Heart of Quartz

Last Monday I ‘attended’ the funeral of a lovely person who was younger than I am, who died from secondary breast cancer. She was always adamant that this shouldn’t be described as a battle nor her as brave, so I won’t. However, typing these words alone makes me fill up. She was a number of lovely things and among them was writer. She blogged and she was writing a novel. 

She didn’t finish.

All of us will eventually leave something unfinished and her daughter is a writer too and I hope, when she is able to, that she’ll complete the novel and get it published for the world. And really – of the things that matter – Edwina was complete and beloved: funny, faithful, honest and pragmatic; mother, daughter, friend, partner. 

Of course most of us worry we won’t complete all the things we want to, me included. The day-job and various responsibilities seem determined to stop me from getting any writing done, not to mention my own ability to procrastinate and side-track myself.

I had a day’s leave from work on Thursday, and a chance conversation led me on a whim to ask if I could borrow a room in an old building to do some writing away from my home with all its noise and responsibilities and drains to creativity. 

The building’s normally an alternative therapy centre, so I wrote in an upper room bathed in sunshine which was also glinting off candles and crystals and bright, colourful throws and pictures.

Since I was there, I’d decided to buy some crystals for my daughter. 

My friend who sells them told me to go with what called to me. My daughter had said she’d like a piece of quartz and among the pretty bracelets, I found the one in the blurry photograph below. 

It’s a funny sort of shape and looks a little chipped and the outside is not perfectly smooth, dull almost – but if you hold it up to the light, there appear to be smoky clouds inside. As you twist and turn it, you can see them curling in a seemingly infinite dance.

I thought of what message I was sending to my daughter if I bought it: here’s a gift which is clearly imperfect and looks a little battered on the outside. 

But that’s how I feel sometimes and know she does too.

And… inside this piece of quartz, those smoky clouds are like a curious inner world of magic and imagination to draw on. 

So I bought it, sent it to her and explained. 

‘I love it,’ she said.

Oh and just in case you’re wondering how the writing went, I managed to write the most words I’ve written in a day for ages: nearly 5,000. This is nothing to many authors, but it was good for me. It was exhausting. 

I don’t know if it was the sunshine or the crystals or just being away from home for a bit, but it felt good.

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.

Viewscapes

They say that eyes are the windows of the soul, but I’m not convinced.

If we could look into someone’s eyes and gauge exactly what sort of person was behind them, the world would be a much happier place. We’d immediately see the kind heart or the cruel one. We’d know whether it was wise to accept that drink, that lift, that date, that election promise, that viewpoint. 

Sadly however we can’t, and get caught up in trappings, attractiveness, eloquence and prejudice instead.

So what about windows themselves? Are they the eyes of a house?

When I told my German pen-friend (in English) that a house looked down on a river, she thought the idiom highly amusing. 

‘How can a house “look”?’ she said. ‘It’s not alive. It doesn’t have eyes.’

I hadn’t thought it a peculiar thing to say until that moment. But I mentally shrugged. It seemed fine by me. Almost every house I’ve ever been in seems to have a personality. 

Between birth and going to university at eighteen, I lived in six homes: one flat and five semi-detached houses. I don’t remember the flat, but I had a dream a few years ago in which I ‘knew’ I was there, lying in my pram ‘watching’ part of my little world – a dark hall and dark shrubbery in the garden. My mother says this is about right. 

I remember the next two two houses as being dark too. I’ve no idea why. They were both relatively new, built with typical big 1950s/60s windows. Maybe it was the Victorian and Edwardian inherited clutter and furniture inside that made them dark. I recall that my bedroom window in the second house/third home came down to the floor. After bedtime, unbeknownst to my parents, I’d get up to read by the light coming in from outside, whether the last of the summer sun or by the orange light of the street lamps.

I was about six and a half when we moved to the third house/fourth home. It was brand-new and had huge windows. The one from the sitting room was actually a patio door, but being at the back, faced a high hedge at the end of our very small garden. However beyond the hedge and visible from my bedroom window was a barley field. I would watch for hours when the barley was growing, watching it swirl and dance like the sea. In my mind’s eye, it has perpetually swished in golden-green waves ever since, but I’ve just checked, and like most of what were then meadows round a village, it’s now buried under houses and probably has been for many years.

