Author Interview with Stephen Deutsch

Welcome to my website Stephen. Thanks for taking part in an author interview.

Please tell us a little about yourself

I’m Stephen Deutsch, novelist, composer and filmmaker.

I was born in New York and moved to the UK in 1970, becoming a naturalised citizen in 1978. I was trained as a pianist and composer, spending the first part of my career composing music for concert hall, theatre, television and film. I have been a lecturer in film sound and music, and have edited a journal on that subject, The Soundtrack, and later The New Soundtrack. My first novel, Zweck, a historical comedy about music, was published in 2016. I am the co-author of a coming book – Listening to the Film: A Practical Philosophy of Film Sound and Music. I have written plays for television, broadcast on the BBC.

Thank you. I’d love to know more about your writing process and inspiration. For example, do you like to reflect a sense of place in your stories? If so, how?

As I write historical fiction, a sense of place and time is essential. I try to immerse myself in the lives and times, the locations and events through which the characters lived. Researching this gives me much satisfaction.

What’s your earliest writing memory?

I seem to remember singing a song with made up lyrics in school. I was about six years old. The teacher took it down and put it in the school yearbook. I can’t remember it now, but I think it had to do with rain.

If you were encouraged to write/create – who encouraged you and how?

My mother groomed me to be a famous musician, encouraged to perform, play and sing. Not to write. It didn’t quite work out the way she imagined.

What was your favourite childhood book and why? And do you still read it?

I loved Alice in Wonderland. I was lucky enough to compose music for a TV adaptation some years ago. But the book is far better, I still read it from time to time.

What did you get in trouble for at school?

Talking too much.  Nothing has changed.

How do you keep yourself motivated when your writing doesn’t flow?

I trick myself. I come to the desk thinking that I would just review the previous day’s work, and before long, ideas begin to arrive. Even though I know that this is a subterfuge, I fall for it every time.

Can you visualize your characters? If so – which actors would play your two favourites?

I do visualize my characters, especially because they were real people and I know what they looked like. Any casting, however inspired, would distort their reflection.

How much of yourself is in your stories?

Hard to say. I write every single word, so my own voice must penetrate through…

Do you like town or country?

Both

Why did you pick your genre?

The cliché is ‘it picked me’, but clichés become clichés because they are most often true.

If you like to write to music – what do you choose and why?

I never write to music. Either it’s too interesting, so it distracts, or it’s simply banal, which distracts me even more.

If you had to pick five pieces of music to sum up you and/or your life – what would they be and why? 

  1. The B minor Mass by J.S. Bach, because I simply can’t imagine the mind that created this monumental, overpowering  work.
  2. “Hit the Road, Jack” as sung by Ray Charles. Part of the music which resonated in my childhood.
  3. “Here comes the Sun” by the Beatles, reminding me of the happy two years I lived I San Francisco.
  4. Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto as played by Yuja Wang. Reminding me of what I aspired to, and how sensible it was for me to stand back and let a real genius play it. I also would never have been able to carry off the frocks as she does.
  5. My own String Quintet. Because it’s the best music I have ever composed and I’m proud of it.

What makes you happy?

Work. Thinking, reading, talking to friends.

If you could go anywhere (real or fictional) – where and why?

I’d like to revisit Orvieto, Italy when the plague ends.  The most magical place in Italy, especially at sunset.

What could you not live without?

Optimism.  Fortunately, I still have some lying around somewhere.

Who are your two main characters in your latest book Champion?

Herschel Grynszpan was a slightly built lad, 17 at the time of the assassination, he had dark hair and deeply-set eyes. As an undocumented Jewish adolescent living in Paris just before the war, having left Germany because of the persecution he felt as a Jew, thinking to emigrate to Palestine (as it then was). In October 1938, he receives a postcard from his parents – they had recently been bundled with 25,000 other Jewish residents of Hanover, put on a train – but not in the same way as Jews were later transported to the Ghettos and the death camps; they were in 3rd class compartments – then dumped in the rain on the Polish border.

Herschel was so enraged that he bought a gun and murdered a minor German official at the German Embassy in France, and this act was used as the excuse for Kristalnacht. He was arrested and was being prepared for trial, when the Germans invaded. And his adventures after that form a big part of the story.

Max Schmeling was a Nazi icon, not altogether wholeheartedly. And especially after his spectacular defeat of Joe Louis in 1936, he was feted everywhere in Germany, even having tea with Hitler and watching the fight film with him. His wife, Anny Ondra, who had starred in Hitchcock’s Blackmail – as well as many German films – was also similarly celebrated as part of this ideal Aryan couple. 

Like many Germans, Max was uneasy about the regime – so many of his friends, artists, writers, musicians had disappeared, so much of what the Nazis stood for went against the sense of honour with which he had been raised. But ethics and morals, however resolutely he held them, did not prevent him from capitalising on his fame. But he was not a racist, of this I have no doubt. He defended his Jewish manager and was a major benefactor of Joe Louis in retirement – as well as after his death. During Kristalnacht Max sheltered two young Jewish lads in his hotel room until the violence subsided.

Will there be a sequel?

Hope not. Not by me, in any case.

Where can we find a copy of Champion?

