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Monday Memories: Beginnings #1 – A Country Walk

When I started this series of memories it was with my first meeting with the young woman who would become my wife. Thus far I have not mentioned, except in passing, my childhood. So I guess it’s time to fill in some of those missing details with a series of remembered events. The first of these is entirely from my imagination since, although I was there, as you will discover, I was far too young to notice what was happening.

The road from Peterchurch to Urishay is long and narrow. It takes about an hour to cover the distance on foot. Anyone doing so will be unlikely to encounter another travelling the same route. Certainly that was the case in April 1942.

In my mind’s eye I see two women walking that road. One in her mid-twenties, red hair in a thick plait extending down the middle of her back. The hem of her coat swings just above her ankles. She is wearing sensible shoes. Her older companion has grey hair pinned into a bun at the back of her head. Her coat is long, too, a kind of blue that is almost black. She emits a sigh. Her feet cease moving. “Can we stop for a minute?”

“Is it your back?” The young woman asks, turning her head and standing still. She takes a step backwards, dragging the pram with her. With her right foot she applies the brake. Leaning into the pram she adjusts the coverlet. Her son is asleep, oblivious to his surroundings.

They are on the section of road that descends gently into a shallow valley. There is no sign of human habitation. The only sounds are birdsong. Both recognise the sound of a blackbird. Another song is new to the younger woman, who has little knowledge of the countryside..

“Listen,” she says. “What was that?”

The older woman can remember her youth, working as a maid in a country house. A long forgotten memory surfaces. “It might be a curlew.” She has been stooping. Now she straightens her back and is siezed at once by a fit of coughing. Recovering she says “That last hill nearly killed me.”

The young woman looks to where she can see the road rising up the far side of the valley, disappearing under a canopy of trees. She says nothing. Thinks it was a mistake to bring her mother on this expedition to inspect the cottage. Except . . . with petrol in short supply, asking someone to convey them by car would have been an extravagance. Except . . . she could not bear to leave her mother and son in the house they shared with another family. Not after the row they’d had that morning.

“I don’t know how much further it is. Jim said it shouldn’t take more than an hour.” She pushes back a sleeve and looks at the watch her husband gave her on their first wedding anniversary. “We’ve been half an hour already.” She reaches into the blue canvass shopping bag that rests across the sides of the pram and withdraws a vacuum flask. “A drop of char? I was saving it until we get there but we could have a drop now if you like.”

“No. Let’s get on. I’m feeling better now.”

There are wild violets and primroses in the bank at the road side as they make their way up the hill and into the shade of the overhanging trees. Those trees remind them of the park they used to take walks in before the war. Sycamore and horse chestnut, upright flower spikes on the latter not quite open. They imagine autumn, the ground covered with spikey green spheres bursting open to reveal glossy brown conkers.

The young woman has her arms outstretched, her back bent, as she pushes the pram up the steepest part of the hill. The road levels out and she stops, takes a deep breath before turning to her mother. “I think this is where the landlord lives.” She points to a rotting farm gate set back from the road. Some distance beyond it on the right they see a collection of farm buildings. High on a grassy bank to the left are the remains of another building. “That must be the castle Jim mentioned.”

“Do we have to collect the key here?”

“No. The man will meet us at the cottage. He has to move some cows or something.”

They set off again. There is another short but steep hill, the road curving round to the left. On the right a rough lane descends steeply. “That’s not it, is it?” The old woman points to a cream painted house on rising ground, accessed from the lane.

“No, it’s further on, on the left. After a post box, Jim said.”

In the satelite image below, the castle is in the top right hand corner, the cottage in the lower left quarter where the road takes a slight bend. The post box is at the junction with Urishay Ct.

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Monday Memories: Life After Retirement #5 – I Learn About the Famine

The genteman with Parkinson’s ceased attending the group. A couple of years later he came to me with plans for another book. He had been researching his ancestry in County Clare and had discovered that a female relative was among a group of teenaged girls taken from a workhouse and given an assited passage to Australia.

