Posted in Events, Reading, Writing

Ali Smith, CrimeFest & Partners in Crime

Selfie of Debbie Young, Alison Morton, & David Penny
CrimeFest is a great place to network with fellow crime-writers such as my author chums Alison Morton and David Penny.

Last week went by in a bit of a blur for me, but included attending two very enjoyable events that you might like to know about.

I must admit after having spent a large part of this year so far organising the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, it was bliss for me to attend events as a member of the audience, and to sit back and enjoy myself rather than rushing about making things happen.

Ali Smith at Tetbury Book Fest

The week kicked off with the new Tetbury Book Fest, run by the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop at the delightful Tetbury Goods Shed, a small-scale events space on the site of the former and sympathetically converted former Tetbury railway station. This Cotswold market town, just a few miles up the road from me, was filled with party atmosphere, its annual Wacky Races event, in which locals race home-made go-carts around its street, having taken place a little earlier that day.

At Tetbury, I really enjoyed a talk by Ali Smith, one of the country’s most highly-regarded authors. She doesn’t do many public events like this, but the Yellow-Lighted’s ever-persuasive Hereward managed to lure her along. She was there to talk about her latest book, Spring, but it was also inspiring to hear her talk about her love of books and reading,

cover of Spring by Ali Smith
The third in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet of novels

“My books are nothing to do with me once I’ve finished them,” she said. “Books belong to us all individually as well as communally.”

She passionately advocated rereading books – a great excuse for those who, like me, like to keep books they’ve enjoyed in case they want to return to them later.

“Books are different to us on rereading ten years later,” she observed, and I completely agree.

I was also chuffed to learn a new word from her: intertextuality. This means the act of referring to other texts within a book. I do that a lot in my Sophie Sayers series (Sophie works in a bookshop), mostly for comic effect, but it’s pleasing to know there’s a formal name for it.

I didn’t take a photo of Ali because she is very shy and it would have felt intrusive, but I had a nice chat with her while she was signing her book for me, and was pleased to be able to tell her that the previous week I’d been with Dr Gerri Kimber, whom she thanks in the acknowledgements section of Spring, when she came to speak at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival about Katherine Mansfield, referenced in her book.

CrimeFest

My week ended with four days in a big Bristol hotel at CrimeFest, a huge international writing conference that draws authors and readers from all over the world. The hotel felt a bit like a crime scene itself, with stripes of colour-coded tape stuck to the carpets to guide you through winding corridors and deserted ballrooms to specific events. I would not have been surprised to find a chalk outline of a body along the way.

As well as a tempting bookshop, there was a stall selling crime-related props designed for use at murder mystery parties or launches of crime novels. The closest they had to a real weapon was a chocolate gun, but much as I love chocolate, even that made me shudder whenI heard the vendor saying breezily “Kids love them”. I really don’t want to see a child with a chocolate gun in its mouth. Ugh.

The CrimeFest programme is packed, with several strands of events running simultaneously all day long. In between socialising with crimewriting friends, I attended the following sessions across the four days:

  • Whose Story: Unique Voices and Unreliable Narrators
  • They’ve Been in My Head for Years: Writing a Long-standing Series
  • Writing Elsewhere: Using an International Setting
  • Don’t Make Me Laugh: Humour in Crime Fiction
  • Contemporary Issues: Reflecting How We Live
  • Crime Fiction Legacies: Desmond Bagly, Campion, Holmes and More
  • A Light Touch: Writing Traditional Mysteries
  • Unlikely Alliances: Partners, Sidekicks and Friends
  • The Indie Alternative
The Indie Alternative, chaird by the fabulous Zoe Sharpe, with B L Faulkner, Beate Boeker, Lynn Florkiewicz and Stephen G Collier (I spoke on this panel at CrimeFest 2018)

Each panel had three or four speakers plus a moderator, all published authors, some long-established bestsellers, others closer to the start of their crimewriting career. The standard of moderators and speakers was very high, with only one of the panels descending quickly into self-promotion.

