Who is telling the story?

I had the second meeting of my new Family History Writing group today; this is a writing group (as it says on the tin) but the writing is about family stories, told in any way anyone likes. It is not a genealogy group, although obviously there is a lot of genealogical chit-chat!

Last time we met I set everyone a task – completely voluntary, it wasn’t homework, just a suggestion of what to write:

  • Using an object or a photo, write something connected to your family (it would be helpful if you could bring the object/photo next time but don’t worry if you can’t)
  • Write about a place with a personal or family association
  • Write about a person – maybe who you never knew but only heard about from family stories, or discovered through your research

I had a great response although only one person did bring a photo (of a family wedding from about a hundred years ago) – some great stories, some very moving, some exciting, some funny, some intriguing.

My theme this month was “Who is telling the story?” and I shared something from my only family history to show different ways of putting over the past:


  • 1853 – Lois Penney born, Water Newton Northamptonshire, to Charles and Martha Penney
  • 1861 – Lois appears on the census
  • 1871 – Lois may be living in Cambridge
  • 1881 – housekeeper in London to Louis Walford and his son George
  • 1891 – visitor to Louis Walford’s family (now five children)
  • 1895 – Louis Walford dies aged forty-nine
  • 1901 – Lois has changed her name to Walford and lives with her five children
  • 1911 – Lois lives with two of her children ‘on independent means’
  • 1930 – Lois dies and is buried in Hendon


Lois Penney (spelt Lowes on her birth certificate, gender unknown) was born in 1853 to Martha Ann Penney (née Quenby) and Charles Penney a basket maker. Lois was born in Water Newton in Northamptonshire, the seventh of ten children. Her mother died in 1878 and her father married again and had two more children.

Lois appears in the census returns for 1861, and then the records become confused; the family may have lived in Cambridge in the 1870’s. In 1881 she appears as a housekeeper in a property in London and on the same record is George Walford; George is her son, her son by Louis Frederick Walford from Hobart Tasmania. In the 1891 she is ‘a visitor’ to the same household and now there are five children – these are her children.

In 1895 Louis dies; the records do not show but his family continued to support Lois and the children. When Louis’s own mother died in 1900, Lois changed her name to Walford and on the 1891 census she at last is shown as mother to her own five children.


From the shelter of the old yew tree Lois stared across at the happy bridal couple emerging from the little church… the church of St Regimus, Water Newton… who was St Regimus after whom the church was named? It seemed safer to think of such things than to watch her father laughing down at his bride, Mrs Penney, formerly Miss Livesidge…
Maybe she couldn’t blame him, marrying again… Lois knew what it was like to be alone and lonely… although Charles Penney was not alone! He had his sons and daughters, he had his nine other children, and their children too… children… Lois thought of her own little boy, Georgie… he was with his grandmother, his other grandmother, taken there by his father and into a world Lois could not imagine. She had seen the house, the big white house on Regent’s Park, she had walked past it with her sister Sarah.
She was looking forward to seeing Sarah later; they had arranged to meet at the railway station before Lois took the train home… home… the house she lived in with George and her beloved Louis, where to everyone around she was the housekeeper and nurse to her own son.
Her father was kissing the bride again as their guests threw grains of wheat and barley, showering them in grain for good luck. Lois would never experience this… she would never leave a church on the arm of her new husband, climb into a carriage and depart with the company throwing old shoes after them as the horses pranced and drew them to their new home… Louis would never marry her,; he had promised he would never marry, never go into a synagogue and perform whatever rituals were necessary…
Lois thought of the stories of Jewish weddings that she had read in the Bible…  No, that would be something she would never see…

As a way of demonstrating different approaches to writing family history or about family history, I shared a blog my friend Andrew has written about a genealogical search he made:


I have written fictionally  about searching for a family history in my Radwinter series:


The sea stood still

I have had the character of Gus on my mind for a while… in fact longer than I realised because I keep finding more pieces of writing about him! I’m beginning to see how his story might pan out… in the meantime, here he is, walking by the sea again:

The sea stood still, or so it seemed, just for an instant and then there was a lazy roll of water and the sound of the wave dragging the sand. The sea looked like melted metal, smooth, limpid, with a slow plasticity. It had a pewter quality, not quite grey. The sun had gone but dusk hung along the horizon waiting for night to shove it over the edge.

