Settings… too close to home?

I know I’m mentioned this before, rambled on about it most likely, but I’m puzzling over the feasibility (for me) of writing something set in a location which is not only real, but somewhere I know very well… for example the place where I live now. Most of my novels are set in an imaginary town, on an imaginary coastline, with an imaginary big city with an airport and motorway connections nearby, with imaginary villages all around, moors, hills, marl pits, post-industrial landscapes… all completely fictitious, all existing only in my own mind and that of my readers.

I have only set one of my novels, ‘Flipside’ in a real place, the town of Oldham where I lived for many years. I did set another novel, ‘Loving Judah’ in two real areas of the country, Yorkshire and Cornwall, but the actual locations were just invented.

Why have I done this? Well, for me it gave a freedom to be totally creative in terms of plot… I needed a run-down, shabby town… so here is Castair; I needed a rather posh village, the ‘locals’ pushed out by townie incomers who bought up local homes and pushed up the prices, so her is Bethel; I needed marl pits – here they are on the far side of Castair… I need an old disused factory, a Methodist chapel turned into a posh restaurant, a network of little ‘lanes’ filled with expensive jewellery and knick-knack shops, fancy ice-cream parlours, ethnic delis, over-priced footwear boutiques… All can be done with an imaginary place. I am very careful to make my places ‘work’ and to be consistent with directions, connections and distances.

Having an imaginary setting can help to ensure that the reader understands my characters are totally fictional, completely products of my mind, and that any accidental similarities to anyone is just a complete coincidence.

I have mentioned all this before, but it is playing on my mind a little as I have written a series of scenes based on where I live now, a small village right next to the sea, on the estuary of a river which was once navigable deep into Somerset, but now is a sleepy remnant of itself for many of its miles. My characters go into ‘my’ pub, drink the beer I drink, go for meals in ‘the other’ pub, go into ‘our’ paper-shop, walk past the village school, the castle the bluebell field, Rose Cottage, the old school cottage…  My dilemma is whether I should rework these scenes into another imaginary location, changing, omitting, adding features and places. Might people I know think I’m writing about them if my story is here in our village? Might I inadvertently have a story-line which parallels a real situation of a real person – a person who might think I have stolen the story from them?

Recently I have been reading a series of books set not far from here, in and around Bridgwater, Burnham, Brean Down and the coastline all along here, a coast I know very well. The series is by Damien Boyd, they are police procedurals ‘starring’ Nick Dixon a maverick police officer.  As a reader it’s been quite exciting -‘ooh, I know that golf club/church/street/motorway services!’  I have even been into a couple of the pubs he mentions (no surprise there!) One of the novels is set when we had terrible floods down here in 2014 where a lot of our county was under water for months. Of course, in the novel, the crime scene was also under water!

Reading Boyd’s novels has really set me thinking yet again about location… our little village has so much to offer as a setting for novels – ruined church built on the site of a much older Anglo-Saxon chapel, a Neolithic hill fort, an ancient wharf where Phoenicians, Romans and Vikings shipped stuff out and brought stuff in, brickworks, claypits, quarries and lime kilns, ancient caves, water meadows, dangerous mud and quicksand, dunes, floods and a tsunami, golf course, wonderful pubs, restaurant, tearoom, picturesque and quaint old buildings, stylish new buildings, mysterious wooded areas with strange earthworks, nearby motorway connecting to London, the north, the south… anywhere in the country really! – legends of pirates and smugglers, local characters, real celebrities (John Cleese, William Lisle Bowles, Hannah Moore) sea frets and sea fog (the fog horn now defunct)…

Hmmm, I must ponder some more…

Meanwile, a link to my books:

“Loving Judah”:


Damien Boyd:

…and an interesting article from some time ago about Uphill:

The Bird Bolt and Chip Axe

I’ve been thinking about pubs… well, thinking about pub names! My family has had a long association with pubs, being landlords (of the Portland Arms and the Fitzroy), living in them, being in them, drinking in them, meeting friends and future spouses! I know there is another side to pub associations, a darker side – people drinking too much, spending too much, getting into other difficulties… but that in a way is life. Pubs in my life have been positive, happy, fascinating places…

I’ve been thinking about the names of pubs – I’m interested in names in gen real, and pub names are always interesting, even the dull ones are interesting because they are dull. I have been looking at the names of pubs in Cambridge, Cambridge of the past, and pubs which are mostly long gone. Here is a random selection, of typical pub names, which I have grouped together (although some could be in more than one group!) Before the war Cambridge although a city and a city with one of the most prestigious universities in the world, was very much a country town for its ordinary inhabitants – hence the number of pubs with rural names.