The authors who particularly captivated me were all people whose books I’d never read, but that’s about to change: 

  • Norwegian novelist Gunnar Staalesen, writing the same series for 43 years
  • Felix Francis, son of the more famous Dick Francis, continuing his legacy, with his own name on the cover of his books but underneath the strapline “A Dick Francis Novel”!
  • Mike Ripley, an irrepressible author of comic crime novels and also continuation author for Margery Allingham
  • Janet Laurence, a dignified and gracious lady who talked with great authority about the Golden Age of Crimewriting – I could have listened to her all day
  • Beate Boeker, a delightful German who says her name in a certain dialect translates as “Happy Books” – talk about nominative determinalism!
  • Charlie Gallagher, a serving police officer writing bestselling police procedurals
  • Vaseem Khan, whose detective’s sidekick is a baby elephant, and whose day job is at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science

These last two provided a sobering reminder that crime doesn’t only happen in fiction.

Spoiled for choice as to what to read next and unable to choose between all of these, I bought instead a book I’d been meaning to read for ages: Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Crimewriting – the perfect follow-up to my current read, Janet Brabazon’s biography of Dorothy L Sayers.

But it’s a fair cop, I confess: on arriving home, I immediately went online and bought secondhand from a charity retailer the first in Vaseem Khan‘s series. Well, what’s not to love about baby elephants?


What’s Next?

Another week, another festival! This week I’ll be chairing a panel on cosy crime novels at the Oakwood Literature Festival in Derby; going to a musical evening in Avebury based on Beatrice Parvin‘s historical novel Captain Swing and the Blacksmith, and attending the Spring event for Stroud Short Stories. And in between times, I may even get some writing done! Full report to follow next week…

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Posted in Reading

Books Are My Scarecrow’s Bag

A post that kills three birds with one stone – what a shot! – for Books Are My Bag, the Hawkesbury Scarecrow Trail, and the Little Free Library.

Photo of bluestockinged scarecrow with Books are my Bag bag and Little Free Library
Meet Virginia, Hawkesbury Upton’s very own bluestocking bookworm

Last weekend I pulled off an especially fine piece of multitasking – I managed to promote three different worthy causes in one fell swoop:

  • The first ever Hawkesbury Upton Scarecrow Trail
  • The second Books Are My Bag campaign
  • The year-round Little Free Library programme

As you can see from the photo, my scarecrow, Virginia, is a stylish bookworm. Her Cheltenham Festival of Literature t-shirt complements her blue stockings, and her whole outfit is set off by last year’s must-have accessory for anyone who loves books, the exclusive Books Are My Bag campaign souvenir bag. Keeping her well supplied with reading matter is my new Little Free Library, set up as a British offshoot of the free community library campaign founded in the USA a few years ago.

Books Are My Bag is a national movement in the UK to remind everybody of the value of the independent high street book shop. What the publishing trade likes to call “bricks-and-mortar stores” offer many benefits unavailable from online retailers, (though they can usually order you a book in just as fast as Amazon and the like, without charging you postage or a membership fee), or recent entrants to the book market, such as grocery superstores. High street bookshops have expert staff able to help you find the perfect book for yourself or for others. Over the next few days, participating stores will be sharing their passion for books and reading with special events all over the country. For more information about Books Are My Bag, and to find an event in a local indie bookshop near you, visit their website: www.booksaremybag.com.

Scarecrow with picnic basket
Life’s a picnic, whatever the weather, for Hawkesbury Youth Club’s scarecrow, tucking in outside the Village Hall

The Hawkesbury Upton Scarecrow Trail offers a fun display of 14 scarecrows dotted about the village. You can pick up a free map from the village shop or post office all this week. The trail will be in place until the end of Sunday 12th October. There’s no particular theme or cause, other than a bit of autumnal fun! See if you can spot them all.

