked, through no more than six degrees of separation. Like me, the girl is trying to connect past and future to make a circle among others, where people can find their place.

Life can’t be reset, but look inside yourself, and you will find the return to innocence. And from there, that’s the beginning of the game, of another life.”

Perspectives of generations

THE WRITER’S LIFE

My factual self is variously in Germany, France, and a garden in Kent, in the Second World War, and the 1970s and 80s. These are very strange places to find myself spread around. In different places and times, are people I looked up to when I was younger, for different reasons than I do now, and some no longer here. There are times and places I better understand, because of those people. The geography and history cross over many times in the factual book I’m writing, just like the dimensions of space and time in my science fiction. But this is actual, not surreal…

Airship plansBluePaw90

Until recently (until I started writing this book), Philip Howard Byam-Cook was a man known only to me as “Sir”, because that’s what my dad called his boss (his wife was addressed as ma’am), not as far as I know through any instruction to do so, but as a mark of respect from a humble man such as my dad, grateful of employment and a home. To this day, I address former school teachers similarly, and those in respected positions (a professor, for example, to me, is “Sir”, unless advised otherwise by that person). As someone who’s left-wing in many things, including wealth distribution, and as a science fiction writer, I can see that solutions to such issues are a long way off. For as long as there are employers and employees, I respect those who respect others and who have empathy with fellow humans.

Back in the 70s and 80s, when I saw Mr Byam-Cook, he was a friendly, posh chap. He was very tall, lived in a big house, and I had no agenda to question where all that had come from, because my parents had jobs and our family had a home. The house was in the middle of its own private woods, so I really couldn’t give a hoot, as we didn’t say in those days. I got splendidly lost in those woods as a child, and as a teenager, I smoked lashings and lashings of cigarettes. If I’d taken the trouble to stop being a confused teen and learn more, I might have appreciated what I had around me. All I needed to do was talk.

I can only dream (or write) of how life would have been if I’d had the internet back then, but I’d like to think it wouldn’t keep me locked up indoors, not exploring those woods.

Not far from where I live now, is where Mr Byam-Cook’s accountant had an office (as a solicitor, Philip was on the boards of a number of companies). I have the internet, and now I can find out what I didn’t back then about my parent’s boss. The tall, friendly, posh lawyer was a quiet hero.

This in an extract I found in Wars and Shadows: Memoirs of General Sir David Fraser (ISBN-10: 0141008598), a WWII memoir:

One of the last significant memoirs of the Second World War, seen through the eyes of a young Grenadier Guardsman. David Fraser has had two careers: as one of Britain’s most distinguished soldiers and then as one of our leading military biographers. His childhood passed in grand houses in London and Scotland, but he was the son of anything but conventional parents, who are sketched out in this book in all their bizarre and entertaining individuality. Fraser’s accounts of becoming a soldier, the life of his regiment, and his role as a young officer, are brilliantly written classics of their kind. After the War he rose through the hierarchy until he became GOC the British Army of the Rhine and Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff. 

David Fraser writes:

War crimes, and war crimes trials, impinged a lot on our existence. A friend of mine in the Batallion was Philip Byam-Cook, who was on the edge of a highly successful career in the law and who was, therefore, much in demand in the world of war crimes investigations, on one side or another. One evening he appeared in our Battalion Headquarters Officers’ Mess. There were only two or three of us there and Philip approached me.

‘David, I’m looking after a very senior officer in the RAF. Do you think we could put him up? He’s over there as a witness in a war crimes trial.’

Of course we were delighted (the visit lasted more than a week), and the more delighted because he proved to be a particularly charming person, an Air Marshal, Ivelaw Chapman. Sir Ronald Ivelaw Chapman, as he became, had been shot down on a raid over Germany, had escaped, been recaptured, tortured in order to extract the names of those in the Resistance who had helped his escape, and was now our guest.

I had many long talks with him. I seldom remember a more impressive man. He told me, under my no doubt impertinent and immature probing, exactly what had happened to him – how he had a gravely injured shoulder from the crash, how the Gestapo interrogators had beaten him on this shoulder, on and on and on. How he admired some of the Resistance chain who had helped his escape – ‘wonderful people!’

I never met a person with less bitterness. He spoke of his tormentors at that time with something like pity.

‘I could see they didn’t like what they were doing. They were quite young – I was sorry for them. I knew their feelings would give them hell one day.’

Such encounters – few in life – show what grandeur the human spirit can attain. The former German commandant of his prisoner-of-war camp (a decent man, he said) was being arraigned and ‘I felt I had to do, say, something for the fellow if I could. That’s why I’m here.’

