Sixty four years ago…

I often think that water is my element, but water is deceptively dangerous… and not just for those who swim in it or sail or take boats on it… sometimes even in a person’s own home water can devastate and have a deadly power.
Sixty-four years ago, on the night of January 31st and the morning of February 1st 1953, due to  extraordinary weather conditions – a deep Atlantic depression swept eastwards past the north of Scotland and roared southeastwards through the North Sea. There were northerly gales on the western side of this depression, and they forced the sea water southwards. There was a high spring tide and the storm surge roared towards the coast of eastern England – and across the channel to the Netherlands, and the sea defences were utterly inadequate.
These days with mass communication  it is possible to give some warning, even in the most ghastly and dramatic events, but in 1953 all people had was the radio – not many houses had telephones, and even if they had, it would have been almost impossible to get in touch with enough people in time.

So it was night-time, pitch black on a January night, a storm was raging, and along the coast of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Kent a tidal surge more than eighteen and a half foot high above normal sea level – as high as many of the cottages and bungalows along the coastline, rushed ashore blown on winds gusting at over 125mph.

People were safe and snug at home, children in bed, parents reading the newspaper or doing the chores, when out of the darkness, born on the wind, came water.

Tragically people died… 307 people in England, 19 in Scotland, and 1800 poor souls in the Netherlands. In England, 160,000 acres were flooded – the land unusable for years afterwards – think of the impact on agriculture… the whole infrastructure of the affected areas was down, gasworks, power stations, transport, every form of transport – road, rail and river, sewerage, fresh water… the cost was reckoned then to be £53,000,000 – today that would equal over £1.2 billion…

You can read more about it here, and also what has happened since to try and avoid such a disaster – as far as possible:

Visit this page to see what happened to our Dutch neighbours across the sea:

night vision…

Over the last few weeks I have shared excerpts from my novels about Thomas Radwinter who traces his  family history, and then later investigates other people’s stories, and not just genealogical ones, but mysteries in their everyday lives.

Over the next month I am  sharing excerpts from my other novels; this is the opening chapters of ‘night vision’:

night vision


Beulah realised she was lost and had a flash of fantasy about being totally lost and Neil, anxious and concerned, coming to find her… But of course that really was nonsense, she thought unhappily.
She wandered on, climbing slightly and hit a track and followed it until it disappeared and she was wandering aimlessly once more. The trees were in full leaf, but a sombre and dreary green in the grey afternoon light. There was no wind and fancifully it seemed to Beulah that she was watched. She had no notion of time, and didn’t care.
There were rocky outcrops now as she walked into an ancient and long abandoned quarry, and it was here she saw the tree, the tree she was moved to climb. It had branches at just the right inviting height and she smiled to herself as she reached to catch hold and pull herself up.
She had a rush of excitement, a sort of thrill she hadn’t had for so long that it seemed it was when she was young. But I’m not old! her inner child cried, forty-seven, that’s old, her real self replied.
It was a wonderful tree to climb and soon she was eight foot off the ground and she stopped and smiled and wondered when she’d last done that. She could see the rocky walls of the quarry more clearly, covered with ivy and unfurling ferns and long trails of some sort of vine.
Beulah began to climb again, not looking up, enjoying the feel of the bark, the smell of the leaves. Sun shafted through the branches, the weather clearing at last and she glanced over at the cliff and then back again in disbelief.
There was a sculpture of a hanging man suspended on the rock in an impossible place. It was carved out of wood but she couldn’t quite see it because a branch hung down. It was difficult to climb higher but she had to get a better look at the figure on the rocks.
Beulah reached for the next bough and had to stretch for it, a broken off stump protruding awkwardly. She still couldn’t see the carving and lacing her fingers together, pulled herself up awkwardly, bumping her breast and grazing her face. The discomfort made her feel alive and she smiled as she wedged her foot on the broken stump and pulled herself onto the next branch, swung her legs over and sat peering at the figure.
It was not a carving at all; it was a stunted trunk of a tree growing out of the side of the quarry, she could see that now, but its natural provenance made it even more remarkable. It still looked exactly like a hanging man, the rounded chest straining above the concave belly; a swelling of some canker round the hips suggested he was swathed in cloth, or wearing britches, or as if he had a satyr’s fleecy legs or was Pan himself.
A grooved channel running down the lower part of the twisted trunk marked his legs pressed together and then a splay of aerial roots gave the impression of cords binding the ankles and hiding the feet or cloven hooves.
Above the swelling chest, the head lolled forward, the top of the tree pollarded or deformed by some growth.  The face was hidden but the sun highlighted a bent nose, parted lips and the line of the brow; gnarled protuberances, lumpy and knotted looked like curls of shaggy hair. On either side, twisting branches, like bent arms, came together as if the wrists had been bound, and tangled vines of ivy hid the hands.
It was the most amazing thing and Beulah stared at it, mesmerised. It was strangely moving, a primitive god unexpectedly revealed, sacrificed for some dark magical mystical reason. She looked down; she was nearly thirty foot above the ground. From below the hanging man would look like a twisted and deformed tree, growing out of the rock face. Only from here was the mystery revealed.
“You are wonderful,” she said loud enough for the figure to hear. “I could worship you,” and she was amused at her foolishness.
How strange to laugh; it seemed a long time since she’d last laughed at anything. She sat for a while staring at the figure; it was a soft pale taupe, the colour of a person who spent time out of doors all year round, a young person whose skin hadn’t coarsened… Definitely a satyr or Pan.
The camera which they’d almost left in their old house was stuffed in her fleece pocket; wrapping an arm round the trunk of the tree, she struggled with the zip and found her phone not the camera. It spun from her hands and tumbled onto a pile of last autumn’s leaves.
“Bugger you!” she said to her phone. “Well, you’ll have to wait till I come down.”
It was difficult to get to her other pocket and she clung awkwardly onto the branch above.
“Jesus, I hope I don’t fall,” she muttered.
She had somehow lost her confidence; whether it was the phone falling or the realisation that she was higher than she intended, she felt unbalanced. She held the camera, one handed to her eye but the foliage obscured her view so she shuffled from sitting into a crouch. There was an annoying twig with too many leaves but she took a shot anyway then wobbled and clutched at the branch above.
She stood up, trembling and sweaty, scared but determined to get a picture, hanging on with one arm, leaning away from the tree for a perfect view.
She held her camera steady, pressed… And nothing. Suddenly her hand slipped and her foot went and there was a heart-stopping lurch and she was falling –
But her wrist was grabbed and somehow she was swung and heaved up and she grabbed the trunk again.
“Are you OK?” a voice came from above.
“Bloodyfuckingbuggeringshitshitefuck,” she clung to the tree and the hand which had saved her. Her heart was racing, she was almost sick with terror and relief.
She released her hold on the hand and wrapped both arms around the trunk. She was weak and faint with the memory of the lurch and the jerk as she was grabbed and hoisted to safety and she slithered to sit down.
“Yes, yes, I’m OK,” and she giggled with a hysterical realisation of how nearly she’d plummeted to the ground.
“I thought you were gonna take a dive,” he had a soft American voice. “I should have said something, I didn’t think you’d come so high, then I daren’t speak in case I startled you.”
Beulah risked looking up but all she could see was a suede boot hanging down and a faded denim leg.
“I managed to startle myself well enough. Jeez, I thought I was going to kill myself,” and the hysterical giggling bubbled again.  “I was trying to take a photo,” she looked up but couldn’t see her rescuer at all. “I wanted a picture of the hanging man, can you see him?”
“It’s a woman,” said the hidden American. “Look at the swelling hips, it’s definitely a woman.”
“No, it’s a man, a satyr maybe,” Beulah could see Pan perfectly now.
“A what?”
“You know, half man, half goat. Or it’s a man in a loin cloth or britches.”
“It’s definitely a woman,” he argued pleasantly with a smile in his voice.
“Well, I’m not going to get a photo of it, that’s for sure. I’m not climbing down and then back up with my camera.”
“I couldn’t believe you were going to climb up here,” he said softly. “I should’ve said something, but I didn’t want to make you fall.”
“Quite capable of doing that myself, thank you.” He chuckled and Beulah tried to explain her irrational act. “It’s not something I make a habit of.”
“Falling out of trees or climbing them?” he asked.
“I don’t think my husband loves me anymore.”
Who was more surprised at her words? The hidden man couldn’t have been more astonished than Beulah herself. Why on earth had she said it? She’d never consciously thought it; whenever her mind had strayed to thoughts about her relationship with Neil she’d quickly switched off the niggling doubts and anxieties.
“Is he having an affair?” asked the man, a gentle young voice.
“My husband having an affair? No way, no, it’s not him.”
“You’re having an affair?”
Beulah’s denial was slow and unhappy. She’d spoken to no-one about this. The rows, the accusations, the guilt, all had been conducted in private and now, in this bizarre situation, sitting up a tree in the middle of a wood, she was having this conversation with a man who’d saved her life and whose face she couldn’t see. It was like saying confession, entering the little box, the priest’s face hidden by a grill as the man above was screened by the branches and leaves.
“So you didn’t have an affair?” and then as if his mind caught up with his words “Pardon me, this is none of my business.”
“I had a friend… But there was nothing between us, nothing happened. We phoned and e-mailed each other with gossip and jokes…”
“Hmm, gee, it’s tough when things like that happen.”
“But nothing did happen! We met occasionally by accident, never alone, always lots of other people around. Absolutely nothing happened,” she’d begun to cry.
There was a silence from above then, “Do you love your friend?”
“No. Well, yes. As a friend. No, not really.”
“Not really?”
“Except in my heart,” Beulah answered in honest misery.
Still silence, and then he said “That must be the hardest thing. And your husband?”
“He won’t forgive me.”
“But you didn’t do anything,” he said gently.
Beulah shivered. The sky was still bright but the sun had gone; the man above began to whistle, a low sad tune.
“I love my husband,” Beulah wiped her nose on her sleeve. “I’d better go. We’re moving house today but there was some problem with the contracts. I got to the place and the old lady’s still there and says she’s not moving after all. I don’t know where the van has gone and I don’t know where my husband is.”
“Worried about you, I should think.”
“I doubt it; anyway, I’d better go.”
“Can you manage, do you want help?”
Should she say yes so she could see him? But better, maybe to remember his boot and leg and gentle voice.
“I’ll be fine. It’s easier going down.”
“I hope it isn’t quicker. So long.”
She didn’t really think Americans said that and it made her smile as she clambered down the tree without mishap and she called a farewell and his goodbye floated down.

