Visiting a stately home…

We visited Tyntsfield today, a National Trust property near Bristol. There is a wonderful house to visit, and if the weather had been a little less windy and chilly, we might have wandered round the beautiful gardens too!

This is what the Trust say about it:

Tyntesfield, just a stone’s throw away from Bristol, was not built as a bold and extravagant statement of wealth, power or politics. Its purpose was simple; to serve as a family home. Once hidden and inaccessible, the ordinary and extraordinary lives and possessions of four generations of the Gibbs family are ready for discovery. The garden and estate balance faded beauty and function with an abundance of nature; celebrated in ornate Gothic carvings that decorate the house. Flower filled terraces, an empty lake, woodland, champion trees and productive kitchen garden give further opportunities for exploration.

… and this is what Wikipedia says about William Gibbs who bought it in 1843:

In 1843, the property was bought by businessman William Gibbs, who made his fortune in the family business, Antony Gibbs & Sons. From 1847 the firm had an effective monopoly in the import and marketing to Europe and North America of guano from Peru as a fertiliser…  The firm’s profits from this trade were such that William Gibbs became the richest non-noble man in England.

In my latest e-book, Earthquake, there is an old ruined house – not a bit like Tyntesfield I have to say, except for the fact that my fictional owner of the house had also made his fortune from guano. In my story, the old house became a school, until it closed in 1932 and fell into disrepair:

The actual school building in the grounds of a large estate, had been the home of a branch of the family who’d owned the big mansion in rather lovely parklands – well, they looked lovely from the old photographs I found. The mansion, with two wings and no doubt dozens and dozens of rooms, had been the residence of a man who’d made his money out of bird poo… Yes, it’s true! There were other such entrepreneurs apparently, who made millions shipping bird poo from distant rocky places back to England to be used as fertiliser… I mean honestly, who would have thought it? Whoever first thought oh I know I’ll put all this bird shit on the garden and see what happens… oh my goodness what lovely roses I have and how fine my carrots are
It was in 1841 apparently that the first Peruvian guano, about 2,000 tons of the smelly stuff, left on a ship destined for Liverpool, and it was in the 1860’s just as Samuel Oxfleet was starting his school in Strand, that Mr. Bird-Poo built his mansion.
The smaller house which became the school was built for the second son who was not going to inherit the bird poo empire. As happens with such large places, it fell on hard times as the family did, and for a short while, between the 1890’s and 1900’s the mansion was what was then called a lunatic asylum, before it became used as a convalescent home.
The smaller building became a hospital for wounded soldiers in the First World War, for those with ‘shell shock’ as they called it or ‘battle fatigue’ as it was also known.

If you want to fins out more about the old school, as it became, and more about the earthquake in Earthquake, here is a link:

Tell it like a story

I started my family history writing group yesterday… and handed out a sheet with some ideas to consider; reading it through now I think I may polish this up a bit… but here is what I gave them – first draft!

HOW ARE YOU GOING TO TELL YOUR FAMILY HISTORY– What is the end ‘product’ going to be – a folder of printed pages to show to the family, or maybe an actual printed book which could have a wider audience  – there are plenty of ‘publishing on demand’ options these days (such as Lulu or Amazon)

THINK ABOUT:

  • you need to be realistic in what you can actually do and have an end-product!
  • who is going to be sharing your story, and what materials do you have (photos etc)
  • maybe a memoir/story: the combination of story-telling and personal experiences can focus on a particular episode or time in the life of yourself or a particular ancestor
  • a  recipe book – but write about the people who created the recipes, and the occasions when they were shared!
  • a scrapbook or album  with photos in order and stories, descriptions and family trees
  • be creative!

HOW MUCH AND HOW FAR?  Think about who you want to write about, yourself, a particular person  – or as many people as you know! How much will you writer and how far back will you go? Make it manageable, you can always change it or do it differently, later!