Philip Byam-Cook had found him as a witness for the defence. He became an Air Chief Marshall and Vice Chief of the Air Staff. He did me – an unimportant Grenadier officer – a lot of good.

My parents might have considered themselves less important than others, but just like that Grenadier officer, they were there, helping others, and their acts have influenced me. They were part of the supporting cast for Philip Howard Byam-Cook, the aspiring lawyer in the story above, and who became inspiring for others.

The internet allows me to research the little-known history of those people my parents worked for, so that I can record their history in this book. The democratisation of the internet means that writers like me can record the stories of those which weren’t recorded at the time, because the means and notability wasn’t around those people. In writing the stories of the other people, myself and others are building a greater record of all of humankind, linking everything up.

It turns out there’s a rather poetic link back, as this small digression into a further past ends, and I move back into the present past, that of my time with my parents. Before I left that small online humanitarian pocket of the Second World War, I found out a little more about Air Chief Marshal Sir Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman GCB, KBE, DFC, AFC (17 January 1899 – 28 April 1978), cited by Wikipedia as A senior commander in the Royal Air Force in the middle of the 20th century and the penultimate RAF commander-in-chief of the Indian Air Force.

Born in British Guiana to a successful merchant. He came to England with his parents in 1903 and attended Cheltenham College. He served at the end of the First World War, then in 1929 he helped in a successful evacuation of the British Legation in Kabul amidst a civil war. Forced to make an emergency landing, he was rescued by an Afghan royalist officer, and later awarded the Air Force Cross for his handling of the incident.

And this story from World War II:

On the night of the 6/7 May 1944 Ivelaw-Chapman was flying as second pilot of a No. 576 Squadron Avro Lancaster on a mission to bomb an ammunition dump at Aubigne in France. His aircraft was shot down by a night fighter and Ivelaw-Chapman went on the run. Because of his experience and knowledge Churchill ordered the French resistance to do all they could to help him return to England, he was to be killed if he was in danger of being captured by the Germans. He was captured by the Gestapo on 8 June 1944, the most senior Bomber Command officer to have been captured by the Germans. Churchill’s fear was unfounded as the Germans did not realise his importance and he was treated as an ordinary prisoner of war.

After the war he was promoted to air vice marshal, then air chief marshal in 1950, and took command of the newly-formed Indian Air Force. On his return to the UK he became Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief at Home Command in March 1952, Deputy Chief of the Air Staff in November 1952, and Vice-Chief of the Air Staff in 1953, before he retired in 1957.

I found memorabilia online, signed by Sir Ronald and acquired from the old West Malling air field. Although the village is home to over twenty blue plaques, for whatever reason, Sir Ronald doesn’t have one. It’s nevertheless another nice link with the past to discover, and one I wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for my parents, but which I’m now able to bring to more light in all the rich history surrounding them.

In amongst all of his adventures – between the wars in 1930 – Ronald married his fiancée, Margaret…

***

There’s some sort of magic at work as it all links up. From here, the book goes back to Ightham, and life with my parents’ respective sisters, both called Margaret.

Between chapters, I’ve got some more sci-fi and horror to write. My virtual self, split over multiple times and places, taking the time to find things out. And I only write them down just in case, they should die.

I hope people are similarly haunted by me when I go.

Silent Gardens will be published around March next year. My other books are available from Amazon and can be ordered from any book shop, or requested at libraries.

Two heads are better than one (just ask Zaphod Beeblebrox)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Having recently chosen to engage my mind more, by writing two books at once, it’s going well, in a neural spaghetti kind of way. I’m almost always doing more than one thing at once, but still favouring one. In a funny way, my latest split personalities seem to be egging one another on.

HHGG Fan ArtThe Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan art.

I don’t multitask well in real life (away from writing), because one of the things I’m doing is usually writing, which takes precedence. I have in the past been known to neglect things dangerously (like food) while furiously getting something down in words. And when you live alone, there are few people to talk to. A socially anxious writer can make people up, and the one with plenty of family matters on their mind can talk to those people from the past.

In the fictional world, I now have three short stories lined up for publication: two sci-fi and a horror. That means my next collection – The Unfinished Literary Agency – will most likely be out earlier than planned. At least one of the new stories involves a warping of time, to the future. One of the reasons the fiction is flowing so well, is not a rush to get the book out, but rather oddly, writing the factual narratives in my family history book.

I always research my fiction, to make it plausible. And I put myself in there, so that there’s more in the words than say, what a character says. I’ve been described as writing from the heart and with feeling (especially for my children’s book, by a magazine judging panel), and the heart I have is very much in my family book, about the family who gave me a heart.