Champion can be found at Unicorn Press – https://www.unicornpublishing.org or Amazon UK or Amazon US or can be ordered from good bookshops.

Thank you Stephen. I wish you every success with Champion, which is a great book: well researched and beautifully written. 

Modesty

I’ve been thinking about modesty lately.

Modesty is, of course, a human concept.

The sparrows nesting in our eaves have not been modestly tweeting that they’re nice bird-next-door types, while worrying in case they’re showing too much down.  No they haven’t. 

Instead, they’ve spent a warm, dry spring reproducing at least three times – usually right in front of us. They flaunt their feathers and yell how fantastic they are from dawn till dusk only stopping to mate, argue or fly into our house. 

Modesty is also cultural. What a person should do with clothing, hair, arms, legs or even faces, has rules (many contradictory) in every human group and era you can think of. 

Take a photograph of my great-grandmother aged 19, taken in the 1890’s. She shows an inch of skin below her collarbone and had to plead to show so much flesh. Roll on the 1920s, and my grandmother (her daughter) as a teenager, causes horror by cutting her hair and wearing knee-length skirts. Quite what either of them would make of my daughter’s fashions is anyone’s guess. I expect my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather would be apoplectic, so it’s just as well they’re already well and truly dead. 

Modesty also means not demonstrating pride. 

This is also human.

A bower-bird doesn’t worry that the nest he’s created is over-the-top. He doesn’t quietly tweet that he’s rather pleased. No – he makes the nest as over-the-top as possible so a female can see that it’s the best and only one she could want and therefore he is the only possible mate worth having.

Human attitudes to blowing one’s own trumpet do vary from place to place and era to era. In Britain, verbal self-deprecation is the norm. Part of the pleasure of watching ‘The Apprentice’ is hearing the candidates’ outrageous claims about themselves because it’s just so culturally abnormal to say such things out loud here. (Just to be clear, there’s a lot of double-thinking behind this, so if one British person gloomily says ‘this could be worse’, another British person knows it means ‘I’m really really really proud of this’. I appreciate that this is very, very, very illogical.) 

Things are changing. At school, my children were encouraged to publicly talk about things they were proud of. In my day, anyone doing that would have been called uppity and told to shut up.

So why has modesty been on my mind recently?

Firstly, I’m of a culture, generation, upbringing, gender and figure that means I worry about how much flesh I show, despite believing that if someone wants to walk around naked that’s none of anyone else’s business. (Although it’s maybe not wise in the British climate.) 

But since the breast cancer diagnosis, I’ve got so used to stripping to the waist for complete strangers, that I’m now a little afraid of bumping into a friend in the supermarket in case she asks how well my scars are healing and I show her there and then without thinking. (Given that I wouldn’t have shown as much as a freckle a few months ago this shows how trauma impacts hard-wired behaviour.)

Secondly, I’m of a culture, generation, upbringing and possibly gender that finds it hard to talk about my achievements in case people think I’m full of myself. 

This makes promoting books difficult.

I planned to set up talks in 2020 for Murder Durnovaria and The Wrong Sort to Die. Covid-19 put paid to that. I’d also intended to write some press releases but what with one thing and another, so far I haven’t. I have started an online course about advertising, yet I was daunted on the first day when tasked to praise my own books. I’d feel so much more British saying ‘this is really quite nice’ and hoping people understood.

Is this cultural, human or just me? Most writer friends say the same thing.

Imagine introducing a lovely but unconventional boyfriend/girlfriend to your lovely but eccentric parents. You’re not sure what they’ll make of each other. You want them all to get along so much, but you’re afraid they won’t and that even worse, they’ll all think you’re mad. That’s how I feel about advertising my own lovely writing to lovely potential readers. 

Worrying about promoting makes it hard to actually write anything that might need promoting sometimes and I was having one of those days yesterday.

Then my daughter told me about a creative project of her own. It’s modest (in the third sense of the word) but it’s doable. ‘I’m scared,’ she said. ‘But if I don’t try, I’ll never know if I could succeed.’ 

It reminded me of when I thought exactly the same thing, which ultimately led to me publishing Kindling and The Advent Calendar. 

I remembered why I write. I’m still doing the day job, so it’s not for money. But I’ve got richer in friends, richer in satisfaction and when Val Portelli and Liz Hedgecock liked my work enough to want to collaborate, I was truly honoured. 

I’ll never be very good at boasting about my books and am not sure if this is modesty or laziness.

But I’ll keep on writing, because there are stories inside that still want to get out, even though the current one is coming out in a chaotic muddle that I’ve yet to unravel.

I’ll keep on writing because from time to time someone says how much they enjoyed a book which is, after all, what I want. I don’t expect my books to change the world, but if people find pleasure reading them and are consequently happier, then maybe the world (which is a bit of a mess at the moment) might seem – if only for a while – like a better place. 

Being part of that makes me very happy. 

And immodest or not, and even if it makes me feel a little exposed, I also feel just a little proud.

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Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

In Two Minds

I was one of those weirdos at school who was good at both English and maths.

I craved both pretty things and books. I liked to be girly and have adventures. I loathed wearing trousers but despite always wearing a skirt, I could climb trees, could go exploring and when necessary, could slap a trouser-wearing bully in the face.

I’m still that girl really. My mind has two distinct paths of travel.