We moved to South Wales about two years later and rented our fifth home/fourth house for a few months while the sale of one house and the purchase of another went through. 

The house we rented was also brand-new, half way up (in fact clinging to) a mountain, front-door nose to nose against a forest. There was nothing to see but trees out of those windows, but out of the back, we could see for miles towards other distant mountains, across our village and across the narrow-gauge single-track railway line and the river to another village where our next house would be. 

There was something like a twenty foot drop from the sitting room windows to the sloping back garden. A couple of years ago, the village featured on one of those ‘perfect home search’ programmes and lo and behold, in the background of one shot was that row of houses still clinging to the mountain, including ours. 

‘I’d forgotten that drop,’ I said to Mum.

‘It was dead handy,’ she replied. ‘Once I found some fillets of fish in the freezer which had frozen to each other, so I dropped them out of the kitchen window so they’d break apart when they hit the garden.’ 

(Is it only my mother would think this was a normal and logical thing to do?)

Neither that house nor the one before had personalities – they were perhaps too new. 

But the final family home we had more than made up for their lack of it. 

I pretty much loathed that house from the off, but had no choice of course but to endure it for the ten years till I went to university. I won’t go on about it now, although there are hints in The Cluttering Discombobulator which includes our first year there. But chaotic (and I swear sometimes downright malignant) as that house was, the one thing you couldn’t fault it on was windows. 

From the front, you could see up and down the long street. As a little girl, you could see when a friend was coming to play, or see the path to the woods and as a teenager, you could (as I did) sit for hours and look out at the rainy evening, waiting for headlights which might mean that the boy who’d broken your heart had changed his mind and was coming to visit after all. 

The sink where my sister and I did the washing up (arguing throughout the process every time) was at the side of the house in the kitchen extension (which makes it sound more glamorous than the freezing, leaking, draughty place which it actually was). You could see right down the road and once I watched a neighbour walk his beautiful Irish setter up the hill as he often did, only remembering when he disappeared out of sight that he’d recently died. The window above this extension was the bathroom window which I once climbed out of to put tar on the worst of the leaks aged nine (yes honestly) and had to break in through aged twelve when we got locked out.

But it was the back of the house which had the best views. 

I missed my English barley sea. Our bit of Wales had rougher, wetter, harsher countryside. And the scenery was wilder too but no less beautiful for that. 

From my bedroom, you could see clear down across a tussocky field to the trees lining the river edge, then up the slope to the other village and up to the mountain’s top. In autumn and winter, you could see the trains screech along the railway. 

The house had been built before central heating was normal and all but one of the fireplaces had been bricked up long before we arrived. When my parents eventually put radiators in they didn’t include the bedrooms (which was more normal in the UK at the time than you’d think). They were all therefore cold and in winter, there was occasionally ice on the inside of my window but I didn’t really mind, the bed was warm. My room faced west, so I’d often kneel up in bed at night and look out  to watch the late summer sun setting past the mountain, knowing that the sea was not so far beyond. 

And oh – when there was a thunderstorm! While rain hammered down on the roof above and sliced through the grey air, lightning seemed to set the mountain on fire, the village appearing and disappearing in violent flashes as I watched, mesmerised. 

I’ve never had a view like it in a home since. But maybe I haven’t needed one in the same way. 

Perhaps I needed that view then, because I always wanted to be somewhere else: because when I wasn’t yearning for the place I’d left until it became mythical, I wanted to travel to new worlds, into the west, into the storm, and as adolescence struck, looked forward to growing up and leaving my family home to create my own home.

These days, I’m content where I am and more or less with who I am. 

I’m still lucky enough to have good views from my house, but none to compare with a mountain. 

Often, if I look outside, it’s for writing inspiration or because now I’m doing the day job from home, the wildlife, the neighbours’ cats and the innumerable delivery vehicles are sometimes more interesting than what I’m supposed to be doing. 

So are windows the soul of the house? Or the soul of the person inside the house looking out? 

On reflection, I honestly think it’s a little bit of both.

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 215064943 © Galina Yureva | Dreamstime.com

Rude Words and Literature

We had a number of family words which were often completely baffling to outsiders. This was sometimes because of where we lived and sometimes because they’d been made up – usually by my father.

