Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

Lest We Forget: Remembrance Day 2019

The Hawkesbury Upton village community prepares to mark Remembrance Day at the war memorial on The Plain

Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night may be lively and fun, but what means much more to me than either of these is the quieter, more dignified occasion of Remembrance Day just a few days later.

On the closest Sunday to Armistice Day (11th November), in our corner of the Cotswolds, we gather by the Village Hall to begin a group procession to the war memorial on the Plain ( our equivalent to a village green). There prayers are said, hymns are sung, and a rendition of the Last Post precedes our minute’s silence. It is a simple and moving ceremony that unites the community in honouring our war dead.

photo of Alice in Wonderland scarecrow wearing a knitted poppy
Once the frivolity of Halloween was over, my Alice in Wonderland scarecrow, on the Hawkesbury Upton Scarecrow Trail, donned a hand-knitted poppy as  her mark of respect

Festival of Remembrance

On the previous Friday, a special Festival of Remembrance is held in the parish church of St Mary sharing music, poetry and readings. The church is decorated by Linda Fairney with hundreds of knitted and crocheted poppies and lit withe dozens of candles. Transparent perspex figures representing lost local servicemen sit on the pews among the congregation.

A particularly moving component of the service is the commemoration of each man lost in the wars. This is delivered by churchwarden and chair of the Friends of St Mary’s, Air Marshall Sir Ian Macfadyen KCVO, CB, OBE, FRAeS , and Simon Bendry, Programme Director for the UCL Institute of Education’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme, who was born and raised in the village.

Ian announces each man’s name, then Simon recounts a brief biography – where each man lived and worked in the village before the war, a summary of his war record, how he died, and how the news of his loss was conveyed to his wife or mother. As each name is announced, a child from the 1st Hawkesbury Guides lays a poppy on a cross on the altar steps to commemorate the life lost.

Many of the surnames on the war memorial are still present in the village, generations later. It is a sobering reminder that war affects us all, no matter how far from the front line.

Simon Bendry, who grew up in the village, has written a book about all those remembered on the war memorial – a very special local record for our community.

An Outpouring of Poppies

I am glad this year to see that so many communities are continuing the practice established for the WWI centenary of making elaborate public installations of knitted or crocheted (and therefore weatherproof) poppies. Some people were concerned that after the centenary year was over, the public might lose interest in the occasion, but there are no signs of that around here.

I’ve also seen impressive displays in unexpected places, such as this banner, its message spelled out in knitted poppies, in the atrium of Southmead Hospital in Bristol, where I went to an appointment on Wednesday.

 

banner on wall with "we will remember them" spelled out in knitted poppies
In the atrium of Southmead Hospital

My Own Small Tribute

When so much of the world seems in turmoil, and anxieties are high, to me it seems more important than ever to come together as a community to espouse common values. That’s why in my novel Murder in the Manger, in which the story begins on 6th November, I took pains to include a similar ceremony in my fictitious village of Wendlebury Barrow, this time held in the village school and involving all ages. (Simon Bendry kindly read it for me before publication to make sure it was appropriate.) In Chapter 14, entitled “We Can Be Heroes”, Carol, the village shopkeeper says “Just because we’re a little village doesn’t mean we can’t produce heroes.” That is my personal and lasting tribute to the heroic young men from so many villages like ours who gave their tomorrows for our todays. We will remember them.

 

Posted in Personal life, Writing

For Remembrance Day

Lest we forget
cover of Hawkesbury At War by Simon Bendry
A moving tribute by a fellow villager (click image for more information about this important book)

I’m lucky enough to live in a village with a profound sense of community, and never is it more strongly visible than on Remembrance Sunday.

On Remembrance Sunday, villagers come together to process down the High Street from the former Hawkesbury Hospital Hall (built to nurse injured soldiers in wartime) to the war memorial on the Plain (our village green) at the centre of our village. All local groups are involved, either in laying wreaths at the service or taking part in services in school or in church or in one of our two chapels.

I don’t remember this degree of commemoration when I was my daughter’s age, living in suburbia in the 1960s.

Perhaps the war was still too close for my parents’ and grandparent’s generation – they wanted to forget. Although it’s now so much longer since the end of the Second World War, I feel much more conscious of it now.

Cover of Murder in the Manger
This Christmas special includes commemorations on Remembrance Day

For this reason, and slightly to my surprise, I found myself writing it into the Christmas special of my latest cosy mystery novel, Murder in the Manger, whose timeline runs from 6th November to the week before Christmas.

My Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are essentially comedies, but there’s always at least one serious, and, I hope, moving scene. One such scene that I found myself writing in Murder in the Manger takes place on Armistice Day (11th November) in the village school, in which villagers join the children in the village school. During a short service of commemoration, the children recite the names on the war memorial, many of whom, as in Hawkesbury Upton, are still represented in the village by their descendants (Chapter 13 We Will Remember Them). It also draws the reader up to consider who in their acquaintance would be called up to fight should there ever be another such war. (Chapter 14 We Can Be Heroes)

I know that is something I consider every year, as I stand quietly at our war memorial during the service there, observing the young men and women in the crowd who would be sent to fight, or who would not have long to wait for their call-up papers. My daughter, her friends, and her peers.