Find ‘night vision’ here:

… and here is a link to my other e-books:

Ships That Pass In The Night – 5

I’m sharing a series of diary entries my mum and her sisters made during the war:

10th August – 2nd September 1940 (L. – 11′ Sep)

Leslie Gould                     Home:- Swansea
Fredrick Charles —     Home:- Romford
Fredrick Cobbett.
182nd Field Ambulance, R.A.M.C.
Stationed: – Pinehurst, Harston

We all three went to a dance in Harston Village Hall on 10th August and met the Legionnaire, Tall Fred and Howard. More fun!

The Legionnaire (who was a C.O.) was a tall Cub-Master before being called up. Beryl and Monica gave him this nick-name as they thought he looked rather fierce and just the type for the French Foreign legion.

Tall Fred had a very attractive smile. He was about the tallest soldier we had met so far, hence the adjective. It was after this dance that Beryl, who thought she was walking home with the Legionnaire, kept talking about Tall Fred whom she hadn’t properly met and asking who he was, arrived at the gate, to her dismay (or delight?) she found she had been walking home with Fred not Leslie!

Howard, who was a ship’s barber in civil life, got his nick-name because he was so very like a cousin of ours of this name. He was actually another Fred. The Army seems over-run with them (Freds we mean)

We also went to another dance on 17th August, but didn’t really know them, apart from having met them at the previous dance.

On the 24th August when Rose Bowyer was staying with us, we four girls and three boys spent an afternoon on the river in Cambridge We had a punt, took sandwiches for tea and had a grand time.

Punting on the River Cam; Audrey, a friend, and a soldier

It was unfortunate that Leslie, who had been so good all the afternoon, while the other two boys had been trying to sink the punt by “rocking” it should fall in. He was trying to get on the bank from the boat when the latter wasn’t moored and it just sailed from under him and in he went! He was rather wet and came home for a hot bath and supper, but before getting home there were more adventures!

Three small boys in another punt spent the afternoon following our boat and trying to sink it. It was getting late and we were afraid of missing the bus home as all our efforts to return downstream were thwarted by these boys. Then Fred had an idea. He leapt from our punt to theirs, got hold of their mooring rope, then leapt on to the bank and there he sat holding their boat fast while we hurriedly paddled downstream.

Monica and a soldier boy on the River Cam in the summer sunshine

When we were well on our way and out of reach of our tormentors, Fred let go of their rope (after having suffered much splashing from the boys) ran along the bank and rejoined us some hundred yards further down. Fred certainly saved us from missing our bus.

Leslie used to come in most evenings and one afternoon, the 8′ September, he took Monica on the river at Cambridge in a rowing boat. The other two never actually came to the house.

We saw Tall Fred on 12′ October when the convoy he was in paused for refreshment at the Old English Gentleman. We just had time to say “Hullo” and “Goodbye.”

A safe and happy voyage through life, lads!

What a wonderful time the girls must have had; as intelligent young women and with a brother serving in the RAF, they must have listened anxiously to the BBC news on the wireless, and read the reports from the Front in the newspaper, but they were young, and lovely and enjoying their life!  

The confusion of Beryl over the identity of the young soldier who walked her home is understandable because it would have been a black-out, no street lights, no lights allowed from windows, it really would have been very, very dark! Going on the river was a regular and common thing for Cambridge folk… forget the University, they are ‘gown’ think of us Cantabrigians, we’re ‘town’!

The photos were actually taken the following year, the summer of 1941, and I don’t know the identity of the young man paddling them along!

Something happened…

Many years ago I wrote a story called ‘A Strong Hand From Above’; I’ve not published and not sure I will – I may completely rewrite it, take the plot, take some of the characters and rewrite the whole thing. The end of the story is – I hoped when I wrote it, quite exciting, escape from death, a shoot up in the depths of a Welsh forest, but there is a misunderstanding between the two main characters, which is eventually righted on the last few pages.

When I finished it, all those years before, I kept on following the characters story in my head… and rather than it be happy ever after, it occurred to me that after such shocking events, and even with the happy ending, in reality the two main people would be quite traumatised, and it would probably effect their relationship. Their lives couldn’t go back to how they had been in the before, because they would always remember the horror.

I didn’t write a sequel to ‘Farholm’, another of my novels and the first I published, but again, the story of my characters, in this case Deke and Michael carried on – and I actually wrote quite a lot of it down. I was tempted to follow their lives – ad maybe I will one day… or maybe I will just take the idea of what happened to them and write about that with new characters.

In ‘The Stalking of Rosa Czekov’ I did write about the afterwards – before the novel begins Rosa is in a hostage situation, and the man who has taken her is shot dead, standing right beside her with a gun to her head – I’m not spoiling anything by revealing this! My story explores the effect of this on Rosa, her husband, her friends, and the person who may be stalking her – or is she imagining it, haunted by what she experienced?

I saw these swans and their cygnets…


… and seeing them swimming along towards the little bridge was like the action in a story – and look there I am, the shadowy observer!


… and after they have gone, there is just the merest trace of their trail through the duckweed, the event happened, and it left its trace!

Defeated by a pancake

In a month’s time it will be Ash Wednesday – and we no doubt will be recalling the delicious pancakes we ate yesterday on Pancake Day. if we are not church people we could have them again on the Wednesday too!

I wrote yesterday about Philip Harben’s thoughts on Pancake Day and pancakes, and he gives careful instructions about tossing pancakes – ‘a flick of the writs sends the thin pancake up into the air where it turns a somersault and is caught, other side up, back in the frying pan.’ However, he has words of advice to those who can’t quite manage this: ‘if in spite of all this (the recipe and instructions he has just given) tossing really defeats you, do not despair; you can dispense with it altogether if you would rather. After all, tossing is only a means to an end, and that end is the reversal of the pancake when one side is cooked, so as to cook the other.’ he suggests a simple solution to lack of tossing skills, put the pan under the grill, or use a metal slice to turn it!