  • a single line of descent – from one person
  • all the descendants of one ancestor – I don’t recommend this!
  • start from your known ancestors – known to you, your grandparents for example

TELL IT LIKE A STORY – It makes it more interesting to read if you have a plot, like a fictional story; think of your ancestors as characters in your family story, what problems and obstacles did they have? A plot gives your story interest and focus and might include:

  • moving from one area to another, country to city or vice-versa
  • from agricultural labourer to town folk
  • moving out of poverty – or maybe losing a fortune!
  • the war

USING WHAT YOU KNOW  – You want your family story to be readable, interesting and moving, you have to be creative – you don’t want a dull list of dates of birth. You may not know the type of house your ‘subject’ lived in, or the sort of work they did as an ‘ag lab’ – but these days you can very easily find out! You can add colour with fashions, art, transport and foods of the time… you can find locations on Google earth or at the library

BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING? OR NOT? – Choose something interesting to write about… you can add the details later or separately !

BRING THEM TO LIFE – You may not have actually met the person you are writing about – maybe no-one in your family remembers them, but you can imagine, be creative, guess at aspects of their character from things they did (remarrying after being widowed, adopting another person’s child, moving from place to place in search of work etc)

INDEX  – Useful to your readers – and to you!

Where did he go?

I’ve shared this before, but I used it yesterday with my creative writing family history group… exploring how you can write imaginatively about a small piece of information:

While researching family history in the 1891 census, I came across John William Coker, a discharged soldier looked after by an officer for the insane in Bethnal Green. He was 26 and  on the transcribed document I was looking at he was named, along with John Grimwood, an old man of 73 from Colchester in Essex. There were two nurses to the insane,  23 year old Harriet Jones from Blackdown, Worcestershire, and Susan Butler who was 69 from  Wexham In Buckinghamshire.  In the same household was young Phoebe Franklin, only 20, also from Essex, and she was the domestic housemaid.
My imagination began to create  a dramatic scenario, a very small private institution with only two patients… But I looked at the complete record, John was one of over 300 patients in Bethnal House, a lunatic asylum on Cambridge Road!!!
John was in the famous Bethnal House, under the kindly supervision of Dr John Kennedy Will and his doctors, nurses and attendants.  Bethnal House was extremely old and  had been an asylum for over one hundred and sixty years when John Coker was a resident there. It was originally called Kirby’s Castle and was on the green from which Bethnal Green gets its name.
What had brought John to the lunatic asylum? Was it his service as a soldier? There is no way of telling. In 1881, a young  John Coker aged 18, was working as a dock labourer in London and  living in what must have been some sort of hostel or tenement, Great Eastern Chambers, Cable Street.  Was this the same John Coker who became a soldier, was discharged and ended up in a mad house? There were 111 men living in Great Eastern Chambers on the night of the census, most were Londoners but many came from Ireland, a few from Scotland three or four from America, and one from Mauritius. What on earth were the conditions like?  I dread to think, no doubt the place was vermin infested, literally lousy. Would they have slept in dormitories or would they have been “on the rope?”
“On the rope,” or a tuppenny hang, was accommodation where men would sleep standing  up leaning over a rope strung across a room. You could fit more people in and there was no need for bedding. Poverty indeed.  However, John and the other residents of Great Eastern Chambers were working, so poor they may be, but probably they could afford a bed.
What happened to John after the 1891 census?  There is John Coker who appears on a later census but it may never be known whether he is the same poor young soldier who was detained in bedlam.

 

Midnight in Peking

I was just thinking about a favourite bookshop, and a book I really want to re-read…

‘Midnight in Peking’ is a book by Paul French, subtitled ‘The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China.’

