Today’s #FabulousFridayGuestBlogger, Judith Barrow, has written a lovely piece, chock full of memories and interesting settings. This is a fun way to lead up to Judith becoming an author. Thank you, Judith, for sharing this glimpse into your life. I hope everyone here will remember to share it on their various social media sites, as well.
Growing into my Writing Life
My first memory is of my climbing over a backyard gate and running home from a party where I’d been told I would have to ‘do a turn’: singing or dancing. If I’d been asked to make up a story I would have been there like a shot. But singing or dancing…?
We lived in a in a place called Saddleworth, surrounded by hills, fields and moorland. To me it was just a large playground and, from the age of six, I spent whole days exploring; walking with my dog to a place called Chew Valley (this was well before it was transformed into a reservoir, now called Dovestones), where I paddled and even swam in the deeper areas and picnicked with bottles of water and jam ‘butties’ and wrote poems and stories. No one ever asked me where I’d been or where I was going. I was free to roam. And write.
At home, Saturdays were washing and ironing days at our house; if it was fine the clothes would be strung on a line, held high by a ‘prop’, a wooden pole, across the garden. If it was raining they would be on a clothes maiden around the fire and the kitchen would be filled with steam. I hated that and, more often than not, hid away in my bedroom to write. To coax me back downstairs my mother would make potato cakes. These were made from a mixture of flour, margarine and mashed potatoes, rolled out, cut into squares and baked in the oven. Spread with lashings of butter they were delicious!
My mother was a winder in both cotton and woollen mills. When I was very small I was in a nursery attached to the mill. Later, well before the days of Health and Safety I would go after school to wait for her to finish work. I’ve written many times about how I remember the muffled boom of noise as I walked across the yard and then the sudden clatter of so many different machines as I stepped through a small door cut into a great wooden door. I can hear now the women singing and shouting above the noise, whistling for more bobbins: the colours of the threads and cloth – so bright and intricate. But above all I can recall the smell: of oil, grease – and in the storage area – the lovely smell of the new material stored in bales and the feel of the cloth against my legs when I sat on them, reading or writing, until the siren hooted, announcing the end of the shift.
My father worked in various places; it was his claim to fame that he was never out of work: a bus conductor, a foreman in the weaving shed, a security guard; his choice of jobs were eclectic. Or was it that he was just an argumentative and difficult man and was frequently sacked; laid off? I’m not sure – but he was a worker, I know that.
I went to the local primary school. I was terrified of the Headmaster; he would walk around the classroom and rap his knuckles on the head of anyone he thought wasn’t paying attention. He had a fine line in humiliation; one poor lad, called Peter Woodhead, was often exhorted with the phrase “Woodhead by name and woodhead by nature”, if he didn’t answer a question fast enough. The ultimate mortification, though, was when all the children who had been deemed to have misbehaved during that week would be lined up in front of the top class. The Headmaster would stride back and forth telling the pupils there just what each miscreant had been guilty of and encouraging them to laugh at the culprits. As I said, that man had a not-so- subtle line in humiliation.
I didn’t pass my eleven-plus first time (not to the Headmaster’s surprise – he told my mother I was ‘no-hoper’). So I went to the local Secondary school and I thrived. My love for writing was encouraged and I was published in the school magazine and a local paper.
I took, and this time passed, the second eleven plus exam. I didn’t know I had a choice; that I could have stayed at the secondary school. It would have been better for me; I was a fish out of water at the next school and was there for five unhappy years.
I left at sixteen. Not trained for anything else but administration work I went into the Civil Service. My writing was my escape.
I met and married my husband, David in 1970. We rented a house while we renovated a small terraced house with the help of David’s uncle. One evening we were fitting a new staircase and we left his uncle knocking bricks out of the adjoining wall with the next house to fit the struts for the staircase, while we went to pick up the wood. We returned to find his uncle, a very shy and reserved man, hopping around on the pavement in great agitation. Clearing the holes where the bricks had been, he’d suddenly been startled by the next-door neighbour switching on her kitchen light which immediately spotlighted him like a frightened rabbit. Even though the outside walls were three feet thick, there was only a single layer of brick between each house. We had to pay for her kitchen wall to be repaired and the whole room to be redecorated. It made a good story
Our eldest daughter, was born in 1975 and then the twins, a boy and a girl, in 1977. It was a happy time although we were absolutely broke (my motto at that time was, “we might be poor but no one needs to know” and the children were immaculate in clothes that I made from anything I could get my hands on). It was always a cause for great celebration whenever I was paid for something I’d written,
We moved to Pembrokeshire in 1978, after we’d fallen in love with the county while we were on holiday. We found a house; it was a shell. No electricity, no gas. The acre of garden around it was–a field. Despite all that it had the makings of a lovely large family home. It took years to make it into what it is today. We are still in the same house.
