Monthly Archives: November 2013

Happy birthday, Nan

My nan would have been 85 today. Her passing earlier this year was a devastating blow to the family, and her absence is still felt very strongly.

William & Sheila with their favourite book

Today is also William and Sheila’s 65th wedding anniversary. Theirs was a very emotional and powerful bond. Like all marriages, there were ups and downs, good times and bad. But I like to remember the good times, and there were certainly plenty of those. One thing I fondly remember of my grandparents is the amount of laughter to be had when they were together.

I can’t think of a better way to mark Nan’s birthday, and their anniversary than to share a favourite passage from the book dedicated to her memory. It Never Was You tells the story of two people who, despite all their differences and the struggles they face in post-war Britain, manage to fall head over heals in love and revel in each other’s company. There is plenty of William and Sheila in Harry and Mary.

Nan loved reading William’s writing, and often dipped in and out of the printed books. There was always a smile on her face and a sigh of contentment when she did so. So here’s a passage I think she’d have particularly savoured.

Happy birthday, Nan. Love you xx

Harry departed Rosario for Cordoba punctually, thanks to Juan Peron who, like all good dictators, made the trains run on time. He secured a seat in the observation car at the rear of the train which gave panoramic views of the countryside through large picture windows. The two hundred and fifty mile journey was scheduled to take some six hours so Harry kicked off his shoes and settled himself comfortably to enjoy the scenery. The first leg of the journey, some one hundred and fifty miles west to the small railhead at Villa Maria, would be across the open pampas, the Argentinean sector of that vast treeless plain which lies south of the Mato Grosso and home to some five million steers, those vast herds which drove the country’s economy. From there, the train would travel North West into the easternmost foothills of the Andes. Harry was particularly fond of Cordoba, its quiet provincial atmosphere, its hospitable people but above all the scenery. The city had once been the seat of Spanish colonial government for the region and its architecture and culture was emulate of the city in southern Spain from which it took its name. He gazed contentedly through the window at this ocean of lazily undulating grass. He smiled. What was it Francisco Chavarre had said? ‘My country is only half made up.’ He looked out at the vast emptiness of this half-made land as the pampas rolled interminably past in great sweeping arcs. His eyes moved across the horizon. The summer sun had not yet attained its full power and the grass, still remarkably green from the late spring rains, was flecked with a myriad rash of the bright yellow wild flowers known as ‘pampas roses’. The huge beef herds  were still far to the north but would move slowly southwards as the season advanced to feed on this bounty before the January sun scorched the plain. Then the hills came into view.
     Unlike many of his peers, Harry did not frequent the bars and bordellos of the ports, but preferred to use any free time to explore places of interest and to see as much of the country as he could. He was to learn in time that recounting such experiences was to prove a most effective, if not wholly infallible method of subduing Mary’s runaway chatter. He did not succeed in actually closing her mouth, which hung agape in awe at his stories.
     He told her of trips to Manaus, the great former rubber ‘capital’, a thousand miles along the Amazon, deep in the vast Brazilian rainforest.
     ‘Did you ever see any of them Indians, Hen? You know, them ones with the piss pot ’air cuts and the poison darts?’
     ‘No, darling.’
     ‘Bloody good job though, eh? I mean you wouldn’t want to go play’n 501 up with those nasty buggers, would you?’
     Of taking the train from Mollendo Puña in Chile and then by funicular railway to Lake Titicaca, high among the majestic peaks of the Andes, those vast palaces of nature whose bright blue sunlit summits seemed to mingle with the sky.
     Of the spring carnival in Rio de Janeiro, a three day orgy of the flesh…
     ‘What’s it all in aid of then, Hen?’
     ‘The Rio carnival? It’s a religious festival marking the beginning of lent. The big blowout before the fast. Like Mardi Gras, you know, Shrove Tuesday and all that.’
     ‘Three days on the piss for lent?’
     ‘Look, I’m talking about Rio here, not Bishops Stortford. It’s the time for love.’
     ‘Don’t sound very religious to me, all that sing’n, danc’n and knee trembl’n. Tell you what though, it must beat the shit out of toss’n frigg’n pancakes.’
     Of the Rodeo La Plata, when gauchos, dressed in their finely embroidered boleros, their billowing troos tucked into delicately tooled calf-length leather boots, display their skills at cattle wrangling with the ‘bolo’, a type of lasso carrying a heavily weighted leather ball at its end which winds around the legs of the unfortunate steer, bringing it down…
     ‘Does it hurt them, Hen?’ She turned her head to look up into his face. ‘I mean it’s no joke being pulled arse over tip with a sodd’n lasso, is it?’
     Laughing, he shook his head. ‘Compared with what is to come, that’s the good part.’
     He described, without too much of the gory detail, the scenes in the abattoir. Her face screwed up in horror as she listened. ‘Oh Jesus, that’s awful, those poor things. Can’t they do it any other way? Christ, I don’t think I could face another bit of steak, even if you could get it on the rations.’
     ‘You can always eat fish, sweetheart.’
     ‘Yeah, ’course, they have a much better time, fish. Hooked up by the roof of their mouth or caught in a bloody great net and tipped out to suffocate on the deck of some poxy trawler. What did you have to tell me all that for, anyway? Now I shall probably starve meself to death.’ She snuggled into him. ‘Hen?’
     ‘Yes love?’
     ‘When all sweets come off the rations, will you buy me about a hundredweight of jelly babies?’
     ‘Absolutely! But why jelly babies?’
     ‘Well, people don’t ill-treat jelly babies, do they?’
     ‘Of course they do, they bite their heads off.’
     ‘Oh, you rotten bugger!’