There is rather a comical story attached to me buying the book in Waterstones Weston-super-Mare, but it’s only really funny if you know me! The bones of my story of buying the book is that I’d heard an excerpt of it read on BBC Radio 4 and decided to get a copy. However by the time I got to the shop I had forgotten not only the name of the author but the name of the book as well.
“Hi, I wonder if you have a copy of a book set in China before the second world war… it’s not fiction, it’s a true story about the murder of a young English girl.”
Helpful assistant: “What is the title?”
Me: “Um.. something like ‘Murder in Old Peking’ … it’s written as a story but it’s true, and it’s really gripping; I heard it being read on the radio.”
Helpful assistant: “Who is it written by?”
Me: “Sorry, no idea, but it was an ordinary name like John or James or Richard somebody.”
Helpful assistant: “On Radio 4? We get a list of their books, I’ll have a look.” She consults the computer.
I mumble more stuff and then she calls over the handsome assistant.
Handsome assistant: “I think I’ve heard of that, just a minute…”
Both are now furiously tapping away at their computers while I witter on irrelevantly.
Handsome assistant: “‘Midnight in Peking?'” he reads a précis. “Who killed Pamela Werner? On a frozen night in January 1937, in the dying days of colonial Peking, a body was found under the haunted watchtower. It was Pamela Werner, the teenage daughter of the city’s former British consul Edward Werner. Her heart had been removed…?”
Me: “Yes! That’s it!”
I follow the handsome assistant through the store and he finds the last remaining copy…

It is a fascinating, and heartbreaking story. As a parent I was riven by what Mr Werner had to go through, appalled by the corruption of the various police investigators, disgusted by the cynical cover up of the British establishment trying to ‘save face’ before the Chinese…  ‘Midnight in Peking’ paints an intriguing and detailed picture of life in China before the war as the Japanese invaders were approaching, the decadence and depravity not only of the low life in the rough area known as the Badlands, but the duplicitous depravity of the ‘respectable’ American and European professionals.

Paul French has done an incredible amount of research which sits lightly on the narrative and yet informs and intrigues… and horrifies!

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=sr_nr_n_0?fst=as%3Aoff&rh=n%3A266239%2Cn%3A271267%2Ck%3Amidnight+in+peking&keywords=midnight+in+peking&ie=UTF8&qid=1493073526&rnid=1025612

Variation on the goat’s cheese salad

I recently made a really delicious salad using left-overs… a small lettuce, goat’s cheese. a few other bits and pieces and seaweed from my seaweed collection…

In that random way that things happen, today I found I had a small lettuce and some goat’s cheese… I altered the recipe slightly:

Chilli seaweed goat’s cheese salad

  • small lettuce, for example baby gem
  • half a soft goat’s cheese round, cut into small pieces, skin removed (eat it on a cracker while you’re making the salad)
  • shavings of celery – including leaves
  • ransome leaves (wild garlic)
  • cashew nuts
  • laver seaweed
  • olive oil
  • pomegranate syrup
  • sea salt
  • lots of grinds of pepper (I put whole spices such as coriander seeds, fenugreek etc in the grinder with the pepper corns for a nice taste)
  • dash of chilli sauce but not too hot (I use Marie Sharp’s Green Habanero, it’s made with nopal – prickly pear cactus – green habanero, garlic and lime)
  1. cut/tear the lettuce and ransome leaves into bite-sizes and put into a large bowl
  2. add the celery, cheese, nuts, laver, salt and pepper and mix well so the seasoning runs throughout the leaves
  3. add the olive oil, syrup and chilli and gently turn over to coat everything

This salad may go a little limp if it’s not eaten straight away but it still tastes good, in fact the flavours meld in together! I even ate some the next day!

Earthquake… and sprouts

I’ve been really excited – and delighted by the response to my latest novel, Earthquake! It is the fifth story about Thomas Radwinter, and it has been interesting how the character of Thomas has changed over the course of what I guess you could call a quintet – unless that just applies to music!

