Hi, Kate, could you give us an overview of your writing career so far?
Hi Jean. I trained as a journalist and spent twenty years working for women’s weekly titles like Pick Me Up, Take a Break and That’s Life! which was a wonderful training ground in the art of listening, as well as an insight into what women really want to read about. I also did spells at The Daily Mail and The Daily Express. I was Deputy Editor at Pick Me Up magazine when I was made redundant. I was heavily pregnant with my second son and it felt pretty catastrophic at the time. In panic mode, I launched myself into the world of freelancing. A friend of mine was working as a ghostwriter and put me in touch with her agent, Diane Banks. She took me on and after working as a ghostwriter on five books, my agent suggested I try my hand at fiction. Now I look back and see that redundancy as serendipity, as there as is nothing I would rather do more now than write books.
2) What is it about the WW2 that fascinates you so much?
I think lives were lived so much more intensely and there was real potency and power to being a woman. Women really did step outside the home and discover what they were capable of. I interviewed a fascinating lady who was one of a handful of women to train as a doctor during the war. She leant forward in her chair and I was taken aback by the fierce determination in her voice when she told me: ‘In wartime, it was women who saved the day.’ It’s extraordinary when you think about it the way we carried on in a time when invasion seemed certain, and yet for so many, defeat simply wasn’t an option.
3) Why do you think this period is so popular at the moment?
We live in such uncertain times. Immersing yourself in the warmth and nostalgia of the past can feel like an escape from the frightening realities we face when we switch on the news. Reading about a time when a country pulled together to face a common enemy and people lived collectively, not individually, offers an unshifting narrative. Obviously we are looking back through a rose tinted prism, can you imagine the realities of actually living in a war zone? Despite this, I don’t think there’s any doubt that communities were much closer back then, and in the absence of the Welfare State, women were the welfare state, caring for neighbours and family. I think there is a tangible sense of people craving the benefits of living in a tight-knit community.
4) What is a typical writing day for you?
I drop the boys off to school, walk my ageing Jack Russell, Twinkle, then make a big cup of coffee, park my bum down and write until it is time to collect them. If I’m on a research day in the East End, I’m usually legging it up Whitechapel High Street en route to an interview or an archive.
5) Are you a plotter or do you write the story by the skin of your pants?
I’m a plotter and something of a control freak. I admire people who can discover it as they go along, but that would freak me out. I start with a timeline and a detailed bio of each of my characters and go from there, combining research with writing.
6) What has been the highlight of becoming a published author?
Good question. Nothing beats seeing your book on the shelves, or receiving a letter or email from a reader who enjoyed your book.
7) Apart from writing what else do you do in your spare time?
My sons are 10 and 6, so a lot of time is spent running them to football, karate and swimming clubs. I do love running and exercise. I bought a stand-up paddle board last year, which I absolutely love. On the river it is great, but we took it down to Dorset last Easter and trying to stand up on it on the sea is another thing altogether. I spent most of the time face planting straight into the sea. I’m a bit of a fresh air and nature nut and it’s lovely to be outdoors when you’ve spent hours in front of a PC.
8) Have you any advice for aspiring Saga writers?
Only to write about an area, or people for whom you have profound respect and affection for. I also think you have a duty of care to research that time frame as vigorously as you can. People do love to spot anachronisms so take care to make your writing as authentic as possible. I have lots of trusted wartime East Enders who do what I call ‘sympathy reads’ to make sure my writing is as accurate as can be. Also, be prepared to embrace and utilise social media.
9) Can you tell us a little about The Allotment Girls?
When I stumbled upon a gem, like the iconic Bryant & May match factory in Bow, I knew firstly I had to set a book there. Next, I accessed the archives held at Hackney Library and started to read about the factory, its long history, its role during the war and its many social opportunities, like The Match Girls Club, and these vivid characters started to drop into my mind. Shortly after I discovered the Bethnal Green Producers’ Association, which during the war saw 300 men, women and children from the borough transform the darkest of bomb sites into thriving allotments, using elbow grease, imagination and pierced dustbin lids to sift out shrapnel. I had the beginnings of my story and the Allotment Girls was born. An allotment is a great stage for drama, all manner of illicit liaisons can take place there and secrets concealed beneath the soil.
Thanks for being part of my blog tour, Jean.
Read more about Kate and her books:
The Allotment Girls, published by Pan Macmillan is out March 22nd. Available to order now on e-book via Amazon.
