Imaginary Friends?

Did you ever have an imaginary friend?

This question was posed on a Facebook group recently. Some said they’d had several, some had had none. Some hadn’t, but their children or siblings had. Some had ones who when they explained them to adults appeared identical to dead relations the child hadn’t actually known, which is a whole potential story in itself. 

It got me thinking.

Had I had imaginary friends? 

When I was seven and in my second primary school, there was a time when I communicated with my reflection at playtime (recess). We (my reflexion and I) were called Trixie and Trina (I can’t recall who was who) and were twins separated into two different worlds by some spell/disaster and the glass was the only meeting place. I can’t remember what we talked about apart from being sad we couldn’t be physically together. I hadn’t long moved schools and was very lonely, having left my first best friend behind and knowing I’d never see her again. The fact that I was top of the entire junior school in spelling and reading but hadn’t made any friends got into my school report, but no one noticed I was talking to a reflection in playtime until a couple of school bullies decided to target me. I never dared to do it again. Fortunately, not long afterwards I made friends with a real girl who was on my wavelength (I knew this because she also wanted, more than anything, a flying unicorn). 

Thinking back, I feel a little guilty about Trixie and Trina. Are they still stuck on either side of a reflection simply wanting to be together again?

Roll on two years and (after another move) 144 miles west and I’m on a bus with my little sister. She’s been thwarted in her desire to have a dog and shouts at me for sitting on Sandy, an imaginary corgi puppy. I am mortified by the other passengers’ horror and the sympathy I’d had for my sister’s disappointment fades completely.

Roll on even more years and 100 miles back east and my son, aged four, tells me off for putting my shopping in the Tesco trolley on top of his imaginary sheep. 

As he’s now grown up – stuck at hime with us because of lock-down – I asked him if that was the only imaginary friend he’d had and he said ‘I had loads, I had an entire team of Pokemon at one point and they did everything with me’. Recalling watching him in swimming galas and football matches, I’m somehow not surprised.

I tried to work out if I’d had any, other than Trixie and Trina and initially thought ‘no’. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that when I was eight or nine, after another move of schools and another lost best friend and I spent a lot of time wandering about alone, talking to unseen spirits in the woods and river – that was something similar. 

I did make friends with another (real) girl around the same time. She was on a similar (e.g. highly imaginative) wavelength, and we created a series of convoluted stories to play out. One was sort of science fiction – involving an almost impassable jelly-like force field between worlds in which an enormous mutated fly was forever stuck and we acted it in the fields at school. Sometimes we could get through the jelly wall, sometimes we couldn’t and bounced off. We must have looked utterly bonkers to everyone else. 

We remained friends till after graduating university (by which time acting things out had been replaced by writing stories and boyfriends) but then lost touch for twenty-five years until she turned up at my father’s funeral. 

As we reconnected, pretty much the first thing we emailed to each other was ‘Do you remember the jelly wall with the big fly in it?’ 

Later, she said ‘Do you still have that map of the woods you drew with all the magic portals in it?’ 

I confessed that it had long been lost. 

Then she said ‘You had me completely convinced about all those magical beings there. I thought they were real for ages.’

I was taken aback on three fronts. Firstly, I rarely ever convince anyone of anything. Secondly, I wanted to say ‘but they were real.’ Thirdly, I wondered why I’d thought ‘were’ rather than ‘are’ and felt a deep, visceral disloyalty.

Were they imaginary friends? I never thought of them as either imaginary or friends. They were just there, among the leaves and bracken and bluebells, just out of sight in roots and hollows, or sparkling from the light shining through branches or on river wavelets. I could say what I wanted to them and they neither offered criticism nor advice. They never spoke at all. They just listened.

On the Facebook thread referred to earlier, someone said ‘I didn’t have one as a child, but I have one now.’ 

I’m not sure if they were being serious of course, but I felt a pang of mild jealousy. Why don’t I have one now that I’m an adult? I thought. Then I remembered my invisible household ghost and the invisible household elves. 

The former is ‘just’ a series of odd, inexplicable sounds in our rather strange (not old, just strange) house. He never communicates in any other way (yes he’s a he, I don’t know why, but he is). He’s not a ghost in the sense of being the spirit of a dead person. He’s just a noisy, companionable entity, who normally makes the house seem less empty when I work from home alone. I never speak to him, except at night when I tell him to shut up because he’s thumping about in the attic while I’m trying to get to sleep. 