The most embarrassing of these was ‘tuppence’ which was the family euphemism for faeces. The word ‘poo’ was considered rude by my father (I have no idea why) and so he’d invented ‘tuppence’. There was a sort of logic to this. The common British euphemism for urinating was ‘to spend a penny’ (as that was once the coin used to enter a public toilet). Therefore it followed that to do anything more substantial should cost two-pence (or tuppence). I had no idea this wasn’t a normal vernacular term until I used the word at school to widespread and derisive bafflement. 

We called woodlice ‘polliwogs’ even though apparently it’s usually a word used for tadpoles. When we moved to Wales, we found them nick-named roly-polies or wood-pigs. (For a glimpse at the various regional names there are for this little creature click here – let me know if you recognise any or have alternatives.) 

We also used Scottish words which my mother had grown up with: ‘hoaching’ for full of people, ‘dreich’ for dreary, ’fankle’ for tangle (as in ‘you’re getting into a right fankle with that’), ‘I’ll take it to avizandum’ (meaning ‘I’ll think about it before making a decision’). I thought the latter was entirely made up until I discovered it’s the Scottish law equivalent of the English & Welsh law ‘reserved judgment’. 

Over the years spent in Wales we added Welsh expressions which I now use in England to general incomprehension: ‘dwt’ (rhyming with ‘foot’) means very small (‘she’s only a dwt’) and ‘twti’ (rhyming with ‘footie’) means to crouch down (‘I had to twti down to get it’), ‘tamping’ for furious, ’cwtch’ for cuddling. 

Sadly, at school there were few attempts to interest students in the hidden gems of any language: English, Welsh, anything. 

The older we got, the worse it got.The compulsory learning of some Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens ought to have given plenty of scope in words and phrases which would have delighted us as teenagers and added to our vocabulary of fruity insults.

But the classics were mostly taught as something proper, prim, respectable, dull. There was a distinct connection drawn between ‘literature’ and ‘posh’ which made us miss all the richness of language which is often very earthy, if not downright rude.

While the London vernacular in Dickens could be broadly understood at a distance of 150 years and 180 miles, 13th century Chaucer might as well have been another language. 

We were told The Miller’s Tale was completely off the curriculum but not why. None of us however, could face trying to work it out by getting past

Whan that the Knyght had thus his tale tooled,

In al the route was ther yong ne oold

That he ne seyde it was a noble storie

Besides, ‘noble storie’ made it sound nothing like a tale in which someone kisses someone else’s ‘ers’ thinking it’s their face.

As for Shakespeare, his works were taught in such a way as to bore a corpse. 

The teacher’s approach in O Level (14-16 year old) classes was to make us read aloud from The Merchant of Venice – not act, just read. He often picked the shy boy whose voice hadn’t broken properly to read the lead romantic role who’d then have to struggle through the most dialogue, to general sniggering by the less sensitive pupils in the class. I recall virtually nothing of the play except that. 

In the A level English class (16-18), we studied The Tempest and Macbeth. I loved Macbeth because I ‘got it’ immediately and to be fair, our rather prim, ‘old’ (she was probably about 45) teacher did a good job of bringing it to life.

She never quite grasped why the class sniggered at 

Enter a bleeding captain. 

Duncan: ‘What bloody man is that?’

But she waggled her eyebrows to see if we understood the discussion in Act 2 Scene 3 between MacDuff and the Porter about the effects of alcohol on one’s love life. 

Then she took us to join all the other sixth formers in our area to see Roman Polanski’s film version of Macbeth in the cinema, and missed something that an auditorium of seventeen and eighteen year olds didn’t.

It’s Act 5, Scene 1. 

After instigating murder, the guilt-ridden Lady M mutters to herself as she tries to scrub imaginary blood from her hands, observed by a doctor and a gentlewoman. Despite the fact that the play is set in a Scottish stone castle in the middle ages during truly dreich weather which would normally require at least three layers of clothes, for reasons best known to Roman Polanski, in the film Lady Macbeth is wandering around stark naked. 

Deeply concerned, the doctor turns to the gentlewoman and says: ‘What a sigh is there.’ 

What was heard by the entire auditorium of 17-18 year olds watching a nude actress cross the screen in front of them was ‘What a size they are’.

Every single sixth former fell about laughing. 