It’s not even that I never write non-fiction. I take work from freelance clients, and write about anything from a US country music tour to smoking cannabis for a medical blog.

What it is, is that this family history is something I can get as broadly and deeply into as fiction, and what that should mean is I produce the book I was aiming to: The stories of quiet people, brought into focus in a book with heart and feeling.

I was a little nervous that it might only gain a small audience, which didn’t matter, as it’s a gift. But that needed to be something which the recipients would want to share. And if we’re all honest, other people’s family isn’t of any great interest. I’m sure I’m not alone in being the one among a group cooing over a baby, “Oh, ain’t he cute…”, thinking, ‘No, he ain’t,’ sometimes aloud.

But what many other families would have in common, if there were enough researchers to look into it, is a rich history which surrounded them and that they were a part of. My parents were part of the cast of extras which made the stories of others noteworthy to record-keepers of the time, and those records are now available online. It’s going through those archives which has thrown up so many fascinating stories which I can now tell, mostly of people besides my parents, but characters who will increase the reading demographic, and who were supported by the two lead characters in my book, Silent Gardens (very much due in March).

The book is becoming a lesser-known secret than it already was (hi mum), as I’ve had cause to phone my parents a few times to check things (writing non-fiction means that research is even more crucial than for plausible fiction). Whether or not the book sells to a wider audience, I like to share things I find. I believe stories should be told, and I’m someone who can tell stories.

In the last family history post, I left off at Yotes Court in Mereworth, which my book goes on to describe in greater detail than this:

Country Life, June 18th and 25th, 1964, CXXXV, 1580, 1648. Yotes Court is listed Grade I as a very early example of the type of country house that became dominant after the Restoration. As a building of importance and quality of the Commonwealth period it has great rarity value.

In 1974, something happened, and all I knew at the time was that we were leaving home. My dad’s boss, Leslie (or Lesley) MacKay was a stockbroker, and those were the days of three-day weeks. The markets moved and Mr MacKay (“Sir” to dad), needed to make redundancies. There were two groundskeepers, my dad and Art.

Arthur Holdstock and his wife Jean became surrogate uncle and aunt to me and my sister, and visits to their house were always inappropriately funny. Back at Yotes Court, Art was also Mr MacKay’s driver, and he could drive with one more wheel than my dad’s three, so our lives were packed into the back of that red Reliant and we chugged off, next, to Ightham.

Mum, dad and the Holdstocks remained friends for many years. After Yotes Court, Art was an undertaker for a while, and my younger self was fascinated by real-life tales from the morgue.

Mr MacKay divorced from his first wife, who moved to nearby Wateringbury, where we lived in the Old Hoy Cottages. He passed away while still living at the house with his second wife, Jane.

The auction-catalog.com online archive includes an auction brochure, dated Monday 16th April 1984, for “The remaining contents of Yotes Court…” and “Includes the property of Mrs L MacKay,” which was described as Fine Victorian Pictures, Drawings, and Watercolours.

Given that it was fairly common practice among the upper class, for a wife to take her husband’s full name in formal documents, I had to conclude (with research avenues exhausted) that this Mrs L MacKay was in fact Jane. They had two daughters, which makes further research into how the house came to be sold (perhaps to divide an estate) somewhat pertinent. By then though, the Lakers had moved on.

Another stockbroker owned our next house, and there was to be more news of the stock market later. But when we moved there, mum and dad’s employers and landlords were the Byam-Cooks.

Philip Byam-Cook was a lawyer, and his father, William Byam, a Harley Street doctor. The power of the internet means that with a few clicks, I can find information freely online which would have once taken weeks, and which would have taken me to many repositories of accumulated knowledge in person. Now, I can gather most of the information I need, without having to leave this studio where I live and write.

By coincidence, I live just a few minutes from an address where Philip Byam-Cook was registered as a director of various companies, with an accountant in West Malling. This would be entirely consistent with a practitioner in law…

***

I’m well into the next chapter now, when we lived for 12 years in Ightham. It turns out Philip was a bit of a World War II humanitarian hero. I’ll post some more here once I’ve got the events in order, as it makes for an interesting read.

Although I’d like to be judged on any of my books, I feel that everything I write is better than the last. I’ll hang my hat on Cyrus Song as a sci-fi for a long time, but I’d equally like to be judged on my non-fiction, in an introverted story with a lot of heart.

