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.”