Naturally, on returning to school, the person our English teacher asked to explain why 200 young people guffawed at the most poignant moment in the film was me

Not only was I not brought up to say anything my father perceived to be rude, I was also brought up to think even a white lie was awful. But at that moment I caved in to self-preservation and the desire to retain my classmates’ respect and mumbled ‘Dunno Miss.’

I think that sums up what was wrong with the way I was taught Shakespeare in school. 

I have a very strong suspicion, that if he had been in that cinema, Shakespeare would have fallen about laughing too and subsequently written the sniggering teenagers and baffled teachers into a play.

And I doubt there’d have been a euphemism in sight.

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 73130714 © Björn Wylezich | Dreamstime.com

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

What Three Things?

There are several ways to develop characters, but this is one I’ve heard from several writers. It was author Chantelle Atkins who encouraged me to write it down. 

The idea is to answer the following:

  1. What three things does the character want?
  2. What three things does the character fear?
  3. What three things are stopping them from getting what they want?
  4. In what three ways is the character unreliable?

Having to think of three things rather than just one means you can’t escape down the easiest path. This helps make them more three-dimensional. It also provides ideas for what might create tension in the plot and how the character needs to develop. 

I’m currently working on the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die, set in 1911. If I give one answer for each question about Dr Margaret Demeray, I’d end up with:

  • She wants to progress her career
  • She fears being passed over because of her gender
  • She’s hindered by a society which inhibits women pursuing careers particularly if they marry
  • She’s unreliable because she tends to lose her temper and speak/act before she listens/thinks

Thinking about it harder the three answers for each question would be:

  • Margaret wants to progress her career
  • She wants to be in a loving, equal relationship (and maybe have a little romance) as well as have a career
  • She wants equality not just for women but for everyone, regardless of gender, class or race
  • She fears being passed over because of her gender
  • She fears living alone forever
  • She fears boredom
  • She’s hindered by a society which inhibits women pursuing careers particularly if they marry
  • She’s hindered by a society in which someone (particularly female) is more likely to be called immoral because of perceived sexual behaviour than because of actual abuse of power. 
  • She’s hindered by 1911 modes of communication
  • She’s unreliable because she tends to lose her temper and speak/act before she listens/thinks
  • She’s unreliable because she protects herself from being hurt by not trusting people who love her.
  • She’s unreliable because wanting to support the underdog makes her easy to manipulate

Now Margaret is in a situation where she not only has to choose where her life is going, but also has to convince Fox that what appears to be an accident is not just murder, but connected to espionage.

What if tackling both these problems forces her into an alliance with Miss X whose wants, fears, hindrances and unreliabilities don’t quite align with Margaret’s?

  • Miss X wants to progress her career
  • She wants to be respected
  • She wants equality not just for women but for everyone regardless of gender, class or race (but she thinks there needs to be a long, slow process to get there)
  • She fears being passed over because of her gender
  • She fears dying alone
  • She fears disruption and change
  • She’s hindered by a society which inhibits women pursuing careers particularly if they marry
  • She’s hindered by women like Margaret who are trying to change society rapidly 
  • She’s hindered by knowing she will not be forgiven if she makes a mistake
  • She’s unreliable because she would rather avoid risk than take a necessary action
  • She’s unreliable because she hasn’t dealt with how she feels about choosing a career over marriage
  • She’s unreliable because she can’t admit when she makes a mistake

What clashes will occur if they have to work together? Will they hinder each other? Or will they, in fact, help each other? 

Although I’m talking about characters who are complete figments of my imagination, today, I thought about whether those four questions could have any relevance outside a fictional setting. I think they do.

If the last few years have shown us anything, it’s how depressingly easy it is for people to become polarised in their views. 

I haven’t navel-gazed for a number of years but do think that periodically re-examining my views is worth doing. After all, if they’re valid, they should be able to take some honest scrutiny. 

I wonder if part of the reason it’s so easy for us not only to end up on opposite sides of a fence but at the far side of our personal paddock is because if we do ask ourselves questions, we only ask the first three and tend to stop at one answer for each. That way, the chances are we’ll disagree.

I want…

I’m afraid of…

I’m hindered by…

If we think of three answers to each question however, the chances are that we’ll agree on more than we think.

And secondly, if we’re all honest about how, why and in what way we’re unreliable, maybe we can look at both our own views and others’ more honestly and with more depth.

It’s the only way we can start to discuss how to move forward and not back, make things better for everyone, not worse.