So like Zaphod Beeblebrox, the sci-fi writer with two heads is just a bit mixed up. In my own mind, it’s a nice entanglement: I found my heart, it’s been stolen, and it’s been stolen by Zaphod Beeblebrox, like the Heart of Gold dream ship with its infinite improbability drive in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

This is the inside of my mind, and you’re welcome to it.

Life in bifocal time frames

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There are simple ways to look at complex issues. For example, all human conflict is rooted in an inability to see others as alternative versions of ourselves. We are all human after all, and everyone is host to a ghost, shadow self, where thoughts are suppressed, because we know those thoughts are wrong. At my age, I’ve seen plenty, including my hateful drunken ex-self, and a rebellious teenager.

Stempunk cat

As I continue to work my brain out, with reading and writing (while sometimes smoking weed), I’m realising things, only now that I have the time to think in solitude. I can see how that’s sometimes a self-perpetuating mechanism to greater insanity, but I did hit a proverbial wall this week.

Writing my family history book, I was thinking about how I became a writer (via the catalyst of an alcoholic breakdown), but more wondering why I hadn’t found it earlier and not wasted all that time. Since my illness, I’ve been on a journey of discovery, very much like being a teenager again.

With a nearly-teen son of my own, and the shelter and counselling I gave those stray youngsters at the squat, I’m perhaps more in touch with those feelings than I was when I myself should have been learning about the world. And that’s where it seems to have gone wrong, through no-one’s fault but by a combination of me and the system.

Aged five, I’d sit in class and daydream, and many were the times I was summoned back to the room I was already sitting in by a teacher. A few teachers and subjects aside, and despite the efforts of my parents to get me into grammar school, neither primary nor secondary education engaged me. I excelled in maths, English and the sciences, but I neglected other subjects, including history, which now engages me a great deal. And the syllabus was so linear, there was little opportunity to explore beyond it and link things up, as I like to do, to better comprehend them in a larger context. Of course, we were sans internet then.

At primary school, I’d already earned the name, “Ponder: a small Laker that thinks a lot,” as that teacher put it. I was more into visual art at primary school, drawing and painting. And again, I showed promise.

I remember one class project, just after we’d returned from a day trip to London. We’d seen the changing of the guard and we’d been asked to draw a picture from our day. I drew a line of horses, with guards mounted on them, with their feather plumes and so on. And I drew the back view: a line of horses’ arses. Truth is, I couldn’t draw horses’ faces, but when I was asked why I’d chosen my particular angle, I explained that everyone else was drawing the fronts of the horses round the other side, and there was no room for me. That’s quite deep for someone who’s six. But then, to this day I won’t walk between a street artist and their subject, for fear I end up photobombing a drawing.

It’s far from acceptable for a teenage boy to be playing video games in a leisure centre, in full view of the rest of the class running around in the fields outside. But Tehkan’s Bomb Jack was far more my thing than football. My rebellious teenage self levelled this as concentrating on something I excelled at, rather than wasting time on something I hated. Although I was generally a bit of a twunt, I can’t help thinking I had a point.

To their credit, I had many fine teachers at both schools, but they were also bound into a system: one which conditioned children in preparation for entering the world of work, either in a factory or an office. And that, is where the system went wrong, with me (although granted, I helped) and many others, and it still goes on.

I spent 11 years with no aspirations greater than wearing a blue or white collar. I didn’t have pushy parents, and the honest, modest jobs they did allowed them time with us kids. So I worked in print for 25 years, a mostly enjoyable time and certainly with many fond memories. Becoming a writer was logical, making all those things which could be printed and shared. However it happened, I’m glad it did. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, I’m in a place I never realised I wanted to be, but I like it here.

My children and those around them are hopeful that the Tories will be consigned to history soon, so that my kids and many others might enjoy a free higher education. They get that human jobs are being made redundant by technology now, just as they were by machines in the industrial age. Young people need to be able to fill the remaining jobs, the ones AI can’t do (yet), but that’s a long-term vision, something right-wing politics seems blind to.

For whatever reason, my children admire their radical writer old man. On the one hand, anything’s better than what I was a few years ago. But on the other, although not everyone approves, I’m really proud that they’re interested in writing, especially because their dad can write so many things, from bedtime stories to surreal whimsy and horror.

As a many-hatted writer, I’m either doing nothing at all or everything at once. So despite my resolution to break from other genres, I’m finishing my second anthology alongside my family history book, with the latter a constant while I write the last few short stories for what will now be called ‘The Unfinished Literary Agency’. The fictional agency is a theme cropping up in a few of my stories, and although none of the 17 in the book will be incomplete, the title is perhaps a statement of intent: I will not stop writing, when it’s my life and that’s one I enjoy now for the most part (with anxiety, depression and their mates along for a chat while we ride life’s bus).

