Aunty’s Hat

Last year, when I undertook the challenge to write 50,000 words of a new book in the month of November, the National Novel Writing Month, I was struggling with several other projects at the same time. I did manage to complete the undertaking, but it was hard, very hard, and a lot of it was rushed and if it is to be used in anything else, will need a lot of work.

For quite a while I had been pondering on writing about my life stories, how to do it, and how to do it imaginatively. I hadn’t then, last October come across the term ‘creative non-fiction’, but that was what I was trying to do. For some reason, and I don’t quite remember why, I chose not to name myself or my family, so I was ‘the child’, ‘the girl’, ‘the oldest child/girl’ and my sister became the younger child/girl in the stories. I think maybe I was trying to write in an objective way so that I didn’t fall into the trap of ‘and then I did this, and then I did that, and my dad said to me etc…’

In my writing group yesterday, i shared a small section of it – the first time I’d looked at it since November, too busy writing my latest novel, Earthquake! it needs some tweaking and work, but here is a first draft:

The younger child acquired a hat from someone’s aunt, and it was always known as ‘Aunty’s Hat’ and shared among her and her friends. The family had moved away from The River, to the west, to a seaside town, a seaside which was along the coast from mighty rivers, carrying sediment and mud and depositing it on the beach. Once, when the level of the sea was different, here had been marshes between what was now the shoreline and far away across the now channel to the distant cliffs; people had wandered across and about, hunting, gathering, leaving footprints forever on the muddy shore.
The younger child and her friend, went back to her home town, and to The River. After a jolly evening out with friends,  she and her friend, wearing Aunty’s Hat of course,  went down to The River; they didn’t go to the lock where her father in distant times caught the mighty pike on the morning of his leaving for war, nor the place where the Swim Through the City finished. They went upstream, beyond Darwin College Bridge, beyond the mill, and to Coe Fen, opposite Sheep’s Green. There, late at night, after the pubs and clubs had shut, they decided to swim, the two girls, not the boy friends who were with them.
The boys, being gentlemen, turned away as the girls undressed; the girls took off their clothes, not at the time realising that as the cars drove along the road,  their headlights illuminated them. They laughed a lot at this later.
Stripped, they ran barefoot across the grass and dived into the river… and it was only later after their swim they realised they no longer had Aunty’s Hat. They had dived in, one of them wearing it, and the hat had floated away, and no doubt quietly drowned.

By the way, my featured image is not of The River, it is of a river near where I love now!

My latest novel:

Last word on NaNo… (for now!)

This is the fourth year I have attempted the challenge of writing 50,000 words in the month of November. I didn’t decide till the last minute, for several reasons – I was three-quarters way through another book I’m writing, I seemed to have hit a bit of a slough with writing anyway, I had an empty head – empty of any ideas.

I was undecided up until the last moment, the actual day the challenge started, November 1st and then I plunged in. The challenge is supposed to be a new novel, but I only had half-started ones, so I went for an idea I’ve been playing about with, of writing a sort of memoir, sort of family history, but using my imagination to make it more interesting and detailed than if I just tried to remember particular things from my childhood.

The connecting thread running through my stories is the River… the River in actual fact is many rivers, the Cam from my early years in Cambridge, the Mersey, the Irwell and the Medlock from living in Manchester, the Axe from living in Somerset, the Bann and the Bush from visiting Ireland so many times. I wrote quite a few stories about the Cam and my experiences, by it, on it, in it, and also its own story, where it comes from, what it’s like, where it goes and which other rivers join it on its way. I returned to the Cam with memories of it freezing over in years gone by, and from there I explored skating on the Cam and other fenland rivers and waterways, and became intrigued and involved with the story of a party of skaters in 1903 who had a tragic accident.

I started to write about the Irwell in the same way, but I got side-tracked by the actual river, and there is not much about me and my time in Manchester… something to go back to… ditto the Medlock and the Mersey.