Extract from It Never Was You by William E. Thomas, Chapter Seven
(c) All rights reserved

The Seven Ages of Gramps: Part 6

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. 

The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. 

The Seven Ages of Gramps: Part 5

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. 

…And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. 

<– Part 4

(I began posting this series earlier in the year, and all were scheduled to go out throughout March and April. Unfortunately, events overtook us, and I didn’t think it appropriate to continue at the time. It now feels like time to carry on. You can see all the previous posts in the series by clicking back through the links on each post. To see all the posts in sequence, start here)

Wordy Wednesdays #1: Tallyman

To her surprise and delight, Mary received a letter from Harry the following day. Recognising the handwriting, she smiled to herself. ‘He’s got the pilot playing postman for him again, I bet.’ She sat on her bed reading slowly then gazed, rapt, the letter clutched in her hand. After a while she began to read it through again. Shaking her head she went to her bedside cupboard and took out a small dictionary.

It Never Was You by William E. Thomas, Ch. 10, p.234  

I’m sure many a reader chuckled when they read this passage in It Never Was You, as it sums up pretty well the character of Harry and Mary’s early romance. Mary’s loquacious but unsophisticated chatter is offset so brilliantly by Harry’s intermittent yet eloquent ripostes. He is a quiet man, but one with a well-honed vocabulary that he puts to good use, often for comic and sardonic effect.

Harry’s banter often reminds me of William himself, who loved to explore and experiment with words. He peppered The Cypress Branches with a plethora of wonderful, and sometimes weird, acronyms, slang and now long forgotten, obsolete words and phrases. The way people spoke in the 1940s and 50s when the books are set was very different to how we speak now, and once common and every-day phrases now seem baffling to the contemporary reader.

More than once, as I was editing and reviewing the books, I have found myself in a similar situation to Mary, reaching for a dictionary or going online to look up the meaning of a slang phrase. I love this aspect of the books. It roots them in the time they’re set, and makes the dialogue that much richer and more believable.

So, I thought I’d start a series of posts exploring some of the more obscure and interesting words which I have encountered in the books, and share with you what I have been able to discover about them.

Are there any words or phrases you’ve seen in the trilogy that you’d love to know more about – or just know what the heck they mean? If so, let me know and I’ll add them to the list to explore in future posts.

Wordy Wednesday #1: Tallyman

Where? It Never Was You, Chapter 6, page140

What’s the context? Harry and Mary are on their first outing together, and have stopped to take tea in a small patisserie. Mary is on one of her never-ending “ear-bashings”, telling Harry all about her family and her past.

“…don’t know how they managed, really, me mum and dad, him being away at sea, like, not that they were sex-mad, well not for each other, anyway, know what I mean, me mam put it about a bit, you know, the tallyman, the milkman always come out with a smile on their face, like…”

What does it mean? There are a number of possible definitions of a tallyman. As the name suggests, they are people employed to keep a tally – a running count – of people or items. In some countries, the tallyman is present at an election count, to keep a note of preferences when the ballot boxes are opened. In some towns and cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, tallymen were often employed by landlords or councils to do head counts, to ensure the correct number of people were living in council owned properties.

More often, though, the tallyman was the collector of debts. Hire purchase was popular in the period between and after the war, when the desire for consumer goods outstripped the everyday purchasing power of families. The result was many households buying goods (from furniture to vacuum cleaners) on credit, and paying back in instalments. Credit unions also helped out families on low incomes, clawing back the debts by sending the tallyman round periodically to collect the payments. Alan Johnson writes about how he and his family would hide from the tallyman when he came knocking, in his memoir, This Boy: “We were well practised in ducking down away from the windows and remaining silent as soon as we heard four knocks, and lying low until the tallyman gave up. We also knew we had to walk straight past the house if we saw one of them on the doorstep. They were easy to spot with their uniform belted raincoats and the thick, black ledgers they all carried.