There are two more short stories published over the next couple of weekends, and the remainder may remain unpublished outside the new book. At least one is the kind of story which has no market or home, except in my own volume. The running list of stories is looking good, and part of the reason I place importance in the titles of my tales:

The office of lost things
Pink sunshine
Reflections of yesterday
The difference engine
Of mice and boys in 1984
A young captain plays it safe
Are ‘friends’ electric?
Diary of a teen in the woods
So long and thanks for all the animals
The long now clock
Quantum entanglement in hamsters
Zeigarnick’s kitchen
The girl with the snake scarf
A girl, Sheldon Cooper and Peter Cook

Plus three more, and possibly some bonus tracks. Some of the stories are retained on this blog and may be revised, while others have been previously published elsewhere. Like The Perpetuity of Memory though, I’ll curate the newer stories into a bigger whole, so that it’s a collection of short stories within a longer narrative.

There are simple ways to look at complex issues, and one piece of advice I’ve given all those young people I’ve met and still see: Be the best that you can be, at the thing you enjoy the most. Then you can give the most back. Some things can’t and shouldn’t be simplified, but by transcending them, you can make them easier to understand.

I’m on a permanent guilt trip anyway, but it’s a guilty pleasure while my former teenage self haunts the current one and they both realise what they’re supposed to be doing.

Walking in enchanted gardens

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’ve rarely been asked why I’m in someone’s garden, but I’m metaphorically looking over the wall of one now, from the inside. I’m writing my planned family history book, and in a different comfort zone than my usual ones. I’m finding it a fascinating journey of discovery, and although it’s planned as a gift to my parents, the style I’ve adopted may widen the audience beyond those it’s intended directly for.

The book is the story of my parents, and all the places they’ve passed through. For me, the greatest interest is the domestic servants. But those they worked for and the houses where they lived are full of stories which wouldn’t be told if those parents of a future writer hadn’t happened. So I thought I’d share a rough draft introduction, of how things came to be, and how the journey started.

Enchanted GardenYra De Mesa

SILENT GARDENS
A quiet history

I can imagine what life in 2042 will be like, when my children are in their 30s, because I’m normally a science fiction writer. I can find out what life was like a century before, because I can research history. I’m a writer who can imagine many things, but my parents can tell me the facts. That’s why I decided to write this book.

This is the story of a working class family, who passed through some of England’s fine estates; of a gardener and groundsman, a cook and matron, and two kids. One of those was me, so I decided to use the hands my parents gave me to give something back, a book about small lives, with a lot of heart. It’s a brief history, of people who might otherwise have passed through undocumented.

The Laker family name was originally an occupational one, where others are characteristic. If I wasn’t a Laker, I might be called Smallman, or Shorter, those being descriptive names. If there were two Steves in a group, they might be assigned second names to differentiate between them, and in most pairs of Steves, I’d be the smaller one (interestingly, my maternal nan’s maiden name was Shorter). But as an occupational name, Laker was one who fished on lakes, where a Fisher might fish rivers or streams. It’s also a residential name, where those who lived by lakes became known as Lakers (of the lakes).

I’ve not traced my own family back far enough to discover which we are, and some of my genealogy enquiries have pointed me to emigrants to the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One thing I’m sure of, is that we’re from a group originating in Kent and Sussex, which grew to include many other families. What I’ve found is that my own family line can be traced back through the working classes: farm labourers, factory workers, gardeners, caretakers, cooks and housekeepers.

So they were all probably very nice, hard-working people, who helped and supported many others. The problem with those working class people, is that there is scant record of them. But they did leave their marks, in houses, on landscapes and in gardens. They made things, they repaired and made good, and they made stories. Few would be noteworthy outside their social circles, but they played small, quiet parts in changing times, like millions of others in the silent majority of untold tales.

The first character to emerge into this story, is my dad, George, on 6th February, 1942. Then Rose, my mum, on 22nd January, 1945, both to farm labourers. I never met my maternal granddad, as he died of Tuberculosis, along with my young uncle John, who gave me my middle name. I met the other three, and often wish they were still around to tell their stories at greater length. Like so many things, I left it too late. But I can go further back in history later, as the future reveals more of it so that it can be documented.

For now, the first chapter opens on 18th March, 1967, when mum and dad married. Things happened when people were younger then, so when I came along in 1970, mum and dad were 28 and 25. My sister Lisa arrived in 1973, to compliment my parents’ one sister each, both Margarets.