Work-life balance is a well-worn phrase which describes philosophical and ethical way of trying the get the right balance so you work to live rather than the other way around. The assumption of this philosophy is that the individual’s out of work life is more important than the in-work life. However, as a writer I have a slightly different take on this.
When I tell people always take my laptop on holiday so I can keep up my word count while I’m away they throw their hands up in horror. ‘But you’re on holiday’ they say ‘why don’t you just relax’ they say, ‘you should take a break from work’ they say, totally misunderstanding what writing means to me.
Yes, it is what I work at but it’s not ‘work’. I don’t dread going to my desk each morning, when I’m struggling to write a difficult scene I have to break off for an hour sometimes but I never want to be away from the story I’m writing for weeks. And it certainly isn’t relaxing for me to have a story in my head hammering to get out and no means of writing it down. For me, a holiday isn’t a holiday without being able to write at least 500 words a day. In fact, in order for the Hero@Home to have a relaxing time away he insists I take my laptop.
The truth of the matter is; even if I change location I can’t escape the current and future stories racing around in my head. And honestly, I don’t want to. So, along with the suntan lotion, swimsuit and beach towel my laptop is top of the list of my holiday essentials.
In my latest release, Pocketful of Dreams, one of the main character, Christopher Jolliffe, is a Nazi follower working to overthrow the British Government and to install a Fascist regime.
Part of my job as an author is to show him and his odious political ideals in their true light. To do this my character has not only to do vile things but say words that are both offensive and cruel.
Writing Christopher and his fellow fascist conversations was a challenge but I did what I always do to get the period details right and consulted primary sources, in this case the quotes
and pamphlets written by fascist leaders of the time. Their exchanges reflect the beliefs many held.
Today, if you mention British pre-war Fascists people immediately think of Mosley and the Battle of Cable Street or Diana and Unity Mitford both of both frequent visitors to the Reich and ardent followers of Hitler.
However, while Oswald Mosley is certainly the best known British Fascist he is by no means the only one. In fact, it could be argued that others behind the scene, many of them upright member of society were more extreme and more influential.
There was a tangle of pre-war organisation such as the The European Society for Christian Resettlement, British Vigil, The Anglo German Fellowship and others. One of the most influential was the Right Club which was headed by the Right Honourable Captain Ramsey the member of parliament for Peebles and South Midlothian. Ramsey was a fervent anti-Semitic who wrote tracts about the World Jewry’s plot to take over international financial markets.
Another influential Fascist organisation was The Link which as well as being anti-Semitic was also actively pro-Nazi organisation founded by British Admiral Domvile, who kept a photo of Hitler on his desk.
The most active branch of this organisation was the Northampton branch headed up by Captain George Drummond who held Nazi social events and had a swastika design in the tiles at the bottom of his swimming pool.
The fascist cause was supported across the social divide from the very top of society with people like Ben Greene active in the British Council for a Christian Settlement in Europe through to Jock
Houston and his bully boys in the working-class areas of East London as the British People’s Party.
To be honest when I was looking for someone to model my villain Christopher on I was really spoilt for choice. However, to portray the visceral hatred of the fascists for Jewish people I also had to read some of their essays and transcriptions of their speeches. Not a comfortable exercise. However, although the primary aim of historical fiction is to entertain the reader I feel in pursuit of accurate research we shouldn’t shy away from including the less savoury aspects of the past.
Having watched with unease Hitler’s march across Europe and the terrible effects of the Luftwaffe Blitzkrieg during the Spanish Civil War in 1938 the British Government passed the Air Raid Precaution Act. This charged every local council with setting up the ARP for their area answerable to the newly formed Ministry for Home Defence.
There had been air raids on Britain during WW1 that resulted in 1400 civilian deaths and in ARP preparation in the lead up to WW2 drew on that experience.
As early as 1924 Sir John Anderson – he of the garden shelters fame- set up a committee to consider the measure that should be taken. However, after Germany in direct contravention of the Versailles Treaty reformed their air force councils in Britain were urged to start ARP preparations but many refused on the grounds that they wouldn’t burden the rate payers with expensive precautions which might never be needed. However, once Hitler marched Czechoslovakia the writing was on the wall and preparations for war on the Home Front began.
The ARP Act which came into force on 1st January 1938 provided the money required to mobilise a vast army of civilians to defend the country against the war that would soon be upon them. Many were paid and the standard rate was £3 3s 6d for men and £2 3s for women but senior ARP ranks got slightly more.