My day-job is project-based and I plan, process-map, analyse and present data etc etc in meticulous detail. But when it comes to writing….

I really do try. The plans for my first two novels (neither of which have seen the light of day) were intricate. But one is convoluted and illogical and the other is miles too long. The thought of all the editing required to make either of them readable is enough to make a statue weep.

I’ve since learnt a lot. I’ve accepted that creatively, I’m more of a panster than a detailed plotter. (That’s a writer flying by the seat of their pants. Perhaps I should I say I’m a skirtster.) I’ve stopped shoe-horning characters into a plot and instead let the characters decide what to do with the situation chucked at them.

So if they do something stupid, it’s not my fault, it’s because of the contradictions in their personality. Margaret while analytical and scientific, relaxes by sketching. She’s independent, capable and brave, but underneath afraid of letting people close enough to let her down. How rationally she behaves depends on which aspect of her personality is predominant at any given moment.

In the ‘novel in progress’ (set around 14 months after Murder Durnovaria), the main character Fabio (last seen in Murder Britannica) wants to be left alone to create music. To do that, he needs to tune out of what’s going on around him. But he’s also an excellent hunter for which of course, he needs to tune into what’s going on around him. At the point I’ve got to in writing, he’s got things the wrong way round and hasn’t noticed the pack of wolves watching his every move…

So depending on how they respond, Margaret might end up in even deeper trouble or equally she might gain something important. And Fabio might end up as a tasty meal  unless the wolves want something else and he needs to react emotionally rather than logically.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to balance opposing things like: writing about a bitter winter when for me, it’s midsummer, and describing busy taverns when pubs have been shut for over three months.

The bird in the picture below clearly thought being in two minds gave her options. In a pub garden last year, she risked getting close enough to snaffle a piece of ready-salted crisp to add to her nutritious beakful.

My analytical mind wonders whether crisps are a good accompaniment to earthworms.

My creative mind says ‘yuk’.

I know which I’m listening to this time.

junkfoodbird

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Bus-stop on a Rainy Day

The zip broke and Jake’s portfolio exploded just as some swine swerved to speed through the puddle near the bus queue.

Rain had already leaked through the gaps and soaked into the cheap seams. Muddy, grimy road-water just added an extra patination to his paintings. The handles slipped as he struggled to hold the portfolio closed and save his work. With rain pouring, no-one could realise that all the tears Jake had dammed up since the tutorial had finally burst their banks and were running down his face.

‘You kids think you know everything,’ said a damp old man ahead of him in the queue. ‘Anyone with half a brain would’ve brought an umbrella.’ He leaned forward, water dripping off a massive, ancient green contraption as he stared into the portfolio. ‘What’s that? Modern art? Bit of rain might improve it.’ He snorted at his own joke, shoulders heaving and more water dislodged in lumps, tipping onto the paintings and sketches. He looked beyond Jake to whoever was behind him. ‘And here’s another one. Umbrella’d spoil what you call your style would it? What are those badges you got pinned on? Save the rainforest? Save the monkeys? They should save you. Even monkeys have got the sense to hold leaves over their heads when it’s raining.’ 

Jake turned so see Cait from college. Cait, who’d glared at his exhibition as if wanting to set it alight with her eyes. He’d wanted to ask why his work annoyed her but as she stood scowling on the slick pavement with her arms akimbo, he knew she must feel like his tutor did. That his art was ‘Too nice. Too hopeful. Not despairing enough.’  Her glare encompassed him and the old man in disparagement of the male sex or possibly the entire human race, then she shoved her hands in her pockets.

Cait hunched in her jacket. The rain had long since soaked all the way through the cloth and she was aware of damp skin cooling. She was unable to suppress a shiver. Even the fortress of her boots had been breached when the motorist went through the puddle. She’d reached out to help with Jake’s portfolio, her hands mottled and blue, but the old man’s words stung. What you call your style…even monkeys have got sense… Why couldn’t people understand? There was so much to sort out – the mess former generations had left through arrogance, ignorance, selfish disregard for the world. The issues were a drowning flood. Cait lay half-awake most nights nearly engulfed by them, trying to dam and steer and navigate those tumbling waters. But she had to push off from the shore and do something, not just drink and eat and sleep her way through life in blind hedonism while the world disintegrated around her. She wanted to save it all – the clean air and the oceans and the animals and even the people who mocked her. She wished she could express what she felt – be kind, be gentle, embrace the sun and the rain and the moon and the sea and the being alive – but her thoughts just came out as furious nonsense. Not like Jake – his art summed up everything she thought. When she’d seen his exhibition she’d wanted to lose herself in his pictures: beauty, joy, hope. She’d wanted to tell him but the words just wouldn’t come. He’d just think her stupid.

Bill had turned to look up the road. He was cold, jealous of the young blood of the two kids who would dry out and forget the rain in no time. Bill was warmed only by thinking of Judith. He was like someone who’d lost a limb but could still feel it aching. Judith wasn’t there but he knew what she’d say, could sense the weight of her arm hooked through his.

But her voice in his mind was disappointed. That was unkind. 

‘Kids should make more of an effort,’ he whispered. ‘Like we used to. Nowadays they’re proud to wear secondhand clothes and have rat-tail hair. Not like you. You were never less than immaculate. Right …. up to the end.’ He swallowed. 