The idea of the Little Free Library was set up by an American chap, Todd Bol, in 2009, with a single box of books, in the shape of an old-fashioned schoolhouse, in memory of his late mother, a schoolteacher who loved reading. The idea quickly caught on – after all, what’s not to love about free books? – and now there are estimated to be over 15,000 around the world. Mine’s the first in Hawkesbury Upton! Todd’s mother would be very proud of him.

Close up of my Little Free Library
Something for everyone in here

Debbie by the Library
Well, I always wanted to be a librarian when I was little

My Little Free Library is starting off with a stock of books from our home and donated by others. I’ll be adding lots of new books as space becomes available, including those that I receive free to review from authors and publishers (I do a lot of book reviewing for various magazines and organisations).

Photo of Gordon with the finished Library
Meet the architect and builder, my husband Gordon

Anyone is welcome to help themselves to a free book (or more than one!) If they’d like to treat it as a swap, and put one back, that would be great, but it’s not essential.

My Little Free Library will provide an extra source of books in the village, supplementing the shelves of donated books that are sold for £1 each by the Hawkesbury Shop and the village hair salon, Head Start Studio, in aid of the village school’s PTA. But my Little Free Library offers books at no cost at all, so everyone can afford them, and they’ll be accessible outside the shops’ opening hours. For more information about the Little Free Library scheme, to order your own official sign, or to make a donation to its cause, visit their website: www.littlefreelibrary.org.

Of course, you have to take pot luck with a Little Free Library – you’re unlikely to find a particular book that you’re looking for, but it’s a great no-risk way of being more adventurous with your reading, trying out a genre or author that you wouldn’t normally pick up. Who knows what new interest you might discover?

But if you’re bent on getting a specific book, you don’t have to go far. We’re lucky enough to live within a short drive of three independent bookshops – the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Nailsworth and Tetbury, the Cotswold Bookroom in Wotton-under-Edge, and, 20 miles away in Bristol, the fabulous Foyles bookshop in Cabot Circus, where I’ll be launching the new paperback edition of my must-read book for anyone affected by or interested in Type 1 diabetes. Like to get an invitation? Just contact me and I’ll send one right over.

And if that’s not enough – Hawkesbury Upton is also served by a mobile library, sent out once a fortnight from the fab Yate library a few miles away. (I’ve just had a flash fiction story inspired by our mobile library accepted for a new anthology, Change the Ending, to be published shortly – more news of that soon!) We really have no excuse for not getting stuck into good books in these parts.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy these others on the theme of books and reading:

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Posted in Family, Personal life

Flummoxed by a Flute Exam

Wills Memorial Building
Wills Memorial Building – photo by Rob Brewer via Wikipedia (click photo for link)

A post about a curious incident after my daughter’s flute exam

Having long ago given in to the classic parenting trap of bribing one’s child through traumatic events, I agreed that after my eleven-year-old daughter Laura had taken her flute exam, I’d treat her to a trip to the nearest shopping mall, Cabot Circus.

Her flute exam fell at a bad time: the day of the annual school concert at the village school during her final few days there before moving up to secondary school. The exam was to be held at Bristol Music School in Clifton, in the centre of Bristol, 20 miles away from our village. Attending the exam meant she had to miss not only afternoon school but also the first of the two concert performances.

Musical Mission

I duly collected Laura and her flute from school, and we drove into town. As we neared the Music School, we passed dozens of smiling new university graduates with proud parents, attending their degree ceremony in the Wills Memorial Building. As I watched them milling about, I did a simultaneous flash back to my own degree day, in my pink dress and grey gown with my parents up in York years ago, and a flash forward to Laura’s in 10 years time. Where did her first 11 years go? I wondered, panicking about finding a parking space with so many extra visitors in town.

Despite the heat, Laura was playing it cool: it takes a lot to faze her. She’d been practising hard on her flute for the previous few days, and if she was nervous, she was hiding it better than her mother was. We arrived in plenty of time, the exam was over quickly, and Laura remained calm throughout, focused instead on the promised Krispy Kreme doughnut that awaited her at Cabot Circus.