Going back to Margaret and Miss X, who knows how they’ll influence each other as the book unfolds. 

Will Miss X convince Margaret that she should give up hopes of love? Not in a million years. Will Margaret convince Miss X that she should chain herself to the railings of Downing Street? Probably not. 

But they do have three things which they (and I) definitely agree about: 

  • After a hard day at work, no woman has the energy to cook anything but toast, and potentially the worst thing about married life would be a man demanding a fiddly meal or worse still, cooking it himself using ALL the pans and utensils.
  • A woman living on her own needs a cat to come home to.
  • It definitely wasn’t an accident and if no-one pays attention soon, someone else is going to die. 

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

Resolving Not To Resolve

At a work meeting via Teams on 31st December, a colleague asked who had achieved their 2020 resolutions. While there was the usual mumbling about getting fit and losing weight, most people felt just getting from January to December in 2020 had been enough of a challenge and had long since forgotten what they’d vowed to achieve.

Naturally this included me, so I looked back on the resolutions I recorded here

The plan:

  1. Publish two books
  2. Learn to crochet
  3. Maybe join a choir
  4. Live more sustainably
  5. Be more spiritually aware
  6. Get on with clearing attic

The reality:

  1. Despite the odds, I published two books and got into an anthology. The Wrong Sort to Die came out in June. I have a story in Wartime Christmas Tales and Liz Hedgecock asked if I fancied writing a short Christmas Caster & Fleet resulting in The Case of the Peculiar Pantomime in December.
  2. I learned to crochet enough to produce an indescribable thing. However, despite watching tuition videos, I never feel like I had enough hands to make the magic circle I needed to create anything interesting. I’m not sure I could even make a coaster.
  3. I joined a choir, then Mum got ill, then Covid-19 happened so… Maybe another year.
  4. The best I can say about sustainable living is that due to Covid-19, my husband and I have both been working from home and not using the cars (and in my case, train); we haven’t driven about much in our leisure time; we didn’t fly to Spain as planned in September.
  5. I enjoyed some aspects of the first lock-down. The skies were clearer, you could hear nature better, it was so peaceful. I liked having weekends when I didn’t feel I ought to be somewhere else and fortunately everyone in my household got on. On the other hand, while I’m lucky to live in a pretty country town, doing the same walk every day gets on my nerves sometimes. Also, my husband treats every walk like a route-march so I take to occasionally going on my own, ambling along the river, absorbing the sounds and sights. I think generally my head was buzzing so much with so many conflicting and stressful things in 2020 that I found both creativity and spiritual awareness extremely hard. Learning to be still is something I find hard naturally but I’ll keep trying.
  6. No chance on clearing the attic whatsoever. As we weren’t furloughed (which I’m glad about of course) we didn’t have the time in the week. At weekends, there was nowhere to take any stuff: the dump was shut and so were the charity shops. To add to everything already in the attic, when the country locked-down my daughter came home from university bringing all her stuff and then a couple of months later, my son came home after graduating, bringing all his stuff. I’m now worried that the odd creaking sounds in the attic are not the friendly household ghost, but the ceiling about to give way.

I note that I wished for you:

  • Space and time for creativity in whatever form that works for you
  • Space and time to connect with the world around you and maybe beyond you
  • Feeling loved and able to give love
  • The chance to wave goodbye to the things that dragged you down in 2019 and find things that lift you up in 2020
  • That your joys might outnumber your worries and if not, you might find comfort through the worry
  • That you might realise that your very existence is part of the jigsaw which makes the world tick even if that sometimes doesn’t feel blindingly obvious

I hope that somehow those came true despite everything, but I doubt I’m the only one who felt a greater than usual pleasure taking down my 2020 calendars marking a year which seemed simultaneously to go on forever and yet somehow not quite happen.

We have several calendars. 

The appointments one in the kitchen has a column for each person and we block out the weeks when we’re going on holiday. After March, all the blocked out weeks which should have been holidays mocked us. From January to August 2020 almost all the appointments were in my column and worried me sick. They were either reminders for me to take Mum to hospital or reminders that I needed to be taken to hospital myself.

Meanwhile, my writing calendar had writing goals and deadlines mapped out. I failed to meet every single one.

But… I’m tempted to keep both calendars, to remind me of worries which turned out to be manageable and that though plans went awry, the world is still turning. 