The invisible household elves, who have some sort of form I can visualise, turn up when I’m doing housework or a major domestic overhaul. I think because I find those exercises immensely boring, my mind ambles off into some realm where I’m watching myself, considering myself objectively and somehow that morphs into a conversation with or listening to a conversation between a failed brownie called Ælfnod, a disruptive laundry fairy, a despairing grooming elf and potentially a mischievous dishwasher fairy and naughty garden pixies who recently snatched my husband’s glasses and hid them in a part of the garden my husband hadn’t been in. 

Are these my adult equivalent of imaginary friends?

Maybe someone who’s got this far without calling for men in white coats, will think it’s because I’m a writer and they’re the same as characters. But they’re not. Book characters are external from me almost entirely. They turn up, they make themselves known, they complain when I try to make them do something they wouldn’t do in a million years. Sometimes, without a qualm, I kill them off. There may be elements of me in them, but only elements.

Without asking a psychologist, I can work out that imaginary friends are almost certainly personifications of parts of one’s own psyche. This is why I think they exist and why they’ve been valuable for me at least.

As a child, they were companions to a little girl who was lonely, serious, imaginative and out of sync with her generation.

Now perhaps, if my household companions count as imaginary friends, they’re a reminder not only to take myself too seriously but also to just let my imagination run wild just as I once did at nine when it was as easy as breathing.

They are the part of me that may be honest and critical but is also validating and affirming. They make me laugh at myself but also accept myself. Basically they say ‘be yourself.’

So how have my household companions managed during lockdown?

The invisible household ghost is rather quiet. I’m never in the house alone these days as there are three other people also working from home. Does his silence tell you more about him, me, or my ability to hear anything over the sound of four adult people on video calls, and in the case of the younger two, also video games? Has he left, or is he just pottering about in the attic till he can be heard again?

And I have to confess, I haven’t heard from the invisible household elves for nearly a year either. But as I say, they tend to turn up when I’m doing a clear out so this may give you an idea of the state of my house. 

I kind of miss them all. Perhaps it’s time to send my three mortal house-companions off for a walk, have a quiet cuppa and then get the duster out. I wonder if they’ve missed me too?

If you’ve got this far and want to hear how I first met Ælfnod, you can see me read the story ‘Dust’ by clicking here, or check out ‘Perspective‘ or ‘Personal Grooming‘ or ‘Interview with a Laundry Fairy’ or check out the book ‘Weird & Peculiar Tales’.

To find out more about my invisible household ghost, check out ‘Ghost Coin’ and ‘Quiet Company

To find out about the woodland and river, check out ‘The Return’ and also the book ‘Kindling’ which features the same woodland in some of the stories, though not always in a serious context.

Words and photograph copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Choose to Challenge

‘Maude and I are going to Switzerland for 19th March while you’re on your mission,’ said Margaret.

‘Really?’ said Fox. ‘Is this to do with International Women’s Day? Why Switzerland?’

Margaret shrugged. ‘I’ve never been there and they’re not doing it in Britain.’

‘I might come with you before heading over the border,’ said Fox. 

‘Keeping an eye on me?’

‘No. Because I agree with the aims: votes and decent working conditions for all – it’s a thousand pities people are more interested in the latest society gossip, the coronation and playing “our empire’s better than their empire” to notice how close we are to tipping into anarchy or war.’

‘You think that’s the choice?’

‘Quite possibly,’ said Fox. ‘Don’t you?’

The first international Women’s Day was celebrated on 19th March 1911 and occurs a few days before the beginning of the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die which I’m working on just now, so the above might theoretically be a conversation held a while before that.

My character, Dr Margaret Demeray is a determined person. She believes firmly in equality and safe working conditions but I doubt she’d be oblivious to the sort of things that were said about suffragettes and the men who supported them in for example, postcards like these

In the United Kingdom, the suffrage movement was gaining momentum. On census day 1911, Emily Davison allegedly hid herself in the Houses of Parliament as a protest – here’s a fascinating article researching the truth of this. Many other women refused to be counted as part of their defiance in a document which recorded for women but not for men, how long they’d been married for example. Whether Margaret will is yet to be seen.

Margaret of course, is a creation of my imagination, but the inspiration for her comes to some extent from the older women on both sides of my family. 

I had nine great aunts and two grandmothers, who would have been aged between three and sixteen in 1911. I never thought to ask any of those I knew what they’d known or thought about suffragettes, although one did recall with delight that she’d turned twenty-one in 1928, the year that the voting age for women was dropped to be the same as that for men.

