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Back at school it was time to embark on the two year curriculum leading to GCE ‘O’ levels. In a small school the number of subjects that can be covered by the equally small staff is limited. Two years previously we’d been weeded into two streams for several subjects. In particular, the ‘A’ stream took Latin whilst the ‘B’ stream took woodwork. I was in the ‘A’ stream for French so, despite my objections, I was forced into the Latin class. In retrospect I suppose I should see it as flattery, suggesting that my teachers believed me capable of an academic career and that woodwork would be a waste of my talents. That was the culture back then – it still is in some quarters.
In maths I was on the border line between ‘A’ and ‘B’. Those in the ‘A’ stream at the end of the ‘O’ level programme would take two exams – Elementary Maths and Additional Maths. The latter included the bits that I found more interesting, trigonometry, differentiation, staistics and probability. I was disappointed to find myself in the ‘B’ stream.
Now we also had to choose between Art and History and between Geography and Chemistry. The other science, Physics, was not optional. I chose Chemistry believing that my future would probably involve science; and Art because it would not require me to spend hours learning dates and other historical facts. To my surprise I discovered a talent for drawing and for rendering light and shade in paintings. In the exams in summer 1958, I was awarded a higher grade than in any other subject, except French.
The previous February we had taken ‘mock’ ‘O’ levels, designed to demonstrate which areas we were weak in and on which we needed to concentrate our revision. I gained an appalling result in Latin. The teacher (not the one who had, years before, insisted I stick with it) said I probably ought to have given up on Latin much earlier. Not taking Latin from that point onwards left me with a number of free periods. I asked the Maths teacher if I could join his ‘A’ stream. He agreed and offered additional tuition to help me catch up. Although I did not pass the exam, that tuition was of considerable help when it came to continuing my studies part time as an apprentice Engineer.
Choosing not to study history was not easy. It, together with English, had been a subject in which I had gained high marks for essays. But writing an essay when you are able to check facts by referring to a text book is one thing. Doing so in an exam room, with only your memory to rely on, is very different. As it turned out, writing an essay for the English exam was not easy, either.
We were given a long list of subjects, none of which sparked inspiration. Writer’s block or exam nerves? Probably a combination, with the latter inducing the former. I wrote two completely inadequate essays in the time allowed, one of which I destroyed. Fortunately, there was also a grammar paper so the exam grade did not depend entirely upon the essay. I gained enough marks to get a pass, though not as high a grade as either I or the teacher expected based on past performance.
Our new home needed a great deal of work doing to bring it up to date. My mother’s partner embarked on this with enthusiasm, despite his many other casual jobs working for local farmers. Jobs which I’m sure provided the means with which to purchase materials as well as specialist labour for tasks beyond his own ability. During school holidays in 1957 and ’58, and at weekends and summer evenings after I left school, I was enlisted as general labourer to assist with this work, as well as gardening.
There was a steeply sloping front lawn with flower beds at the front of the house. A narrow passage separated the rear of the house from a retaining wall around 4 feet high beyond which was a sloping meadow. Our vegetable garden was across the narrow lane which was the only access to the house. Mum’s new partner also kept bees the care of which was another duty which I shared.
One of his specialist abilities was the laying, or pleaching, of hedges. This typically created a large amount of surplus material some of which was usefull as firewood and which he was allowed to take as part of his fee. Much of this material, however, was of no value and had to be burned on site. I frequently provided the unskilled labour in dealing with this as well as the subsequent sawing and chopping of firewood.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fully 18 months ago I gave an update on my famine project, which consists of two slim volumes. The first was A Purgatory of Misery and the second The Poor Law Inspector. In that post I indicated that the initial draft of the first, an entirely non-fictional account of the events in British and Irish history that led up to the famine, was complete and that I was then embarking on the second, a fictionalised account of the work of Captain Arthur Kennedy in West Clare between late 1847 and mid 1850.
A Purgatory of Misery was published at the end of 2017 but work on The Poor Law Inspector stuttered on and off throughout last year. I finally reached the end last month and passed it to a first reader. At only 50,000 words it is a novella, rather than the full length novel I had hoped to create. That it is so short after such a long time is down to several factors, the main one being the difficulty of presenting the real horror of conditions in that place and time in a way that is not too depressing to read.
The opening chapters were posted to Chapter Buzz at the end of 2017. The book now has a new title, Called to Account, which relates to the fact that Kennedy and the man who came to be his arch rival were involved, in 1851, in a court case as a consequence of an insult delivered in public by Kennedy to the other, who then sued him for libel. I have now structured the book around the court case and Kennedy’s recollections of significant events in his life up to that point.
Once again, it is being posted on Chapter Buzz whilst I work on revisions, including those suggested by my first reader. Follow this link to find it. Your comments and suggestions are most welcome. You can post them there or here.