This took place during the great famine in the mid 1800s. Such girls were provided with a wardrobe of clothing and the ship’s captain was paid by the authorities and/or the benefactor who helped finance the scheme. The girls would find work – and in many cases a husband – among the male settlers establishing themselves as farmers in remote parts of the colony.

Patrick’s ancestor was one of the few who later returned. His discovery had sparked an interest in the famine and he had acquired a number of books about the period which he hoped to use to create his own book, for which he needed assistance. I agreed to look at his material after which I would indicate whether or not I was willing to assist.

Image shows the cover of a book titled "A Purgatory of Misery" and sub-titled "How Victorian Liberals Turned a Crisis Into a Disaster"

I found the books enlightening, Patrick’s notes difficult to read. There were many repetitions, the pattern of his thoughts difficult to follow. Nevertheless, I agreed to interpret them and add my own thoughts on the contents of the books. Later I found other sources for the real life horror story of Ireland in this terrible period. The result was A Purgatory of Misery in which I sought to provide some context for the events, based on the history, geography and culture that underlies the relationship between Ireland and its larger neighbour.

Looking in particular at the effects of the famine in County Clare I came across the story of Arthur Kennedy, who was appointed Poor Law Inspector to the Kilrush Union with responsibility for ensuring the efficient dispensing of assistance to the people suffering starvation throughout the West of the county. He discovered and exposed the practice, carried out by many landowners, of evicting families from their homes in the most brutal and inhuman fashion. A story I felt compelled to write, trying my best to imagine how a man with a background as an army officer, who would later become a senior diplomat, knighted for his serices, would respond to the conditions he found.

That book took a long time to finish, in first draft. I am now working on improving it prior to publishing some time in 2020.

In the spring of 2015 a seurity contractor began installing temporary fencing around the empty houses opposite us. Shortly afterwards I discovered that a planning application had been lodged relating to the site. I examined the application at the county head quarters where I learned that all of the site, except the ten occupied houses, had been purchased by the proprietor of the nursing home. His plan was to extend and convert the apartment block to create a second nursing home.

Image shows a single story house surrounded by shrubs.
The same view of our house as it is today, compared to the view I posted a couple of weeks ago showoing it nearing completion.

At a meeting of the occupiers later that year he explained that he also intended to enhance the landscaping of the site and to complete and sell all of the unoccupied houses. This project was fiinally completed in the summer of 2018 and we now have a retirement village, fully occupied with an active residents’ committee of which I am a member.

Monday Memories – Life After Retirement #4: More Books and a Garden.

For the first few weeks after we moved in to oiur new house, thoughout the summer of 2011, work continued around the site, although a lot of the time it seemed that it was more a matter of the two remaining employees finding things to occupy their time rather than any really useful work. The nursing home had opened in February and was gradually reaching full capacity but no more of the houses were being worked on. None, it seemed, had been purchased. By winter the two men – a father and son – had left the site, aparently made redundant.

Meanwhile I set to work creating a garden on the tenth of an acre plot. In November I uploaded Honest Hearts to Smashwords. The writers’ group published an anthology which included the first chapter of Honest Hearts and another story of mine. We secured sponsorship and held a number of fund raising events to fund the printing then sold the book with all sales income donated to the cancer support charity.

A couple of incidents that had occurred during my childhood provided the inspiration for my second book, Summer Day, which is set on a single day in the summer of 1947 and entirely in the district immediately surrounding the house in which I lived as a child.

Nothing happened on the site during 2012. In the spring of 2013 a new contractor was assigned to carry out some work tidying the site and a fresh attempt was made to market the empty houses. When that young man was killed in a traffic accident early in 2014 work came to a standstill once more.

The gardening task at the cancer support centre was made lighter by the appointment of a sccession of part-time employees on various schemes. The manager offered me the opportunity to participate in a walking programme being introduced with the support of the Irish Cancer Society.