This small episode in my novel is my small tribute to those that sacrificed their lives in both World Wars and to their bereaved families and all those who loved them, not just in Hawkesbury Upton, but all around the world.

We shall remember them.

poppy field image in public domain
Posted in Reading, Writing

Golden Age of Detective Fiction or a Health and Safety Nightmare?

Cover of Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer
How did I get to be this old without ever reading a Georgette Heyer novel before?

The first in my new “Monday Musings” series, in which I’ll write about whatever’s top of mind at the start of each week

This weekend while reading a classic mystery story from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Georgette Heyer‘s Footsteps in the Dark, I was startled by the irresponsible behaviour of some of the key characters:

  • copious cigarette smoking (the ashtrays are always full, and the cover of the edition I read shows a man chivalrously lighting a lady’s gasper)
  • casual attitude to alcohol (the butler brings in a tray of whisky and soda at 10pm as a nightcap, to round off the day’s drinking )
  • reckless driving (or rather, wreckful – when Margaret takes a corner too fast and puts her car in a ditch, she acts like its par for the course)
  • dangerous attitude to firearms (just about all the characters have easy access to a handgun at will and are ready to use them if crossed)

A Product of Heyer’s Age

The last of these points especially surprised me. I had never before associated such general ownership of handguns with English society.

And then the penny dropped. The guns are mostly old service revolvers, and when the book was published, in 1932, many adults would have firsthand experience of using them during the First World War, as did many of the characters in this novel.

To anyone spending any time in the trenches of the First World War,  carrying a pistol in your pocket would seem relatively low-risk.

cover of A is for Arsenic
This one’s on my to-read list

The conflict’s influence was long sustained. Heyer’s contemporary Agatha Christie’s knowledge of poisons as a means to murder was learned while she worked as a pharmacy assistant during the First World War. Dorothy L Sayers’ detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, who appointed his military batman as his butler, suffers from shell-shock well into the series.

The Modern Obsession with Health and Safety

This realisation makes my fretting about health and safety issues in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series seem over-cautious:

  • In Best Murder in Show, the murder victim is wired to the safety barrier that surrounds the carnival float on which she’s travelling to stop her falling off, and Sophie worries about the profusion of dangerous implements at the Village Show
  • In Trick or Murder?, the Headmistress give out health and safety instructions to the children playing with sparklers on Guy Fawkes Night, while Bob, the village policeman, patrols around the bonfire on the look-out for hazards to the public
  • In both books, I’ve been slightly concerned that too much alcohol is flowing, (the village bookshop serves its teas with illicit hooch for those who want it), and I’ve been thinking of making Sophie go on the wagon in a future book

My health and safety allusions are largely tongue in cheek, but the fact that I’m even thinking about them makes me realise how much more nervous we as a society have become.

Misplaced Nostalgia?

Cover of Clouds of Witness
One of my favourite Lord Peter Wimsey stories

It’s ironic then that one of the reasons that classic crime novels are still so popular is that they offer us the chance to be nostalgic for a bygone age. Yet behind Heyer’s facade of witty banter and genteel behaviour lies significant scars still healing.

We may still call hers a Golden Age of Detective Fiction, compared to ours, but I know which one I’d rather live in, even if a late-night Scotch and soda does have a certain appeal.

How different would the novels of Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L Sayers be if they were writing today? And will modern crime novels age as gracefully? I wonder…

 

  • Cover of Trick or Murder?
    The sequel, set around Halloween, will launch on 26 August

    Best Murder in Show is now available as an ebook and in paperback.

  • Trick or Murder? will be launched on 26th August at the Hawkesbury Village Show, which I hope will be free of murders.

 

Read more about the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries here.

My review of Footsteps in the Dark is here.

Posted in Events, Personal life

Sombre for the Somme Centenary

A post about the Somme centenary service in Hawkesbury Upton and Simon Bendry’s new book commemorating Hawkesbury’s war dead and war veterans

Panoramic photo of hills around Hawkesbury
The Somerset Monument, commemorating a local officer in the Napoleonic Wars, towers above my village, Hawkesbury Upton

Sometimes looking around our village, nestling comfortably on the last of the Cotswolds before the landscape tumbles down into the Severn Vale, it’s easy to believe that this is a safe and privileged place, untouched by human conflict.

That is, until you notice the village war memorial, marked by a simple cross on the Plain, as our small village green is known. Surrounded by historic houses and the traditional pound, where stray livestock would be impounded for the collection, the war memorial is a daily reminder that during both World Wars many members of our community served their country in HM Armed Forces, a substantial number never to return. Some of these were lost while serving in the Somme.