At the outbreak of war in September 1939 the National Service (Armed Forces) Act was passed. All men between the ages of 18-41 began to be called up but rather than wait for their ‘papers’ many volunteered leaving massive gaps in the workforce and the ARP services. Their places were filled by bringing people into the workforce who weren’t included in the conscription criteria, women and men who were medically unfit for military service or who were too old or too young. Although there were many variations the basic Air Raid Precautions consisted of the following personnel:
Control centres were often cited in Town Hall or other civic building. They were the first to receive the reports of incidents and having evaluated where and what was involved would inform the appropriate Depot. They was headed up by a senior controller usually the Town Clerk or other high ranking official and manned by telephonists and plotters- people monitoring which service were sent to each incident.
Where my heroine Mattie Brogan is an Air Raid Warden. Were gathering place for all the services so they were ready for a swift response to an incident. In the thick of the blitz, teams often lived there for day sleeping in vehicles or under tables to be on hand.
Air Raid Wardens:
Air Raid Wardens: who did everything from rouse people from their beds, keeping order in the shelters and making sure the blackout was maintained. They covered a specific area and often knew who lived where. This was invaluable when searching for missing people in bombed building.
Triaged wounded and either treated the casualties on the spot or transported them to hospitals. With the introduction of petrol rationing many people donated their vehicles to the war effort. Ambulances were often civilian car painted white with a red cross on the side and their seats taken out to accommodate stretchers. Because driving wasn’t as common as it is now initially there was a shortage of drivers and although in London many middle and upper-class women stepped into the breach, the service still had to train others.
Heavy Rescue : Made structures safe and dug people out from the rubble. Builders and other tradesmen were drafted into the heavy rescue service often using their own equipment and vehicles. Theirs was the gruelling and dangerous task of going into a building and making it safe. They also dug survivors and bodies out of the rubble.
De-contamination squads .
In the event of a gas attack they were to decontaminate people and places. Thankfully, we don’t hear much about the de-contamination squads that were set up as part of the ARP. That’s because despite the Governments fears that the Germans would gas the population no gas was ever dropped
Messengers. It’s hard to imagine a world without instant and multiple communication but on the Home Front during WW2 there was only the telephone. It was before STD calls had to be routed through an operator therefore if the local exchange was put out of action all communication links between central command, depots and information posts were broken. The youngster who ran and cycled back and forth often in the middle of an air raid were vital for communication between central control and the assorted ARP services.
The official Air Raid Precautions services were closely linked to
When the war started many officers volunteered in the first month leaving the police depleted of manpower at a time when the pressure on them doubled. Not only were they part of the rescue services but also had to deal with an increase in traditional crimes such as theft and burglary, along with tackling black-market racketeering, looting and help with the identification of bodies.
Women’s Voluntary Service
WVS; Although not technically part of the ARP service they were the oil in the wheels. They did everything from setting up canteens, manning rest centres for those bombed out of their houses, caring for misplaced and orphaned children through to running clothes exchanges.
At the outbreak of war there were over a million and a half people involved in ARP work and during the course of the next six years almost 2,500 of them died while on active duty. It was due to the selfless service of countless everyday heroes that Britain was able to survive during some of the darkest days of the war.
Gripping the two Kirby grips tightly between her lips, Matilda Mary Brogan or Mattie as she was known to all and everyone, carefully slid the comb of her sister Cathy’s headdress into place and then, taking each pin in turn, fixed it there.
‘There you go,’ she said, smiling at Cathy in the mirror.
Cathy, who at eighteen was two years Mattie’s junior, had hair the colour of ripe corn and storm grey eyes, like their father’s, while, in complete contrast, Mattie had inherited the dark chestnut locks and hazel coloured eyes of their mother.
‘It’s so pretty.’ Touching the wax orange blossoms with the tips of her fingers, Cathy turned her head from side to side. ‘I just hope it stays on in this wind.’
‘It ought to, I’ve anchored it with enough pins,’ Mattie replied. ‘Besides, it looks like it’s brightening up.’
Cathy gave her a wan smile. ‘You mean it’s stopped thundering.’
It was the first Saturday in September and instead of catching the 5.30 from London Bridge to Kent for the hop harvest, which is what they’d done on this day of the year ever since the girls could remember, the women of the family had been up since the crack of dawn preparing for Cathy’s big day.