  • Fitzwilliam’s Arms
  • Osborn Arms
  • Salutation
  • University Arms


  • Grapes x2
  • Haunch of Mutton


  • Bell x6
  • Bell and Crown
  • Bleeding Heart
  • Cross Keys
  • Crown
  • Crown and Woolpack
  • Hoop
  • Half Moon x2
  • Harp


  • Albion
  • Fort St George
  • Fountain
  • Globe x2
  • House of Commons
  • New Inn

Ships and transport

  • Anchor x2
  • Coach and Horses x3
  • Royal Oak
  • Ship


  • Barley Mow
  • Bird Bolt x2
  • Bowling Green
  • Chip Axe
  • Hearts Ease
  • Hop Bind
  • Little Rose
  • Nine Pins
  • Rainbow
  • Sun


  • First and Last


Splinters and dead ringers

Having just written about beer we tootled off to the pub… sadly I am not drinking beer or any alcohol at the moment, but the great thing about great pubs is that that doesn’t matter! You can still have a very pleasant and enjoyable time!

We met up with two of the three girls first of all – girl three is in Canada at the moment (the ‘girls’ are all seniors, by the way!).  Harley the English bulldog came over for a visit, he is gorgeous, and just wanted a bit of a scratch under his receding chin and a rub of the ears and then he wandered off again. Then the two T’s came in, Tim and Trev and we caught up with each other’s news.

Tim told us the story of his injured finger (finger and hammer… the end) and how his wife who was a nurse nearly fainted at the sight of it.  Daughter showed her war wound – a bizarre injury which came from a bit of the protective screen of her mobile phone splintering off and going under her finger nail… yes, nasty, makes me shiver to remember it! Tim then told us of a similar injury he received except this was with a piece of wood. He’d been at work and had a young work-experience student with him (school children have to go into places of work for two weeks to learn what the real world is like) This young person wasn’t that interested in the area in which Tiim worked because he wanted to train to be a nurse when he left school. Tim was using a plane on a plank when something came adrift and a long splinter of wood went up under his fingernail. A few naughty words and Tim grabbed some pliers and pulled the offending piece of wood out… at which point the boy fainted!

We talked about many things, the last bowls match of the season for Trev, plaid after it was dark with candles in jam jars to light the direction in which to bowl – like a flight path which was apt as Trev had been in the RAF. Somehow we got onto the subject of wakes, and suddenly Tim said ‘Dead ringers!’  and everyone nodded and laughed… Well, I was a bit confused… ‘Dead Ringers’ is a popular radio programme… but no, Tim however, was talking about the practice of having a bell rope dangling into a coffin so that if someone was not really dead, they could tug on it and alert someone once they had been buried… I had heard of that – but never associated with the term dead ringers! Surprising what you learn in the pub!

My family story in ten objects… number 6

It might not surprise you to know that the object I have chosen as part of my family story is a glass of beer.  Where does beer begin in my family story…

My dad’s grandfather, my great-grandfather Reuben, held the license of a pub, the Fitzroy Arms in Cambridge. Like so many pubs in Cambridge and elsewhere it was pulled down, knocked down, demolished, to make way for a soulless shopping centre. This is what my cousin wrote about it:

My great-grandfather, Reuben Elsden  was the licensee until sometime after 1926. In 1926 his daughter, Nellie and son-in-law Walter lost their business in Newport, Mon as a result of the General Strike and returned to live at the Fitzroy Arms (with their daughter, Kathleen). Nellie and Walter had a son, Peter in 1929 and The licence was transferred to Walter (date unknown).  Reuben died in 1949. Walter and Nellie retired in 1954 after which the pub had one or two temporary licensees before being closed…
… The Fitzroy Arms was in the middle of a development scheme designated the Kite project (describing it’s footprint shape)which effectively blighted the area from 1950 until completion as the Grafton Shopping Centre in the mid 1990’s.  The building was demolished in the 1980’s.