My 2021 writing goals calendar is a Moomin one, because if there’s a fictional world I wouldn’t mind moving to, it’s theirs. Moominmama, regardless of comets, floods, Moominpapa’s midlife crisis or Moomintroll’s adolescent moodiness remains perfectly turned out. She knows that if coffee and cake can’t solve the problem immediately, then waiting for a bit then offering coffee and cake probably will. She reminds me very much of my paternal grandmother.

So, I’m not making 2021 resolutions, I’m simply going to try and follow my grandmother’s (and perhaps Moominmama’s) philosophy: 

  1. If everyone puts other people and the common good first, then no-one will ever come second. 
  2. Only worry about things you can control and even then, don’t worry but plan.
  3. If your plans go to pot, adapt. The world will not end. Go with the flow and you may end up somewhere even more exciting than you’d expected and if not – refer to no. 2 and 5.
  4. Whenever you can, do something creative just for fun without necessarily judging the result.
  5. If you can do it without breaking no. 1, treat yourself from time to time without guilt. Life is too short not to.

Happy New Year!

(And if you’re reading this between 4th & 11th January 2021, just to let you know that Murder Britannica will be on Countdown Deal on Amazon UK & US as hopefully the third in the series is on the way.)

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.

Hallowe’en 2020 – Post Event Evaluation

‘Failed!’ shouted the new Head of Haunting, slapping a ghostly performance dashboard. ‘All you have to do was scare people witless. One night. Once a year. That’s it. We talked it through. We had a plan. But you failed.’

We didn’t have a plan,’ muttered the Elf Queen. ‘You did.’

The Head of Haunting flicked her a glare. ‘I’m getting the flip chart and sticky-notes.’ He vanished into another dimension.

‘Oh no,’ grumbled a spectral Train-Driver. ‘He’s going to do modern management. That’s what comes from recruiting fast-screamers. None of that rubbish in my day.’

‘When was your day exactly?’ breathed the Chief Ghoul.

‘Before the Romans,’ said the Train-Driver. ‘Started on a ghost chariot, then half a millennium later I got a carriage with skeleton horses, then in 1860, I started running the midnight special from Waterloo to Hades. Mwaha—’ He slumped. ‘My heart’s not in it this year. Not that I’ve got one. The druids removed it. Weirdos.’

‘Meh. Druids,’ said the Elf Queen. ‘They weren’t as weird as the Rock Shifters. All those stupid massive stones – “right a bit, left a bit, can’t have them misaligned or the elves’ll come in”. Like a lump of rock’s gonna stop The Fair Folk from crossing the veil.’

‘Unless the lump of rock’s got iron,’ suggested the Ghoul. ‘That does for you and witches doesn’t it?’

‘Like that’s logical,’ said the Spokeswitch. ‘The Rock Shifters didn’t have iron. And what do you think my best eye-of-toad boiling cauldron was made of?’

The Elf Queen sighed. ‘Life used to be simple. We crossed the veil, had a bit of a laugh and popped back again. My grandmother says… Oh hang on, he’s back.’

The Head of Haunting reappeared and pinned some transparent flip-chart covered in sticky-notes to the ether. One by one, the sticky-notes slid off and vanished. ‘Right!’ he snapped. ‘Ghosts, ghouls and witches: the Existential-Dreadograph didn’t shift one bit on Hallowe’en. What went wrong?’

‘We tried,’ said the Train-Driver after a pause. ‘But humans seem beyond scaring this year.’

‘Humph.’ The Head of Haunting turned his icy glare on the Elf Queen. ‘What’s the elves’ excuse? All you had to do was lure a few foolish mortals back to our realm. But I gather not one of you did. In fact-’ he flicked a ghostly finger down an eek-Pad, ‘-according to the data, none of you has crossed the veil since last Winter Solstice. Why not?’

The Elf Queen shuddered. ‘What fool would want to visit the human realm this year? And as for luring people back, we wouldn’t need to lure them. They’d be fighting to come here even if we admitted there was no gold or lover waiting, just… processing.’

‘It’s true,’ breathed the ghoul. ‘Hallowe’en was wasted this year. Everything is already too scary in the mortal realm. Put away your problem-solve mate and admit the truth. We just can’t compete with 2020.’

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.