Mattie lived with her parents, Ida and Jerimiah Brogan, at number 25 Mafeking Terrace which ran between Cable Street and the Highway in Wapping, just a few roads back from London Docks. Their road was lined with Victorian workers’ cottages and was just wide enough for two horse carts to scrape past each other. It had originally been called Sun Fields Lane but after Baden-Powell and his handful of troops were relieved at Mafeking, it was renamed in their honour.
With three upstairs rooms, a front and back parlour plus a scullery, the houses in the street were probably considered spacious when they were constructed a century and half ago but with seven adults and one child living under its roof, the ancient workman’s cottage was straining at the seams.
Mattie’s parents had the largest upstairs room, overlooking the street, her brother Charlie, who was three years older than her, and nine-year-old Billy-Boy squashed into the minute back room while Mattie shared the third bedroom with her sisters Cathy and Josephine. This was where she was now, standing listening to her mother and aunts bustling around downstairs as they prepared plates of sandwiches for the wedding breakfast.
As the women had used the facilities at the Highway’s public baths the evening before, they set to making plates of sandwiches still in their dressing gowns and curlers, to be taken around to the Catholic Club where the wedding breakfast was to be held.
While the women of the family worked on the refreshments, Mattie’s father and her brother Charlie changed into their Sunday togs and had left twenty minutes ago to sort out the transport. As chief bridesmaid, Mattie had been given the task of helping Cathy into her wedding dress while the rest of the family got everything ready.
There was a crash downstairs.
‘For the love of God,’ screamed her mother’s voice from the scullery below. ‘For once will you let up on your bloody fault-finding, Ma?’
‘Fault-finding, is it?’ trilled Queenie Brogan, Jerimiah’s sixty-two-year-old mother. ‘Sure, am I not just trying to stop you being the laughing stock of the street, Ida, with your—’
The kitchen door slammed.
In the reflection, Cathy smiled at her. ‘They still at it, then?’
‘When are they not?’ Mattie rested her hands lightly on her sister’s slender shoulders and smiled. ‘You look so beautiful and every bit the blushing bride.’
A pink glow coloured her sister’s cheeks. ‘I just hope Stan will agree.’
‘Of course, he will,’ said Mattie. ‘In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he fainted away at the very sight of you.’
Cathy giggled. ‘Did you ever think I’d be married before you, Mattie?’
‘I can’t say I gave it much thought,’ Mattie replied, poking a stray pin in a little firmer.
Cathy turned her head and fiddled with a curl. ‘Because I’m sure you’ll meet the right man someday.’
‘I’m sure I will, too,’ Mattie replied. ‘Someday, but I’m not in any hurry.’
Cathy spun around on the stool and took her hands.
‘And I don’t want you to worry that you might end up an old maid on the shelf, cos you won’t,’ she said, an earnest little frown creasing her powdered brow.
Mattie suppressed a smile. ‘I’ll try.’
Giving her hands a reassuring squeeze, Cathy turned back to admire her reflection again. ‘It seems wrong somehow to be so happy what with everything else that’s going on,’
‘Nonsense,’ said Mattie fluffing up the short cream veil again. ‘A wedding and a good old-fashioned knees-up is just what everyone needs to take their mind off things.’
Cathy bit her lip. ‘Do you think it will be war?’
Mattie sighed. ‘I can’t see how we can avoid it. And what with the blackout each night and trenches being dug in Shadwell Gardens, it’s not as if we haven’t been preparing for it for months, is it? I mean, we’ve had the Civil Defence up and running for over a year, the blackout curtains up since Whitsun and it must be costing the goverment a fortune in printing as every day the postman’s shoving a new leaflet through the door.’
‘But Stan says there is still a chance Hitler will think better of it and leave Poland,’ Cathy said.
Mattie forced a bright smile. ‘Perhaps he will. Now, you know how Rayon crumples, so if I were you I’d stand up for a bit to let the creases fall out.’
Cathy obediently got to her feet.
Mattie knelt down and tugged gently at the hem of Cathy’s dress to get the folds in the right place. The dress, with its padded shoulders, square neckline, cross-cut panels and high waistline, suited her sister to perfection. Cathy had fallen in love with the design two years ago and cut it out from the Spring Brides special edition of Woman’s Own; just after she’d turned sixteen and their father had agreed for her and Stan to start walking out properly. Mattie had sweet-talked Soli Beckerman, the elderly pattern-cutter at Gold & Sons where she worked as a machinist, to make it for her and he’d done a beautiful job.