None were sentimental women. None thought womanhood had anything whatsoever to do with swooning or weakness or subservience. Not one ever gave me the impression they thought girls took second place to boys or that I should do less than make the most of every opportunity which came my way.

Ten of them had some form of career at least until marriage and I can easily imagine that most of them could have made senior management nowadays if they’d wanted to. 

They could be funny and they could be affectionate, but they also thought nothing worse than an indulged child. There was certainly no place in their mind-sets for crying. We were expected to get on with things, however crippled with shyness we were or lacking confidence or fearing criticism. Painful as that frequently was, it was a useful life skill, although having uncritical and supportive parents probably helped a great deal.

Since growing older, I started finding out more about them and they stopped being simply old relatives and became people. As far as I can establish, every single one rose to every challenge with determination to become valued women in their families and communities with strong ethics and views which were their own opinions and no one else’s.

Two, in 1941, then in their fifties, picked up the pieces (literally) when their home and business was destroyed by a WWII bomb and started up somewhere else, but not before making a cup of tea in the rubble immediately after the raid (which they’d escaped while hiding under the stairs) because how could you think without one?

One (whom I never met but wish I had) doubtless scandalised her highly conventional mother with Edwardian new age philosophies, esoteric books and curios. My father inherited the last two, a fair amount of which I recall from my early childhood.

Her youngest sister (who I did know) went travelling the world as soon as she retired and thrilled us with tales of camel rides, deserts, bazaars and souks, lighting a flame in me to want to do the same one day.

My favourite great aunt dedicated herself to teaching, never losing her interest in young people. As a retired lady in the late 1970s, she plonked herself down next to a group of punks in Glasgow bus station. She said they recoiled a little, clearly expecting her to tell them they were a disgrace, but she simply started chatting and as they relaxed, she learned all about how they got their mohicans to stand up, how many safety pins they needed and all about punk culture. 

It’s a thousand pities that 110 years after groups of women and men marched for fairness, equality and safe working conditions, these are still far from the experience of people, even in the developed world and that we still need an International Women’s Day, but we do. This year’s campaign theme is #ChooseToChallenge.

I knew plenty of contemporaries even in the 1970s and 1980s who felt second rate to their brothers and that there was no point to further education or trying for a career. But I was fortunate to have very determined (if sometimes a little uncompromising and occasionally downright eccentric) role models, who challenged any suggestion that their whole focus should be their husbands and children. They embraced everything the world could offer them but knew how to be phlegmatic if life didn’t turn out as expected.

Maybe they’d be horrified by my appallingly untidy house but I think they’d appreciate that even though it’s sometimes a struggle, I have just about balanced my creativity with building a career, raising a son and a daughter who are staunch feminists and that I’ve never once thought that being a woman should hold me or anyone else back.  

I am not entirely sure how they’d feel about being the inspiration for a number of my characters, from shy, proper, but quietly brave Aunt Alice, to somewhat mad Tullia to straight-talking Margaret via various other characters, some of who haven’t met the general public yet. But I hope they’d take it as a compliment and on International Women’s Day, I’d like to salute them.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Illustration 136452856 © Maryia Naidzionysheva | Dreamstime.com

Timeline of Women’s Suffrage

Twenty Significant Women in History

Ten Famous Women Mathematicians

Most Influential Women in British Science

Twelve Famous Female Painters

Byways, Rabbit Holes and Wrong (or maybe Right) Turns

Given the reading habits I formed as a child, it’s not too surprising I ended up writing historical mysteries, but I hadn’t really thought about the research required. Now I have an internet trail that includes purchasing cookbooks and books on poison, digging for mindfulness techniques and also whether the physical appearance of a murder victim could be mistaken for natural death. As I’ve been locked down with the same people for nearly a year, this could look dodgy. So far the police haven’t turned up. But I guess there’s still time.

I started this intending it to be about what influenced my writing of historical mysteries, but then it turned out that disappearing down a research rabbit hole unravelled a family mystery of my own and revealed a surprise.

When I was about seven, way before Horrible Histories were published, my father bought me a book called The Medieval Scene. Being a child, the best bits from my perspective were the gruesome details of trial by ordeal etc, but even the less gory elements encouraged my interest in history and I never really looked back. 