Go on with you, Judith giggled. Remember what the old folk said about our fashions when we were their age? And the girl cares about things. Just like we do.

‘It’s a waste of time. Nothing changes.’

We said we’d never give up hope.

They’d met in the rain on a nuclear disarmament march in 1958. Her umbrella had blown out of her hands as she struggled with a banner and a pet dog sheltering inside her jacket. Dead soft, was Judith. Fierce as a lioness but underneath…

Bill remembered a holiday in the 1960s. Walking along some promenade, they’d passed a hurdy-gurdy man with a dancing monkey, its puckered woebegone face sucking any joy from the tune. 

‘Poor little thing,’ Judith had said. ‘It’s cruel, that’s what it is.’ She’d cried a little and in the middle of the night, Bill agreed to buy the creature and keep it for a pet. But next day, the hurdy-gurdy man and monkey were not to be found.

Perhaps the angry girl was just another Judith. And when had it ever been more important to look right than to do right? 

Umbrella, Judith whispered. 

‘What?’

We always kept a spare folding one in the shopping bag. Give them the old one – you don’t need anything that big anymore.

Bill swallowed, then straightened his shoulders before turning.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Just lost my wife, but it’s no excuse.’ He held out the old battered umbrella he’d had since 1958 and nodded at the portfolio. ‘Take this – protect some of that art.’ Then he gave Cait a trembling smile. ‘Forget what I said. There’s always hope. This umbrella’s big enough for two. Perhaps you’ve got ideas to share. Someone’s got to save the world. It wasn’t me and Judith. But maybe it’ll be you.’

rainy bus stop

Words and art copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Fresh Fruit and Little Monkeys

When I was nine, I worked for perhaps three weekends in a zoo. 

It was a tiny South Welsh concern called Penscynor Bird Gardens (later Wildlife Park) and originally housed birds, monkeys, an aquarium and llamas. When I was fourteen or so, our school cross-country route ran through the llamas’ field and they used to chase us. When I say ‘us’ I mean the obedient/boring (take your pick) three girls who used to run the route properly rather than hide in the woods gossiping and/or smoking until the games lesson was over.

Anyway, back to the job when I was nine. I don’t know how my father found out about it but he said I could earn 50p every Saturday. This sounded like a great plan as my usual weekly pocket money was 15p if I was lucky, and I loved animals.

Or at least, I loved the idea of them. My total zoological experience (apart from owning a cat) was the many hours I spent observing mini-beasts, reading books about realistic (rather than anthropomorphised) animals and watching wildlife programmes like The World About Us and Jacques Cousteau. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said a writer-naturalist, like Gerald Durrell or Joyce Stranger. The fact that I was terrified of dogs, didn’t like strong odours or being excessively dirty, and generally left the unpleasant parts of animal care to my mother didn’t seem to factor in my thought processes.

So I took the job.

My role chiefly consisted of chopping up over-ripe fruit for small noisy, fast-moving and seemingly incontinent creatures from marmosets to toucans before helping clean out their cages. 

It was an extremely hot summer. The air in the cages was sickly with the stench of blackening, squashy bananas, oozing melons and the acrid odour of droppings. High-pitched chattering monkeys and birds snatched at food through a haze of fruit flies as fast as I could pile it in their bowls. I remember the gold of the summer light through the leaves above the cages’ roofs, the monkeys’ oh-so-innocent eyes distracting me from what their tiny pickpocket hands were doing, flashes of iridescent fur or feathers, the whisk of wings or tails overhead. I think I’d have liked it if it hadn’t been for the smell. Maybe.

The second weekend, they were photographing for the new brochure and asked me to stare into the fish-tanks like a tourist. Being self-conscious or vain (take your pick), I was torn between being thrilled, and wishing I were wearing something more glamorous than an old tee-shirt, shorts and wellies, but I duly did as asked. When the brochure came out, there I was, looking very solemn and with a slight overbite I hadn’t known I had which I’ve worried about ever since. 

My parents kept the brochure for years. Of course, it’s since fallen foul of two house moves and is nowhere to be found. Nor have I so far found anything online except for images of the cover.

I can’t remember how long I lasted, but it wasn’t long. The experience dampened my urge to be a naturalist and by the time, three years later, a huge stag beetle climbed down inside the back of my blouse causing me to scream so loudly that my father nearly crashed the car we were in, I went off zoology altogether. This was just as well given my abysmal performance in science.

I still can’t bear over-ripe fruit but I wasn’t put off cats or writing and perhaps if there’s a lesson I should have learnt then but didn’t till later, it’s to know where your strengths are, concentrate on them and not feel bad about it. 

The Bird Gardens remained part of my life till I went to university because on most days you could hear the peacocks shrieking across the valley. 

A tiny, tiny bit of me wishes I’d stuck it out and been part of that mad enterprise in that most unlikely of places but I didn’t and never got to return as an adult because the Bird Gardens have long since closed.

But by one of those small-world flukes, I recently discovered I’ve ended up living 134 miles away in the same town as someone who attended the same secondary as me, albeit ten years later.

‘Do you remember the Bird Gardens?’ she asked.

‘Oh yes.’