Cabot Circus logoParking at Cabot Circus was easier than in Clifton: we simply drove up the spiral ramp to the fourth floor of the multi-storey car park and straight ahead into an empty space. With one eye on the clock, as we had to be back at school for the 5pm concert, we did a quick tour of the toy shop to spend her birthday money, wrapped ourselves around a couple of doughnuts, and returned to the car.

The Missing Car

Or so was our plan. When we arrived back at the top of the ramp on the fourth floor, my car was not there. In its place was an almost-identical one – charcoal grey instead of smoke grey, a couple of years newer, and, I admit it, with fewer dents. But it was in exactly the same place. Laura, whose memory is much better than mine, assured me we had indeed parked on the fourth floor, but we agreed to check the exact same spot on the third and the fifth floors just in case.

My car was not there either. Realising that not only were we now on a tight timescale to get back to school for the concert, but that also locked in the car book were Laura’s flute, music and Heather the rabbit, her favourite and irreplaceable cuddly toy, I began to panic and theorise about this disaster. Perhaps the owner of the darker car had a key which matched ours, had parked next to us and got into the wrong car to depart by mistake?

The Search is On

Photo of my car on a road
Has anybody seen this car?

Thinking as fast as my now pounding heart, I grabbed Laura by the hand and whisked her down to the attendants’ office on the ground floor to explain our plight. The couple of chaps in there were kind and patient. They took down the details of the car and where I’d left it, before running a very clever search by licence plate on their security camera, which played back a recording of us driving in earlier. They then despatched their junior staff member to find it. Moments later, he buzzed through to say he had indeed found our car, and we were instructed to meet him at the lift on the fourth floor.

So we were right, it was the fourth floor! But we were puzzled as to how he could have found it so quickly. Had the driver of the darker car realised his mistake just the minute before and returned ours to swap it back again?

Mystery Solved

All was revealed when we arrived back on the fourth floor. The waiting attendant patiently pointed us in the direction of our car, which was awaiting at the top of the ramp. But, it emerged, there were TWO spiral ramps  on this side of the building: one going up and one going down. We’d looked at the top of the down ramp instead of the up. Well, who knew?

“We’ve never lost a car yet since we opened,” the attendant assured me, smiling proudly as he waved us off.

Photo of toy rabbit on roller skates
“Phew, I thought I was going to have skate all the way home.”

Relieved to retrieve car, flute and rabbit and to be on our way back to school in time for Laura’s concert performance, I wondered how I’d managed to be so stupid, when we were so geared up for action earlier on. Then it occurred to me: the minute the flute exam was over, our adrenalin surge had stopped, our brains had cranked down a few notches, and we’d relaxed and stopped thinking strategically. We were no longer primed for fight or flight, and in fact were not fit for either. No wonder we couldn’t find the car.

It was only later that I discovered that between leaving the exam centre and getting home that I’d also managed to lose my glasses.

But the good news is: we’ve just heard Laura passed her flute exam. Thank goodness for that! Parental duty done.

Posted in Personal life, Reading, Type 1 diabetes, Writing

The Alchemy of Chocolate

Logo for the SilverWood Authors Spring Hop

Welcome to the SilverWood Authors Spring Hop!

“Some of SilverWood’s many authors have come together to share a variety of articles and items of interest on their blogs for your enjoyment.

“There are some lovely giveaway prizes, and – to stay in keeping with the Spring and rebirth theme at this time of year – some colourful Easter eggs.

“Feel free to collect the eggs, and use them where you like. They were drawn by SilverWood author Peter St John who writes the ‘Gang’ series about a boy who was evacuated to a village near Ipswich during WWII. Meet Peter and his characters on the Blog Hop, along with a host of eggcellent SilverWood authors. 😉

“Have fun!”