Satisfied with her way the fabric was draped, Mattie rocked back on her heels and stood up, straightening the skirt of her own apple green bridesmaid dress. Bending forward, she checked her hair only to find, as always, several wayward curls had escaped.
The door burst open and their mother strode in.
Ida Brogan was halfway through her forty-fourth year and at five foot five could look all three daughters more or less in the eye. If the faded wedding photo on the back parlour mantelshelf was to be believed, two decades ago she would have comfortably fitted into any of Mattie’s size twelve dresses but now, as mother to a brood of Brogans, her hips had spread accordingly. That said, she could still sprint down the road after a cheeky youngster if the occasion arose.
With the exception of Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter, her mother usually donned a wraparound apron and hid her silver-streaked dark brown hair that was once the same rich chestnut tone as Mattie’s under a scarf, but today Ida wore a navy suit and a smart pink blouse with a fluted front and a bow that tied at her throat. In addition, she’d bought herself a new felt hat which she’d decorated with a vast number of artificial flowers. However, in keeping with the government’s latest directive she’d enhanced her ensemble with the cardboard box containing her gas mask which was now hanging from her right shoulder by a length of string.
‘How are you two getting on . . . ’ She stopped as a rare softness stole across her rounded face. ‘Don’t you look a right picture?’
‘Thanks, Mum,’ said Cathy, smiling shyly at her. ‘Mattie’s done such a good job, hasn’t she?’
Ida nodded. ‘Turn around and let me have a gander at the back.’
Cathy did a slow turn on the spot.
‘Beautiful,’ said their mother with a heavy sigh. ‘You’ve done your sister proud, Mattie.’
‘Thanks, Mum,’ said Mattie, enjoying her mother’s approval.
Ida winked. ‘Good practice for when you and Micky get wed, isn’t it? I suppose he’s meeting us at the church.’
Mattie gave a wan smile.
‘Just as well,’ continued her mother. ‘The way Queenie’s been lashing everyone with that tongue of hers, she’d have given the poor boy the rough edge of it if he’d been here this morning.’
She caught sight of her daughters’ alarm clock on the bedside table and scowled. ‘Eleven-thirty! Where’s your bloody father?’
‘It’s all right, Mum, the church is only five minutes away so we’ve got plenty of time,’ said Mattie. ‘I’ll take a look to see if he’s coming.’
Going to the window, which had been criss-crossed with gummed-on newspaper, she threw up the lower casement and looked out.
Heavy grey clouds still hung low over the London Docks just to the south of them but, mercifully, there were a few blue patches forcing their way through.
‘Can you see him?’ asked her mother.
‘Yes,’ Mattie replied as she spotted Samson, her father’s carthorse, turn into the street. ‘He’s just coming.’
Her father, Jerimiah Boniface Brogan, sat on top of his wagon. He was wearing his best suit with a brocade waistcoat beneath, a red bandana tied at his throat. The wagon with Brogan & Son Household Salvage painted in gold along the side, which was usually piled high with old baths, bedsteads and broken furniture, had been scrubbed clean the previous day. It was now festooned with white ribbons and even Samson’s bridle had bows tied to either side. As the cart rolled over the cobbles, the neighbours stopped their Saturday morning chores to watch the bride set off to church.
Ida bustled over and, pushing Mattie aside, thrust her head out of the window.
‘About bloody time,’ she called as the cart with Mattie’s father sitting on the front came to a stop in front of the house.
Although Jeremiah was three years older than his wife, his curly black hair showed not a trace of grey and, with fists like mallets and forearms of steel, he could still wipe the floor with a man half his age. According to Grannie Queenie, her one and only child had been born in the middle of the Irish sea during a force nine gale and had had the furies in him ever since. As boisterous as a drunken bear and with a roar like a lion, Jerimiah Boniface Brogan wasn’t a man to mess but his yes was yes and his no was no and everyone knew it. But to Mattie he was a loving smile and a safe pair of arms to cuddle into and she adored him.
He stood up and whipped off his weather-beaten fedora.
‘And a top of the morning to you too, me sweet darling,’ he called, sweeping his enraged wife an exaggerated bow.
‘Never mind the old codswallop,’ Ida shouted back. ‘Where the hell have you been?’
‘Just socialising with a few friends in the Lord Nelson,’ he replied, setting his hat back at a jaunty angle. ‘Is the bride ready?’
‘Of course she’s ready,’ her mother replied. ‘She’s been ready for hours.’