I felt sure that since I am now living by the River Axe, a few hundred yards from it in fact, that I would write a lot of my own story; in fact I got involved in someone else’s life story, a man who died nearly sixty years ago, drowned in the Axe while trying to save someone else. While researching him, I came across a distant cousin of his, who also drowned at a similar age but in a river round he other side of the world, the  Campaspe in Victoria state,  an inland intermittent river… however in my writing the river played a very small part, I was  more interested in the life of the man before he sadly died. In turn I became interested in the pub his father owned for a few years, and then the man who built and started the pub thirty years previously – a long way from rivers, and from my own life story!

Of all the rivers I have loved the one which has featured most and in most of my novels has been the River Bush; I wrote about it, but again it was more the factual side of it… and so to with the bann, and then somehow St Brenadn was brought into my mind, St Brendan who is supposed to have gone on an amazing voyage of adventure… and suddenly I was writing about him and his companions and their experiences on the sea in boats, retelling his story. This in turn made me think of Nicholas of Lynn, a priest and monk who also went on great voyages – or so he wrote! Lynn is King’s Lynn, not far from where the skating accident happened…

Nicholas of Lynn

Somehow I moved away from English rivers to the Mighty Amazon,and my grandfather who went up it to Manaós in the early part of the twentieth century…

What a muddle it all seems looking back… a muddle but if I unpick it and reknit it in a more ordered pattern, maybe I might make something out of it all!

  1. the Cam, in it, on it, by it
  2. the Cam its composition and history and geography
  3. skating on the frozen Cam
  4. tragic skating accident in the Fens in 1903
  5. the story of the young people before and after the accident
  6. the Mersey, the Irwell and the Medlock
  7. the Axe
  8. Edwin Clogg of Looe, Cornwall
  9. Edwin Clogg of the Camberwell Hotel, Victoria
  10. the Camberwell Hotel and George Eastaway
  11. George Eastaway of Bristol
  12. Edwin John Clogg
  13. Arthur Parker the billiard marker
  14. Arthur Barker the farmer
  15. David Hoy the ship builder
  16. The  Bush and the Bann
  17. St Brendan and his voyage
  18. Nicholas of Lynn and his voyage
  19. Reginald Matthews and his journey to Manaós
  20. The Bush and my novels
  21. coracles and curaghs
  22. my writng




As part of my failed (probably) attempt to complete 50,000 words in the National Novel Writing Month challenge, I have been writing about my life and family history, through associations with various rivers… and this has led onto not just rivers but seas and other bodies of water too.

I was down in Looe (not literally, only in my research) with Edwin Clogg, an interesting character who during the first world war was a conscie – a conscientious objector. I don’t know if it was a religious or personal reason, so I can’t yet tell whether his family supported him, were horrified or ashamed, but I came across a contemporary report in a newspaper from 1915, when Edwin would have been twenty-nine:

Thursday 24 August 1916



Col. L.C. Foster read a telegram at Looe Urban tribunal from Commander-in-Chief emphasising that every effort should be made to secure as many men as possible, and that all men previously rejected should be sent before the Medical Board for re-examination.
Mr. W. McLean was appealed for by Mr. Coleman secretary to the Looe Gas Co). It was stated that Mr. McLean was the only gas fitter left. Five of the company’s men had joined the service. – Col Foster said the matter rested between Mr. McLean and another employee of the company, Nichols. One of the two men would have to join. – The case was adjourned for a month, when both men will be called up, with a view to one being secured for military service.
October 1st (final) was the decision in the case of Mr. Robert Vincent, who had been granted time at a previous sitting on account of his wife’s illness.
An application was made for Mr. R.Wickett, slaughter man and cowman employed by Mr. Broad. – Mr. Broad said Wickett’s removal would entirely disorganize his business; he was the only help in his shop and on the land, – Sept 15th (final) was the decision.
Mr. Edwin Clogg was appealed on conscientious grounds and business hardship, was granted two months to arrange his business affairs, and passed for non-combatant service.
Exemption, whilst in his present occupation was granted to Mr. Richard Pearce, shipwright and boat builder.