Liverpool and its tallymen: The word has a particular association with Liverpool, where It Never Was You is set. During the early Victorian period, Liverpool was renowned for its overcrowded, unsanitary slums where dock and factory workers crammed into tiny dwellings with their extended families. In an effort to clean up the slums, and improve the health of the ever-growing population, Dr William Henry Duncan was appointed as the city’s (and the country’s) first Medical Officer of Health in 1847. He had some radical ideas, and it was undoubtedly thanks to his influence that the living conditions of Liverpool’s population improved markedly, with the slums eventually making way for the now ubiquitous Victorian “two-up two-down” terraces.

But Duncan’s legacy has a more sinister side, with tales (whether apocryphal or not, it isn’t clear) of a version of the tallyman sent to check on the number of people living in each home. So the stories go, the tallyman would visit, often at night, and if the home was considered too overcrowded or unsanitary, the authorities would remove children from their families and re-home them outside the city. The tallyman thus became an object of fear, and many who grew up in the 40s and 50s tell tales of how they were encouraged to behave, “or the tallyman will come to get you”.

Whether this was officially sanctioned, or even if it happened at all, isn’t clear, but it does make for a great “bogieman” threat to keep kids in line!

Have you heard of any tales of the tallyman? Can you shed any more light on the tallymen of Liverpool? If so, please leave a comment.

2013…a reading challenge

My 2013 reads…so far…

I know it’s November, and it’s a funny time of year to be introducing a reading challenge, but this is a post I’ve been meaning to write for some time now.

Back in January, I set myself a challenge designed to get me to read more. Having become thoroughly fed up with my lack of reading over the previous few years, I decided to do something about it and set myself a challenge – to read 12 new books by the end of the year.

Now, I know a lot of you fellow book lovers will scoff at this measly total. “12 books? I read that in a month!” I hear you cry. For some bloggers I know, that’s pretty much what you get through in a week, let alone a year.

Several aspects have conspired lately to stop me from reading. Firstly, I’ve never been a quick reader. Whereas some can plough through a novel in one sitting, it can take me days to read the same book. I can only read in certain environments, too. While I love to relax on the sofa with the TV off and a good book open, my favourite place to read is on a train. But truth be told, since putting my career on hold to work on the Cypress Branches trilogy, I have found my favourite reading time has vanished. I used to have a fairly decent commute in to work, of between 30 and 60 minutes on the bus or tube, there and back – plenty of time to get stuck in. (I’m a bit odd, in the way that I take pleasure from an announcement of a delay, because it means I don’t have to stop reading yet!)

But working from home for the last two years has meant that precious reading time is no longer available. I have a lot of other interests aside from reading, so without that commute, my reading rate plummeted to the extent that I finished just two books in 2012. An appalling record for a bibliophile, and something had to change.

Without the prospect of a daily commute starting again any time soon, I knew that I would have to make changes in my lifestyle somewhere, so inspired by the many reading challenges I read about in the blogosphere, I decided to set myself a simple, but hopefully achievable challenge.

Over the years, I have amassed a large number of unread books (my ability to buy books at a faster rate than I can read them is a trait I know I share with many others!) so I decided some ground rules had to be laid out:

The Challenge Rules

1. Read 12 novels by the end of December 2013
2. All books must not have been read before
3. All 12 books must be by different authors

I didn’t want to set a theme. I have an eclectic taste in books, and wanted to dip into as many genres and styles of writing as possible. I had no real plan, either, and simply pulled a book off the shelf that took my fancy each time I finished one. I wanted to read classics alongside contemporary, sci-fi and lit-fic, light-hearted and heavy. I only bought two new novels this year, too, which means I read more than I bought for once!

So, with some ground rules in place, and a burgeoning library offering up many wonders, I got stuck in to some brilliant reads, and I’m happy to report that with two months of the year to go, I finished my 12th novel a couple of days ago. It’s amazing how a few little changes to your routine can have a dramatic impact on your reading time. A couple of chapters before bed, an hour or two at the weekend, the odd journey here and there, a lazy, rainy day on holiday, all add up and I was amazed at just how quickly I got through my 12 books (yeah, yeah, I know, not that quickly…)

I was also helped by starting a new job which saw me travelling for nearly two hours to and from work once or twice a week, and with the prospect of a new full time job starting soon, I can look forward to even more reading/travelling time in 2014. I can’t wait!

2013 has introduced me to some brilliant (and not so brilliant) reads. I have rated them all on Goodreads, and may try my hand at writing a review or two. I have thoroughly enjoyed getting back into the reading habit and hope to read a few more before the year is out. I’ll probably give the new reads a break for now and re-discover some old favourites. I do love re-reading books occasionally, and there are a few on the shelves I’ve been tempted by, but it was against the rules…

As for next year, I have an idea in mind for a new target. But more of that in January. Right now, I want to get stuck into book number 13…