Not long after we arrived in Ireland we visited a ruined castle on a hill close to our new home (An image of this place graces the top of the page, curtesy of Portlaise based photographer Ciara Drennan). An information board at the entrance indicated that it had once been associated with a man called Roger Mortimer. That reminded me that a man of that name had strong associations with Herefordshire.

Now I decided to investigate further and discovered that Ireland had been invaded by Norman fighters late in the twelfth century and that these fighters were led by a man who also had strong connections to the country around the Welsh border, Strongbow. The story of how a deposed Irish kinglet had offered the hand of his daughter to Strongbow in return for the latter’s help in regaining his kingdom fascinated me. What would it have been like to be that girl? That was the genesis of Strongbow’s Wife, my third novel.

I also created a website called Hereford and Ireland History in which I posted several stories about the various actors in the peculiar history of England, Wales and Ireland during the middle ages. That website was eventually incorporated into my author site. (See the tab above)

For some time I had entertained the idea that scandals like those surrounding Jimmy Saville and others were linked to the changes in attitudes to sex and sexuality that have taken place throughout my lifetime. That was the inspiration for Transgression, my third novel.

A gentleman joined the writers’ group who was attempting to compile a number of anecdotes from his life as an adviser to the agricultural industry, a bank manager, and, later, a land valuer and surveyor. It appeared that he had experienced something like an ABI and was looking for support in preparing his little book for publication. I later learned that he had Parkinson’s. Various members of the group assisted with editing, formatting and choice of cover design and, in due course, the volume was published at his own expense.

Monday Memories – Life After Retirement #3: Last Move.

I found a book in our local library based on genealogical research undertaken into the life of a local man who migrated from Ireland to the USA in 1985, aged 19. After several jobs on the East Coast, he travelled to the North West, following the gold rush via Dawson City in Canada to the Klondike in Alaska. Like so many others he lived a precarious existence, never making a fortune but always making just about enough to live on.

It occurred to me that this would make the basis for a historical novel and began work on what would become my first self-published novel “Honest Hearts”. I discovered a group of local aspiring writers and joined them in the summer of 2010. I have remained a member ever since. We share examples of our work and offer encouragement and feedback.

My first novel. For more information click ‘Publications’ tab above.

In the spring and summer of 2010 we began a serious search for a bungalow. We looked at several in various parts of the county. We were aware that the value of our house had reduced substantially as a result of the collapse of the property market following the banking crisis of 2008. This was not necessarily the bad news for us that it might seem. The value of all properties had fallen, meaning homes that were previously out of reach were now within our price range. Some that we looked at required a good deal of work in order to bring them up to an acceptable standard. The thought of taking on a renovation project at our advanced years wa attractive but daunting.

We found a group of bungalows, designated ‘retirement village’, in part of a larger development. These were already occupied but some were being sold by their current owners. The interior layout of these did not please us. Freda, especially, dislikes ‘open plan’, or any arrangement that connects the kitchen with the space in which to relax and entertain. She prefers to keep cooking smells in one place. Then we discovered another retirement village. This one was close to a nursing home, part of the same development. The nursing home was almost complete, as were a small proportion of the bungalows, ones the council had purchased.

Sales of the remaining properties had stalled with the crash but a show-home was furnished and a renewed marketing effort underway. There were about a dozen identical detached bungalows, along with a similar number of terraced homes and an apartment block. Walking around the sloping site we spotted a home at the top of the hill that appeared to be larger than the others. Also, it occupied a larger plot. How much did the developer want for that one, we wondered. When we were told it was the same price as the others we were amazed and delighted.

We paid our holding deposit in August, accepted an offer on our house the following month, and took possession of a rented property on a six month lease. By February no work had been done on the home we thought we were buying. My inquiry revealed that the developer was awaiting instructions from us. We quickly swung into action, choosing kitchen and bedroom fittings and floor coverings.

Our new house at the beginning of March 2011, two months before we moved in.