It was interesting to see how these boards, or commissions, or courts had to consider different appeals, from the compassionate – Mr Vincent, practical – Mr Wickett and Mr McClean, exemption – Mr Pearce, and conscience – Edwin.

It struck me how difficult it must have been for some men to have joined up, for example, how could Farmer broad replace his slaughter-man? It is a heavy job, dealing with the  stock, doing the deed – which is an expert job, lifting and carrying carcasses? A woman or young boy couldn’t do it, an old man might struggle, and would there be any of these free to take on the job? In a company of seven working men and five of them already gone, how could it survive with just one man? In a job which needed expertise, experience and I would guess a lot of physical strength?

In small communities, the impact of losing most able-bodied men must have been immense; I’m sure many companies foundered and failed, and many people faced hardship without income and with maybe other members of the family away actually fighting. Edwin wasn’t married, I don’t know what his ‘business hardship’ was… I guess it was the family greengrocer/grocer business, and i don’t know if his brothers served or if they too were objectors; however compared to a slaughter-man or gas fitter, being a grocer is hardly grounds to object and in a way I’m surprised he mentioned it… but here am I, looking at the life of a man a hundred years ago, and I only know the tiniest bit about him.

My featured image is of Cornwall, but not Looe… it’s Fowey


All the colours turn to brown

More from my flagging attempts at the National Novel Writing Month Challenge… here, I’m  pulling together what i have found out about the River Cam:

And to the river… it begins north-east of Henlow, a small village in Bedfordshire; at one point the girl’s mother, when herself a girl, lived in Bedfordshire in another small village, Pavenham, some twenty miles northwest of Henlow.  No doubt Henlow is old, a settlement must have been there from earliest times; its name might have been Henna Hlæw, Hill of Birds, or maybe the Burial Hill of Birds.

The river springs near Henlow, near the Burial Hill of Birds, from the chalky aquifers beneath, and travels in a northerly direction, joined by other waters from other springs coming from either side, from east and from west. The area is chalky, and this porous rock allows rains to continually feed into the river.

However as it flows onwards it passes through a heavy gault clay, overlying what is known as lower greensand sandstone… is there upper greensand sandstone? Middle greensand limestone? Greensand is literally greenish in colour, and if you could look at it closely enough you could see the grains, the glauconies   are roundish and green and a mixture of minerals such as smectite and glauconite mica. Greensand is from the shallow seas of many millions of years ago, marine sediment and yes, there are both upper and lower greensand outcrops, and they are where the river flows, along the scarp slopes around the London Basin and in Bedfordshire.

And gault? Gault is a rock formation of stiff blue clay laid down between seventy-nine and one hundred and forty-five million years ago, in a calm, fairly deep-water marine environment… To quote: “The Gault Formation represents a marine transgression following erosion of the Lower Greensand. It is subdivided into two sections, the Upper Gault and the Lower Gault. The Upper Gault onlaps onto the Lower Gault. The Gault Formation thins across the London Platform and then terminates against the Red Chalk just to the south of The Wash.”

Greensand, blue gault, red chalk…

The child had had the experience of all children painting with liquid paint, put all the colours together and you get a sort of brown, the river was brown, maybe it carried the land it had passed through, as maybe everyone does, carrying the land they pass through…

A sad story

When I started the 50,000 word novel-writing challenge, I was very hazy as to which way it would go, how it would go and whether it would go at all! I really don’t think I am going to complete, but it has been an interesting journey.

I started with the idea of an imaginative memoir, being creative about things I couldn’t remember or didn’t know, but creative in a realistic and not anachronistic way. I used rivers I have known and loved as a way of travelling though my memories and reminiscences, and like with all rivers they wander and flow, sometimes disappearing to reappear unexpectedly… and trying to find the source is always tricky and mysterious.