It’s said that most people will have a first memory around the age of two or three, and it was in 1972 that I remember dad saying, “Don’t touch that.” This wasn’t so much an early sign of how life was going to pan out, as a quick lesson in motorbike mechanics: Chrome exhausts are hot.

Before us kids came along, dad had a motorbike, which mum would ride pillion. When I came along, they got a sidecar, so me and mum could sit together. It was only when Lisa arrived that we upgraded to a family car. Money was tight, and I quite like the idea of being a biker aged two, even if I was transported precariously in a motorcycle sidecar. Health and safety forgot those days.

The first family car was a red 1966 Reliant three-wheeler, as a motorbike license also allowed the holder to drive a three-wheeled car. That was later replaced by a 1971 model, which somehow chugged mum and dad in the front, with mum’s mum and sister on the back seat, my sister and me perched on their laps, on family holidays and days out. We’d alternate between years, one year spending a week in Bournemouth or on the Isle of Wight, in a chalet or caravan, and the next we’d go on days out, to zoos and beaches. Those were us kids’ favourites (when the grown-ups would tell us we had to go home, to get a bath and have dinner. “But we’ve been in the sea all day, and there’s a fish and chip shop over there”) but there’d always be at least one day when we’d visit a stately home or a museum.

Those odd days were mainly for my auntie. Margaret had a keen interest in history, and especially royalty. I wonder now what she’d make of the world. She could access the internet, where once she visited libraries and borrowed books. But back then, exploration and discovery were to be had in real places. And at the time, my sister and me had no interest in where we were, unless there was a maze or a decent park, where dad would normally get lumbered with us. While mum and her sister had life’s rich tapestry to enjoy, he had a picnic blanket.

All of this revolved around a house in Wateringbury, Kent. Old Hoy Cottages took their name from The Kentish Hoy public house, which was already known to be in operation in 1807. The earliest landlord I can trace is a Stephen Walter, who’s listed in Pigot’s National & Commercial Directory of 1828. According to a Wateringbury Remembered blog, the building pre-dates the pub, with the original structure damaged by fire, but retaining examples of Crown Post roofing, a form of French architecture popular from the 11th to 16th centuries. The pub ceased trading around 1892, when it was bought by Richard Henry Fremlin, who converted it into two cottages in 1894. The property was further divided sometime before the Second World War, and that’s where we lived.

I found an obituary for Mr Fremlin, in an extract from the Parish magazine from 1916, from the Wateringbury Local History Society:

The name of Richard Henry Fremlin will be remembered in Wateringbury long after those who were privileged to know him personally and now mourn his loss shall have passed away. For 45 years, or thereabouts, he lived his bachelor life at May Lodge, the house attached to Upper Mill Farm, which, with the Lower Mill and “Wardens,” the old home of the family, he inherited from his father, James Fremlin, on the death of the latter in 1881. May Lodge had at one time been occupied by Dr. William Rutter Dawes, F.R.S., the astronomer, and afterwards by Mr. Arthur Fremlin, who went to live at Court Lodge, Teston, in or about the year 1870. When Mr. Richard succeeded his brother Arthur in the management of Upper Mill Farm the house was but a small one: before entering into residence he enlarged it, and he added to it again at a later date.

After a time he was asked by his brothers at Maidstone to assist them in the management of their growing business there. The additional responsibilities which he thus undertook made his life a busy one, so that he had little time. And being moreover of a retiring nature he had little inclination, to enter into what is known as public life. But he fully recognised the responsibilities of his position and opportunities in the parish.

In early days he joined with his brother Ralph and his friend Mr. E. J. Goodwin in carrying on a night school in a cottage in Old Road: those were times before the State recognised the importance of elementary education. His name appears for the first time in the minute book of the Vestry in the year 1873. In 1879 he was elected to serve on the new Burial Board, and also on the Sanitary Committee which created a drainage system for part of the village. In 1884, at the time of the enlargement of the north aisle of the Church, he was elected by the people as their Churchwarden, an office which he discharged continuously, with the exception of one year (1891-2), until Easter, 1897.

Under March 25th, 1889, there appears a vote of thanks to the Churchwardens for the many services rendered by them to the church and parish; and again under March 27th, 1894, “to Mr. Fremlin and Mr. Jude for their liberality in connexion with the new organ erected in the church in the course of preceding year.” Without being an expert musician he was very fond of music and took much interest in the musical rendering of the Church Services.