‘Did you hear about the chimpanzees escaping and getting into the school?’ 

‘No!’ I exclaimed. ‘Why didn’t my parents tell me?’

But my mother hadn’t known and when I emailed an old schoolfriend, she hadn’t heard either.

‘Fancy missing that,’ she said, sending links to photographs of the place as it is now, an abandoned ghost-zoo. ‘Why didn’t it happen when we were there? The chimps would have been less trouble than some of the kids, not to mention brighter.’ 

She had a point. It would have been even more fun than the day our French lesson was enlivened by watching the windows of the chemistry lab being flung open to let twenty kids dangle out gasping for air while dark, presumably noxious fumes coiled round them and up into the aether.  

A couple of months ago, as lockdown was biting, my former schoolfriend sent a link to a newspaper clipping about a wallaby seen one night bouncing through the village where our school was. The photographs are blurry, unreal and mysterious as what appears to be a wallaby is hotly pursued by what’s stated to be a police officer.

In quiet understatement a witness worried ‘it’s a bit chilly to be out as a marsupial in Wales’ and RSPCA Cymru said ‘it’s certainly unusual footage’.

Was it really an escaped pet? Was the pursuer, in fact, really a policeman?

Or was it really, a ghost of a memory trying to get back to the Bird Gardens.

I like to think so. 

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Words copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon and photograph ID 58034269 © Makar | Dreamstime.com. All rights belong to the authors and material may not be copied without the authors’ express permission.

Between

I exist in the impossible land of the folksong, the acre between foam and strand.

Liminal space. Interstitial.

I’m waiting on the foggy threshold between two months ago and next week. A nowhere place.

They say one should seize each day, not worry about tomorrow or beyond tomorrow but I’m not good at these in-between times. I feel so healthy but know I’m not. The betrayal of my own body confuses me. How could I not have known there was something wrong? And now I have to wait to be put right.

Just like those days before childbirth, I pad awkwardly from project to project, unable to settle to things that normally calm me but instead doing thing I normally put off: cleaning, dusting, rearranging, hopeful, excited, fearful, disbelieving, confused and above all anxious to the point of nausea.

Fidgety, I excavate the strata of my jewellery box – the nearly oldest items are from my teens – some no longer fit, others no longer appeal. Older still are two rings that were once my grandmother’s. Each piece reminds me of moments, emotions, people. Each was once a loving gift or spontaneous purchase. Whyever do I have so many earrings? The light catches on tiny facets of colour. I shall clean these neglected sparkles and wear them again if only for the memories they recall. After this is all over, I shall give most of them away.

Cooking is the only other thing I can sometimes concentrate on.

I find a recipe for my husband’s birthday – a special dish but tricky. It has so many fiddly, unfamiliar steps but my mind stops whirring while under knife, then pestle, then spoon, rich colours merge and flavours blend.

As it slowly cooks, I put the spice jars away. Their shelf is full and chaotic, it had taken me a while to find what I’d required. I must sort that cupboard out – empty the old, out-of-date bottles then check to see what I need to replace.

A jar of paprika tumbles off the shelf as I rummage and the lid pops off. Powder red as dragon’s blood spills everywhere. How ridiculous that something so silly makes me want to cry. But I don’t. I rescue what I can and replace the lid firmly. Then I start my inventory, extracting every other bottle to check its age.

Whyever do we have so many jars of mustard seeds?

I tip the bottles and watch the seeds roll and tumble, trying to remember through the fog of anxiety what they traditionally represent. Is each orb a worry or a grain of faith?

I tip the out-of-date ones away. They trickle down a mountain of out-of-date spices. The chaos of reds and browns smell and look like expired magic. I decide that the discarded mustard represents seeds of worry.

I retain just one jar. But its contents represent tiny seeds of faith to help me cross the space between sea and shore.

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Of Rags and Richness

I seem to have become infected with some sort of reverse-Midas touch which means pretty much everything I touch is breaking down. This includes the fridge-freezer, the oven door, the car (or at least a warning light has come on) and the laptop which has ‘lost’ its word processing system. And yesterday, when I was teaching my daughter to sew, the sewing machine stopped working.

In the early hours of this morning when I was trying to formulate a short story and realising it was rapidly turning into a novel, I returned my thoughts to sewing, which as a creative activity, helps me zone out completely. Right now, the more I can tune out the better.

I learnt to sew very young. Until I married I made a lot of my own clothes, partly because I was an odd shape: short, thin, with no hips but an ample bust. After marriage I largely stopped because we had a small house and it wasn’t as easy having bits of sewing over the place and living on toast for a couple of days while I was making something. And the way I mutter to myself when things go wrong drove my husband mad. Now that my son has pretty much moved out though, I’ve reconfigured his bedroom as a sewing room and am starting afresh.

As I was thinking about this at six a.m., I considered my characters and their relationship with clothes.

Aunt Alice in the Caster & Fleet books is partly drawn from my paternal grandmother only with added primness and shockability (my grandmother wasn’t prim and not especially shockable although that might have been because she didn’t really realise what was going on). My grandmother had been brought up to be a housewife. It would be her husband’s job to  support her, while she played her part by being thrifty and skilled in cooking, sewing and parenting. Which she was. She adored pretty, bright, well-fitting clothes, took a lively interest in prevailing fashion and delighted in discussing dress-making ideas and helping develop my skills. This filtered into Aunt Alice.