I started doing a little research about the actual rivers, as well as about my family, and I’ve already mentioned the tragic skating accident of 1903 when a young woman drowned. Now in researching a different river, the Axe which comes out into the sea in our village, I found another tragedy, but which led me to explore an interesting life. The Axe winds its way through the Somerset countryside, and the nearest village to us that it passes through is Bleadon; an elderly man drowned in 1957 trying to save a young lad who had got into difficulties. This man came originally from Cornwall and it seems that he was a conscientious objector during the first war – which must have been hard and a courageous stand to take. I am now looking into his family history, and seeing what more I can find out about him. There is a gravestone for him in  Bleadon churchyard which I will have a look at – if it ever stops raining!

Here is a link to my other books, some of which were started in previous novel writing challenges:

Small and select… the writing group today

My second writing group has suddenly swollen in numbers – I say second only because I had a writing group, and then there was so much interest that I’ve started a second one! A few months ago, everyone who had expressed even a slight interest turned up, and I ended up sitting on the floor and others were on chairs from the dining room!

I knew a couple of people couldn’t come today, one poorly, one had an engagement she couldn’t miss, one is no longer available on the day we meet, so I printed off six sets of prompts for next month’s topic which is ‘Winter’ – they can write anything they like about or inspired by winter, in any form – or they can write about whatever they fancy, writing is the important thing!

We are seeing the effects of Storm Angus, and there are floods all around from the continuous rain, so I guessed some people might not make it, and also unexpected things crop up, so when three arrived I was very pleased to see them.

We had a general chat and catch-up; one of my writers has taken up the National Novel Writing Challenge of attempting to write 50,000 words of a new piece of work in the month of November. She has done brilliantly, and is storming ahead and will definitely meet the target, and maybe even pass it! I had to confess I’m lagging… but we had both decided to write a similar thing, but approaching it differently – our own life stories.

The NaNo writer shared part of her story, about travelling to Australia on a ship – very descriptive and evocative, and well brought to life.

A newish member of the group read a very gripping story, based on a true event, about an elderly lady, a would-be burglar, and a light bulb. She writes very elegantly and economically, and has a good sense of the pace of the story, which had a satisfactory and unexpected conclusion!

Our only man  shared a story, maybe the beginning of something longer, which was fictitious, but had a connection to his own life-story, which was interesting. Set in Ireland it was very atmospheric, and we all agreed we definitely wanted to know more… what happened next?!

I read part of my own NaNo story, an episode from my father’s life which took place on the morning of his call-up in 1939.

The rain had abated somewhat by the time the session was over; however the NaNo writer’s husband couldn’t come to pick her up as there were floods in town! Luckily our man writer gave her and the other lady a lift, which was very kind of him.

So we may have been few, but we had an excellent and productive meeting!

If you want to read our newish member’s work, here is something she shared on our writer’s blog:

If you have any writing, poetry, prose, a memoir, anything, that you would like to share, get in touch!

A lesson learned!

I think I have to admit that I am not going to reach the 50,000 word target of the National Novel Writing Month this year; it was unrealistic of me to even enter it and that is a lesson learned!

However, it has not been a failure, and I actually think that may be part of the whole point of it. It hasn’t been a failure because:

  • I have started writing something new and different which I have been thinking in a wobbly way about for some time
  • it has given me a focus and a structure to write about my history and my family history
  • it has given me a way to draw the different strands of these very different stories together, and I hope, if it isn’t too pretentious, that the title and main theme – ‘And The River…’ and the theme of rivers, reflect the stories and the way they flow in and out, divert, deviate, find new courses – and reflect the way life happens!
  • co-incidentally, by researching various things, I have ideas for other stories – particularly the skating accident story (a real tragedy from 1903 when someone fell through the ice while skating on a frozen river) but also the mysterious death of a school teacher – probably or possibly at the hands of a young deaf and dumb boy
  • I have learned a very valuable and rather annoying lesson which I should have already known – there is only so much time to write, and writing too many different things at once mean none of them progress as they should, as they would if I did one thing at once – I am no good at juggling, I should know this!
  • I won’t make my 50,000 words but I will have done a lot of valuable writing
  • if/when I do this next year, I will clear the decks first and focus on the challenge!

So… I won’t reach the finishing line but I will have achieved!