Jerimiah jumped down. ‘Then her carriage awaits.’
‘Right, I’ll take Billy with me and I’ll tell Charlie when I see him to make sure he keeps an eye on Queenie,’ said her mother, hooking her handbag on her arm. ‘I don’t want her nipping into Fat Tony’s to place a bet on the two-thirty at Kempton Park on her way to church.’
She turned to leave, then stopped and gazed at her middle daughter.
Tears welled up in her grey eyes.
‘You look so lovely, sweetheart,’ she whispered.
Ida hugged her to her considerable bosom for a moment then, taking a handkerchief from her sleeve, hurried out of the room.
‘Ready?’ Mattie turned to her sister.
Cathy nodded. Her gaze rested on the double bed the three sisters shared. ‘It’ll seem strange not snuggling up with you and Jo each night though.’
Mattie smiled. ‘No cos you’ll be snuggling up to your new husband instead.’
‘But at least after today you won’t have to hear Ma and Gran arguing the toss from dawn to dusk,’ said Mattie.
‘Thanks be to Mary, for that,’ Cathy replied.
They exchanged a fond look, then Cathy threw her arms around Mattie. With tears pinching the corner of her closed eyes, Mattie hugged her back.
‘Let’s be off then,’ said Mattie, hooking both their gas masks over her shoulder. She picked up her sister’s white confirmation Bible and rosary, then handed them to her. ‘After all, you don’t want to keep that groom of yours waiting.’
I write historical fiction set in East London just after WW2 and the most difficult thing about writing about the lives of post-war women today is to try to show readers the vast changes that have occurred in social and moral attitudes over the last seventy years.
For example; the idea that a woman from a working class background would ever go to university was almost unthinkable. Rather than a career the ambition of the majority of young women at that time was to get married and have children. It was expected of them and very few people questioned it. Society supported this as girls’ education featured cookery and needlework designed to equip them with the necessary skills to be a good housewife; very different from the expectation of today’s young women. Continue reading
Now for those of you who don’t know my husband is a vicar in the Church of England and one thing he always complains about in my books is that all my villains are religious people. That is not strictly true, of course, but I admit many of the characters in my books who have a persona of holiness and morality are often pretty hateful people who do some very horrible things.
However, no matter what their own views on a divine being are if you’re a historical author you will have to recognise that religious institutions were an intrinsic part of everyday life right up to the 1960s.
The church legalised your marriage, baptised your children, gave you the last rites to secure your place in heaven and then buried you. Remember too, before the welfare state you had to be a recognised member of a parish to apply for poor relief or to stand any chance of an education for your children in a Sunday school.
Some parishes were run by vicars who were appointed by the bishop more often than not at the behest of a wealthy patron. The vicar was almost certainly a member of the ruling class and would
expect servitude and obedience from their flock and regular invitations to dine and hunt with the local gentry. He was often in charge of a number of churches which were ministered to by a ‘perpetual’ curate for a meagre stipend or allowance.
To assist the Rector, Vicar or curate in their holy duties were churchwardens, who had a long staff as part of their office with which to keep order during the services. Under them was the parochial church council made up of ‘gentlemen’ who oversaw such things as refuse collection, street maintenance, neighbourhood disputes along with church finances. Until after the 1st World War the PCC would have been exclusively male and made up of local business men or small land owners. They in turn appointed the parish beadle or constable who was in charge of the welfare side of the parish, as with Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist. The verger assists in services, setting things up like the communion plates and changing the altar cloths and there was the sexton who dugs and tended the graves.
It can’t be over emphasised that in times past being an officer of the parish carried enormous status which extended to their wives who often kept a finger on the pulse of a congregation for their husbands by overseeing the welfare provision and under taking parish visiting. As I said a veritable gold mine of plot and character opportunities. Continue reading
Broken bottles on the top of a wall.
The last time I can recall seeing this was in about 1997 when I was a District Nurse in Newham. I used to park my little car around the back of Forest Gate clinic and walk through the estate next to it each day. There was one house that had cemented in broken bottles running along the top of their boundary wall. I thought by now it would be illegal under all sorts of EU and Health and Safety but apparently you can still use this form of deterrent but I have to say would have been a common site in Connie’s day is now, quiet rightly, consigned to history.
Pianos in public houses.