We had to be out of our rented property by the end of April and the owner was reluctant to extend the lease. He wanted a tenant who would be willing to stay for a long period and feared he would be less likely to find such a tenant later in the year. I got our solictor to include a clause in the contract to the effect that, if we were unable to occupy the house by the end of April, the contract would be void. What we would have done had that happened I have no idea – we would have deliberately made ourselves homeless! In the event we were able to move in on April 29, 2011, although our power supply came via a portable generator for the first three weeks.

Never be Bored – Find Where you can be Useful

As you will have discovered if you have been following my ‘Monday Memories’ series I have, throughout my adult life, done stuff other than paid work. There are hundreds of organisations without which much of what we take for granted in our communities would simply disappear. Every one of them depends on people giving their time and talents free of charge. So I was delighted to see Sally Cronin’s blog post yesterday in which she extolled the virtues of volunteering. If you didn’t see it on her site, here is a link.

Sally included a link to the website that acts as a ‘clearing house’ for voluntary organisations in the UK. My ‘Monday Memory‘ yesterday included one to Volunteer Ireland. Wherever you live in the world, entering ‘volunteering’ into a search engine will take you to a host of opportunities from which you can choose one that suits you.

Monday Memories – Life After Retirement #2: Back to Work.

The person we appointed as manager of the Services to Elderly People Project was due to commence work at the beginning of September. In August he notified us that he would not be able to leave his current employment as soon as he had originally supposed. As manager of a group of insurance collectors he was engaged in the process of winding down the operation which was transitioning to telephone and internet.

Completion of the process was not going easily and was now expected to take until December. He would have to withdraw his acceptance of our appointment. The steering committee met and decided that, rather than go through the whole recruitment process again, we needed someone to fill the gap as temporary manager, until our designated appointee was available. Delaying the start of the project would mean losing a significant element of the funding. I was asked if I would be willing to fulfill that temporary role, subject to a successful interview?

The upshot was that I found myself in full time paid employment once again, albeit for a short period. I took part in the recruitment of the first employees, each of whom had experienced a long period of unemployment and would be engaged part-time so that they could continue to receive welfare payments whilst also working on the project. I purchased tools and equipment, prepared and distributed a publicity leaflet, set up a task recording and scheduling system and, at the end of February, handed over a fully operational service to the new manager.

Late in the summer of 2009 I received a call from the manager of the community development organisation telling me she had nominated me to take part in a course being run by Volunteer Ireland. At the end of it I and the other man she had nominated would be qualified to deliver the same course to community groups around the county, the aim being to enable them to better manage their volunteers.

Image shows a modern single story building surrounded by trees an lawns.
The Cuisle Centre in Portlaoise – support for cancer patients and their loved ones. I’ve been a volunteer here since April 2010.

One of the participants on the first course I delivered, in January 2010, was manager of a cancer support charity. I asked her about the work that volunteers undertook at the centre they run. “Right now I’m looking for a gardener,” she said. When I told her of my interest in gardening she suggested that I arrange to meet with her in the spring to talk about it. Nearer the appointed date I suggested to Freda that she come with me. Maybe there were some tasks she could undertake as a volunteer there.

As a result of that meeting we agreed that I would work in the garden twice a week and that Freda would run a weekly knitting and crochet session for clients. Thus began an association that would last until the present day.

Meanwhile my efforts with the paint brush were continuing. The group held annual exhibitions and I sold a few paintings. I mostly painted landscapes, working from photographs, sometimes my own, sometimes from published images, especially from calendars. I had also taken tentative steps toward my other proposed activity, writing. Sometime in 2007/8 the local council offered a series of writing workshops which I attended one evening a week for 8 or 10 weeks.

Later in 2008 they appointed a writer in residence. Although I did not attend her workshops, I did answer her call for submissions for stories for inclusion in an anthology she was to publish at the end of her term of office. To my surprise and delight the story was accepted and duly appeared in print.

My first “in-print” short story appeared in this.

Then late in 2009 I saw an advertisement on the internet for an organisation offering opportunities for would-be writers. I e-mailed a sample piece and was instantly accepted. In hindsight that should have flagged a warning. Over the next year or so I submitted several articles with varying degrees of success.