In the first novel, the eponymous Radwinter (I don’t often get to use the word ‘eponymous’!) Thomas is in quite an unhappy situation, for various reasons, and during the course of the story things only get worse – until they get better! Thomas has what you might call ‘issues’ surrounding his childhood, and over the next novels, gradually he confronts and resolves many of these difficulties. So, his character does change, but many aspects of him remain the same. He’s loving, kind, funny, intelligent, self-deprecating, but suffers from anxiety and a feeling of worthlessness on occasions… As his life changes and becomes happier, he is able to indulge in things he enjoys, one of which is cooking (and food in general!)

In this excerpt he is trying to work out how to make an economical meal for his family with the odds and ends he finds in the cupboard and fridge:

I’ve somehow ended up with a pile of sprouts; this does sometimes happens, what with the allotment and Val the veg shop lady who always seems to have something going cheap for me. I guess when the children are older and all eating proper food then we’ll be glad, maybe we should get another freezer…
So what can we do with sprouts? Kylie doesn’t really like them that much and Kenneil doesn’t like them at all, so it’s really only me… I wondered if there might be a recipe for sprout soup, so had a little investigate on the internet and came across a few interesting things, some of which have a list of very extravagant ingredients… Pancetta, gorgonzola, crème fraiche, chestnuts, Marsala wine and duck fat… none of which I have. It would have to be an extraordinary basket of going cheap items in a supermarket which had all of them!
Pancetta… that’s only bacon really, isn’t it? Posh Italian bacon? And gorgonzola, sometimes when we did a cheese board when we were entertaining… wait a bit, ‘we’? By we I was meaning Rebecca and me! I must kick that thought out of the window! But that’s the trouble; you see I’d not thought of Rebecca for a single second for a very long time, and now she seems back in my mind. I still don’t know what her problem is that she wants me to help her with…
Back to sprouts, much nicer to think about sprouts than my past life… so crème fraiche… we don’t have it but we do have plain yoghurt, would that do? I’ve started making my own, so much cheaper than buying it, 60ml of live yoghurt to a litre of warm milk, twenty-four hours later and there’s the yoghurt. Chestnuts and Marsala wine… no… no we haven’t, not anything like it, and duck fat?
I looked at the method and decided to see what I’ actually did have.
I took as many sprouts as I thought I might eat, and I cut them in half, and found the green end of a leek which had gone a bit soft but was OK. I chopped it up and fried it butter and olive oil, and then instead of pancetta I fried slices of chorizo the end of a black pudding which is one of my little treats!
I didn’t have any chestnuts but I had half a bag of cashews I’d brought back from the pub and they went in with the chorizo and black pudding which was smelling mighty good I can tell you. I threw the sprouts in with the leek, and when they’d gone bright green I found ‘a glug’, as the recipe really does say, of one of Paul’s wines. I discovered some rather elderly crème fraiche right at the back of the fridge, a rather large number of days after its best before date, and a bit of very old, leathery stilton… Geoff and Daph had given it to us and the last little bit got lost in the salad drawer.
By this time Kylie had arrived back with the babies and Daph and Geoff had arrived with the swimmers.
“That smells delish, Daddy!” Kenneil announced and Cassie said ‘delish’ too.
“What is it sweetheart, it smells great!” Kylie exclaimed, and before you could say Brussels sprouts, Kenneil and Cassie were wading into what was going to have been my dinner, and I was hastily chopping sprouts and leeks and chorizo to make some more for my wife and our friends! … and none of my family actually like sprouts!!

If this tempts you to read  ‘Earthquake’ (a real as well as metaphorical earthquake) here is a link to my e-book:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/EARTHQUAKE-RADWINTER-Book-LOIS-ELSDEN-ebook/dp/B06Y18H8JR/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1493026172&sr=8-1&keywords=lois+elsden

To hear with eyes

It can’t be Shakespeare’s birthday and not celebrate it with a sonnet!

XXIII

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.
O! let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

Follow this link to find an interesting commentary:

http://www.shakespeares-sonnets.com/sonnet/23