Before digital Sky Sports, TV, juke boxes and radio, no East End public house could hope to attract customers without an old upright Joanna. It was the main stay of Friday and Saturday night entertainment when patrons would gather around to sing the popular songs of the day and old favourites, very like modern Karaoke. As well as community singing people would often be cajoled into doing a ‘turn’, usually a sentimental tune. My Aunt Nell, who I based Millie Sullivan’s Aunt Ruby on in Call Nurse Millie, always sang ‘When I Leave This World Behind’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pb-9lk249v4 and at the end there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And the pub didn’t have to pay a pianist as many people had pianos in their own parlours and could play. My Father, although never formally taught, could play by ear and as a young man was always asked to parities, which in my 1970s teenage years was the equivalent to having a good record collection. Of course music in public houses can trace its history right back to the early 1800’s with supper room singers in side rooms off the main drinking area who would pass the hat like a modern busker. Sadly, with public houses morphing into restaurants or sports bars the sight of a crowd gathered around a piano with a pint in their hands singing is a thing of the past.
I decided against giving you an actual 1950s photo of this as I’m sure if I had you’d be too freaked out to ever visit my blog again. However, I can assure you that right up to the 1960s there would always be a pig’s head or two in the butcher’s window for the thrifty housewife to purchase. For today’s generation meat –if they eat it at all- comes in neatly clear plastic boxes with a delicate little padded doily beneath it to soak up what little blood there might be. However, when I was a child meat came in great chucks of animal parts sitting on plastic trays and oozing blood. Every Saturday morning, while out shopping with my mum, I would queue up outside the butchers whose shop window was filled with such delicacies as the aforementioned pigs heads, trotters and hearts, liver, kidneys, fluffy piles of tripe- sheep’s’ stomach- ox tail and sweetbreads, which are neither sweet or bread but the thymus gland and pancreas of lamb. In addition, where were often un-plucked chickens that for an extra 6d could be drawn and cleaned by the butcher once purchased or left for the housewife to do. My Aunt Nell always one to save a bob or two always gutted her own chicken. Now if you think this is like something out of the dark ages just remember; that while meat had been on war-time rationing from 1939 until 1954 offal hadn’t. People had got used to eating meat that today you can only find at specialist butchers. Although, children today would turn their noses up at such things Connie and her generation would probably have sat down to a plate of all of these things at least once a week.
Homemade go carts.
Now as my old Nan used to say, “kids today don’t know they’re born”. If you Google children’s go-cart today you’ll be offered a large array of colourful plastic purpose built cars or even mini- racing cars with small engines but for Connie’s generation a go-cart was a hammered together affair made up from some old pram wheels, orange crate and string. The posh version might have a nailed on piece of wood that acted as a brake but otherwise it was the soles of your shoes that stopped you.
Of course, looking back they were blooming lethal and how more children didn’t end up under the front wheels of vehicles I don’t know but in the 1950s the backstreets were almost devoid of traffic with just the odd delivery van passing by. With so many children living cheek by jowl with siblings, relatives and other families in the same house it’s little wonder the streets were the natural place for them to let off steam and with bomb sites on every street corner the material for their improvised toys was always close at hand.
While the boys scooted around in their fragile boxwood vehicles the girls played other games, one you don’t see any more, hopscotch. It’s origins go back for hundreds of years and variations can be found all over the world but while you often see hopscotch courts painted in playgrounds you never seen them chalked on pavements as Connie would have. It’s yet another casualty of children no longer being able to play in the street.
Penny for the Guy.
There was a time when from mid-October onward little gangs of children could be seen huddled around a homemade dummy which represented Guy Fawkes and asking passing strangers for money. The Guy was usually haphazard affair made from holey jumpers and frayed trousers stuffed with newspapers. Its face was drawn on a piece of card or if you could afford a tanner, a bought one of pressed cardboard. On a day or two before the 5th November children would gather their money together to purchase fireworks. Instead of the organised back garden firework parties, with buckets of water standing ready, that we’re used to today children used to let off their own fireworks- often unsupervised, around a bonfire of fruit crates and discarded timber stacked up on one of the many un-cleared WW2 bomb site. I suppose for today’s children the imported Trick or Treat and Halloween festivities has supplanted the traditional celebration of democracy although no one would dream of letting a child wander about alone in the dark asking for money or sweets so the modern Trick or Treaters usually accompanied by their parents.
Chemist’s own tonics and cough mixtures.
As today most medicines come in either bubble packs or in sealed bottles the job of the pharmacist as the maker of medicines has completely disappeared. Therefore it might surprise you to know that in Connie’s day it was common place for a pharmacist to supplement his income by making up his own preparations.