The business model was what has come to be known as a “content farm”. Articles are produced with the deliberate intention to attract advertising. People clicking advertisements produce income for the organisation, some of which is shared with the writer. Articles are peppered with key words targeted at specific readers thereby attracting advertisers who also want to appeal to those readers. The research required can be time consuming and the business model was earning a bad reputation.

There were several attempts to change the model but eventually the business collapsed. The principle benefit for me and many others was the opportunity to “talk” to other aspiring writers via the forum. I have since been able to watch as the careers of several blossomed following the demise of the company.

Monday Memories – Life After Retirement: #1 The first two years

In the run up to retirement I was repeatedly asked “What are you going to do with your time?” I was in no doubt, and told anyone who asked, that writing and painting were things I’d always wanted to do. Colleagues very kindly presented me with retirement present consisting of a selection of artist’s materials – acrylic paints, pastels, an easel and a pad of art paper.

The first weeks in the new house were taken up with creating a garden in the small space at the rear, shopping for furniture, and carrying out various DIY tasks to provide features that the developer had not covered. My daily routine included an hour walking to the town centre to purchase a newspaper and returning. This took me past a new senior school still under construction. By January 2007 the school was open and offering a range of evening classes for adults.

I joined the art class, Freda the flower arranging group. By the time the 10 week course was over I felt I was not learning anything of value. A brief item in a local newspaper indicated that a local group of amateur artists, who met weekly, were looking for new members. I contacted the lady whose number was provided in the article. I became a member of the group and remained so for the next 5 years.

I also wanted to resume providing my services as a volunteer. In April, in Ireland, a “Clean up week” takes place, the idea being for volunteers to participate in the collection of litter and a general tidying up of the local environment. Freda and I joined in with this event and were thereby introduced to the “Tidy Towns” group. Evenings during the summer were then spent planting up, and maintaining, various containers and hanging baskets around the town.

Tidy Towns is a movement not unlike the “Britain in Bloom” initiative in UK. Groups of volunteers in every community work hard to improve the appearance of their town or village through the use of planting and the clearing of weeds and rubbish from all those untidy corners; streams, lakes or canals. An annual competition is held to award certificates to those communities deemed most successful in these activities.

As keen gardeners we enjoyed both the physical activity involved and the camaraderie (the “craic”) that accompanied it. We would often end an evening of hard work with an hour of relaxation in one or other of several pubs. We continued as active members of the Tidy Towns group for the next 4 years.

Also that summer, 2007, a music festival, grandly entitled “The World Fleadh” (pronounced flaah), took place in the town. They appealed for volunteers with the offer of free entry into some of the concerts due to take place. I offered my time and was assigned the task of looking after the festival camp site. This proved to be not very onerous as there were only a handful of caravans, motor homes and tents.

The atmosphere around the town during the festival was electric, with stalls selling street food, cheap jewellery and clothing lining one street. The music on offer majored on Irish traditional music but included some mainstream popular genres also. I remember watching Katie Melua, for example, as well as a Manchester based Irish folk Group I had first seen, and been very impressed by, in UK a few years before – Flook.

All of this activity took up the summer but autumn and winter loomed with little by way of daytime activity to occupy us. Then, in January, a newsletter was distributed around the town by a semi-state organisation involved in community development. They were responsible for several projects, all described in the leaflet, which also indicated that some of those projects needed volunteers. I contacted the organisation and, after a brief interview in which I pitched my background and skill set, I joined as a volunteer administration worker carrying out various tasks over 3 hours each Wednesday morning.

The organisation had applied for funding for a new project, this one concerned with helping elderly people with simple tasks in their homes. The application had been rejected because it included certain activities which were already within the remit of the national Health Service Executive. It was necessary to submit a revised application with that element removed. This meant completely re-working the financial justification and cash flow predictions. This task was assigned to me.

In the summer, with funding for the project approved, a steering group was established to kick start it, recruiting staff and finding premises. As a member of the target demographic I was co-opted to that committee as chairperson.

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