Katherine in the same books is even shorter than I am, but doesn’t have a bust worth talking about. While that would have been an advantage to me, it wasn’t to her in the late 19th Century.  She’s also in a situation where the rug has been pulled out from under her financially. She can no longer afford a dressmaker but must rely on Aunt Alice’s skills. She herself can sew of course, but she’s not really patient enough to put as much effort in as she would need to, not to mention the fact that she has a job keeping her occupied every day. She’s very conscious in the early books that what she’s wearing is very slightly out of style, or has been re-modelled. While she’s grateful to Aunt Alice, she’s also a little envious of her better off friends, particularly Connie. Katherine also struggles with fashions which don’t really suit small, flat-chested women. This is pretty much a reflection of how I felt in my younger years when fashions didn’t really suit small, busty women and I didn’t have any money for new clothes.

Her younger sister Margaret, who appears from time to time in the Caster & Fleet books and now has a book all of her own set in 1910 is positively clothes obsessed. She remembers her teenage years when she was always a little out of style, and now she’s fully grown up and has a professional career, she will splash out on the latest hats and a few evening dresses that she perhaps can’t quite afford, simply because they’re beautiful. She has the advantage over Katherine of being taller and busty. She may find the bust a nuisance in the 1920s, but right now, she’s quite happy in clothes that are elegant and perfectly skim her figure. (Yes, I’m jealous of Margaret. She reflects how I wish I was and has a confidence in her appearance I won’t have if I live till I’m 100.)

Moving back several hundred years Lucretia, is also obsessed with the latest fashion (as soon as it arrives from Rome to West Britain). Her mental self image is fixed around eighteen. Then she was small and curvaceous with long dark, wavy hair and while probably not exactly pretty, she was certainly striking. Nowadays – the wrong side of fifty – she’s very curvaceous and says the appearance of the odd silver strand of hair is a trick of the light. Just in case though, she has a collection of wigs sourced from all over the empire: one with black Indian hair, one with blonde German hair, one with red hair (the source of which may be a henna plant) and one which mixes them up a bit. She also wears as much make-up as she can without falling forwards under the weight of it. Most of the cosmetics are lead based and therefore toxic, but even if she realised, she’d probably say beauty has its price. It’s perhaps as well she doesn’t have access to a full-length mirror and can keep in her head the image of herself as young and beautiful and not have it dashed by reality – though of course, she’d say that was a trick of the light too.

Nowadays of course, I’m probably closer to Lucretia than Katherine in looks, though I couldn’t bear all that make-up. I’d say I couldn’t bear the thought of a wig either but not having seen a hairdresser since January, my silver strands are rather taking over.

I am still short, with no hips and an ample bust. Sadly I am no longer thin. And equally sadly, unlike Lucretia I do have a full-length mirror and am not deluded enough to think I still look eighteen. Oh well – I’m ready for a different dress-making challenge. Bobbins at the ready sewing machine – I’m coming to fix you.

Welsh costume

(This is from a rather blurry polaroid of me and my sister in a Welsh costume made by my mother for St David’s Day when we lived in Wales. All the other little girls wore short skirts but my father was determined we should be ‘authentic’. As we were English this seemed a bit pointless but that was Dad for you. My sister is now taller than me.)

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

 

Lost Sometimes

I remember when the sky was always an impossible blue.

The days when I left home after breakfast not to return till evening.

When with a friend, I’d lie in fields of barley or under larches or hide from little sisters among the bracken or in hawthorn trees or walk among plants taller than our heads …

or more often than not… 

I’d sit alone in the quiet copse or by the whispering river, deep in my own thoughts and worries and dreams and ideas: lost.

Lost in the waiting room between worlds: the one which was and the one which might be, the one which I feared and the one which I hoped for.

There was sometimes a joy in feeling lost, caught between a range of possibles none of them yet real.

Sometimes of course, lostness meant fear. 

Turning the wrong way on an unfamiliar road, walking further and further hoping for something I recognised. Too terrified to turn around. Fearing I’d never see anything I knew again. Feeling guilt in trusting a stranger’s hand …

Or falling into the fast-flowing river all alone, tumbling toward the not-so-distant waterfall, catching at last on branches till I could drag myself out and dry in the sun so that no-one would ever know…

Or older now, driving in fog or heavy snow, too fearful to stop. Has my turning been missed? Am I too close to the edge? Will I drive like this forever?

And in the end the heart-calming, velvet warmth of being no longer lost but safely home.

Yesterday I felt lost and I feel lost today and tomorrow I will doubtless feel lost as well. It’s the way things are right now.

I’ll be feeling lost for a while, caught in the space between what is and what might be, between knowledge and doubt and possibility, on the edge of the cliff contemplating tumbling down or the possibility of flight.

Yes, there is a little fear, but just now…

the sky is that impossible childhood blue again.

I accept the lostness. Not abandoned, not angry nor terrified but in a waiting room between worlds: the one which was, the one which is, the one which might be, the one which I fear and the one which I hope for.

I hesitate under tall trees on a path which forks into side-trails and copses, hesitate on the edge of a river which twists out of sight and dithers towards side-brooks and weirs.