Continue reading “Sombre for the Somme Centenary”

Posted in Family

The Scent of a Grandma

Picking up on the thread from my Mother’s Day post, The Scent of a Mummy, I’m reporting here on a memorable meeting with my late Grandma’s cousin Nina.

Nina and Laura together
It seems Nina (98) and Laura (11) share the same smile genes

It was with some trepidation that I offered to take my Auntie Thelma (my father’s younger sister) on a round-trip to Minehead, on the Somerset coast, to visit her mother’s (my grandmother’s) cousin Nina.

Outings with Auntie Thelma are always good fun. She’s good company, generous, funny and liberal-minded, and from since I was very young, she’s been more influential on me than perhaps she realises. She’s introduced me to different arts and crafts concepts, taken me to terrific museums and galleries, and helped shape my aesthetic tastes. She’s also inspired me with her endless creativity and application to the arts and crafts that she enjoys producing herself – much like my dad. (There’s a post here celebrating my father’s many talents.)

Next Best Thing to Visiting Grandma

Old photo of Nina aged 20
Nina at the age of 20

So it wasn’t Auntie Thelma’s company that made me nervous, but the prospect of meeting for the first time a lady who was my Grandma”s cousin. Grandma died when I was 12. We were very close, and I still often dream at night of going to her house to tea, and wake up disappointed to realise I can no longer do that in real life. Grandma was born in 1900 (a very neat achievement, I’ve always thought), so would have been 114 if she were alive today. Nina, by contrast, at just 98, is a spring chicken. She is however the oldest person I have ever met. Born in 1916, meeting her was a useful opportunity for my daughter Laura, who is studying the First World War at school this term. We took a special photograph of the two of them together for Laura to take into school the next day for show-and-tell. Her classmates were impressed.

Nor was I anxious about being in the company of a very old person. I love old people, and for years was good friends with my next-door neighbours in Hawkesbury Upton, James and Hester Harford, who when they died in 2000 wer aged 96 and 90 respectively.

Why So Nervous?

old photo of my Grandma
My Grandma

So why the big build-up? It was because the only photograph that I’d seen of Nina made her look very much like my Grandma. I thought it might be emotionally overwhelming to meet someone who was Grandma’s spitting image, not least because it would fill me with remorse for having never made the effort to meet Nina before.

As it turned out, Nina didn’t remind me of Grandma visually (although comparing her photo with Grandma’s I still see a resemblance). But she shared my Grandma’s quick wit, dry humour and candour, and I really enjoyed her company. Although she is less mobile than she’d like to be, using a tea-trolley in lieu of a zimmer frame to get around the house, she is absolutely on the ball, and her conversation is wide-ranging, evocative of past times but anchored in the present, seasoned by the self-knowledge of a very old lady looking back.

A Lovely Afternoon

Selfie of Grandma's cousin Nina, my aunt, my sister, my daughter and me
The four-generation selfie

We enjoyed lunch together, and after a couple of hours took our leave, wary of wearing her out, but not before we’d taken plenty of photographs, both of her old family portraits – there’s a stunning picture of her when she was 20 – and of ourselves as a group: Auntie Thelma, my sister Mandy, my daughter Laura and me. There can’t be many 98 year olds who enjoy being part of a selfie.

But the visit was not without its emotional trauma. Having parked outside her apartment block (an elegant building with a view of the sea), as we stood waiting for her to answer the door, I was overwhelmed with a strong perfume that suddenly descended upon me like a cloud for no apparent reason. It was an overpowering floral scent. One moment it was not there; the next it engulfed me.

A Fragrant Mystery

I couldn’t quite identify the fragrance. It was neither honeysuckle, nor freesias (my Grandma’s favourite scent), but it was equally heady, yet I didn’t spot any immediate cause of it in the plain, paved yard in which we were standing.

More formal photo of Nina, Thelma, Mandy and Laura
Four generations, total age nearly two and a half centuries

Then Nina opened the door, we went in, and in the flurry of greetings, I neglected to mention the perfume to anyone else, to see if they’d noticed it too. (I did however doubt my sanity for a moment, because a former boss of mine, the editor of a magazine I worked on decades ago, told me with the benefit of his previous career as a psychiatric nurse that olfactory hallucinations, to use his technical term, was a sign of madness.)

It was only days later, having opened a purchase that I’d made on the bric-a-brac stall at a village fete on Saturday, that I realised which flower it was. What I’d bought was a richly-scented Penhaligon candle, still in its box. Its perfume, exuding so powerfully from the packaging that you could almost see it, was Lily-of-the-Valley.

And then the connection hit me: that this was the fragrance that engulfed me as I stood on Nina’s doorstep. And what you need to know to realise why this connection was so extraordinary is this: my beloved Grandma’s first name. It was – of course – Lily.