Before the introduction of free prescriptions in 1948 people who were feeling a bit ‘under the weather’ would pop into their local chemist and ask him for a chest plaster to draw out the phlegm or to make them up a tonic or pick-me-up The main reason for this was it was much cheaper than a trip to the doctor. Chemists were the first port of call for many and also supplied their own recipe for cough mixtures, teething syrups and preparations to treat chilblains, cold sores and conjunctivitis. Of course in most cases it contained nothing more harmful that vitamins, malt, cod liver oil flavoured with sugar syrup or liquorish but until the Dangerous Drugs Act, of 1964, it could also contain cocaine and marijuana for medicinal purposes a fact I’ve used in Wedding Bells for Nurse Connie with unforeseen consequences.
X-ray machines in shoe shops.
Today parents would run screaming from a shoe shop offering to X-ray their children’s feet to ensure the shoes they were purchasing were correctly fitted but unbelievably that’s exactly what thousands of unsuspecting parents did. I remember having my feet X-rayed in the Regent Street Branch of Clarks when I was about seven or eight. Of course this was before the result of the nuclear test carried out during 1940s and 50s showed a link between radiation and cancer.
School boys in short trousers.
Unlike today where boys are dressed in trousers from the moment they’re born in Connie’s day boy stayed in short trousers right up until the time they went into secondary school and sometime for a year or two after that. They were invariably grey and held up by an elasticated belt with an S-shaped clasp. Apart from the truth that cut knees heal while ripped trousers don’t, another reason cited for keeping boys in short trousers for so long was to ‘get some air to their legs’. This may be a misinterpretation of the benefit of sunlight to prevent rickets but for whatever reason, even early-maturing fourth-year boys with downy top lips and broadening shoulders could be seen running around in short trousers until they were at least eleven or twelve.
Children sitting while adult stand.
Now without sounding like ‘angry of Essex’ one of the things that makes me a little annoyed is children sitting in a train seat while adults are standing. Yes, I know they’ve paid their fare like everyone else but in Connie’s day no child would have been allowed to occupy a seat while an adult, of whatever age, stood.
It wasn’t so much about the seat but teaching children to respect their elders. This went beyond public transport protocol to opening doors for an adult, not interrupting them or barging past them and standing up when a teacher came into a room. In Connie’s day and there was a clear demarcation between children and adults and they lived very different lives. Even when children left school they remained in subordination to their parents, right up to the time they were married. Although the advent of the 50s teenage culture from America shifted the balance a bit even as late as the mid-60s many young people were still handing over their wages to their parents.
Now the reason I’m so into history is because I love to discover little details and marvel at the difference between the life I live and times past.
Usually these are quite marked changes such as in clothing or innovative technology but for me some of the most interesting aspects of change are the little things that almost go unnoticed.
My new book Wedding Bells for Nurse Connie isn’t set that long ago, relatively speaking, just as the NHS started in 1948 and it would be easy to highlight any number of things that have changed radically since that time. Fashion, communication, transport and medicine, but I’d like to concentrate on some little everyday things that seem to have changed unnoticed.
5th July 1948
As the early morning July sunlight crept around the edges of the faded curtains, Sister Connie Byrne, the senior nurse for the Spitalfields and Shoreditch Nursing Association, flicked her head in an attempt to dislodge the lock of her golden red hair from her temple, without success.
But then wasn’t it always the same? As soon as you tied your mask and put on your sterile gloves, your nose started to itch or a stray hair tickled your forehead.
Ignoring it she wriggled her fingers in her rubber gloves. ‘Right, Mrs Sinclair, one more push and I should be able to see baby’s head.’
Margaret Sinclair, a slightly built young woman with fluffy blonde curls, rolled her grey eyes. ‘I bloody ’ope so.’
Margaret and Don Sinclair and their four – soon to be five – children lived on the third floor of Fallow House in Brushfield Street just a stone’s throw from Petticoat Lane. The three-room dwellings must have seemed like palaces to the artisans who first moved into them a hundred years before but now they were one of the dozens of damp, overcrowded Victorian tenement waiting demolition under the LCC’s post-war slum clearance programme.
‘Right, Margaret,’ she said, placing the labouring woman’s left foot against her own hip. ‘With the next pain I want you to tuck your chin in and push down into your bottom.’
Margaret nodded then, taking a deep breath as another contraction built, she lowered her head and strained. Continue reading