Over the next few years David built up his own business and I had a variety of part time jobs: I qualified to teach swimming, made novelty cakes, worked in a café, cleaned caravans in the holiday season. Once, just once, I spent an evening sewing leather slippers together – until my husband, exasperated by the cries every time I stabbed my fingers with the large needle, took them off me and threw them in the box, unceremoniously thrusting it at the poor deliveryman who turned up the next morning with another batch.
All this was grist for my stories and poems. It wasn’t steady income but it helped and it gave me confidence to keep sending my writing out.
Eventually I went back into the Civil Service.
One day I found a lump in my breast. It was diagnosed as malignant. I was medically retired from work and, during the months of my treatment, took the time to decide what to do. It didn’t take too much thought. I’d already obtained an arts degree with the Open University so I decided to take a Masters in creative writing and to write a novel.
Over the last twenty years, and four novels later, I have learned to accept that, even for editors, publishers and agents, the response to all creative writing is subjective. I have had some good and some bad experiences. I have learned to grow a thicker skin (at least, when it comes to my writing).
The first of the trilogy, Pattern of Shadows, was inspired by Glen Mill, a disused cotton mill in Lancashire, in the North of England, which was the first German POW camp. Glen Mill brought back the personal memories of my childhood, when my mother was a winder in a similar mill. Glen Mill was one of the first two POW camps to be opened in Britain. A disused cotton mill built in 1903 it ceased production in 1938. At a time when all-purpose built camps were being used by the armed forces and there was no money available for POW build, Glen Mill was chosen for various reasons: it wasn’t near any military installations or seaports and it was far from the south and east of Britain, it was large and it was enclosed by a railway, a road and two mill reservoirs.
When I thought of Glen Mill I wondered what kind of signal would have been used to separate parts of the day for all those men imprisoned there. The end of my mother’s day in the mill finished when siren hooted, announcing the end of the shift. I realised how different the prisoners’ days must have been. There would be no machinery as such, only vehicles coming and going; the sounds would be of men, only men, with a language and dialect so different from the mixture of voices I remembered. I imagined the subdued anger and resignation. The whole situation would be so different, no riot of colour, just an overall drabness. And I realised how different the smells would be – no tang of oil, grease, cotton fibres; all gone – replaced by the reek of ‘living’ smells.
And I knew I wanted to write about that. But I also wanted there to be hope somewhere. I wanted to imagine that something good could have come out of the situation the men were in. And so, Mary Howarth, the protagonist, and her family came to life
Changing Patterns is the sequel. Set in 1950/1951, it tells the story of how Mary and her family cope with the repercussions of their actions during the war
The last of the trilogy, Living in the Shadows, was published in 2015 and has moved on to the next generation. Set in 1969 it portrays how, even years later, family history can return to haunt and potentially destroy.
Living in the Shadows is on Amazon Monthly Deal in February. If you read it, or any of my books, I’d be very grateful if you’d consider leaving a review. Thanks so much!
I also have an Indie published fiction built on fact novel. Silent Trauma tells the story of a drug, Diethylstilboestrol. In 1938, this drug was created by Charles Dodds. It was expected that this synthetic oestrogen would help prevent miscarriages. It didn’t. And at the time it was not known how dangerous it would be to developing foetuses. In the early 1970s cases of a rare vaginal/cervical cancer were being diagnosed in young girls. Now researchers are investigating whether DES health issues are extending into the next generation, the so-called DES Grandchildren. As study results come in, there is growing evidence that this group has been adversely impacted by a drug prescribed to their grandmothers.
The mission of DES Action groups worldwide is to identify, educate, provide support to, and advocate for DES-exposed individuals as well as educate health care professionals.
The UK charity folded due to lack of funds. I now support the USA charity by giving talks, promoting the book; raising awareness of this drug that is still affecting many lives. The Pembrokeshire Soroptimists have taken the charity as their chosen charity for 2016. Funds, both from sales of Silent Trauma and their fundraising will go to http://www.desaction.org/
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