Helen Hart
Publishing Director
SilverWood Books
www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk

About My Spring Hop Post

Cover of my new book, "Coming To Terms with Type 1 Diabetes"
Cover design by SilverWood Books

My contribution to the blog hop is a light-hearted very short story that takes as its theme every woman’s love of chocolate. I’ve always loved chocolate, though my relationship with it hasn’t always been easy, especially since my daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at the age of 3.

But it is a complete myth that diabetics can’t eat chocolate – they can, they just need to give themselves enough insulin to offset it before they eat it. So if you know a diabetic and are wondering what to give them this Easter, don’t hesitate to give them a chocolate Easter egg – and not “diabetic chocolate” either, an evil concoction made with a sugar substitute that spoils the flavour and has no health benefit compared to normal chocolate. (Yes, there IS a health benefit – to dark chocolate, in moderation, and it’s a useful source of slow-release carbs, which is why Paula Radcliffe eats a couple of squares before running.)

This and other myths surrounding life with Type 1 diabetes will be dispelled in my new book, Coming To Terms With Type 1 Diabetes,which SilverWood will be publishing in paperback form for World Diabetes Day, 14 November 2014. The ebook edition, for which SilverWood provided this beautiful and appropriate cover (the blue circle being the international symbol of diabetes), was published for World Diabetes Day 2013 to raise awareness of the condition and funds for research into a cure.  and has gathered many 5* reviews and has been called by a leading GP “one of the best things I’ve ever read about diabetes”. The paperback will have new bonus material added. To keep informed about the book’s progress, and for an invitation to the launch in Foyles’ Bristol Bookshop on Thursday 13th November, please click here to sign up for my mailing list.

Prize Time!

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy my chocolate-inspired short story below – and if you like it, please leave a comment. As an incentive, one commenter drawn at random on the day my book is launched will receive a free signed copy of the new paperback – plus a slim bar of chocolate to use as a bookmark!

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Image of an Easter egg

 

The Alchemy of Chocolate

If you dip a wafer biscuit into a chocolate fountain enough times, eventually it won’t fit in your mouth. Much the same had happened with Jennifer’s body. It was as if every bar of chocolate that she’d ever eaten had been melted down and painted onto her frame.

Oozing into hidden places, the fat encroached so slowly at first that Jennifer was slow to notice her transformation. Then, one summer’s day while sunbathing on her lawn, she realised that she’d no longer pass the fat test she and her friends had used at school: the ability to lay a ruler flat across her hipbones. (That was the best use they’d found for their geometry sets).

By the time she came to squeeze into an old pair of cords for Bonfire Night, Jennifer observed that where her stomach had once been concave, it now billowed out, like a ship in full sail. No wonder sleeping on her tummy had become uncomfortable.

Trying on a party dress for New Year, she spotted that her waistline only curved inwards when elasticated clothing constrainied her flesh.

By the Spring solstice, the fat had found new places to hide. Her eyelids were thicker, and when inserting an earring, she had to push harder before the post emerged on the other side of the lobe.

Jennifer was glad when spring sunshine came early, because it gave her licence to go bare-legged. Lately, tights had become irksome. Unless she aligned their waistband precisely with that of her knickers, skirt and petticoat, her silhouette resembled the scalloped edge of a doily on a plate of cakes.

At Easter, Jennifer was quick to remove the temptation of her Easter eggs – by eating them. But then, at last, she decided to take action about her surplus fat. Precisely what action, she was not sure. She was unwilling to relinquish chocolate, or indeed any kind of food. Nor did she fancy exercising her way into shape. Poring over a list of how to burn calories, she was horrified by the ridiculous distance she’d have to run to work off a single bar of Dairy Milk. There had to be an easier way. It was just a question of dispersing fat rather than storing it.

Then, lulled to sleep on Midsummer’s Eve by an exceptionally delicious hot chocolate, Jennifer had a remarkable dream. She dreamed of the perfect recipe for weight loss.