I feel lost but I’m all right. I will own the lostness and I’ll wait until the unknown is known and the possibles become probables.

And today I am content under this impossibly clear sky, closing my eyes and imagining all those unknown worlds around me as blue – from opal to indigo – each as beautiful and embraceable in its own way. 

Sometimes it’s all right to feel lost. 

I don’t know quite where I am today, but I am all right.

Lost Sometimes – music by Dissimulated

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Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

 

 

 

Broadening the Mind

I love research. It provides the best excuse to get side-tracked I can think of.

At the moment, because I’ve been writing or plotting two historical mysteries set over 1,700 years apart, I’m surrounded by books about Roman-Britain, Roman cookery and Celtic traditions as well as ones on Victorian/Edwardian slang and dialect, maps of late 19th Century London, pre-WWI politics and (much as it would amaze any of my poor suffering science teachers) forensics and biology. I confess that I find dabbling in the dialect, slang and cook-books the most fascinating. 

Waiting their turn in terms of having the accompanying novels written, I also have books about the home-front in WWII and everyday Tudor life. One of the latter is called ‘Delightes for Ladies – to adorn their Perſons, Tables, Cloſets, and Diſtillories: with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters’ by Sir Hugh Plat. It includes fascinating recipes for everything from marchpane (marzipan) to hair dye. 

If you’re in the same boat as me after several weeks of lockdown and missing the hairdresser, you might be interested in the hair dye recipes but I’m not going to quote them for fear someone will try them. In brief, the one for blonde dye includes honey, turmeric, rhubarb and alum among other things. The one for brunette dye includes sulphur as one of its less toxic ingredients. Apparently it wouldn’t stain the skin but I’m not convinced. Maybe it doesn’t stain it, but I’d have thought at least one of the other components might dissolve it.

Of all the research books I have, there’s one which would have been really useful for my new release if I’d remembered I had it.

“The Queen” Newspaper Book of Travel – A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts 1912’ is one of the books I’d snaffled from Dad at some point but forgotten I owned until I was featured on the Jaffareadstoo Sunday Brunch Blogspot.

It originally cost 2/6 (e.g. two shillings and sixpence). In post decimalisation terms that’s 12.5p which doesn’t sound like a lot, but putting it into context, inside the book itself are how much it cost to sail anywhere in the world (£55 first class to Bombay) and advertisements for a nice watch or a nice vanity case (£25 each). 

The book tells you what to pack in terms of clothes for a round the world trip, what to anticipate in terms of local hotels, the speed limit for your motor car, how much it cost to send a letter etc.

In India for example, regardless of climate, ‘one should wear flannel or wool next the skin’ and preferably have a flannel waistband otherwise known as a cholera belt. (Apparently it was called this as well after the cause for cholera was discovered, it was thought that stopping your waist from becoming cold would prevent cholera. I wouldn’t have thought the average Briton of Celtic/Anglo-Saxon descent in 1912 would have found their midriff cold in India but there you go.)

Other advice includes: ‘don’t take alcohol merely as a beverage’ and ‘don’t treat constipation lightly, it is as dangerous as relaxation in a tropical climate’. 

I’m sort of assuming ‘relaxation’ isn’t a reference to slobbing about in your cholera belt drinking nothing but alcohol as a beverage.

The most startling piece of advice is what to do about undies when on a long voyage (in context, I presume the underwear referred to was knickers/panties). 

It boils down to ‘I found four or five of everything quite enough for use on shore, and for the voyage I always take old things, and give them to the stewardess or throw them overboard, so that I had no need for my soiled linen bag on board ship, never having anything to put in it. I am sure this is the best way. It is often exceedingly troublesome to get washing done at the port of debarkation, and it is always expensive, and on every account it is better to keep one’s cabin fresh and empty. Even if the things are rather good to throw away, it makes little difference in the cost of a long trip, and they aren’t wasted, for the stewardess gets them.’

I’m not entirely sure which is the odder image – a stream of substantial early 20th century knickers floating down the Suez Canal behind a steamer or the stewardess’s face as she’s handed armfuls of grubby undies at the end of the trip.

As I say, I didn’t realise I had A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts 1912 till well after I’d finished writing ‘The Wrong Sort To Die’.

In case you’re wondering what this new novel is about, it’s a spin-off from the Caster and Fleet series which I wrote with Liz Hedgecock. 

Written by me alone, it’s set in 1910. The main character is Margaret Demeray (the younger sister of Katherine of the Caster and Fleet books). Margaret is thirty-six and a pathologist at a London hospital for the poor. She has a thirst for justice and equality. She’s very independent, has a short fuse, is irritated by having to fight her corner in a man’s world, but perhaps just a little vulnerable too.

Here’s a brief blurb:

Dr Margaret Demeray is approached by a stranger called Fox to help find out what’s killed two impoverished men. How can a memory she’d buried possibly be linked to the deaths? And how come the closer she gets to Fox the more danger she faces herself? 

I’m looking forward to swotting up on ‘A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts’ for the sequel, when Margaret will definitely leave the British Isles, although not on a long enough voyage to be tempted to throw her underwear overboard. 

Or maybe she will. I’ll have to see.