For the last twenty years, the period for which the writer can personally testify, though Mr. Fremlin was not fond of attending public meetings, no movement projected for the welfare of the parish was carried out without his careful consideration and backed by his generous financial support: the enlargement of the schools in 1896, the building Parish Church Rooms, the erection of the Lych Gate in memory of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria; the establishment of the Queen Victoria Memorial Essay Prize, may be mentioned among the public undertakings which the place owes in a great measure to his assistance; and he was always ready to lend a willing hand to any request for assistance of a less public nature—in fact his kindness cannot be measured, for he was a man who always preferred to keep in the background and to do good by stealth so to speak.

It was a great joy to him to be able to share the pleasure of his plentiful garden with friends—a garden which he was continually extending and stocking with precious plants collected from all quarters of the globe, and indeed lovers of flowers came from all parts of the world, one may say to make his acquaintance and to see his treasures. During the spring and summer months the grounds were thrown open on Wednesday afternoons to the public, and many parishioners habitually availed themselves of the privilege thus accorded to them. A man of wide culture and reverent mind, albeit of independent thought—” no doubt we shall have what we want there,” he replied simply to a friend who going round his garden with him, connected its beauty with a reference to the hope of the future. That was not long before he began to be confined to his house by his last illness, borne throughout bravely and patiently. He reached the full term of fourscore years, and was laid to rest in his parents’ grave near the Church Porch on March 30th.

Probate records show: Richard Henry Fremlin – died 25 Mar. 1916. Probate at 17 May 1916 to Alfred Charles Leney, Harry Leny – Brewer, the Rev. Frederick Fremlin – Key Clerk

£248,413 11s 10d.

In an online blue plaques unveiling walk of Wateringbury, one in particular stood out:

The next stop was at the oldest house in the village, The Wardens, just off Bow Road, where in 1833 Ralph Fremlin, founder of Fremlin’s Brewery, Maidstone was born. The mayor unveiled this plaque telling of Ralph’s life and his own boyhood memories of the area.

So many links, to be found in places I’d never explored before, and yet I lived there. The Fremlins sound like liberal, social country folk, with their livelihoods in farming (and brewing), private people but for their human kindness, quietly changing the world, like so many other unwritten histories.

Our Old Hoy cottage was typical of that described by the Wateringbury Remembered blog article: As the original building was built on a steep slope, the front parlours were much higher than the kitchens and access from one room to the other was by a wooden ladder, until at least the 1950s.

Other than than ladders with snakes, there were no more to climb in the house when we arrived, the descent to the kitchen then via concrete steps from the living room. I don’t recall any sort of regimen in any of our houses, and when I look back (especially to my teenage years), family living was more a commune.

Dad worked at Yotes Court, now a Kent Gardens Trust site, in Mereworth. The original house dates from 1658, and was redesigned in 1735, with improvements made to the gardens and a walled kitchen garden added sometime in the 18th century. The modern lawn and pool date from as recently as 1970, which must have been my dad’s main preoccupation at the time.

As an aside, in the 1970s, some old myths prevailed, not just in Wateringbury. One such was left-handedness, and a belief that it represented all which was sinister. This has its roots in some religions, but left-handers were still considered to have a handicap throughout the industrial revolution, when southpaws found machinery awkward. I was the first such oddity in my family that I know of, and when I started favouring my left arm, my mum’s health visitor suggested she might tie my left arm behind my back, so that I might be cured of some curse and return to the right side.

My mum refused, because she was radical, and she used to carry me around in a motorcycle sidecar, Gromit to dad’s Wallace. So thanks mum and dad, for letting me find the left hand which now writes this story.

***

After some of the history of Yotes Court, we’ll move on to Ightham, with its historic buildings, Roman and Palaeolithic archaeological sites, and a Kentish Ragstone stable cottage where we lived. Then to Tonbridge, with the castle, and many famous painters commemorated in the names of roads where my parents now live. Finally, the book will bring everything up to date, including where I live now (West Malling), which itself has many links to my parents’ and previous generations, through farms and the old air field.

It should be a book which my parents find interesting, for all the history they knew little about. It’s a book for those who like finding new history, and the stories of people they might not otherwise have read. And for me, it’s an interesting and rewarding book to write. I hope it will be as much fun for others to read.

I’m hoping to make it enchanting.

Silent Gardens will be available around March 2018.