Next morning on waking, she knew exactly what to do. She rushed downstairs to her kitchen and assembled in a mixing bowl the ingredients dictated by her dream. Instead of stopping to wonder how this magical formula could require only store-cupboard staples, she got on with beating the mixture, her wooden spoon a biscuit-coloured blur.

Once the batter was blended, she tipped it into a saucepan and set it over a low heat, chanting the mantra that had also come to her in the dream. When the mixture was smooth and warm as the perfect waistline, she decanted it into a jug and popped it in the fridge. She knew instinctively that this was the correct next step.

When she arrived at her office for work, she was so impatient for nightfall – the witching hour, or so her dream had told her – that she could hardly concentrate on her job.

As soon as she arrived home, she slipped on her nightie, took the jug from the fridge and with a medicine spoon measured out the dose prescribed in her dream. She swallowed the quivering spoonful in a rush, before she could change her mind and retired to bed to await the results. The anxious fluttering in her tummy didn’t stop her from tumbling into solid, dreamless sleep.

Waking next morning, she climbed out of bed, slipped off her nightdress and flung it distractedly on the bed. Reaching with her right hand behind the back of her neck, she grasped what the previous night’s dream had told her she would find just above the nubbly bone at the top of her spine: a trapezoidal zip-pull. She grasped the metal.

Bending her head forward to clear her long dark hair out of the way, Jennifer tugged the zip-pull between thumb and forefinger as far as she could. Then she stretched her left hand up behind her back to meet the right one, and continued pulling the zip down, slowly, slowly, till it reached the base of her backbone.

As the zip-pull stopped abruptly at her coccyx, the thick flesh covering Jennifer’s upper back and shoulders started to feel loose. Soon she was easing off the entire outer casing of flesh as instinctively as a snake sheds its skin. Wriggling her hips and thighs to dislodge this pudgy onesie, she sat down on the bed, peeled it off her calves and finally stepped out of it on to the bedside rug.

Only now did she have the courage to glance in the dressing table mirror. There, to her delight, in a flawless casing of fresh skin, was her slender teenage outline. It was like meeting a long-lost, much-missed friend.

Glancing down at the discarded, Jennifer-shaped fat that lay perfectly still on floor, she wondered what on earth to do with it.

But of course! It was recycling day. She could simply put it in the green wheelie bin. After all, it should compost down as readily as bacon rind. Better to throw it in the wheelie bin than put it out in the garden for the birds.

With a new lightness of tread, Jennifer took a few steps around the bedroom. She felt decidedly different. The top of her thighs no longer rubbed together, her arms lay straighter against her sides, and she no longer felt that her stomach had been lagged, like the insulating jacket wrapped round a hot water tank.

Beginning to enjoy the full effect, Jennifer turned this way and that. But it wasn’t the slim reflection in the dressing-table mirror that caused her to smile. It wasn’t the realisation that her low-cost recipe would fetch a fortune on the heaving market for diet products. Nor was it the recognition that she’d achieving every slimmer’s dream of alchemy, turning fat into gold. It was the thought that she could now eat as much chocolate as she liked, without ever having to worry about gaining weight. It was a dream come true.

 

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Cover of Quck Change flash fiction collectionThis story features in “Quick Change”, my first collection of flash fiction, which you can buy from Amazon here:  Quick Change.

My post is just one of many interesting articles in the SilverWood Spring Blog Hop. To hop forward to read these, please click on the links below. You’ll also find more colourful Easter eggs to collect and some more giveaway prizes!