The Wrong Sort To Die’ is available for pre-order with a publication date of 30th June 2020.

Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photographs from “The Queen” Newspaper Book of Travel 1912

 

Lockdown (Tall) Tales

It’s time for the evening lockdown video call between me, my sister and my mother.

First crucial question of course is: 

‘What’s for dinner?’

I’m planning a concoction made from odds and ends which I’ll pretend is a proper recipe (again). My mother is having fish and potatoes (again). My sister is smug because her husband is a trained chef and she doesn’t know and doesn’t care because she doesn’t have to cook.

Leaving coronavirus concerns to chew over later (you don’t want to rush eating the elephant in the room all at once), the next question is: 

‘What happened today?’

Usually of course, there is no answer but for the distant sound of tumbling tumble-weeds.

Today however is different. 

My mother starts:

‘Funny you should ask. 

‘I looked out of my window today expecting it to be as quiet and boring as usual with nothing but a few birds poking about, and the first thing I saw was that all the squirrels had lined up on the branches of the trees and were not only looking down but were holding paws and jumping about. Some of them were waving leaves. 

‘I followed their gaze and saw what appeared to be an animal sports day happening on the lawn with squirrels, hedgehogs, and rabbits as contestants and robins as marshals. 

‘There was what looked like a wheelbarrow race, a three-pawed race, an acorn cup-and-pebble race and a sack race using odd socks they must have pinched from the laundry. 

‘There was a kerfuffle at the end when the rabbits complained that they and the sacks had been punctured by the hedgehogs and the hedgehogs countered this by accusing the rabbits of having an unfair advantage in the sack race. Fortunately the squirrels diffused it all by doing an aerial display with the robins.

‘Everything happened so fast though, that I couldn’t quite get the camera to focus.’

My sister is next:

‘Strange you should mention rabbits. I was on my daily run when I saw a very large rabbit. He seemed to be waiting for me. “You’re late,” he said, looking at his fitness tracker watch, “and slow. Come on, the Queen is waiting.” 

‘“Oooh” I said. “Would going all the way to Windsor castle for a dame-hood count as essential travel?”

‘“Tsk,” said the rabbit. “Not that Queen. The Red Queen. Come on, here’s the rabbit-hole. When you’re falling, try and keep two metres ahead if you please.”

‘Well down we went and off we jogged. The rabbit went far too fast. 

‘So I paused for a breather at a strange table covered with what looked like a range of trendy gins labelled “drink me” but before I could do anything about it, the rabbit came back and dragged me away. He said that the last girl who stopped at that table got into a right pickle and I wasn’t allowed to try any. To be honest it was a bit early for gin and I chirped up when I saw a sign to a tea-party but the rabbit said it had been postponed until lockdown is over. Apparently some dormouse is very happy about this. Before I could ask for coffee instead, he led me into a court-room. 

‘A few people – including an angry looking large woman in a rather stiff dress – were standing as far away from each other as possible. Jurors had been suspended from the ceiling in harnesses to enable them to socially distance. It turned out that I was supposed to be judging who’d stolen the Queen of Hearts’ tarts. 

‘As you know I don’t like making decisions, except about food. So I decided to eat the evidence. 

‘It was delicious. 

‘While the Queen was busy working out how to have my head chopped off from a distance of two metres, I legged it. Fortunately the tarts had given me enough energy to outrun everyone and I managed to grab one of the bottles of fancy gin on the way past, which I’ll try later to see what happens. 

‘What a shame I’d left my phone at home and couldn’t take photos.’

Now it’s my turn:

‘You know how everywhere has animals taking over the towns because all the people are staying home? And you know how the jurassic coast isn’t too far away from here. Well, I went on my walk today and you’ll never guess what I saw emerging from the lake on the meadows? A brontosaurus!

‘A small herd of tricerotopses was peeking from the trees and a velociraptor was hunting down a jogger. It had nearly succeeded when a pterodactyl swooped down, grabbed it and dropped it in the river, where it was eaten by a plesiosaur. Then the police helicopter turned up and began to pursue the pterodactyl. A T-Rex followed, trying to swipe them both out of the sky but of course, its arms were too short to reach.

‘As I watched them disappear into the distance, a herd of woolly mammoth appeared, lumbering along the bypass. There might or might not have been cavemen riding them. It was hard to say because of all the hair. Plus they might just have been people from the next village. You know what they’re like. 

‘While I was trying to work it out, I felt a cat rub itself against my leg. I was about to stroke its head when I realised it wasn’t a cat but a baby sabre-tooth tiger. That was when I decided I probably ought to walk home. 

‘I did have my phone – but a woolly rhino in the car-park knocked it out of my hand then trod on it so I couldn’t take photos either.’

We all fall silent.

‘What really happened today?’ says my sister. ‘Most interesting thing I did was find a matching pair of socks and plant some sweet-peas. What about you?’

I consider, running my mind over the day. ‘I cut my finger on some tin-foil simply wrapping something up. What about you Mum?’

Mum scratches her head. ‘Let’s see,’ she says. ‘My windows were cleaned and I had to pay the window cleaner by putting the money on the doorstep and backing away so he could take it from a social distance.’

‘Wild times,’ says my sister. ‘Let’s take it easy tomorrow.’

lockdown

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.