To ponder a whispering spirit

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

I think about words a lot, and I think a lot about words. My favourite word at the moment, is kintsukuroi, which means “More beautiful for having been broken,” and I apply it to people, as well as to objects. “Whisper” is also a nice word, having many meanings in various contexts, but also suggesting a whisper, or one who whisps…

Lonely Robot
Matt Dixon

My family name is Laker: one who fishes on lakes, as opposed to a Fisher, who might fish streams or rivers. At primary school, I had one matron-like teacher who called me “Ponder”, and she was on to something. I just spent the first 42 years of my life not thinking about it, which is quite a paradox. So too is my departed aunt, to whom Cyrus Song is partly dedicated.

My mum’s sister Margaret, was spirited away in 1993, aged 51, by that bastard cancer. The even more tragic thing is, she’d have loved the modern world, for all it could do for her. She’d have doted on my children, and taken an interest in what I’m doing. And the funny thing is, I believe she’s doing all of those things right now.

My belief that the human soul survives the body is all over this blog. I believe we’re all one day free of our physical bindings, to explore the universe as ethereal beings for eternity (therein lie personal heaven and hell, covered elsewhere on this blog), that what we call ghosts are all around us, in a form we can’t always see, and that Bowie was right: Knowledge comes with death’s release.

Although I didn’t realise or appreciate it at the time, my auntie was just like I was when I took on the role of adopted uncle with all those young people at the squat (also on this blog). She was slightly radical, realising that a 14-year-old boy (me, her nephew) was likely to be bored when visiting his nan and aunt (they lived together, in a war memorial house). So she rented me what were then X-rated (horror) films on VHS. She was wicked, cool and sick, as the kids would say.

Margaret was hugely into royalty and royal history. In her day, her research and reading was through books and libraries. In later life, I’m fascinated by the subject myself, like my aunt tapped on my shoulder. What might she make of the internet? How is she, being a part of it? She has a supporting (and linking) role in my next book.

After much debate, I’ve decided how I’m going to write (to present) my brief history of a family. The intent has always been to give my parents an everlasting gift, made with the hands which they made for me, and which I eventually found out were for writing. Even that has an interesting anecdote behind it: When I began to favour my left hand over my right (in 1971), my mum’s health visitor (as we had in those days) advised tying my left arm behind my back, so that I would somehow realign as “normal” by being right-handed. This was common practice in the day, when being left-handed was considered some sort of sinister curse (thank fuck they weren’t all over gender and sexual identities back then, I’d have been drowned). In later life, I’ve been grateful of my “defects”. I feel kintsukuroi.

As a further aside, when I was at school, around 10% of the population were southpaw. When I was married and taking the kids to school, I asked the head teacher what the percentage was among pupils. It was around 40% (let’s say 42), demonstrating that there were once many potential lefties.

In a funny way, my left-handedness has been linked with my life. Where once I ran companies, voted Tory and was generally a right-wing capitalist arse (and drinking heavily), now I’m a impoverished writer, but a happy one, having found all that’s left-wing, joined the Labour Party and embraced wider communities, where I’ve identified myself (and smoked weed). I’ve written in my stories about fallen angels with broken wings, mainly misunderstood characters, learning about themselves, and it’s always the right wing which is broken.

But back to the book, written with the left hand, which has a heart tattoo on it: It’s the story of two people, who would always be little-known, because no-one had written about them. I was only a part of the story from 1970, and the book will be about the places we lived as a family, and where my parents worked (large country houses, and a couple of schools). With all of the research material conveniently within reach, I’ll just be the curator of the story, putting my fictional character skills to use in bringing the real-life characters in this book to life on the page (given my plaudits, I should be able to pull that off). It is of course of somewhat limited interest, but both mum and dad have their own interests and hobbies, so the story will be sprinkled with QI-style factual stories and anecdotes from periods of history which my two characters saw (at least one of which has a royal connection), and they’re inspiring people, as others will see. And of course, such is the democratisation of writing through digital self-publishing, it’ll be a proper book, with an ISBN and all that represents (a copy filed at The British Library etc.)

As a writer, I can create immortality, for my vain and insecure self, wanting to be heard one day, and for others. I somehow feel I’ll be getting in touch with my auntie Margaret more, like I should’ve done when I was younger. She’s a spirit guide, because she was there in the background too, along with others, some still with us and others no longer. But my belief in immortality and of gaining knowledge permits me the comfort of knowing they might all appear in the book, as characters with depth, not because there’s a part of me in them like my fictional characters (although I’m in there biologically), but because it might feel sometimes like they’re guiding me too. It’s a quiet story, a whisper of the blood.

I’m really going to enjoy this busman’s holiday into a new genre: The sci-fi, horror, and sometimes children’s writer, off to speak with the dead. To ponder and whisper, to think about fish in a pond, and to whisp.