Gus tramped along the damp sand. He wondered what the ripples on the surface meant, was it a particular tide? Was it wind? Was it always like this and he hadn’t noticed? A hinged shell lay open, pink and like a tiny pair of lungs. He stopped to look at it. There was a thing shaped like a cigar but with a spongy surface – some piece of detritus washed raw by the action of salt and water or some strange sea creature, sea weed root perhaps.

He strolled on and watched a couple who walked quickly past him with a prancing border collie. They threw a ball for it and it raced after it and had to skid and change direction when it bounced at an acute angle. The dog raced back dropped the ball and the man kicked it so it arced away again. The dog ran after it towards where a gaggle of sea birds stood on the tide line, facing onshore. There must be a slight wind coming off the sea but nothing detectable to Gus.

The couple walked on and Gus stopped to look at the birds. He could hear the sound of an oyster catcher but could not see one. He thought they might be black-headed gulls but wasn’t really sure. He looked further along the shore and three herons stood at the edge of the sea. As he watched them they rose, one after the other and began their ungainly flap across the river mouth to the meadow beyond. In the water a fat duck like creature was paddling in circles, too big for a duck maybe… so perhaps a goose of some sort?

Gus turned to begin to tramp along the beach and his foot slipped as he reached the muddy part of the beach. Millimetres beneath the surface of sand were banks of grey mud. He tried to walk on but his shoes sank into the squelchy clay slime. He turned back and could see the line of the mud like a shadow on the sand. He walked back to where he could gain beach and then carried on along the firmer sand. It was churned up where cars had been turning.

He went past the yacht club up on stilts. It looked shut up and empty, no sign of life, he had never seen anyone standing on its little veranda or looking out of its windows. He supposed it must be used, he supposed the yachties must come down and socialise there, but they always seemed to be in the pub; there was one area of the bar which they seemed to claim, with pictures and photographs of themselves.

The land rose slightly towards the dunes held in place by blackthorn and sea buckthorn. Here was where the little dinghies were drawn up onto the sand above the tide line. Some of them had been there in the same place for years, never moving, and the sun and salty wind had peeled their paint away some had holes where the elements had vandalised them. Some looked smart and well-kept, but these were in the minority. Perhaps he should sit here one day and watch and see if anyone ever came and took these little boats and launched them into the sea.

This was where the ferry used to operate, across the river, join the beach to the meadows beyond. The ferryman had spent more time in the pub than at his ferry and it had fallen out of use. It would be useful to be able to cross to the other shore; it was a twelve-mile journey to go by road in order to cross the river. There were a couple of walkways down to the water with notices forbidding use by ‘the public’ Again he had never seen anyone actually using them so why object to a casual visitor walking down the slippery wooden planks to the sea? He walked on to the end of the beach. Should he walk the long way round following the river, or should he cut across the field and join the path nearer the boatyard? He sighed. There was no joy in walking on his own. He dropped down into the field and followed the track worn in the grass up to the path along the bank of the river.


Storm Brian and other Brians

We’ve been blustered and blown about by storm Brian; some places have  had damage, trees down, tiles blown off the roofs, problems along coastlines, but it seems as if fortunately no-one lost their lives, as far as I know.

It’s become the custom to name weather events, and there is a reason – it ‘personalises’ these storms and hurricanes so people become more aware of them (for some reason spellcheck wanted to ‘deify these storms’ – in the past they would have been seen as expressions of the gods anger!). It’s then easier for people to follow information about the progress of these events and judge what precautions they may need to take to help avert problems.

We have already had Storm Aileen, and after Brian we have:

  • Caroline
  • Dylan
  • Eleanor
  • Fionn
  • Georgina
  • Hector
  • Iona
  • James
  • Karen
  • Larry
  • Maeve
  • Niall
  • Octavia
  • Paul
  • Rebecca
  • Simon
  • Tali
  • Victor
  • Winifred

This got me thinking about the name Brian; I think it is one of those names which has dropped out of fashion so that few people call their baby boys it – although that may not be so in other countries, of course! Apparently, in the 1930’s it was the fourth most popular name in England and Wales, but that popularity began to wane. I knew adult Brians when I was growing up, but I can only think of a couple of lads my age called Brian, and i can only think of a couple of Brians I taught. It’s been spelt in different ways, can also be a surname, and originally meant noble.