 

Helen Hollick :  Let us Talk of Many Things  – Fictional Reality http://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/fictional-reality-silverwood-blog-hop.html

Alison Morton : Roma Nova – How the Romans Celebrated Spring http://alison-morton.com/2014/04/17/how-the-romans-celebrated-spring-2/

Anna Belfrage: Step inside…   – Is freezing in a garret a prerequisite? https://annabelfrage.wordpress.com/2014/04/16/is-freezing-in-a-garret-a-prerequisite/

Edward Hancox: Iceland Defrosted – Seaweed and cocoa http://icelanddefrosted.com/2014/04/16/silverwood-blog-hop-seaweed-cocoa/

Lucienne Boyce: Lucienne Boyce’ Blog – The Female Writer’s Apology http://francesca-scriblerus.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/the-female-writers-apology-or-then-and.html

Matlock the Hare:  Matlock the Hare Blog –  Pid-padding the self-published Pathway… http://matlockthehare.blogspot.co.uk/

Michael Wills:  Michael Wills – A Doomed Army http://www.michaelwills.eu/2014/04/a-doomed-army/

Isabel Burt: Friday Fruitfulness  –  Flees for the Easter Hop… http://isabelburt.com/ (her post will go live shortly)

John Rigg: An Ordinary Spectator – Television Lines http://www.anordinaryspectator.com/news-blog%20

Peter St John: Jenno’s Blog –  My Village http://jennospot.blogspot.fr/2014/04/my-village_16.html

Caz Greenham: Caz’s Devon Blog Diary – Springtime and Flowering Baskets http://www.wp.me/p3oYnS-n1

Helen Hart: SilverWood Books Ltd http://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Travel

All Aboard for A Trip Back In Time

H G Wells' Time Machine“Can we travel back in time, Mummy?” asks my daughter Laura (9) as we set off for the next tourist attraction on our agenda.

We’re part way through a two-week visit from the 16 year old daughter of my old schoolfriend, an American who I met at school in Germany (yes, it’s complicated) . It’s her first trip to England and we’re trying to give her an accurate snapshot of British life and culture.

So far this has included:

– a very large quantity of rain

– seeing a live recording of “With Great Pleasure”, a BBC Radio 4 programme with the wonderful but anarchic performance poet John Hegley (what other Radio 4 programme would conclude with inviting the audience up on stage to dance to Kirsty MacColl’s “A New England”? Spot on for my agenda, Mr Hegley, so thanks for that!)

– the usual suspects for this neck of the woods: Stonehenge, Castle Combe, Tintern Abbey, the Roman Baths, etc etc

Launch of the SS Great Britain, the revolution...

Today’s destination is the SS Great Britain, lovingly and expensively restored to replicate mint condition. Brunel’s groundbreaking ship is now in dry dock in Bristol’s Floating Harbour, the very dock from which it was launched in 1843. It was rescued from the Falklands in 1970, where it was languishing after a long and varied career and refusing to sink, and returned to base. Movingly, its homeward journey included passing for the first time ever beneath one of Brunel’s many other masterpieces, the Clifton Suspension Bridge – something it had never done before, as the bridge was not complete when the SS Great Britain first (and last) sailed out of Bristol.

English: Clifton Suspension Bridge. Looking so...

As we enter the museum shed – the overture to boarding the ship itself – I spot a sign that echoes Laura’s request. “Travel Back In Time!” it invites us. Cleverly, the museum is arranged in reverse chronological order, so that we first see evidence of the ship’s return to Bristol, then pass back through its previous incarnations during the Second World War, on the Australian Gold Rush run, and on trips around Cape Horn to the Pacific coast of America.

Laura in Victorian dressBy the time we’ve passed down to the far end of the museum, we’re thinking like Victorians. We willingly don the dressing-up clothes provided to complete our transformation before we board. We pose before a backdrop that suggests we’ve just alighted in Australia. I almost believe that we’re about to visit my  Auntie Mary who lives there. Finally, we board the ship, to listen to an audio guide that uses as its script diaries and letters from real-life passengers.    We truly have travelled back in time and now see the ship and the prospect of ocean-going voyages through accurate contemporary records.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Can we travel back in time, Laura? Yes, I think we can and we just did.  I take my (stovepipe) hat off not only to the engineering genius that was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but also to the very clever historians and archivists who made time travel possible for us.

Now, where did I put my crinoline?

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like another one that pays tribute to a Victorian Scottish engineer: Signally Challenged in Scotland