Creative Writing July competition

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‘Holidays’ is the theme for the Telegraph Creative Writing Group July short story competition. A comment by a fellow Facebooker about the Memories of Sand inspired this month’s story.

What makes a story? Apart from the geological insights, I have added some personal memories of much revered family friends, photographs of the Normandy beaches taken on holiday in July 2010, the name of a girl who was once at infant school with my son (to please Maggy), my husband’s dislike of sand, and a remark made by a lady to whom I recently sold our folding bikes, about not being able to get into Ouistreham for the D-Day ceremonies. Not much happens in the story, some subtle shifts of attitudes perhaps, but it’s all about how we remember. Holidays are the most ephemeral of creatures, after all.

‘Victorian values’

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Recently I have had to park in a different place in the hospital where I work, and it was with a sort of grim delight that I photographed these mid Victorian buildings in an obscure corner of the hospital grounds. IMG_0118The remains of the mid-Victorian West Bromwich Union Workhouse infirmary (above is the former ‘Itch and Venereal Ward’) date from around 1857-8.

IMG_0125IMG_0127I suspect that the old iron railings and brick piers fronting onto the street also date from this time.IMG_0129At that time the workhouse and all the trappings of the Poor Law were feared and loathed by many. Victorian values – the work ethic, a stern religiosity and harsh class divisions, in which the ruthless capitalists preyed upon the poor in a laissez-faire economy, have had a bad press. Historians express surprise that England did not tumble into revolution during the 19th century.

But the picture was more complex. In some cities, Birmingham for example, the social divides were narrower, with much manufacturing being in small workshops where a craftsman could easily become an employer, and vice versa. The Birmingham Political Union, in which working class and middle class people campaigned together, was a driving force behind the Reform Act. There grew a concept of civic pride, in which citizens worked together in the newly incorporated towns to build their local infrastructure. And, nationally, there were plenty of people who campaigned for political reform, for education, and for public health. The reason we even know nowadays about the awful living conditions of the poor is that public health campaigners went out and documented what was going on. Read the small ads in the Times in the 1840s and you will find innumerable philanthropic societies; ladies’ knitting circles holding sales of work for charity; the establishment of voluntary organisations, the RNLI for example, that we still hold dear today. The Times editorials will be full of criticism for the plight of the workhouse paupers and the neglect and abuse which they suffered. ‘Victorian values’ were not a single entity, any more than are 21st century political beliefs.

The workhouse infirmaries of the Victorian age evolved into a health service for the poor, and, in the 20th century, became the hospitals that were the foundation of our National Health Service. Across the country, workhouse buildings and land have been used for our modern hospitals, gradually being developed and rebuilt. Could we have had the NHS without the workhouses, or our welfare state without the lessons learned from the Victorian age? I think not.

Creative Writing Group May competition entry : The Duddingham Line

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Train2The TCWG May competition theme is ‘Public Transportation’, so I’ve written a short story about railway closures in the post-Beeching era. ‘The Duddingham Line’ was inspired by my local railway, which after far more dirty tricks and political machinations than I could ever possibly hope to portray in a short story, was eventually spared the axe, and continues to run a reliable and convenient service into Birmingham.

A national treasure

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90% of UK public libraries enable their readers to log in to the Oxford English Dictionary, free of charge, using the number on their library card. Otherwise, a personal subscription costs over £200 per year.
I’m grateful to the wonderful Library of Birmingham for enabling me free access to this national treasure.
All I have to do now is arrange the words in the correct order, and a work of literature should appear.

The Transaction

BeaumontMy March story for the TCWG, The Transaction, is based on the transgendering of the Chevalier d’Eon, who started life as a male and ended it as a female. After her death, doctors (why doctors, one asks?) confirmed that she was anatomically a man. Is that relevant? I haven’t included it in the story.
For those curious to know more, I recommend the book: Chevalier d’Eon and his Worlds: Gender, Espionage and Politics in the Eighteenth Century edited by Simon Burrows, Russell Goulbourne, Valerie Mainz, and Jonathan Conlin.

Who really is Tussaud’s Sleeping Beauty?

While researching for a short story set in the time of Louis XV, I came across Madame Tussaud’s Sleeping Beauty. This waxwork, sculpted in 1763 (according to Tussaud’s website), is the oldest in the Tussaud’s collection in London, and features simulated breathing. Tussaud’s say it’s modelled on Madame du Barry, Louis XV’s mistress. But, Du Barry was not Louis XV’s mistress until 1768.
I believe the Sleeping Beauty may be Madame de Pompadour, and not Madame du Barry. The dress the waxwork is wearing (original, according to Tussaud’s) is very similar to the dress Madame de Pompadour (who died in 1764) wears in a 1759 portrait by Boucher:

François Boucher 017

Curiously, the portrait is in the Wallace Collection in London, which is just around the corner from Tussaud’s in Baker Street.

Madame Tussaud herself was not born until 1761, so the figure must have been sculpted by her mentor, Philippe Curtius. She joined him in the waxwork business, and he left it to her when he died in 1794, thirty years after the Sleeping Beauty’s creation. Perhaps, during this time the original model of the waxwork was forgotten.

Just saying!

Negotiating with the Dead

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I was inspired this month by Margaret Attwood’s ‘Negotiating with the Dead: a Writer on Writing’ in which she expands on the theme of Death, on a writer’s journey into the Other World, where the dead dance and the stories live.
It’s a book filled with marvellous ideas, like this one:

‘Dead bodies can talk if you know how to listen to them, and they want to talk, and they want us to sit down beside them and listen to their sad stories’

Accordingly, ‘Death at the Red Rose’ is a tale of a dead body, and I’ve started working on a play about an inquest for one of my OU assignments.

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