A year or so later, we moved relatively near to the ruined 13th Century Carreg Cennen Castle which we regularly visited. It was thrilling to look down into what was left of the dungeons and wonder who’d once been down there, why, and whether they survived. When I found a time-slip book set in Carreg Cennen called The Gauntlet, I read it over and over, lapping up the historical detail and contrasting it with the modern boy’s normal life. (It was rather dated then and more so now, but still a terrific read.) Avidly reading Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff – I discovered that novels – if often rather male-centric – were a great way to absorb history without it being a dull reiteration of dates. Then as I reached my teens, I found historical fiction written for girls and about girls, which dealt with social issues too: Geraldine Symons books The Workhouse Child and Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges, then the Flambards series by K.M. Peyton.

I didn’t just love historical books. Once, I’d loved the mysteries in the also dated Famous Five and Secret Seven so it was a natural progression to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. Of course, to me in the late 20th Century, their books were not just detective stories, they were also historical fiction, mostly set in an era when my grandparents had been young, in a world almost as alien as another planet, where a lots of people appeared to have servants, few people had telephones, letters and trains arrived regularly and on time (except where the plot demanded otherwise), telegrams were normal but inside bathrooms and private cars weren’t (unless you were rich).

Research, as I’ve said before and to mix a metaphor, is a rabbit warren of byways. Checking background information for the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die last Monday, I was trying (and failing) to find out the exact location of the first International Women’s Day march in Switzerland on 19th March 1911 (it’s not terribly important but if you know – please get in touch). As I was searching, I became side-tracked by a truly awful disaster in New York on 25th March 1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. As it’s the sort of thing which would have horrified my character Margaret, I wondered when it was first reported in Britain and started looking in the British Newspaper Archive. So far, the earliest reference I’ve found is in Sunday 26th March 1911’s Lloyds Weekly Paper

Naturally I then wandered down other alleys in the archive. Deciding to take a break from my book, I remembered once seeing a clip about my great-grandfather when doing some family research. Due to killing a laptop with a cup of tea in the interim, I’d lost the link. Now I looked again and found a report of the inquest into his death. I knew that he’d died as a result of drinking what I’d been led to believe had been disinfectant. I now found it was some kind of lotion intended for external use made from aconite. I’m not sure which it would be worse to die from, or to witness someone dying from as my great-grandmother must have done. I can only hope that my grandfather and his five siblings were either at school or work when it happened. Whether my great-grandfather drunk it deliberately or thought it was something else was undetermined. He certainly called for help. But suicide while of unsound mind was the verdict returned. None of this was a shock, as I already knew much of it, but reading the newspaper article brought the situation to life – a man plagued with money worries in deep despair and with what would now be termed as depression and a widow left with six children, who lost her husband and home and had to rely on family, friends and presumably the older two children for their livelihood. 

After this, I took one last turn in the research path (for this week at least), and went from sadness to surprise to delight. 

Now that I knew where it was, I googled the place where my great-grandparents had lived and I found the last thing I’d expected: a website dedicated to early cinema and a page called Straight Out of Whetstone about a 1916 film which was partly shot in their very town. If you know what you’re looking for, you can even very briefly see their house.

It’s a shame I can’t show any of this to my father, but I could show my sister and children. And now I can not only see Whetstone as my grandfather would have seen it as a child, but I can also see half the film that was shot there. If you want thrills and spills (if rather slow ones) here is the link to what’s left of ‘The Man with the Glass Eye’. 

It’s tragic that the film breaks off just as things are getting really exciting, so I’m now trying to find out what the rest of the story might have been…. Watch out rabbit hole – here I come.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photograph 51997062 © Everett Collection Inc. | Dreamstime.com

Hearts and Flowers

Well it’s Valentine’s Day 2021. Where I am, it’s very cold, raining, we’re in lockdown and everything’s closed, so there’s a limit to how easy it is to be romantic, especially when you’re me.

Usually, my husband cooks us a nice meal which we eat à deux. This year, we have two other adults in the house who can’t go anywhere else and as it’s Sunday, my mum (who’s in our support bubble) will be coming round for dinner. Various solutions, including staggered meals, presented themselves and in the end we gave up and my son said he’d cook a meal for all five of us. Maybe I’ll decorate the table with hearts. Maybe not.

I don’t mind really. My husband and I are fairly rubbish at soppy stuff in general, and with eleven months of the impact of Covid-19 behind us and who knows how many more ahead, we’d rather have a Valentine’s banquet for all our loved ones, so many of whom we haven’t seen for a very long time and those we have seen, we’ve had to greet from a two metre distance, usually while wearing a mask.

I was going to avoid writing about Valentine’s Day today and write about something else. Lupercalia or Fornacalia perhaps. These were both Roman festivals celebrated in early Februrary. But having looked them up, I decided against it. The former is very strange and despite what the latter looks like written in English, it’s all to do with baking. I might make some heart shaped cookies today, but I’m certainly not making spelt wafers from scratch. (If you want to, the recipe is in the Fornacalia link.)

So back to good old St Valentine’s Day. While apparently, Geoffrey Chaucer was apparently the first to record 14th February as relating to romance in his 1375 poem ‘Parliament of Foules’, it was the Victorians (naturally) who managed to commercialise and therefore make lots of money out of it. If you want to see some really unusual Victorian cards, both hand-made and printed, you might enjoy this article from the Museum of London. 

While I’ve written the odd short love story, so far I haven’t written a romance novel. That’s not to say there are never any romantic moments in my mystery books, but they tend to go awry. I’m not entirely sure what to blame this on but there are a few contenders.

For a start, I didn’t have much in the way of role-models. My paternal grandfather, while loving my grandmother deeply, wasn’t keen on public displays of affection. The one time I walked into their kitchen and saw him embrace then kiss her gently, seemed so intimate that I backed out immediately before returning more noisily just in case I disturbed any more elderly shenanigans. My father would have been a romantic but my mother thought it nonsense. My sister and I as children tried to force them into romance, by making soppy Valentine’s cards on their behalf, but these were greeted with some bafflement.

Then, watching films and TV as a young teenager in the smutty, innuendo-heavy seventies, I viewed a bewildering set of ideas of what a woman should expect from lurve. In comedies (and sometimes dramas), women were divided into: 

  1. ‘nice girls who might but probably wouldn’t until married to the nice boy’ who turned into ‘nice wives who were largely decorative and whose chief function seemed to be hosting dinner parties to impress the nice husband’s boss’; 
  2. ‘dolly birds’/‘bits of crumpet’ who were free with their favours and would never settle for being a wife but might for being a mistress; 
  3. ‘brainy types’ who just needed the right man to waken their sexuality whereupon they’d become (1) or (2); 
  4. ‘frigid wives/women’ who existed chiefly to make the man’s life a misery but give him an excuse to pursue (2) or seduce (3); 
  5. ‘plain, sex-mad spinsters’ – objects of derision who wanted to be (1) or (2) but had no hope since no man would touch them (despite the fact that the men in the comedies were often repulsive and had little to no concept of respect/consent).

Love films (of which I can only remember ‘Love Story’) seemed to chiefly involve someone dying and it all being too late and lots of gut-wrenching angst.

My maternal grandmother read a lot of books which I devoured when we stayed with her: murder mysteries, thrillers and rather steamy historical fiction in which bodice-ripping always lead to at least one person having their head cut off.

It was all very confusing. I didn’t want to be a, b, c, d or e. I certainly didn’t want anyone to die just as they found their one true love. Especially me. Especially by decapitation.

Then there was the first Valentine’s I received at about fourteen. It came in the post at breakfast time on a school-day and the tiny hope that it was from THE ONE faded when I saw my best friend’s handwriting (since she and THE ONE didn’t really know each other). Innocently if a little disappointed therefore, I opened the envelope in front of my family, and extracted a Valentine’s card full of dubious (in every sense) ‘verse’ written by my friend on behalf of a mutual male friend for whom I had no romantic feelings whatsoever. While I was still reeling in a mix of emotions (finally, I had a Valentine’s but it was from the wrong boy), the card was whipped from my hands by my aggravating little sister and after she’d sniggered a bit, snatched by my father, who never having any concept of other people’s mortification, read it aloud to my mother and declared he’d take it to the office to show his colleagues. I stopped him. Just.

A few years later, THE ONE did actually ask me for a date and we went out together for about eighteen months. When he ended it, we were walking along and I was crying so hard I walked into some scaffolding before he could stop me and I banged my head, whereupon despite the fact that he was deeply contrite and I was utterly broken-hearted, we both burst out laughing (albeit briefly). 

And then, there was the summer evening MANY years after that, when my husband proposed to me while we were sitting on a cliff watching the sun go down into the sea while birds swooped and soared overhead. We’d only been going out for about two months and while I wanted to say yes, it all seemed so ridiculous, that I said no. Consequently a year and a bit after that, when he tried again, the proposal I accepted one grey day went something like, him: ‘mumble mumble get married’, me: ‘oh go on then.’

See – I can’t even do my own love story properly.

So, as I say, I haven’t written a romance yet and wonder if I have the skills. Occasionally, I have a go at writing love scenes, but my inner teenager emerges, sniggers, ruins the moment and makes me write things like this:

He stood irresolute in the bedroom torn between the desperate urge to get his trousers off and the knowledge that he might look less than sexy in his superhero socks and boxers. With relief, he realised she’d got her hair and face tangled in the complicated straps of her dress, which gave him just enough time to stumble about the room removing his clothes, chuck them out of sight and recline on the bed before she emerged, flushed with what he hoped was desire but feared was largely exhaustion.

Or this:

He kissed her neck, her mouth and their feet tangled under the covers as he pulled her closer, lifting his lips from hers to say: ‘I l— Aargh! Ow ow ow!’

‘Aargh? Ow?’

‘The cat’s got onto the bed. She’s attacking my feet! She’s just sunk her teeth in! Aargh!’

So you see, that’s why I chose the picture below to go with this blog. Although the man doesn’t look much like Fox in The Wrong Sort to Die, the woman does look a bit like Margaret, right down to the suspicious look: ‘Why are you being so soppy? what are you after?’

Mind you, Fox probably is after something. It could be help with his latest mission, a decent meal, a pint of beer in the Dog & Duck rather than a cup of coffee in a prim café, or it could be something else entirely. I can’t imagine what but I suspect it doesn’t involve flowers and chocolate. Well. Maybe chocolate.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photograph https://www.dreamstime.com/jrabelo_info

Chopsing – Video Interview

Some people describe me as talkative, others as reserved.

When I was a child, elderly female relations seemed unable to decide if I should talk or hold my tongue. I was either told to stop whispering and speak so that people could hear me or told that children should be seen and not heard. Teachers sometimes made me stand facing a corner because they said it was the only way to make me keep quiet. Other times, they’d be annoyed because I didn’t answer questions.

But to be honest, it’s true: sometimes I talk too much, and I don’t always know how to stop either.

At parties however, I’m often considered withdrawn to the point of appearing to be in pain. I can’t help it. If the environment is too noisy, my brain tries to tune into forty conversations at once and if I can force it to concentrate, while I’m happy to discuss something concrete, small-talk leaves me mentally blank and desperate to hide in a corner with a book. 

Then of course there’s the very good chance I’m quiet because I’m day-dreaming and therefore have no idea what anyone is saying. (This will happen particularly when people are discussing sport, celebrities or fashion – and, I confess, sometimes during work meetings.) 

I’ve developed a range of hopefully intelligent sounding non-committal noises for when I’m suddenly asked for an opinion but to be honest, I’m not sure people are often convinced by them.

While I couldn’t discuss anything very personal, I’ve been giving presentations for years inside and outside work and I’m happy to give talks about my writing. 

I set Murder Durnovaria in Roman Dorchester which is less than twenty miles from where I live. When it was published in late 2019, I anticipated local author events in 2020. Well, we all know what went wrong there. 

My new book Murder Saturnalia, which is due out in two weeks, is set in a fictional place but based on somewhere very local. I initially hoped that maybe, just maybe I might get a chance to do an author talk in my home town at least. But of course, it’s still impossible.

However, technology proved a possible solution. One of the weirder bonuses of lockdown has been that because all my work meetings are now held via Microsoft Teams, and because the only way to meet with friends and relations is by FaceTime, Messenger, Skype or Zoom, I’ve become used to video technology in a way I never would have endured a year ago. 

Before lock-down, I hated video calls, even with family. But this year, faced with a book coming out and no way to hold any kind of talk, I asked friend and fellow local author Sim Sansford if he’d interview me via Zoom to see if it would work. It wasn’t just for my benefit, it was also to see if it might be an approach to involve other authors in an online version of the local literary festival with which we’re both involved. 

So without further ado, here’s the result. If you want to know what I sound like and look like (particularly when I’m pulling faces while thinking), who my characters are based on (if anyone) and what my latest plotting technique is, here goes. 

Go on, give it a listen. No-one who’s seen it has made me stand in a corner so far, so it can’t be that bad.

Words and photograph copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Credits for images used for Murder Saturnalia: Ruins of Pompeii, Italy Photo 74409584 © Yi Liao | Dreamstime.com Figure of a woman painted in a Fresco in a Domus of Pompeii ID 143271565 © Floriano Rescigno | Dreamstime.com

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.