Rummaging in Research

Sat in the garden, coffee to hand, laptop open, snatches of sun sneaking through gaps in the clouds, and I can hear that familiar sound of summer: someone cutting their lawn. Ah! And here comes cake. This is a lazy, go-slow sort of holiday – just what we needed. This morning we collected daughter no. 1 from a single carriage train that dropped her off on a teeny-tiny archaic Victorian platform. It reminded me of my University days and my father collecting me from a request stop on the Tarka line. She’s been working and has come to join us for a few days. Now she sits playing Connect Four with daughter no. 2, coffee and cake beside her, while an ancient rusty tractor trundles past. Though there isn’t a lot to do around here, I am told we are booked to visit an observatory tomorrow to have a look at their big telescope. We will walk again this afternoon.

My husband plans to walk a long-distance path (135 miles) starting on Saturday. He has more time off than me and has chosen to spend it exploring the ups and downs of country lanes, fields and forest on foot. He will be crossing stunning countryside. No consideration forgotten as he plans the expedition, but I am feeling a little exhausted from listening to all the preparation talk; his need for this and need for that. It would seem that the preparation is as exciting as the walk itself. He has also been eating to gain weight so that he can take less food with him – at least that is the idea – but his habits are placing a lot of temptation on my table. I feel that all I have done this week is eat, sleep, read and rest.

In truth, I have indulged in a favourite past-time. I have been able to do some more research for my writing and have been rummaging through the big old kist that harbours my great-grandmother’s hoards: photographs, letters, postcards, journals, invitations, newspaper cuttings, magazines, all sorts.

The kist

She started a good thing and my grandparents continued it. I am so grateful to them. It has made for a fascinating holiday. I have found two letters from Lord Louis Mountbatten in the 1960s, one inviting my grandfather to join him for a drink. Someone has stuck a ‘post it’ note to them commenting on the colour of the ink. Apparently only the Admiralty write in green ink! I have found the negative for a magazine photo of four leading political figures in the establishment of the Union of South Africa. I cannot think why we have the negative, but I also can’t help feeling it is of some significant historical interest. It would seem to be from the early 1900s. I also found a postcard, which I think is in my great-grandfather’s handwriting (not 100% sure) sent from German East Africa during the First World War and written in German. German, why German? I encountered other letters from my great-grandfather written in later life to my grandfather. My own father always spoke so highly of my great-grandfather. He adored him. I have to say that reading these letters really touched my heart. My great-grandfather does indeed come across as such a lovely, lovely man with a strong faith. There is also a pamphlet written by him about the League of Nations’ Finances. I was most intrigued to see the list of countries that continued to pay their membership fees to the League throughout the war. The name that surprised me most was Afganistan.

There are so many letters to and from a variety of people. One I particularly enjoyed was from 1935 to my great-grandmother. I have no idea who the writer is other than her name is Geraldine and she lived in England. Her letter tells the story of her young daughter bouncing into her bed and bursting a hot water bottle. The poor ‘wee lass’, as the mother writes, was very badly scalded and needed the skill of a privately employed nurse to help her get better. With all the research I have been doing of medical practise at the time, this fits. The letter goes on to complain about the servants! The writer is in quite a dilemma about how to handle them and the temper of one in particular.

My great-grandmother appears to have been very sociable and a great letter writer herself, but why did she keep some letters and not others, I wonder?

My greatest pleasure was to discover some more letters and photos from the protagonist of my story. The two sweetest things are a summer holiday diary from when he was 13 and the log of a road trip he made with his mother across Europe when he was 21. Such beautiful fuel for my fire. I love this puzzling and piecing things together to build a story.

I think the kist could produce many more stories yet, but it will take some time and dedication to sort. In the meantime, we will enjoy this ‘nothing ever happens’ holiday place and relax with the slow tempo of life. Oh! What was that? I have just heard a scrap merchant disturb the peace with a call from his vehicle for “Any old Iron?”. Well, I never! Something does happen here after all.

A New Story to Tell an Old Story

What is it that has pushed aside, yet again, the young adult novel I began all those years ago when writing was merely an idea not a habit? The novel – set in the deep Devon lanes and rolling fields which provide solace for a stressed London musician, as a family saga reveals and heals itself – has been relegated to the back shelf for the umpteenth time. Maybe it will never be done and the sole purpose of it was to act as a catalyst to encourage me to write, perhaps? What about the novel begun about a school teacher who takes a professional break to work for a charity overseas and, in an exploration of what truth is, finds corruption rife in unexpected places? Yes, that too sits gathering virtual dust.

Instead, an adventure began with the beginning of lockdown, March 2020. Lots of time to write, I thought, and then a genealogist from Australia got in contact wanting some information on my father’s family. I was reluctant to uncover my files. I get a bit addicted to research, but I did it. Unrelated to the genealogist’s query I asked some of my own questions and step by incredible step a family story surfaced introducing me to some amazing people along the way. This was a story I had never bothered about before and one I felt there had always been a sorry silence surrounding. Now I understand it better I think really the silence was unspoken grief.

Increased information on the internet coupled with lockdown gave me time and sources to research. But the best were the original sources our family archives revealed. These were things we did not know even existed. A bit of a chore to get them copied over to me from Australia, but oh so worth it! What a voyage of discovery! What a story! What beautiful characters! There’s still so much to uncover but the writing has begun.

And another beautiful thing has been who I have met of real people along the way too, people who relate to the story, or who relate to characters in the story. I could not have forged those meetings in any more unique a way. That feels like another story.

While the writing might be a solo act the gathering together of facts to make this piece of ‘faction’ (yes, it is a word) a reality is definitely collaboration. So I am excited to attend a book launch of one remarkable historian whose writing and expertise is in another league and one who has an incredible knack of unearthing forgotten facts. But our paths have crossed and, because of the revelation of this story, we meet. I will finish reading his book before then: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55186698-bletchley-s-secret-source