My own grandfather, also Reuben held the license of the Portland Arms in Cambridge, now, I am pleased to say, a thriving and successful pub and music venue. My dad and his brother and sister were brought up in the Portland, and grandpa held the license until 1950 when very sadly he died from ‘the publican’s disease’, TB.

My mum’s side of the family… her father had a less happy relationship with pubs; my maternal grandfather was a complicated man, and probably a frustrated man; he had many good qualities, and was very intelligent… but somehow things didn’t work out for him. When a family is in financial difficulties, maybe the public house isn’t a friendly place after all.

However my only relationship with pubs and beer is very different. I do like beer, and i do like pubs, and they have been an important part of my life. In order to demonstrate why a pint of beer is so important in my life, and how it changed my life forever in a most wonderful and unexpected way, I will share a short story.

It was Easter, 1990; I was at home, on my own,  sitting at the kitchen table immersed in the thesis I was writing. The phone rang, and hardly paying attention I picked it up. It was a colleague from school asking if I fancied going out for a pint… and I said ‘yes’ in a really absent-minded way… as I put the phone down I realised what had happened… The colleague was someone I didn’t really know, had no interest in – no interest in any way whatsoever, and I had just agreed to go out and spend the evening with him…
Oh well, I thought, at least he’ll take me to a decent pub, he’s a beer bloke, so at least I’ll enjoy a decent pint…
He arrived that evening and he drove me over the hills from Oldham in Lancashire, to the small town of Linthwaite (pronounced Linfit) to a pub I had never even heard of before called The Old Sair Inn. It was indeed very old, flagged floors, beamed ceilings… I began to think I might have a pleasant evening. Along the bar was a range of most interesting beers… Leadboiler,  English Guineas, Old Eli and Enoch’s Hammer…. hmmm, interesting indeed!
I asked for a half – and then realised, I wasn’t driving, so I could have a pint… I could have more than one pint! Meanwhile my ‘date’, who for some reason thought I was a Campari and soda sort of person, was surprised and impressed by me asking for a pint of Enoch’s Hammer.
That was only the start… within a few days, having known each other as colleagues for over twelve years, we realised that we were more than an item, we would become partners for life… and many more pints of beer! We married the following year, and before long we had two beautiful children…
My life changed, my life changed completely, thanks to a pint of beer!

By the way, a ‘sair’ is a sow…


The Brazen George

I’ve been looking back at the names of old pubs in Cambridge, many of them gone, long gone, and maybe some of them renamed as is the trend these days – names which have nothing to do with anything. It used to be that you could direct a stranger by the pubs in a place, now there are so many which are gone, and so many changed names to things like the Spoon and Follicle, the Warped Damson, the Jelly Mold… actually I have made those up, but there are some ludicrous modern pub names.

Cambridge before the war was not much bigger than a market town, even though it was a University city, and many pub names reflected the rural shire… the names of farm animals and occupations for example.

There were also many, many pubs called after famous personalities of the day, royalty and the aristocracy, and also the English patron saint, St George. There was one pub called the Brazen George, its sign showed a brass coloured George slaying the dragon; it was a going concern in 1500, so goodness knows how old it actually was. Like so many, it is long gone, and was long gone when my dad was a boy.

Here is just a sample of pubs named after people – either actual people of by their trades and occupations… and the mythological Green Man of course!

  • King William/King William IV
  • George III/ George IV
  • King’s Head
  • King’s Arms King’s Arms
  • Prince Regent
  • Queen Adelaide
  • Duke Of Sussex,
  • Duke Of Wellington
  • Duke Of York
  • Marquis Of Granby
  • Earl Of Durham
  • George/George And Dragon/Brazen George
  • Nelson/ British Admiral
  • Garrick
  • Black Moor’s Head
  • Bricklayers
  • Wrestlers
  • Britannia
  • Green Man

How could I forget Joan Armatrading???

So it was quiz night at the pub… we did quite well but unfortunately we didn’t win either of the rounds. The questions were fair, tricky but not obscure, tantalisingly just too deep in our memory banks. There was a question about which singer had sung a couple of songs… I could even here them in my head but could I remember the singer… her name kept escaping me… Chrissie Hynde? No, a black singer, Tracy Chapman… maybe… but not 100% sure… so we went with Tracy Chapman… How annoyed I was when the answer was revealed… Joan Armatrading!!! how could I forget her!!!

Isn’t she just utterly fabulous? Wow!!! She is amazing!!!