Here are some famous Brians:

  • Brian Blessed – actor
  • Brian Boru – Irish king
  • Brian Clough –football manager
  • Brian Cox – physicist
  • Brian Eno   – musician
  • Brian Epstein –manager of The Beatles
  • Brian Johnston – cricket commentator
  • Brian Jones – The Rolling Stones
  • Brian Lara   – West Indian cricketer
  • Brian May   –  Queen
  • Brian McFadden   –  Westlife
  • Brian Moore – rugby player
  • Brian O’Driscoll   –  rugby player
  • Brian Wilson   – The Beach Boys
  • Brian Griffin – Family Guy
  • Monty Python’s Life of Brian
  • Brian the snail – Magic Roundabout

If you are a fan of the TV series ‘New Tricks’ there is only one Brian… here’s an intro to the whole New tricks team:


Whistle Down the Wind

I was very young when the film ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ was released, and I guess the impact it made on me was because although it was about a group of children it wasn’t completely a children’s film. The story is quite a simple one, a group of children find a run-away prisoner, a murderer, hiding in a remote barn on a remote farm and mistakenly think he is Jesus. They keep him hidden from the police who are searching for him until one of them betrays him.  Seeing it now I’m as much struck by the portrayal of country life in the 1950’s as the actual story.

The film was based on a book by the author Mary Hayley Mills; she was born in 1911 in Shanghai and was an actress and playwrite as well as writing ‘Whistle Down the Wind’; she co-wrote another memorable film (maybe because of its’ memorable title) ‘Sky-West and Crooked’. The star of ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ was Mary Hayley Bell’s daughter Hayley Mills, who is also the daughter of John Mills the esteemed and renowned actor who was married to her mother for sixty-four years (they both died in 2005)The film also starred Alan Bates, a remarkable actor who I was lucky enough to see on stage. The music from the film was very popular; written by Malcolm Arnold it became what’s described as ‘a classic’.

The story was revived three times, by the band Toto, as a stage production for the National Youth Music Theatre, and then as a musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Jim Steinman. In his latter production the most popular and famous song was ‘No Matter What’ which became a massive hit for Boyzone.

What has put this into my mind is the fact that we have had really windy weather – we have had Storm Brian, which has certainly been whistling down the wind!

PS The film was shot in Lancashire and rest of the children who appeared were just local from the schools there; I actually know someone who was a child in the film!

Stopping at a station

I had a great weekend – I caught up with my oldest and closest friend, Andrew Simpson; we met rather a long time ago, when we were in our first year doing a degree at the College of Knowledge as the College of Commerce, part of Manchester Polytechnic was called.

As usual Andrew and I didn’t stop talking, subjects ranging over just about everything especially about our writing; we are both published authors, and writing is our life! We also talked about how things have changed – all sorts of things in all sorts of ways, since we first met. Andrew had a great idea for a blog post, or an autobiography ‘How Far We Have Travelled’. It’s not just our own personal circumstances which have changed several times in the course of our friendship, the world has changed too. We often say, rather wistfully, that when we were at the Poly doing our degrees, despite the impoverished circumstances and to be frank insalubrious living conditions, we actually lived in a golden age. We don’t mean that we wished things hadn’t changed – we don’t! Good grief, if anyone could revisit the attic ‘flat’ I shared at the top of an old vermin-infested Victorian house when I was a student, and then compare it to the halls or residence my children lived in when they were doing their degrees, no-one would wish to reverse the progress which has been made in so many ways!

Our journey is not just our lives, and our personal lives and our circumstances, our wonderful partners and children, it’s the station where our life train has pulled into at the moment, I guess it could be called the writing station! Both of us write blogs as well as our books, both of us observe, reflect, record. I write from my imagination, Andrew writes imaginatively but using historical facts and materials.

If I could just go back to myself at eighteen or nineteen, and look forward to the future, it would seem like a dream come true to be where I am now – how far I have travelled, how far indeed!

Here is a link to Andrew’s piece, ‘How Far We Have Travelled’:


… and here is a link to his books which I recommend you read if you haven’;t already:




… and to my books: