Say When

I’ve just undertaken the annual calendar ritual. The old calendars are in the recycling and the new ones are ready for action. Though the concept of new year (and its date) is a human/cultural construct, there’s always the hope that like shedding a skin, as we say goodbye to the old and hello to the new, things might change.

Even if just now, the shadows of war, unrest, financial crises and political shenanigans persist, any reasonable person must hope that something lovely will be in the offing for everyone in 2023, or at the very least, something better.

As I’ve said before, I’m not terribly keen on looking back and beating myself up about things I haven’t achieved, or patting myself on the back about things I have. Nor am I keen on making pledges or resolutions. After thirty odd years of working in a target-driven environment – with aims, objectives, service level agreements, milestones and so on – I’m not desperately keen to tie myself down too much in the rest of my existence too.

But all the same, here are some of things that went as planned plus an unexpected bonus:

  • I went on a short break with my adult daughter to Barcelona, which was just lovely. We spent a few days walking miles, visiting Gaudi sites, eating lots of lovely food and otherwise just relaxing.
  • Two of my books became available as audiobooks and over the next year or so, I intend that others will be too.
  • The Treacherous Dead, the fourth in the Margaret Demeray series, is now published and the fourth is underway with a view to publication later in 2023.
  • And the bonus? Liz Hedgecock and I decided to start writing a new series – contemporary cosy/cozy murder mysteries set in the sort of English town where nothing ever happens (or does it?) The first is out later in January, and if you want to know more about the series look no further than The Booker & Fitch Series.

Things that were mixed blessings (and out of my control):

  • My team returned to working in the office in Croydon two days a week. In some ways was hard to adjust to after two years of home-working. After the quiet of my own space, it was odd to be in a noisy office again, especially as most of our meetings are still online (even with each other), so it’s often very noisy. But it’s great to see my colleagues in person again and go out with them after work. And the other plus side of commuting to and staying in the outskirts of London is that I’m able to visit Val Portelli, after a few years when it hasn’t been possible.
  • Later in the year, my team moved from the Croydon office back to the central London one, which was another shift again. This coincided with the death of the Queen, so I was able to go and see the floral tributes in Green Park, though I didn’t queue to view the coffin. We’re not a monarchist family, but even the children were moved that someone who has been there in the background all our lives has gone.
  • Both my children have now ‘moved out’ (though they do keep coming back). It’s lovely to see them be independent and start carving their own creative furrows, and it’s great to have a tidy(ish) house, but… yup I admit it, I miss them. Thank goodness for modern communication methods – family group chats and video calls.
  • My writing shed came into its own, even if I do have a tendency to want to fall asleep rather than write when I go in there as I’m so relaxed!

And then, here are my ‘failures’:

  • I planned to read a lot of specific books in 2022. I didn’t even get close. I read a lot of books. They just turned out to be different ones. Some were serious, some silly, mostly novels, a few non fiction. So I’m just moving that particular goalpost.
  • I planned to publish two books. As above, I published one, but due to some of the international politics of 2022, I decided to change some of the themes relating to a specific country, and also contracted a relatively mild bout of covid, so this took longer than expected. The other book is part written and I hope to get back to it in 2023.
  • I planned to take early retirement in September so I could concentrate on writing. The current cost-of-living situation meant this was adjusted to partial-retirement, so I’m still working part-time and yet to get into the routine I need. But I’m getting there.
  • I went to buy a calendar on the internet for the kitchen, large enough to write on and didn’t check the dimensions. Shame I don’t have a dolls house handy and some dolls who have pressing appointments to record….

Are these failures? I refuse to think so. (Except maybe the calendar.)

For me, family life, mental health, my friendships and marriage will always be more important than anything else.

The day-job even (or perhaps especially) now being part-time remains pressurised, and added into that are now the challenges of the commute.

(Of course, there’s the fact that I am very easily distracted and side-tracked, but we won’t talk about that.)

I’ve spend the last ten years in project work, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned is how to accept ‘slippage’: shifting goalposts and milestones with the mile number crossed out. Targets and milestones can be inspiring and motivating. They can be stressful, depressing. There’s nothing wrong with them in themselves. The important thing is to know when to move them.

So Happy New Year. And may 2023 for all of us involve more joy, more calm, more knowing when to move a target and more time to sit down and enjoy a treat or two.

Words copyright 2023 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Image: https://pixabay.com/photos/coffee-coffee-pot-cup-coffee-shop-1587081/

The Other Type of Christmas

And then there was the year when Christmas went wrong.

In my part of the world and in my family, Christmas involves a house decorated with bright colours. It’s a time of secrets and excitement as presents are bought or made and then hidden; for the wider family to get together, exchange gifts, play boardgames, eat a lot of very rich food for twenty-four hours followed by leftovers for what feels like twenty-four days. For some of us it might include one or more church services, for others not. It’s a few days of switching off from the normal world, being a little self-indulgent, and having fun. 

It’s nice and cosy. 

I was lucky perhaps to get to my mid teens before I first experienced one where it wasn’t.

That Christmas my parents had decided we’d have Christmas Day at home in South Wales and not visit my paternal grandparents in Reading till Boxing Day. It was possibly because my grandfather, then aged about seventy-two, had been ill with a bad cold and didn’t want visitors or any of the fuss. 

Early on Christmas Eve – a bitter cold day with biting rain – my parents, sister and I went to do last minute Christmas shopping. I watched my parents amble in the direction of the stationery section of Woolworths suspecting that they were going to buy me the calculator I’d asked for and fearing that they’d forget I wanted one with a square-root function to save checking my maths homework against a log table. (If you don’t know what log tables are, you don’t know what you’ve missed.) 

Aged fourteen, the fact that I’d be disappointed if my parents forgot the square root function (which they did) was about the worst thing that I thought could happen in my Christmas world. Then we went home and just as we were settling down to watch TV, the telephone rang. It was my father’s cousin who’d been trying to get through all day, saying that my paternal grandfather had died. She was caring for my grandmother who was distraught at the loss of the man she’d adored for over fifty years.

Why we didn’t go to Reading then and there, I also don’t know. It’s possible my grandmother said not to, it’s possible that my father, who always struggled with knowing how to express emotion or comfort in the right way, was too distraught. I can’t recall. On Christmas Day we went through the motions I guess and ate a meal that tasted of grief. I can’t really recall that either. 

We travelled to Reading the next day. Late afternoon, it started to snow heavily. My grandmother begged us to stay, my father refused. I’m sure he was simply overwhelmed with emotions he didn’t know how to deal with, but it was a downright stupid decision. He drove the hundred and forty two miles home in a blizzard, hoping the car wouldn’t break down (as she was inclined to). He could see virtually nothing. He drove along the motorway in the outside (‘fast’) lane using the central reservation barriers as a guide.

We were half-frozen, because a windscreen wiper kept getting stuck meaning that my mother had to keep winding down the window to give it a shove. On the radio was a play about someone contemplating jumping off a foggy cliff. My sister and I remember it as a sort of dreamlike nightmare of a journey which can never be a funny recollection because of the context.

When we finally did get to our village, Dad couldn’t drive up the steep hairpin bends to our house as they were clogged with snow. We had to go the back way which involved a narrow, twisty lane without much in the way of hedges or fences between us and a steep slope down to the river on one side. They were, in any event, invisible.

No amount of pretty decorations or colourful lights could make up for the misery of that Christmas.

The following Christmas wasn’t a great deal better. My grandmother seemed constantly half-asleep. She died two months later. Although the medical cause was stroke, we were always sure it was actually a broken heart.

Even after rather more years that I care to count, it chokes me up to write this. Several years passed before those shadows receded.

Illogical it is, people will often say ‘how much worse that XYZ happened at Christmas.’ There’s an expectation that everything at Christmastime should be happy and perfect and when it’s not that seems to be a travesty. 

In the grand scheme of things, I know that losing a beloved elderly grandparent to natural causes is not a tragedy, it’s just sad. I haven’t had to endure the kind of horror that people had suffered in the last few weeks – losing loved ones in situations which should never happen. My heart goes out to the bereaved families of the children who were playing on ice, those crushed at a concert, victims of car accidents, violence and of course war. I’m not trying to make a comparison. But that particular Christmas was when I realised for myself that the realities of life do not pause for manmade red letter days.

And I know that there are other reasons apart from grief why Christmas can be hard going. It can be boring if you aren’t interested but everyone else is, and the whole commercial nonsense is constantly bombarding you. It can be lonely when everyone is in family groups and for whatever reason you’re not, or you don’t want to be or your family life is toxic.

I’ve been lucky with family, but even so I’ve had times when I’ve been sad or lonely; wondering how to make ends meet; wondering if I’d ever have a family of my own to start traditions with; worrying about whether someone would survive the sickness they were suffering.

This is not about my books (I’ll post about that another day). But when I wrote the short stories for The Advent Calendar seven years ago, I wanted to reflect the true experiences of Christmas, even in the less serious stories: the expectations versus the reality. In it there are nativity plays and carol singers and office parties, but also neglected lonely relations, homeless people, and refugees. Nothing, including the refugee situation, has really changed since (including, just to lighten the mood – the possibility of my sister dressing up in a tutu and embarrassing me in public). But I also wanted to reflect that stripping away the nonsense, the commerciality, the hype – there can be the tiniest flicker of hope that things can change.

This can be a hard time of year, it can be a lovely time of year, sometimes it can be a mixture of both. I hope that for you, it is what you want it to be and that you have what you need. But if for any who need support, or who want to give to organisations who help others – please see the links below (these are UK charities – but if you have equivalent links elsewhere please let me know and I’ll add them).

Mind – mental health support

Give Us a Shout

The Samaritans

Young Minds

The Calm Zone

Papyrus UK

St Mungo’s – homelessness and mental health support

Beat Eating Disorders Support

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image https://www.dreamstime.com/print-image127586004

Big Tree, Little Boxes

When we decorate the Christmas tree this year (some time this week), there will be something missing.

Several things in fact.

When my son started primary school aged four, there was a fundraising fair towards the end of the Christmas term, which included a stall selling decorations. I bought two for the children:  each with a teddy-bear riding a rocking horse. One was behaving in a proper manner and the other was lying on its back being silly. I decided at that point that these would be the start of a collection for each of my children. The good teddy was for my daughter and the naughty teddy was for my son, because at the time this is precisely how both of them would have behaved when faced with a rocking horse or in fact in any situation you could think of. Nowadays however, I suspect my daughter would be standing in the saddle and my son (who has been sky-diving in his time) would be eyeing the rocking horse with deep suspicion.

Over the following eighteen years, we and the children’s grandparents added to the boxes. Every Christmas, the children would decide where their own decorations should go on the tree and put them there. The idea was that ultimately, when they had homes of their own, they’d have their own little box of decorations which would be a little bit of their ‘home-home’ that they’d be take with them to put on their own trees.

A couple of weeks ago, I handed my son’s box of decorations to him, because now – at last – he does have his own place. It felt like a bit of a watershed. The little boy who’d have caused havoc with a rocking horse, is now a young adult with a grown up job and the sort of tenancy that needs you to have a grown up job. 

I’m not sure where the time has gone. Once – just over twenty-nine years ago – there was just me and my husband with an artificial Christmas tree that my in-laws had given us (it was then about ten years old) about to celebrate our first married Christmas.

I bought what were the latest tasteful 1990s decorations and spent ages placing them evenly, but my husband ‘wrecked’ the effect by adding some multi-coloured lights which clashed completely as I’d made the tree ‘too serious and sensible’. (This sort of summed our differences in personality at marriage which is to some extent which is why a good many people thought we’d never get past that first Christmas, let alone our first year.) 

Then years passed and there were first three of us and then four of us, with the same old tree. Apart from a few rather expensive (for a mum of two small children working part-time) baubles I bought out of social embarrassment (long story), the decoration collection grew steadily more eclectic. When they were being randomly placed by little hands, all attempts at symmetry, co-ordination (and to some extent taste) went out of the window and never came back. By Christmas Eve everything would be done, and all four of us would be waiting for the grandparents to arrive.

This Christmas it’s all change again. There will be the same old tree (now nearly forty years of age and still going strong), but there will be just two of us decorating it, and this year, even the children and my son’s partner won’t arrive until Christmas Eve only an hour or so before the grandparents. It’s one of the oddest things to get our heads round: the children coming home almost as if they’re guests. (The novelty wears off quite quickly as they revert straight back into the nest in baby-bird mode – ‘Feed me! Feed me!’ while bickering and playing video games and leaving doors open despite the cost of heating.)

I didn’t think to take a photograph of my son’s box before I handed it over. The picture below is of my daughter’s. She has technically left home too, but she’s still living in her student digs with a lot of other people, so it’s not quite her own place yet and she’s not ready to take the box away with her.

Perhaps it’s time for me and my husband to start making our own little collection of special decorations to replace the ones that are in the children’s boxes. 

But I don’t think I’ll waste time worrying if they’re tasteful or in vogue, or co-ordinate. I’ll just embrace the joyous, colourful silliness of Christmas decorating – that bit of brightness in the miserable dark of midwinter. There’s enough to be worrying about in life – I’ve long learned that trying to be sensible really isn’t one that’s worth the effort.

Fun facts: when I was researching what the Victorians put on their Christmas trees apart from candles for a memory of Margaret’s in The Treacherous Dead(relevant extract below the picture), I found this fascinating website which has photographs of some very bright and unusual Victorian trees and some rather alarming patriotic baubles (zeppelins anyone?) http://www.victoriana.com/Victorian_Christmas/Christmas_in_the_Victorian_Times.html. And if you want to know about the history of Christmas decorations and and how long it took turkeys to walk – yes walk – to London from East Anglia here’s another fascinating article: https://www.countryfile.com/go-outdoors/days-out/top-10-quirky-christmas-traditions/

Extract from The Treacherous Dead

A hollow clatter made Margaret look round. Juniper was batting a red and white glass ball towards the wall. She snatched it away and held it in her palm. ‘Mother gave this to me to put on the Christmas tree. Katherine had a blue one. I’d forgotten. How lovely.’

Fox had fallen silent but Margaret wasn’t paying attention. The bauble brought a sudden, sharp image of her mother: the face of a woman younger than Margaret was now, with much redder hair dressed in curls and ringlets. As the image faded, other memories took over: scents of lavender and cinnamon, pine and candles; the swish of a silk dress and the crackle of a winter fire; pine needles pricking as Margaret was lifted in warm arms to hang the glass ball in a Christmas tree’s branches.

‘Perhaps you should deal with the rest,’ said Fox. His face was pale. A bundle of letters tied in pink ribbon had risen to the top. ‘Who are these from? Or don’t I want to know?’

Margaret took the letters. ‘Honestly, Fox, look at their age and the address.’ Pink dye stained the envelopes where it had touched them. The paper was yellowed, the address her sister Katherine’s. ‘These are twelve years old. They were from someone called Joel Gifford. He was a doctor.’

‘Was?’

‘He died in Kimberley aged twenty-six.’

‘Oh,’ said Fox. ‘Kimberley, South Africa? Boer War?’ 

‘Yes. He was an army medic and he died during the siege.’ Margaret tried to picture Joel and failed. She had no photographs: just his letters and a memory of pleasant evenings in quiet restaurants. ‘We were friends.’

‘Just friends?’

Margaret touched the letters. ‘Perhaps if he’d lived it might have become something more, but he didn’t. These aren’t love letters. They’re descriptions of South Africa, his cases, his opinions and his responses to my ideas and attempts to get a good job. I haven’t looked at them for years.’ She put them on the floor. ‘I should have burnt them when I married Owen, but I didn’t. I suppose I should have done it when I fell in love with you, but I’d forgotten them. I’ll do it now.’

‘Why?’ Fox reached for her hand. ‘I still have Cynthia’s letters. I haven’t read those since 1896, but she’s part of who I am. Do you want me to burn those?’

‘Of course not, Fox! She was your wife.’ 

Fox returned Joel’s letters to the box, tucking the mantilla over the top. ‘Memories of people we loved are things we should keep. It’s the bad memories we should burn.’

They sat in silence, staring at the box. A movement alerted Margaret to Juniper reaching for the bauble again. ‘Good grief,’ she said. ‘This is rather maudlin. It’s quite unlike us.’

‘I’ve been away too long.’ Fox pulled her into a hug and kissed her slowly. ‘We need to stop tidying and get reacquainted. Then we’ll be in a fit state to start arguing again.’

[The Treacherous Dead will be published as an ebook on 29th December 2022. The paperback will be out sooner. The decoration may not be relevant, but it’s just possible the rest is…]

Words and photograph copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

One Step At A Time

Several years ago, my then line manager sent me on an assertiveness course for female managers.

I’d recently just taken on a role which involved liaising with outside agencies. I actually very much enjoyed that part of the job but my need for assertiveness was/is perhaps in other areas. Moreover, I appreciated the intent, as the line manager who’d preceded her had told me I’d never get anywhere because I did everything by conciliation and collaboration. 

(For the record, I was/am quite happy with being conciliatory and collaborative and, to cut a long story short, I proved that particular person wrong a long time ago.)

But anyway, going back to the assertiveness course.

I was nervous and sceptical. I’d be meeting women who worked in the same sort of field as me, though not the same organisation. Some of them had quite scary roles. I anticipated sitting in the corner unable to get a word in (yes it does happen) and coming across as a mousy wallflower. 

But… I met a room full of women who like me, could put on a face of confidence, but for various reasons, didn’t feel confident. It was a week of discovering what made us who we were and learning how to counter the things blocking us.

The many exercises included visualisations. 

I’m a little dubious about visualisation as a means to manifesting change, and the first one on the assertiveness course reinforced this:

‘Imagine you’re behind a closed door.’

Er…

‘You’re in your best dress.’

[Mentally panic as I try to decide what to wear in this imaginary scenario.]

‘Your prettiest party dress.’

Party? Hang on…

‘The door opens… and every single person you know is there…’

Er…

‘And they’re looking up at you, because YOU are the centre of attention. YOU are the belle of the ball. EVERYONE is waiting to see what you’ll say or do next!’

What? Yell ‘Lemme outta here’ while running off like Cinderella? That’s an absolute nightmare scenario 

You can see why I was wary when another visualisation was mooted towards the end of the course.

By this point we’d blue-sky-thought our way through what our personal work aims and objectives were and what we needed to achieve. But we’d also talked about where we got our energy from, what made us happy in our inner selves and touched on what we wanted to achieve outside work. It was at this point that I realised that what I was learning from the course, was not just about assertiveness. It was also that due to work and motherhood etc etc, I had completely neglected my creative side to the detriment of my own joy.

The visualisation started: 

‘Imagine something achievable which has your stamp on it.’

I was supposed to be thinking of the successful conclusion of my project, but the first thing that popped into my head was not work related. It was I want a room of my own.

‘Imagine it as a colour,’ said the facilitator, ‘what would it be?’

Teal, I thought, or aqua and silver. It would be like being under the sea. 

‘If it had a mood, what would it be?’

Dreamy, creative, calm.

‘What will you be doing?’

Writing, sewing, painting… 

‘How will success make you feel?’

Content…

‘What’s the first step you need to take?’

Tell my husband that I want the cold, neglected front room redecorated just for me. That’s not expensive – just paint and wallpaper.

‘And the next?’

Move the old desk from upstairs in there. Move a lamp.

‘And the next?’

Save up for a little sofa, but that can wait. It’s doable. It really is doable.

Out of everything I learned on the course, that’s the one thing I never forgot. 

My family is lucky to have two sitting rooms (created by splitting a bigger room in half). I claimed the front one. My husband, very doubtful about the colours (though he loved them afterwards), redecorated and we eventually purchased a sofa in the right shade of blue. For a while, it was my space, even if, at the time I did little actual creating in it.

Then almost immediately the children got older and sort of annexed it as a music room/games room. I learned over the next couple of years to do my writing anywhere and because the space was handy for teenagers to go and chill and get out of my hair, I didn’t really mind. 

Things were looking hopeful for a reconquest when my daughter (the youngest child) went to university. Then courtesy of Covid 19, my graduate son returned to live with us and needed the front room as his own office/studio/sitting room. But finally, he’s moved into his own place, taking desks, game consoles, random bits of audio editing equipment etc away with him and my room is now mine again. 

It’s a re-work in progress, but it’s nearly my calm, under the sea creative place once more and as I was starting the process of getting that room back in order this weekend, I was reminded of that course from all those years ago.

Did I come out of it more assertive? Probably not much. But possibly I came out more self aware, more able to recognise blockers and be brave enough to move them and more conscious that I had a right to be heard. And I definitely came out determined that I had a right to express my creative self.

I don’t really think that visualising something will necessarily make it come true, but I think it can help focus the mind. And the other thing that helps is to break the path to the goal into manageable chunks.

Or, as someone in a meeting I was at once said ‘You can do it. But just don’t try to eat the elephant in the room all at once.’

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Image: https://www.dreamstime.com/silhouette-girl-standing-edge-cliff-looking-sun-rise-sea-waves-sea-landscape-silhouette-girl-standing-image138223072

Hear All About It

My first recollection of stories on audio was listening to my father’s recordings of The Goon Show via reel-to-reel tape. Incomprehensible as the humour was to a three year old, it was hard not to enjoy songs called I’m Walking Backwards to Christmas and The Ying Tong Song.

Then there were records with a story combined with classical music: Peter and the Wolf and Carnival of the Animals, being the two I most remember. No matter how often I heard the first, the dramatic voice of the narrator never ceased to thrill me. Would Peter capture the wolf? Would his pet duck survive? In contrast, the beautiful soft narration in a French accent of Carnival of the Animals was relaxing. It created forever an understanding of the power of music and words combined (and a deep but unfulfilled longing to play the cello).

But the first audio books that were just for me were the Ponder and William stories by Barbara Softly, in which a little boy’s panda pyjama case comes alive to have adventure with him. These stories were not only on records, but on brightly coloured records – red and green I seem to recall. I would sit with my mother and listen to them over and over. ‘“Away sea! Away!” cried Ponder’ is the only thing I can remember (forever making me associate a panda pyjama case with King Canute).

After that, I could read to myself, but to help me, I had some of the Disney stories in little books with accompanying records. As I followed the words, I had to turn the page whenever Tinkerbell ‘tinkled her little bell’. I don’t remember anything similar for a while after that. I could read well and borrowed voraciously from the library, but there were (as far I can recall) no audiobooks available. The thought of listening to a story other than on the radio, sort of slipped my mind until…

The early 1990s: 

Pre-children, my husband and I did a lot of touring/camping in France. We rarely reserved a pitch but found out of the way places via a Michelin camping guide published in French, decided whether we liked them on arrival and then established whether they had any ‘emplacements’ available (this mostly worked… however that’s another story).

The journey was around 820 mile from home in Gloucestershire via the ferry in Portsmouth down to the Perigord. To while away the long driving time, I borrowed audio books (in cassette form) from the library to listen to en route. There was one which I will forever associate with being slightly lost in a mountainous, forested region of central France. 

After nearly thirty years, neither of us can now recall much (this is true of more than audiobooks). My husband was concentrating on negotiating ever narrowing roads in a car that had broken down twice by that point, and I was working out where we were on the map, comparing it with the campsite guide and practising my abysmal French for when we arrived and I had to book us in. 

What we can recall is that the story was a thriller with a luscious sort of femme fatale as one of the villains and also, I think, a volcano which was threatening to erupt before the hero could save the day. We lost count of how many times this wicked woman’s sexy figure-hugging dresses, long legs, rich red lipstick and glossy red nails were described, not to mention her mesmerising green eyes and long, silky dark hair, but somehow she got us to the campsite safely, without anything or anyone blowing up.

A decade later, I borrowed children’s audio books in CD format for long journeys from our home (now in Dorset) to visit my children’s grandparents in Wales or my sister in the Midlands. They were either thrilling stories for my son (the Shapeshifter series by Ali Sparkes for example) – reminding me of how good and gripping children’s fiction can be or silly ones for my daughter (Diary of a Wimpy Kid for example) – reminding me of how simply funny children’s fiction can be.

Now of course, audiobooks are available on apps and I often listen on long journeys by train or plane.

For me at least, the process of listening to a story rather than reading a story is quite different. When reading, my eyes are concentrating on the words which convert into images. When listening, my eyes are free to look elsewhere. 

So my perceptions of listening to a story include the surroundings as the tale. This goes back to childhood when my parents read to me. The Narnia books and Alice in Wonderland are inextricably connected to the big red chair that my father sat in while reading. Watership Down is associated with the vaguely orange glow of the interior of a 1970s touring caravan lit by gas mantles. 

Nowadays, audio books listened to while travelling links to the sense of motion and adventure. The story still goes into my head, it just goes in differently. And somehow I never lose the thrill of the story or the comfort of being read to.

There are some that say listening to an audiobook is not the same as reading. I disagree. Your brain processes it differently (or at least mine does), but oral story telling existed for centuries before the written word. Without those ancestors who passed down tales and sagas and myths from generation to generation round a fire, no one would ever have thought about writing or printing them when written language came into being. And so many of the same old stories appear in cultures and communities all over the world. The Flood story for example, versions of Cinderella and Snow White. (If you don’t believe me, read Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales). 

Audiobooks are not new, they’ve been around for nearly a hundred years. The first audiobooks were created for the visually impaired in 1934 and the first commercially produced audiobook (stories by Dylan Thomas) was made available in 1952.

Audiobooks are a boon: for those with sight impairment; for those who want to listen while doing something else – a craft, sewing, cooking, ironing etc; for those whose personalities or abilities make it hard for them to concentrate on a looking at a page, but who can and often do listen better while doing something else (my son, who has ADHD, for example recently listened to Dune, knowing he would never get round to reading it but really wanting to know the novel as it was written before seeing the film).

A story at the end of the day is a story. The enjoyment of a good tale, whether told in a book, a song, a film, a play or just told by someone sitting and speaking is an integral part of the human experience.

So without rambling on any further, here’s my news in case you don’t know. I have been really keen to get my own books turned into audio books and I’m pleased to say that the process has started. The Wrong Sort To Die, is now in audio book form and available from Amazon, Audible and iTunes. 

In case you’re wondering how the process works for an indie author, in brief, I created a document of extracts from the book and ‘auditioned’ those interested in being the narrator. It took some time to whittle down to the one I chose as there are, frankly, so many excellent narrators out there. I am delighted in the one I chose, Madeleine Brolly who narrates beautifully, managing the various accents and characters.

Once she’d completed her narration, I then had to ‘proof-listen’. It is very odd listening to your own words read back to you and odder when you’re listening while reading your own book at the same time. What pleased me was how caught up I got in it myself, even though I had written it. I am looking forward to working with Madeline on Death In The Last Reel soon.

For anyone who’s interested in hearing for yourself here are some links.

For audible in US, UK, France and Germany click on the relevant link below:

US – Audible – Click Here

UK – Audible – Click Here

France – Audible – Click Here

Germany – Audible – Click Here

Click here for the universal Amazon/Audible/iTunes link 

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Image of CD: https://pixabay.com/vectors/cd-dvd-music-play-shine-digital-42872/ Image of cassette: https://pixabay.com/photos/music-cassette-audio-magnetic-tape-1436277/ Image of Ponder & William record from https://www.discogs.com/release/14520264-David-Stevens-Ponder-and-William-Part-2 Image of audiobook app and headphones (adapted) https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-illustration-concept-audio-book-headphones-vector-illustration-flat-design-image67839801

Apple Time in the Historical Experiment Kitchen

It’s apple season and also, after ten days of being banned from cooking due to having covid, time for me to do some cooking ‘archaeology’!

I have a project in hand, adapting the sort of recipes my characters might eat, into something that’s easy to cook in a modern kitchen with modern ingredients, and mindful of modern tastes (specially not boiling vegetables and pasta forever, and being less likely to want to eat brains). So yesterday, I made a Roman/Victorian dinner and the recipes are below.

For recipes which Lucretia in the Murder Britannica series might eat, I refer to Apicius’s Roman Cookery Book (my copy is translated by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum and published by Martino Publishing). My Latin is extremely rusty and the recipes themselves are more guidelines for someone who obviously knows what the normal methods are and another place I visit is the Tavola Mediterranea website where they have worked out ancient recipes from similar instruction and from which I’ve cooked some delicious food. It’s a fascinating website and well worth a visit.

For Margaret and Katherine of the Margaret Demeray and Caster & Fleet series, I use old cookery books, some facsimile, some original, with recipes that an ordinary woman of the late 19th/early 20th century might cook.

Of course their experiences would be quite different. 

Lucretia is rich and thoroughly enjoys as much imported food she can get her hands on, but she hasn’t actually cooked anything herself since she was a very young girl, so would relegate any cooking to an enslaved person, or send an enslaved person to buy ready cooked delicacies from a street trader. A Roman era kitchen was small and full of earthenware. It might have looked like this. I imagined street stalls like the one in the image below (excavated in Pompeii) in the forum in Durnovaria, selling hot pastries, sizzling meat, hot spiced wine and cider in my books. Lucretia wouldn’t have had potatoes, tomatoes, sweet (bell) peppers, chillies etc – all of which we take for granted. But that’s not to say she didn’t like spicy food – there’s ample pepper and fragrant spices in most recipes. Modern tastes of course don’t particularly fancy seasoning food with fermented fish (garum) but you can use modern fish sauce (e.g. the sort for Thai cooking), soy sauce or just salt in its place.

Meanwhile Margaret and Katherine are both middle-class and while both have domestic help (Margaret’s only coming in a few days a week in books one and two), they can both cook – Margaret with significantly more enthusiasm than Katherine. They have kitchens that we’d recognise – with a gas stove and metal pans. A refrigerator is a luxury item, so certainly in the first two Margaret Demeray books, Margaret doesn’t have one, relying instead of a cool pantry and shopping more regularly for perishable goods. It’s perhaps no wonder that the cookery books of the time rely a lot on canned and dried goods like tomatoes and fruit, and are heavily egg and cheese based. Chicken, which we think of as cheap now, was a luxury in Edwardian times (and in fact my parents both considered it a special Sunday food until the 1960s), so recipes for meat dishes tend towards mutton and pork. 

Margaret’s potential recipes look a lot more familiar than Lucretia’s and include curries and pasta dishes and vegetarian cuisine. But you can’t rely on them for timings – half an hour to cook spaghetti? (Was it a different construction then, or did Edwardians just not trust it?) And there’s advice which both agrees and conflicts modern ideas: cook potatoes with skin on but don’t cook vegetables too rapidly or you’ll spoil their colour. 

So going back to yesterday’s Sunday dinner. I experimented on my family with an adaptation of a Roman recipe for main course and a Victorian recipe for dessert. One which Lucretia might have ordered someone make for her and one which even Katherine could cook herself. NB – the pork dish is a good use of leftovers from a pork roast! They were both delicious and went down a treat.

And without further ado, here are the recipes:

PORK WITH MATIAN GRANNY SMITH APPLES

Adapted from Minutal Matianum by Apicius as translated by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

2 tablespoons olive oil
100g (4 oz) ground pork/pork mince 

3 leeks, cleaned and sliced

½ bunch chopped coriander 

500 g (1lb) cooked pork, chopped into large chunks
½ cup chicken stock 

1½ tablespoons fish sauce*
2 large firm eating apples, peeled, cored and diced
3 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
3 teaspoons ground cumin
3 teaspoons ground coriander

Handful of fresh mint leaves
2 garlic cloves
1/3 – ½ cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
¼ cup pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon cracked pepper for garnish

*(I used the sort you use for Thai cooking but you could use soy sauce or just season with salt to taste.)

METHOD

  1. Heat oil.
  2. Saute pork mince till brown, add leeks and coriander.
  3. Add chopped cooked pork.
  4. Add stock and 1 tablespoon of fish sauce and warm through.
  5. Add chopped apples.
  6. Pound together in a pestle or blend: pepper, cumin, coriander, fresh mint, garlic and add this to the pan.
  7. Mix vinegar, honey, pomegranate molasses and remainder of the fish sauce in a cup and add that.
  8. Heat through and thicken with cornflour or beurre manié.
  9. Serve with barley (Roman) or rice (borderline Roman) or potatoes (not Roman at all). I also served it with peas into which I’d mixed crispy bacon and spring onions (scallions).

APPLE HEDGEHOG

(For a version which looks more like a hedgehog and includes another ingredient, check out Mrs Crocombe’s demonstration here.)

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

1 kg/ 2lb Cooking Apples (about 5)

75g, 3 oz sugar

2 egg whites.

Two handfuls of slices almonds

A few raisins or sultanas or currants

A glacé cherry

METHOD

  1. Preheat an oven to 180°C or 350°F or gas 4.
  2. Peel, quarter and core the apples, put in a saucepan with a little water and 25 g/1oz sugar. Heat gently until just cooked (although if you overcook them a little, as I did, it’s not the end of the world. You just want them to retain some structure and not be mush).
  3. Put into an ovenproof dish and shape into a sort of hedgehog (a large mound of apples, with a smaller bit at the front for a head.
  4. While it’s cooling somewhat, whisk the egg whites into soft peaks, then fold in the remaining sugar.
  5. Cover the apples with the meringue mixture and decorate the ‘body’ part with flaked almonds.
  6. Put in the oven for about 20 minutes till the meringue is golden and the almonds just a little brown (keep an eye on it to make sure the almonds don’t burn).
  7. Decorate the face with a glacé cherry for a nose and raisins/sultanas/currants for eyes.

Words and photographs* copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

*photograph of street kitchen in Pompeii Dietmar Rauscher https://www.dreamstime.com/thermopolium-pompeii-ancient-roman-street-food-kitchen-thermopolium-pompeii-ancient-roman-street-food-kitchen-serving-image184835561

Postcard Whisperers

When I was a teenager, in the days before mobile phones (or at least before anyone normal had one) and emails and social media, I started filling a postcard album. 

To start with, I added postcards from schoolfriends, relations and my penfriend in Germany, who sent them from holidays taken in places as exotically distant from each other as the Isle of Wight to the Island of Zakynthos. Later, as a student, I added arty postcards bought from the likes of the shop called Athena (anyone remember Athena?).

And then, of course, I left university and left home and left the postcard album behind with my parents with the majority of the books I’d loved as a child and teenager. 

Eventually, my parents downsized from a fair-sized three-bedroomed semi-detached house to a small two-bedroomed bungalow. Even Dad realised that taking everything would be like trying to pour a jeroboam of champagne into a sherry glass. He asked if I’d mind him getting rid of my old books and like a fool I said no. Somehow though, the long-forgotten postcard album survived and went off with my parents in a large box along with some photographs going back to at least 1910 where my grandmother sat with her sisters, resplendent in auburn ringlets and starched pinafores.

My father only got rid of a fraction of the stuff he needed to before they’d moved and originally shoved what he could into the attic of the little bungalow. When the loft was insulated however, there wasn’t room and the contents were scattered in true hoarder fashion around the place. Inexplicably, various things which didn’t matter were inside the bungalow, while some irreplaceable things were put in an outside shed. I have no idea why. But that’s where they went. 

I didn’t realise this until 2013, my mother, now widowed, moved from the bungalow to an even smaller place near me and I had to go through the agonising process of reducing her belongings.

At some point in the time they’d lived in the bungalow, a hole formed in the roof of the shed. This is not something you want in South Wales, unless you want things to be rain-damaged.

The cine film my grandfather had taken of my father as a child (for example looking at planes on what was then a little airfield called Heathrow) and later films my father had taken of me and my sister as children, were destroyed by water. Maybe something could have been salvaged, but my mother had thrown them out before I knew anything about it. However there I was, on the last day before she had to move, trying to clear out what was left in the shed feeling despair. Among all the water-damaged things that should have been kept safe and dry, I found photographs that could not be salvaged and my old, forgotten postcard album with its pages all stuck together. They had to go.

Fast forward to 2018, by which time I’d forgotten the album if not the photographs, when I was researching for the Caster and Fleet series, in which Katherine Demeray is an 1890s Victorian typist. 

Procrastinating, I looked at a lovely old desk I have and thought how nice it would look with an old typewriter on top, even if I’d be too feeble to actually use it. I did an online search and found exactly what I was looking for… only it was well outside my budget for impulse buys. 

Well within my budget, however, was a sweet postcard with a female typist on it. 

It felt serendipitous and inspiring, so I bought it and later asked a local writer friend Helen Baggott (author of ‘Posted in the Past’ and ‘Second Delivery’) who researches old postcards, if she had any tips. (To find out the fascinating stories Helen has unearthed and about her books, visit her blog here.) It might be hard, she told me, since the date was obscured and the recipient had been at a ‘care of’ address. So… I propped the postcard up on the bookshelf and decided it was a project for another day .

Fast forward once more to this year. I was trying to visualise the sort of postcard which might have been sent in 1912 to Katherine’s younger sister Margaret by her friend Maude during the third book in the series, so I did another search. A lovely postcard of an Edwardian woman with a horse tempted me, but coming from the US, with shipping trebling the overall cost, it was well outside my budget. Then I found something similar in the UK, originally posted to someone living in the next county to where I live now. This time, I decided not only would I purchase it, but discovering that you can still get postcard albums, I bought one of those too.

A few evenings later, I put the postcard of the typist with the missing year and the postcard of the horsewoman from 1910 into their new album. Then, I decided to do a little digging just to see whether I could glean anything about the recipients of the postcards at all. Since I subscribe to both an ancestry site and the British Newspaper Archives, I thought that between them, I might find something out. And I sort of did!

I anticipated that the one with the Edwardian horsewoman and clear postmark of 1910 might be easiest, but it has so far proved hard to get very far. From the 1901 and 1911 censuses, I could work out who the recipient was likely to have been, but I haven’t so far established what might have happened to her before or after it was sent. She was, I think, either Lilian or Florence Stone (the writing makes it hard to know if it’s an L or an F), one of two sisters then in their early twenties, but after that I drew a blank except for a possible date of death many many years later of someone with the same name. 

But the one with the typist and obscured date has proved unexpectedly more serendipitous than I’d imagined it could do. 

After some squinting at the writing to work out what both the recipient and the person she was staying with were called, followed by a lot of rooting in censuses, birth and marriage records of people with the unusual to me (but apparently not in Yorkshire) name Dungworth, I worked that the recipient of the postcard was likely to be a Dorothy Dungworth born in Yorkshire who, at whatever date the card was sent, was staying with her maternal aunt in Kent. 

A little more rooting in the 1939 register, revealed someone with the right name and of the right age (then 40), living in Cardiff and registered as a journalist. Was it the same person? In the 1901 census, Dorothy’s father was recorded as a cycle maker (?). In 1911, her widowed mother was recorded as head of the household, earning her living as a stay maker. Could a girl from a humble background in Yorkshire really end up as a journalist in Cardiff? 

This is where the British Newspaper Archives came into their own. It seemed as if Dorothy had started her writing career by having a fairy story printed in a Yorkshire paper while still in her teens during the First World War. Was this perhaps how she helped her widowed mother with the household finances? Perhaps she was already out of school and working for the paper.

Ultimately, it seemed she did indeed settle in South Wales and wrote for various papers from the late 1920s, throughout World War II and beyond, winning awards and writing about subjects from women’s and workers’ rights to archaeology. 

That evening digging about in records was a good deal more fun than watching the TV or scrolling through social media. But it was exhausting. I haven’t managed to find time or energy to do any more digging since, but I will. 

However, the really curious coincidence is this. In the second Margaret Demeray book Death in the Last Reel, which I wrote after buying the postcard, but before I even thought about finding out about it, one of the characters is a girl from a humble background who wants to be a writer and starts by having a fairy story printed in the local newspaper

I don’t know why that particular character came into being (she came fully formed and remains very vivid to me), any more than I really know why any of my characters do. I don’t know why she wanted to be a writer (although it helped with the plot of course), and I certainly don’t know why it was a fairy story that she had published. 

The postcard to Dorothy Dungworth was watching over me while I pondered, plotted and wrote that book. Did something of her, whose story I didn’t even know then, filter through some creative ether?

It seems unlikely of course, but I do know something – I intend to find out more about Dorothy. And one way or another, I think she’ll end up the inspiration for a new character. 

I think she might even deserve a book of her own. What do you think?

(Oh and if you know anything about either Lilian/Florence Stone or Dorothy Dungworth – let me know!)

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Why Choose A Woman?

In March I was involved in a literary festival, both as an organiser and as a contributor. One of the things I did was to talk about suspense fiction with Helen Matthews and Katharine Johnson. At the end, we opened the floor to the audience. Here are some of the questions, and some of the answers I gave. Feel free to ask me more!

Why choose a woman as a main character in eras when women couldn’t do much? Wouldn’t a man’s life be more exciting?

Who says? Just because until fairly recently, history portrays women (if mentioned at all ) as weak, ineffectual, sentimental, irrational, puppets or playthings, the epitome of purity or full of evil intent, does that mean they really were? History may record queens who changed the destinies of whole countries for good or ill, but there were other women, whose names tend to be forgotten, who made strides in science and arts (see list below), many of these came from very humble beginnings. They climbed mountains and traversed deserts, unhindered by long skirts and corsets. They were private detectives, social reformers, physicians. Why don’t we hear about them from contemporary writers? Perhaps because the writers were mostly men. Maybe those men feared or reviled powerful women or perhaps just simply weren’t interested in writing adventures involving them. Weak? Ineffectual? Not a bit of it. I want to celebrate the sort of women who really existed – not especially important in the greater scheme of things but full of life, intelligence, spirit and determination – and give them something more exciting to do than wait for their menfolk to come home from an adventure.

Why did you decide to write about particular eras?

Partly there’s so much potential. By the late second century in Britain of the Murder Britannica series, the Britons in my books have a degree of political control, and are undoubtedly enjoying everything the Empire has to offer: new foods, easier trade routes, the chance for their sons to join the army and travel and come back with citizenship and wealth. The Empire isn’t as rotten as it will be, even if the Emperor is bonkers. And in Western Britain there’s a reasonable chance you can get away with a little more (and have some fun) if you keep your head down a little.

The late Victorian era of Caster and Fleet is one where women are starting to flex muscles of independence. Careers are starting to open up Nursing has become respectable. A university education (if not a degree) is possible. The bicycle has revolutionised the lives of anyone who can afford one and train travel is affordable for many, opening up the country to people whose ancestors had barely moved five miles for generations. So what does that mean for two young women who can maybe get away from chaperones long enough to investigate crime? Will they rise to the challenge or be held back by convention?

By the late Edwardian era of the Margaret Demeray series, things have moved on again, the old age pension, national insurance and paid holidays are being introduced. But the popular images of the times (often called the Golden Era), full of glamorous elegant clothes and bright parties and rapidly developing innovations like aeroplanes and cinema, contrast violently with a dark underbelly of misery and discord among the poor, the increasing militancy of the suffrage movement, discontent about immigration and working conditions, so there’s a lot to throw at a woman who’s neither rich nor poor, who knows rich people and works among poor people, who wants the vote and social reform but has to decide what price she’ll pay to get it.

Do you ever feel conflicted about what’s going on in an era you’re writing about?

Yes it’s difficult not to be anachronistic about things which sit uncomfortably.

Slavery. Slavery in Roman times was an economic normality – no one would have questioned it at all. It was not a matter of race, but of conquest and also occurred among many of the local peoples of the Empire whether the Romans were there or not. It was unfair and mostly cruel, and a slave was without any form of basic human rights. It was a different sort of slavery to the kind which we tend to think of now. If a slave was freed, there was no social barrier to getting on in life. It was quite possible (and happened) for the grandson of a freed slave to become Emperor regardless of ancestry. However it was still slavery.

The British Empire in the later books. The Caster & Fleet series is set at perhaps the Empire’s heyday, in the Margaret Demeray series, twenty years later, cracks are starting to show, but an average subject in Great Britain might not have noticed. British actions in the Boer War were internationally condemned though how much of this filtered down to the general public is uncertain. The Indian independence movement was gaining ground, and of course the Irish Question was still waiting for an answer. As a modern person, it’s impossible not to feel an abhorrence for the jingoism of the late 19th/early 20th century, lauding the glories of an Empire the wealth of which was built on the suffering of people from across its many nations and which treated native peoples as second or even third class citizens in their own countries. It’s also hard to stomach the way the British government played cat and mouse with the Irish people less than a hundred years after the potato famine had been so woefully handled and probably in living memory of some of the survivors. Margaret and her sister Katherine can see a lot of this for themselves, but it’s unlikely that they’d have viewed it with exactly the same disdain that I do nowadays.

Are your characters’ conflicts ones you recognise for yourself?

Lucretia’s aren’t. She’s stinking rich and I’m not sure she’d recognise an internal conflict unless it hit her on the head and robbed her of her money. She had one once, but she’s long buried it. Or maybe she had two… Tryssa perhaps – having to decide whether to tackle Lucretia and rake up old memories for the sake of the truth, and then having to decide whether or not to move away from the only home she’s known – I can relate to that.

Margaret’s situation is much more relatable. She’s a career woman who in the third book has also recently become a mother. Combining a job she wants to excel at with a family she loves and never quite feeling like she’s giving her best to either, is something I remember very well.

Which character is most like you?

As other authors will say, most of my characters contain aspects of myself. But in terms of who’s most like me, in personality Katherine probably is – she’s a coper whom everyone thinks is confidant but who actually isn’t and who wishes people noticed when she’s struggling. In terms of size, shape and looks, I’m like Lucretia – short, plump, middle-aged. On the other hand, Lucretia wears three inches of make-up and is completely self-deluded. Sometimes, I think it would be quite nice to be self-deluded! But I couldn’t be doing with the make-up.

If you’d been there, what questions would you have asked about my books?

Lesser known women of note

Artists:

Artemisia Gentileschi

19th Century British Female Artists

Sarah Biffin

Female Mathematicians

19th Century Female Mountaineers

Victorian Female Private Detectives

Female Scientists

Women in Medicine

Women Explorers

Women in the Civil Service

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image credit https://pixabay.com/vectors/woman-thinking-sitting-desk-41201/

A Hint of Spices Past

Ingredients: a good book, time, tasty food.

Method: Combine as desired. Try to keep grease spots and crumbs off the book.

VariatIon:

Ingredients: A historical recipe, unfamiliar ingredients, time, and a mixing bowl. 

Method: Follow recipes wondering if they’ll work. Eat the result whatever it turns out like. Don’t worry too much about crumbs and grease spots because they’re a badge of honour on a cookbook.

My interest in what people in ‘olden days’ might have eaten started when I was about nine and read a book called ‘The Gauntlet’ by Ronald Welch. In it, a modern boy is transported back to the Middle Ages and lives as a nobleman’s son in Carreg Cennen castle. At one point, someone brings in a dish of meatballs and there on the page was the recipe for how they were made. It somehow brought the scene alive, not simply to imagine them ‘doing a Henry VIII’ (as my aunt used to say, meaning to eat with ones fingers and chucking bones onto the rush-covered floor for the dogs to munch) but visualising the cook, sweating in the kitchen, preparing something I could actually cook myself one day.

Roll on a few years and as a writer of historical fiction, one of the things I like to research is what people might have eaten and how they might have managed their lives. Below, you can see a selection of my historical cookbooks (original, facsimile, translated).

You might think it’s hard to work out for Lucretia and her fellows in the Murder Britannica books but fortunately, not only are there translations of Apicius’s Cookbook but Farrell Monaco works out a modern version of those recipes and shares them on https://tavolamediterranea.com/ under Edible Archaeology. I’ve cooked a few of them myself for Sunday dinners and very nice they are too. 

It’s easier for the Caster and Fleet and Margaret Demeray books, because if all else fails, there’s Mrs Beeton. I bought my copy a very long time ago from a shop in the Forest of Dean which specialised in secondhand/antique cooking utensils and books. This edition is from the early 1930s though, so wanting to be sure that I had a better idea of what women who had to do their own cooking or at least help with it might have cooked, I sought other books. 

‘The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book’ (facsimile) is interesting, as the recipes were sent in by ordinary women to be compiled into a book which not only would raise money but would suggest things a busy campaigning woman could cook and eat in a short time. They are all very simple, easy, and mostly cheap, nutritious and generally appealing even to modern tastes (maybe eating brains isn’t). There’s a vegetarian section and a sick room section and also practical hints and tips. ‘The Best Way’ book (original) gives pages of simple, flavoursome recipes and explains how to deal with anything from cleaning brass to baby care. I can imagine Margaret and Katherine referring to both of these, although only Margaret can cook well. 

Even though ‘Indian Cookery’ (original and pristine, so not a real cook’s book) dates from 1861. It would have been thirty plus years old by the time the Caster and Fleet and Liz Hedgecock’s Maisie Frobisher mysteries take place, but it’s perhaps possible that in a wealthy household like Connie’s or Maisie’s cook the cook would have had one as Indian cuisine was already very popular in Britain and Maisie has been to India. It was written by Richard Terry, chef de cuisine at the Oriental Club, what is referred to as the first Indian restaurant in London. I’m sure there were already others, run by Indian people with authentic recipes, but were perhaps not appreciated by well-off white British people at that time. The recipes in the book are all called ‘curry’ of course and doubtless are/were unrecognisable to anyone from India. There’s reference to a curry powder blend, the recipe for which is provided and a curry paste which isn’t, perhaps because the author sold it and wanted to keep the ingredients secret. Due to the British Raj, Indian food caught on (and was Anglicised) very quickly and has never looked back, though hopefully nowadays, there’s more authenticity and respect. For a fascinating if sobering article about the early British fascination with Indian cuisine, check out https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/curry-in-colonial-india

Although ‘Indian Cookery’ itself might not have been on the kitchen bookshelf of the average middle class woman like Margaret in the 1910s, don’t let anyone tell you that ‘foreign food’ like pasta, rice and all this spice is a modern thing. 

There are plenty of all of them in the Suffrage Cookbook, Mrs Beeton and ‘The Best Way’ which might have been. Cayenne, curry powder, chillies, curry paste, rice and pasta are all mentioned throughout. The Suffrage Cookbook includes a vegetarian version of babotie (spelled boboté) using a meat substitute called protose. Babotie is a spiced South African dish we often eat at home (meat version) and the recipe I follow is fairly similar. Apart from a slightly worrying recipe for ‘the kind of macaroni called spaghetti’ which boils it for half an hour otherwise, everything is very edible even if the recipes are sometimes a little vague as to method.

I also have a copy of ‘A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes’ first published in 1852, which aimed to help people on a limited budget cook nutritiously. This is a suggestion of what should be in a basic kitchen:

  • A cooking stove (with oven and with or without boiler)
  • A three gallon boiling pot
  • A one gallon saucepan with lid
  • A two quart ditto
  • A potato steamer
  • A frying pan
  • A twelve gallon copper for washing or brewing (or presumably both though not at the same time)
  • A gridiron (griddle/girdle/bakestone)
  • A mash tub
  • Two cooling tubs (or an old wine or beer cask cut into two would be cheaper and do the same)

The total cost for all this was apparently £6/12/4 – six pounds, twelve shillings and fourpence. To put this in context, even a clerk might be lucky to earn one pound a week and someone further down the social scale a lot less. The author (chief cook to Queen Victoria) suggests that if the reader doesn’t have enough savings to buy these, then they should save up. How long would that have taken given that your £1 per week also had to pay for rent and food? Having doubtless depressed the average working class wife and told her she must keep everything clean, the author next suggests a Sunday dinner for a family of ten with leftovers for the next day of boiled beef with cabbage and potatoes with suet pudding or dumplings. He says it will cost perhaps three shillings (and to note that small children only really need the dumplings). On a wage of £1 a six day working week, three shillings would have been one day’s wages. I imagine the leftovers may have lasted more than one day. You only need to read ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ to get an idea of how hard things could be . (Sadly they still are, and it’s good to know there are resources for cooking on a very limited budget, https://cookingonabootstrap.com/category/recipes-food/ being one.)

Going back to my research, of course, just reading the recipes is no good, I like to try them too. Yesterday, I had a historical baking afternoon. 

I made some Richmond Maids of Honour Tarts (bottom right on the plate), which have a history going back to Henry VIII’s time. The original recipe (which allegedly once involved a maid being locked up) is a closely guarded secret (though I assume she’s been let out by now). So I used this one by Delia Smith.

As April 25th was Anzac Day, (which commemorates the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who lost their lives in the Gallipoli campaign on 25th April 1915) I also made some Anzac biscuits (top). The recipe I followed to avoid having to choose between NZ or Aussie recipes was my gran’s and you can see it below (and a photograph of the original in her writing).

Finally I thought I’d go back to Roman times and make some barley biscuits with cheese and figs (left) from the Tavola Mediterrea site. 

How did it go? The tarts, while looking nothing like Delia’s are delicious. I used ready rolled puff pastry which I put in a patty pan and ended up with 12 tarts and a small amount of leftover filling. The Anzac biscuits, are delicious too, even though I had to use granulated instead of brown sugar (I’d run out and went to the shop to get some and of course forgot and came out with something else entirely as you do). The barley biscuits dough possibly needed more water as the dough was quite dry, but the end result is very good, a little like an oatcake biscuit. I drizzled them with maple syrup and the cheeses are Mantego, Cheddar and Philadelphia.

What’s on the menu today? Well, I have some cod and a Roman recipe book. What about Patella Lucretianam? It’s a cod recipe with herbs and spring onions. I have all of those. And according to the book, ‘Lucretius has yet to be identified.’ What if it wasn’t a Lucretius? What if a certain Lucretia inspired the recipe and Apicius wrote it down wrong? Mmm.  It seems a bit bland for Lucretia. Now what’s in the fridge that’ll go with cod and onions really well? Aha! Chorizo. I can pretend it’s spicy Lucanian sausage. That’ll be right up Lucretia’s street. 

Now where’s my pinny?

Granny D’s Anzac biscuits

1 cup flour

1 cup rolled oats

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup desiccated coconut

1 tablespoon hot water

125g margarine

2 tablespoons golden syrup (black treacle may be used)

Method

  • Preheat oven to Gas mark 4; 180°C; 350°F
  • Heat the margarine and syrup gently together.
  • Mix all dry ingredients together, except bicarbonate.
  • Pour well stirred margarine and syrup into the dried ingredients.
  • Add the bicarbonate mixed with water.
  • Mix all together.
  • Make into walnut sized balls, put onto biscuit tray well spaced.
  • Bake for about 15 minutes.
  • Reverse trays on shelves after 5 mins, turning trays for even cook.
  • These are more gooey if slightly undercooked.

Words and photograph copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Jobs For The Girls

Aged five, I was asked to draw what I wanted to be when I grew up. I drew a woman in a headscarf wielding a broom and smiling. A happy housewife.

What was I thinking? I never wanted to be a housewife.

I actually wanted to be a secretary, but couldn’t draw one because I didn’t actually know what a secretary did except something to do with writing (which I liked) and typewriters which fascinated me (and still do).

So I drew a housewife, which is what my mum was at the time, even though I didn’t actually want to be one and she probably didn’t want to be one either. I didn’t know what secretaries did, but I knew what housewives did and because I was a very lucky little girl with a very lovely mum, this was it: they help their children read and write and do crafts and make scones and bake fresh bread to eat after school and they’re always smiling and pretty. 

It didn’t occur to me that housewives were supposed to keep things tidy and dust. That sort of nonsense didn’t happen in our house when there were paintings to paint and scones to cook. And I don’t recall Mum ever wearing a headscarf, certainly not while sweeping the floor and grinning like a loon, but that’s what I drew anyway.

A couple of years later, Mum went back to part-time work starting as a nursing assistant and ending up as a civil servant. This was at the time a little embarrassing as no one else’s mum worked, but nevertheless reinforced the idea that it was more interesting to have a job than do housework, so I started to think about possible careers. 

Being a nurse briefly appealed, but that was because I liked the uniform and cute little hat. (Many years later, my sister, who did become a nurse, had a very different view of the ‘cute little hat’, which had to be folded into exactly the right shape every day. She was regularly tempted to crush it into a ‘cute little missile’ and throw it at Matron.) 

Other children said I ought to be a teacher (helpful or bossy?), but by the time I was seven I’d already decided that both nursing and teaching would be unbearably noisy and involve too much blood, mud, snot, tears and whining (and that would just be me).

By the time I was a teenager, I wanted to be a writer, but knew it probably wouldn’t pay the bills. The urge to be a secretary had faded but the possibility of teaching lurked. Beyond that, I had no ideas whatsoever, except I didn’t want to be a civil servant. By then my mother could quote more form numbers and their function than anyone surely ever needed to know. I never wanted to be in a job where I had to know form numbers.

So there I was in the fifth form, trying to make sensible decisions about my future, going for an appointment with the school careers adviser.

When I was sixteen, Computer Studies was still a new and weird O level option which involved a small group of students (even geekier than I was) huddling round some a box in a cupboard which was linked somehow to the County Council’s mainframe and spewed code. To me, Computer Studies were niche and unacademic and of doubtful use.

This is why I didn’t know what a data entry form was when the careers adviser handed me a brown form with a lot of squares marked next to a range of questions and explained that all I had to do was put blobs in the right places and a computer would analyse my responses and produce the perfect career just for me.

With great excitement at this interesting promise, I scored my enthusiasm levels in terms of interests, skills and school subjects from one to ten and handed the form back. A week later, I was given the result. Apparently my ideal career was:

A forestry worker working in forests for the Forestry Commission. 

You couldn’t get much more indoorsy than I am. So, deciding the whole thing was nonsense, I went off to do A levels in English, French and Latin, realising a little too late when I emerged from university with an English degree slap bang into a recession a few years later, that Computer Studies might have been niche and unacademic … but could have given me a better chance of getting a well paid job. Or indeed any sort of job.

Nevertheless, battling my way through the situations vacant pages for about a year, I continued to ignore the advice of the careers computer.

I did various things after university, including abandoning a post graduate teacher training course when I realised I’d make a terrible teacher and that the average eleven year old was taller than me. But none of my jobs have involved trees other than in the form of desks and paper, and I’m proud to state that I’ve followed my mother’s lead in not worrying unduly about the more boring aspects of housework by prioritising to cooking and creating. (Nor have I often worn a headscarf.)

Eventually, I did join the Civil Service (one of the more interesting branches) ‘until something better turns up’ but it didn’t and here I am still working for the same organisation, towards the end of a career involving various roles in various places, splinters from career ladder rungs deep in my fingertips. Now, despite my lack of a Computer Studies O Level, I’m working on the IT development side. Yet after twenty-two years, I’m still able to quote form numbers and their uses despite not having needed to do so since 2005.

I often wonder whether what went wrong with that prototype careers analysis I tried at sixteen. 

Was it the programme? The data entry form? The data enterer? Was it my answers? Or was it something else?

What would have happened if it had come up with a career choice that really appealed? Would I have had the courage to go for it? If so, where could I be now?

Or … what if I got someone else’s results and they got mine? 

Maybe somewhere out there is a born lumberjack who was told to be whatever I should be been rather than working with trees in a forest. If so, I wonder whether they went with their instincts or the computer’s suggestion? 

And if I got their results, what was my perfect career? It certainly wasn’t housewife.

What do you reckon?

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image https://pixabay.com/vectors/cleaning-silhouette-maid-duster-5196528/