As usual, he has a few stories to tell… here are two:

There are a number of traditions associated with pancake tossing. About two of them i can tell you something from first-hand knowledge.
One is the Olney Pancake Race. Olney is a small town in Buckinghamshire famous as a home of the poet Cowper (the local pronunciation is Cooper) Once a year the housewives of Olney race, tossing pancakes, along the main street. The finishing post is the church, the judge is the Vicar, and the prize is a kiss from the sexton. I know about it because the winner one year was a Mrs. Looms who in the same year was a finalist in a television Cooking Contest at which I adjudicated.
The other pancake occasion is the famous Westminster School Pancake Greaze, because my son once took part in it. The idea is that the whole School assembles in the great hall and the chef comes in and hurls a pancake over a certain high bar. It is then scrambled for (the word ‘greaze’ in Westminster School parlance means any kind of scrimmage) and the boy who secures the largest pieces is presented with a special guinea coin by the Dean. So far as i know nobody has eve actually been killed in this primitive sport but reporters and cameramen are always in attendance.


A month from now…

A month today it will be pancake day! Hurrah! I know you can and probably do eat pancakes at other times, but somehow pancake day pancakes are best (apart from the pannekoeken made by our Dutch friends!)

At home, growing up, we only ever had lemon juice (freshly squeezed, no JIF lemons then, or any other form of lemon juice) and sugar. Mum used a spot of lard to grease the pan and I still do when I make them, unless we have veggie chums with us. When I went to school and heard other people say they sometimes had jam, marmalade or even mincemeat, I was horrified! It just didn’t seem right! now of course I don’t mind what people choose, whatever they like! I think my mind was changed when I first went to Manchester and in Piccadilly Gardens – not the actual gardens, the shops around – there was the Pancake House which offered all sorts of variations; being on a tiny grant I hadn’t much money, but as I stared at the menu with garish photos of the pancakes with different toppings and fillings, I promised myself that one day, when I was earning and could afford it, I would treat myself to a pancake with cherries and whipped cream – it seemed so exciting and exotic! by the time I could afford it the Pancake House had closed! However, I still think of it every time I’m in Piccadilly Gardens!

My favourite topping is probably bacon and apple, as my Dutch friend has shown me, but I still like the traditional lemon and sugar. Here is what Philip Harben has to say about pancakes:

The traditional day for the serving of pancakes in England is Shrove Tuesday, sometimes called Pancake Day. I have never been able to find a really convincing explanation why this is so. One theory is that Shrove Tuesday is the last day before the forty-five day fast called Lent, and all butter and eggs would have to be used up; pancakes were chosen as a means to do this. The explanation will not hold water at all: to begin, the Church bars meat during fasts, but not eggs or butter; secondly, the amount of butter used in the making of pancakes is negligible. Nevertheless there is no doubt that the eve of Lent would be a natural day upon which to indulge in a good tuck-in: nothing could be nicer for the purpose than pancakes; pancakes require eggs and Shrove Tuesday is bang in the middle of the egg flush season.


Ships That Pass In The Night – 4

I am reposting entries from a dairy that my mum and her sisters kept during the war:

13th July – 1st August 1940

Jack Parker   Aged 20 years Home: – Croydon
Stephen –                                      Home: – Croydon
Fred –                                              Home: – Croydon
182nd Field Ambulance, R.A.M.C.
Stationed: – The Drift Harston.

13th July. The first soldiers’ dance to be held in Harston Village Hall! What excitement when we went! There were crowds of soldiers and girls and the dance was a great success.

We went to another dance again the following week and it was here that we met Johnnie, Steve and little Freddie. Nice boys, all of them. We invited them home to supper after the dance and also went to a dance with them the following Saturday.

On Monday 29th July, Audrey went with Johnnie to a dance at Newton; he was the pianist and a  very good one too.

In civil life, Johnnie was a clerk for a Radio firm and had been in the Army for about seven months (he was called up) but we don’t know Steve or Freddie’s professions although the former was a crooner.

We didn’t say Goodbye to them as we were busy all week with the Guides collecting vegetables for the troops on their last evening here, and didn’t see them as we went through the village.

Good luck to you, boys!

The girls in their Guide uniforms several years before in 1937, Monica, Audrey, Beryl

R.AM.C. was the Royal Army Medical Corps (which coincidentally my Dad Donald was in during the war) The dances would be very innocent affairs, starting and finishing early; music might be played on a gramophone or there might be a musician like Johnnie the pianist. Newton was the next village to Harston, hence Newton View where the Matthews lived. The Girl Guides and Boy Scouts played their part in the War Effort, as Audrey tells us here.

The Harston Guides parading from the memorial erected to honour the fallen of the First World War