Friday 29 November 2013

At last I feel ‘Christmassy’!

When Christmas cards appeared in my favourite card shop at the end of August my reaction was ‘Bah Humbug’! Close family members have birthdays in December and unless I buy their cards months early, choice becomes limited. 

When they started playing the same old tired Christmas songs in every shop at the beginning of November, I silently screamed ‘No! Please, not again!’ Shelves in food stores have been piled high for weeks with mince pies, Christmas cakes, chocolate goodies and all the usual temptations. Not a good idea to ‘stock up’ for Christmas so early – if I buy them now I’ll eat them now then have to buy more. Of course! That’s their cunning plan!

So why do I suddenly feel Christmassy? Because I spent the afternoon in Liverpool city centre, that’s why. First, it was coffee and cake followed by a glass of wine with friends at  to celebrate the safe arrival of my third beautiful granddaughter. By the time we left, it was going dusk. Christmas lights twinkled. The Christmas market was buzzing, tempting my purse and my palate. And those two, huge reindeer in Liverpool 1 – an amazing sight. Not enough time to see everything so I’ll be back in a couple of days.  Now I’m in the mood for Christmas. Tomorrow I’m off to the shops to buy mince pies, Christmas cake and anything else that takes my fancy – and yes, I’ll probably eat them long before December 25th. Then I’m going to start writing my cards and wrapping presents. ‘So here it is, Merry Christmas’ – bring it on!

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Cirque du Soleil – Alegría

Translated from the Spanish, Alegría means ‘happiness, joy and jubilation’ and these were all in evidence at the Echo Arena on Sunday, 3rd November. The performance space, half its normal size, had been transformed into a dark, autumnal, fairytale setting and for two hours on a cold, blustery Sunday afternoon, the audience were transported into a magical world of colour, music and movement.

We were still settling in our seats, children dipping into bags of sweets, adults of all ages checking mobile phones (have we lost the knack of concentrating on the present moment?), and it took a moment or two to register that a clown had shambled into the arena. A word of warning to all potential audience members – if you don’t want to find yourself taking part in a performance, then don’t sit near the stage! The laughter that followed settled everyone down and we sat back to enjoy the show. I was relieved when the audience were given a stern warning not to use mobile devices or cameras during the show, even without flash, as these could prove dangerous to the performers, but this didn’t deter someone sitting a couple of rows in front of us from videoing part of the show on his phone. Fortunately, vigilant arena staff were on the spot in seconds, and the device was swiftly switched off!

The show consisted of 55 performers and musicians of twenty nationalities. The set was designed by Michel Crete, costumes by Dominique Lemieux with the soundtrack by Rene Dupré. But these are mere facts, what these people created for us was a stunning visual and aural spectacle that set the nerves tingling and the pulses throbbing.

I have to admit that I’ve never been fond of clowns, their slapstick comedy routines usually leave me cold, but this show certainly changed my opinion – I never knew you could have so much fun with paper planes! The routines involving unsuspecting members of the audience were so hilarious I did wonder if they were ‘plants’ – if they weren’t then congratulations are in order. And the ‘pantomime’ horse may be a cliché, but it still made me hoarse with laughter (pun intended!). I did find one of the characters appearing between acts rather grotesque; not being able to follow the intended theme of the show (should have bought a programme) I wasn’t sure what he represented. Dressed in black and red, short, with impossibly bent legs, a huge belly that wobbled and an enormous hump on his back, he was the stuff of nightmares – did he represent ‘chaos’? Every time I saw his painfully twisted body strut around the stage I worried that his act would leave him permanently injured.

We needed the clowns’ routines to give us some light relief between the breathtaking acts otherwise the excitement might have been too much for some of us older members of the audience! The mesmerising Fire Knife Dancers, twirling their batons of fire, should have come with a warning, ‘Children, do not attempt this at home’. Seeing them set a section of the stage alight was another reason I was glad not to be sitting at the front, even though I knew it was quite safe.

Acrobats performed incredible feats on The Russian Bars, somersaulting high in the air and landing on narrow planks supported on the shoulders of their catchers. While watching the performers you also have to appreciate the phenomenal body strength and perfect timing of these catchers. The audience were spellbound by The Mongolian Body Twisters; by performers on metal spinning rings; and especially by a contortionist – there were times when I couldn’t make out the individual parts of her body as she twisted it into shapes that seemed physically impossible. I found myself wondering how she gets out of bed in the morning. Feet first? Head first? Stomach first? Not slowly, with creaking joints like me, that’s for sure.

The female vocalist and the excellent musicians linked and accompanied all the acts perfectly. Sometimes, there was so much going on, so many people on stage, so much colour, noise and movement it was almost hypnotic.

It seemed all too soon before it was time for the Finale. And what a Finale it was! We watched, holding our collective breath, as the acrobats, two at a time, climbed swaying ladders until they stood on a platform 40 feet above the arena. What followed was an awe-inspiring spectacle of high-wire acrobatics. With two catchers suspended on swings below the platform there was an ever-changing movement of bodies flying through the air, swinging, catching, being caught, at death-defying, incredible speed. It was like watching a kaleidoscope, the pattern changing constantly. I marvelled at the complete trust members of the troupe must have in one another. And the fact that for the Finale a net had been suspended beneath the performers in no way detracted from their skill and bravery as they each jumped 40 feet into the net at the end of the act.

Performance over, it was a shock to emerge, blinking, into the bleak daylight of a late autumn day, our eyes still filled with colour and movement, our ears ringing with music, bodies still vibrating with the thrumming of drums. A truly wonderful show, spectacular in the true sense of the word; a show to recall and wonder at in the dull days of winter.

Thank you Alegría, and thank you Echo Arena, for a memorable afternoon. We’re now looking forward to André Rieu’s concert in December.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

In conversation with Pam Weaver

Pam Weaver
Welcome to my website Pam, and congratulations on the success of your latest book, Pack Up Your Troubles.

What do you find particularly interesting about the period of history in which your books are set?
The era is a little before my time but I grew up on the war time stories my mother used to tell and I loved them. She repeated them time and time again and now I realise she was unwittingly teaching me about the art of story-telling as well. Her stories had pathos, pace, anticipation, humour and a good punch line. Those austerity years were difficult times. War scarred and weary, people were trying to pick up the threads of a normal life again whilst still facing privation and hardship and yet they came through triumphantly. I so admire people like that.

Your novels are set in and around an area which you are very familiar with, are any of the characters based on people from your own family background?
Oh yes, yes and yes! Some have come completely from my imagination (I’ve never met anyone like Reg Cox from There’s Always Tomorrow thank goodness) but most of the characters are composites of people I grew up with. Their names? That’s a closely guarded secret.

Do you have a favourite amongst your characters?
I suppose I’m a little fickle because I love the characters in my books as I write them and then move on quite quickly, but I have a lasting relationship with Mary Prior, Dottie’s friend who comes to the rescue in There’s Always Tomorrow, and I think I fell slightly in love with Eugène Étienne in Pack Up Your Troubles (but please don’t tell my husband).

Pack Up Your Troubles by Pam Weaver
All of your book covers are very attractive. Do you have any input into the design?
I have no input at all into the design or even the title of the books, so if you like them, it’s hats off to HarperCollins Avon.

Could you give readers a glimpse of what your writing day is like? Do you have a favourite place, or time of day, and do your books start their life with pen and paper or directly on a PC or laptop?
I use the small bedroom as my office. It’s a bit chaotic  as I work but as soon as I’m knee deep in papers I promise you I have a clear out. I write at any time, even getting up in the middle of the night if I have a good idea. I am ‘working’ all the time in my head and I use long hand and the computer to get it down. I have to print it off the computer to read as paper copy in order to spot mistakes and I’m a great believer in reading aloud so that I get a good rhythm in my work.

On your website, you mention your strong Christian beliefs, what part, if any, do these play in your writing life?
I hate unnecessary swearing in a book and so although my characters might use the occasional swear word, comparing my work to some other writers, it’s all very mild. It’s become a challenge for me to find a way of expressing frustration, anger or jealousy without resorting to the f-word.

Would you would like to tell readers something about the writing courses you run; how important do you think it is for aspiring writers to learn from more experienced, successful authors?
My writing courses have been on hold for a while since my fall in March when I shattered my right ankle. (moral of the story, don’t put the bins out, leave them for your hubby!) Having said that, a writing friend and I are planning a writers’ day in Worthing in March 2014. I spent perhaps five years making very obvious mistakes when sending out manuscripts and so I try to give the wanna-be writer some basics which will help them attract the eye of the editor/publisher. I LOVE encouraging writers and so my writers’ days are a lot of fun as well. Best of all I love it when I get letters and phone calls from ex-attendees who can’t wait to tell me they’ve now been published!

What is the first book you remember reading and what are you currently reading, or planning to read?
The first books I read for myself were Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Later I devoured Jean Plaidy, Daphne Du Maurier and more recently, JoJo Moyes. At the moment I’m reading Lesley Pearse’s Till We Meet Again.

If you could have only one book with you on a desert island, which would it be?
The Little House by Philippa Gregory. The book which can teach you all you need to know about characterisation.

Which is the best book you have received as a gift?
That question has made me realise that people don’t generally give me books as a gift. I shall amend my Christmas list immediately!

Are you working on another novel at the moment?
I have just written The End on a book called For Better For Worse which will be published next year.

Thank you Pam, I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. One last thought – if we’d been able to have this chat over a coffee, where would your perfect venue have been?
I would have asked you if we could have swapped coffee for afternoon tea somewhere posh. How about South Lodge Country House Hotel near Horsham. Shall I book us a table?

Visit Pam Weaver's website

Pam Weaver's books on Amazon

Monday 16 September 2013

In conversation with Freda Lightfoot

Freda Lightfoot
Freda, I’d like to begin by asking what prompted you to become a writer – did you write as a child?
I used to scribble stories in a little red book, the stories generally bearing a strong resemblance to whatever I’d recently been reading: The Chalet School stories, the What Katy Did series, Malcolm Saville adventure books, and Secret Garden my all time favourite.

What is the first book you remember reading?
Little Grey Rabbit. Still have it somewhere. Must look for it.

I’m fascinated by your journey from Oswaldtwistle, to winters spent in a Spanish olive grove, via the Lake District! Is there anything you miss about England when you’re in Spain, and vice versa?
Ossy, as we called it, was a wonderful place to grow up. A friendly Lancashire town with a fabulous history. Home of James Hargreaves, inventor of the spinning jenny, and the Peel family of Robert Peel fame who started the police force. My parents had a shoe shop and I loved nothing more than chatting with people, somehow aware I’d write about all of that one day. David and I brought up our family in the Lakes, then rather bad arthritis drove me to become a snow bird and live in Spain in the winter. But we have a holiday home in the UK for the summer, so enjoy the best of both worlds.

Where do you do the majority of your writing – in Spain or England?
Anywhere and everywhere. Makes no difference to me, I’m an addict.

Do you think that at some point in the future one of your family sagas will be set in Spain?
I’m already planning one, but for now it still sits on that bookshelf in my head. I just need to live long enough to write them all.

Your family sagas and fictionalised biographies are set in very different eras – how do you plan your research, and how much time does it take up before you can sit down to the actual writing?
The fictionalised biographies take the most time as you can’t change the facts or someone’s character so every detail has to be investigated. It’s rather like being a detective searching out reasons and motivations. For the family sagas I love to interview old people who can tell me how things used to be. What treasured memories they have. Then I check all the facts to get the feel of period from my substantial library. With the sagas I try to do just enough to get started, then research what I need as I write. The story always comes first. 

Polly Pride by Freda Lightfoot
You have said that your first mainstream saga – Luckpenny Land – was inspired by personal memories. What do you think your ancestors’ response to your novels would be?
I have used many family memories in my stories, including the one of my great aunt Hannah who pawned all her furniture during the depression to buy second hand carpets which she cut up and sold on the market in order to survive. I fictionalised this for Polly Pride, and I would think she’d love it, although her own husband was much more supportive than Polly’s. But then this is fiction and we need plenty of conflict.

The covers of your novels are very attractive – do any of them depict members of your family?
Yes, my mother is on the cover of Polly Pride, walking down the street with her aunt. And I am on the cover of Daisy’s Secret looking like a waif and stray.

Apart from the biographies, which comes first, the characters or the setting?
Always the characters. They drive the plot, determine the setting, everything.

Alongside a successful career with a mainstream publisher, you must be delighted with the success of your e-books – has this surprised you?
I’m totally amazed and thrilled. And so grateful to my many fans who have supported me for years. Where would I be without them? We chat on my Facebook page, which is great. I still love talking to people.

I found the article on self-publishing on your website very informative – and also realistic about the amount of work involved in creating a profile. You state the advisability of involving outside agencies for editing, proofing, cover art, promoting, etc; did you take this route from the outset or did you learn by ‘trial and error’?
I was fortunate in that all my books that I have published so far were previously  published with Hodder & Stoughton, so they are professionally edited. I did cut them a bit, and soften the Lancashire speech, but that’s all. Were I to put up a new book, then I would hire an editor. You really can’t spot all your own errors. I also do much of my own cover art, which I love doing, although if I don’t have time I do use a graphic artist. As for promotion I think building a relationship with your readers is the best way, and I do send out a regular newsletter.

And finally, Freda; is there a book by another writer you wish you’d written?
Oh, wow, what a question. There are so many writers and books I admire. But I would choose Rebecca, which is surely the best book ever written. Every time I read it I find something new in it. Daphne DuMaurier wrote beautiful prose and the most amazing stories in every genre.

Thank you for taking time out from your busy schedule to answer my questions, and every good wish for your continued success.
Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure. I’ve loved chatting with you.

Visit Freda Lightfoot's website

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Friday 23 August 2013

The Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight

Port Sunlight – the very name takes me back to my childhood; Sunlight soap, red blocks of Lifebuoy (used for personal hygiene before deodorants became commonplace among the working class) and the oval-shaped, almost translucent blocks of Pears soap, a luxury to most. I can remember my mother scouring the kitchen with Vim – do we really need our cupboards full of different cleaning products that we now stock up with on our supermarket trips?

When my family was using Lever Brothers products in the 1940s and ‘50s, I’m sure no one gave much thought to the man whose original vision created the multinational company – William Lever, later Lord Leverhulme. Now of course there is a wealth of information, in books and on the internet, about Lord Leverhulme and Port Sunlight Village, is an excellent source and also gives information on forthcoming events in the village such as the Heritage Open Days. William Hesketh Lever believed that ‘Art can be to everyone an inspiration’, although in the beginning he collected paintings for business reasons. Between 1886 and 1906, he spent £2m on advertising, buying paintings to illustrate his brands. By far the most memorable of these was Millais’ ‘Bubbles’, used to advertise Pears soap in 1914 and still instantly recognisable. Not all artists appreciated this use of their paintings – William Frith Powell, for example, objected to ‘The New Frock’ being used in this way. But Lever had hit on a very successful marketing tool; soap wrappers could be collected and used as vouchers to exchange for prints of these paintings. I remember something similar when I was a young housewife in the early 1960s when packets of soap powder came with plastic daffodils or tulips. Not as tasteful as prints of beautiful paintings, but it didn’t stop lots of housewives putting them in vases on their window sills. I can’t remember now which brand of soap powder they were given away with, so perhaps their advertising wasn’t quite as clever as Lever’s!

By 1912, William Lever was worth £3m, plus his income, and by 1925 employed 85,000 workers around the globe. His use of art in advertising had given him a taste for collecting and he had begun to buy for his own pleasure. His collection grew to contain 20,000 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, ceramics, textiles and ethnographic objects, many of which are on display in the gallery. As the collection grew, and to fulfil his ambition of sharing it with the public, it moved from the library to Hulme Hall, and eventually into the purpose-built Lady Lever Art Gallery, begun in 1913 and opened in 1922. He was the only British tycoon of his time to build a gallery.

My latest visit to the Lady Lever Gallery was primarily to view the drawings of the pre-Raphaelite Master, Edward Burne-Jones. These are described as ‘Independent artworks in their own right…Drawing for drawing’s sake’. We were lucky enough to be in the Gallery early in the day before it got busy and so were able to give these drawings the time and close attention they deserve. I was particularly drawn to the ‘Study of a Woman’s Head, profile to left’, dated the 1890s, it has an almost 3D quality, every hair on the woman’s head detailed. Burne-Jones was said to “idealise ‘helpless’ beauty”, but in another room, exhibiting his Preparatory Drawings and Sketches, he also depicts women as “powerful and dangerous”, as in his ‘Study to a Mermaid’s Head’. This is an exhibition well worth a visit before it closes.

On my visits to the gallery I always enjoy time viewing my favourite paintings in Lever’s collection, many hanging in the Main Hall. William Holman Hunt’s ‘The Scapegoat’; John Everett Millais’ ‘Apple Blossoms (Spring)’, and ‘The Black Brunswicker’; Walter Dendy Sandler’s ‘The End of the Skein’ – this painting intrigues me because of the shadow of an open newspaper lying on the hearth, did the artist change his mind? I love Bacon’s ‘The Wedding Morning’ and Joseph Farquharson’s ‘The Shortening Winter’s Day is near a Close’ – this because a large print used to hang over the fireplace of a dear friend who died in 2001. Frederic Leighton’s ‘Head of Spanish Girl’ reminds me of my Spanish heritage – I like to think that perhaps one of my forebears looked just like her. My husband’s favourites are Robert Van Herromer’s ‘The Last Muster’ and Briton Rivier's ‘Fidelity’.

All of these paintings tell a story, and I’ve used postcards of them in my U3A creative writing group as prompts for short stories – with excellent, imaginative result from the members. The frames of the paintings are also worth a mention, some of them being works of art in their own right.

Lord Leverhulme also collected 20th century paintings, some of which are displayed in the East Gallery. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit there had been a problem with a water leak and some paintings had been removed, but Dame Laura Knight’s ‘Ballet’ is still hanging.

All the gallery’s paintings can be viewed on, but as well as housing a world-famous collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the gallery also has five period rooms containing Neo-Classical sculptures, English furniture, tapestries, Chinese Art, etc – far too many interesting exhibits to do justice to them here, it’s necessary to pay many visits to appreciate the richness and diversity of the collection. I will mention one of my favourites – the statue of Kuan-Yin, Goddess of Mercy, from the Ming Dynasty. It is inscribed, ‘made by ten of the worshippers of the Temple, for the donor’. Unfortunately I don’t know which Temple, or who the donor was! I like Stella Benson’s description of Kuan-Yin, it begins, ‘Her hands are empty of weapons…’ and ends
‘She is still,
She is very still, 
She listens always.’

Ending the visit with our usual appreciation of the coffee shop in the basement, I was also amused to find that the doors to the Ladies toilets in the basement still have the brass machines that took payment of one penny. With its warning, ‘No bent or damaged coins’, it took me back to the days when ‘spending a penny’ was meant quite literally. Now it costs 30p to spend a penny in many public toilets – no wonder my grandchildren get confused!

Tuesday 13 August 2013

From Lighthouses to Cemeteries!

Today, I’m speaking to John and Diane Robinson.

John and Diane, your book, Lighthousesof Liverpool Bay, is beautifully produced and for someone like myself, with no previous knowledge of lighthouses, or the lives of lighthouse keepers, it makes for very interesting reading. It portrays a lonely, arduous and often dangerous way of life that now belongs to maritime history but which would have been of tremendous importance to people like my grandfather, a seaman with the Liverpool-based Larrinaga Shipping Line.

Can you tell me something about how the book came to be written – did the idea come from a personal interest, or were you approached by the publisher, Tempus Publishing Limited?

It all started with family history research when it looked as if Diane’s ancestor, an overseer of the embankment, lived at Leasowe lighthouse. So one day we called in at the lighthouse and Eric, the chairman, persuaded us to join the Friends of Leasowe Lighthouse. John did some research, at Merseyside Maritime Museum archive, on the keepers of the light and wrote a little booklet. After that we were hooked. We gave tours of the lighthouse, helped set up an archive and eventually we went on to research the wider aspects of what we now realised were Liverpool lighthouses.

How did you set about your research? How much were you able to discover from local archives?

Having already discovered that the Maritime Museum held the papers of the Dock Trust, which preceded the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, we began researching the minutes of the Dock Committee in particular, finding all references to the building and maintenance of the port’s lighthouses and the hiring and firing of keepers, etc. We also found much valuable material at Liverpool Record Office and various record offices and libraries in Wales and on Merseyside.

Did you actually visit the site of each former lighthouse?

Yes. In fact we stayed in a keeper’s cottage at Point Lynas lighthouse. We were in the West Cottage and the sunsets were wonderful. Each evening we’d watch the dolphins playing off the point. The walks are marvellous, too. Even today it’s very isolated, but for the keepers it must have been a really remote place. Lynas was one of the earliest of Liverpool’s lighthouses and it was, since the 1780s, a pilot station where pilots boarded ships to take them into the port. However, the present lighthouse, as is the case with many of Liverpool’s lighthouses, is not the original building. Although the buildings at Lynas are privately owned now, the automated light is still in operation. We enjoyed standing under the light as it flashed into the darkness. Fortunately, the fog horn never sounded while we were there.

I was intrigued to read that Ormeshead lighthouse was eventually converted into a bed and breakfast establishment – were you able to stay there? If so, knowing its past history, how did the experience affect you?

We’ve stayed there twice, in two different rooms. The Lamp room is now a sitting room. It’s 325 feet above the sea and is particularly atmospheric on a stormy winter’s night. As we sat, cosy and warm while rain beat on the window, we felt for the poor keepers holding on tight as they cleared the snow from the outside of those great windows!

Lighthouses of Liverpool Bay, is full of human interest stories, were there any humorous moments during your travels, or poignant ones?

For Diane in particular, New Brighton lighthouse was terrifying to get into because it was Liverpool’s only rock lighthouse. So, twice a day it’s surrounded by the sea. All of Liverpool’s other lighthouses are land-based. When the tide’s out, it stands in a waist-deep moat which you have to wade through to get to a wooden ladder. This has to be lashed to the base of the fixed iron rungs that lead to the doorway, thirty feet above the water. At the top of the iron ladder you must haul yourself onto a narrow platform in front of the great iron door. Once inside, you get a real insight into the cramped conditions in which the keepers worked and lived.

It may seem a big leap from lighthouses to cemeteries, but there is a link between your two interests. You both belong to ‘The Friends of Rake Lane Cemetery, Wallasey’, and I see from your website that a past keeper of New Brighton lighthouse, John Thompson Francis, is buried in this cemetery. The cemetery also has other strong seafaring links, with many monuments connected with major maritime disasters of the early twentieth century. I believe The Friends lead regular, themed walks exploring these; perhaps you could tell me more about this aspect of your involvement? Who decides on the format?

The format for walks has evolved into ‘Sea Disasters’ (Titanic, Empress of Ireland and Lusitania, all three have lots of local connections), ‘Local and Maritime History’ (includes The Wallasey Hermit, the pilot boat tragedies and the training ship Indefatigable). The two World Wars are also available, depending on the interests of those on the walk. Usually we end at the cemetery chapel, which has been rescued by Father Paul and his congregation and converted into a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church.

Do you have a group of volunteers who lead the walks – and how many people usually take part?

It’s usually just Diane and John and our chairman, Mark Joynson. Numbers vary. It could be just two people or a group of up to twenty.

Are these walks advertised and is it necessary to book a place in advance?

They are currently advertised in the Wirral Heritage Open Days booklet and on the internet and are available on request.

I believe that you have also undertaken research in connection with the cemetery on behalf of others; from how far afield have these requests come?

We’ve had requests and donations from all over the world, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, the USA. Often they have also given us extra information about the cemetery’s history and the people buried there.

I note from your website that you also hold monthly meetings, are these open to the general public?

Yes, we’re happy to see anyone with an interest in the upkeep of the cemetery.

Finally, which came first – Lighthouses of Liverpool Bay, or your interest in Rake Lake Cemetery?

The lighthouses came first, about fifteen years ago. The Friends of Rake Lane Cemetery started about five years ago.

Thank you, John and Diane, for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope your answers will encourage many more Merseyside people to take an interest in our historic maritime past.

Lighthouses of Liverpool by John and Diane Robinson

Wednesday 31 July 2013

A visit to the Victoria Gallery and Museum in Liverpool

Victoria Clock Tower, Liverpool University by Sue Adair (
I read a tweet from Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery and Museum advertising their free guided tours. This building was converted from the original University of Liverpool building in 2008 when the city was European Capital of Culture, and I realised that although I pass by on a fairly regular basis and always admire the architecture, I have never actually been inside. Time to ‘seize the day’, and explore this hidden gem. I call it a hidden gem because even though it stands in a prominent position at the junction of Brownlow Hill and Ashton Street, the trail most visitors to the city follow leads towards the waterfront via St George’s Hall, the World Museum, Art Gallery, etc. Yet the VG&M is only a ten minute walk from Lime Street Station, a bit of a climb, admittedly – the clue is in the name, ‘Brownlow Hill’! For those less able, or just to save time, you can catch a bus from the side of Adelphi Hotel which will drop you right outside the VG&M, they run every five minutes or so. And there are plenty of car parking provisions close by.

Arriving just before 12.30pm, the advertised time for the tour, we were soon joined by our guide, Barbara Marshall. We were a small group, five in all, which included a small boy who was not only very well behaved but also very bright. The tour takes approximately one hour and there is no need to pre-book, it’s a case of ‘first come, first served’. I’m not sure how many can be accommodated but I think we benefited from being a small group.

We began the tour outside the building, in Ashton Street, which is actually in the form of a square, so that Barbara could point out the different architectural styles of the University buildings. Architect Nikolaus Pevsner, likened the original University buildings to ‘a zoo’, not, I hasten to add, because of its students, but because the buildings represented ‘one of every species’, architecturally speaking.

The original Gothic Revival building in red Ruabon brick – the inspiration for the term ‘red brick universities’ – sits quite comfortably next to a 1913 building in classical style. Waterhouse must have had quite a quirky sense of humour because, as our guide pointed out, if you look up, above the Grecian pillars there are several sphinxes adorning the building!

Plans for a university in Liverpool were discussed at a town meeting in 1878. Manchester already had a university and there has always been a sense of rivalry between the two cities, with the merchants of Liverpool referring to, ‘Manchester Men, and Liverpool Gentlemen’!

The architect was to be Alfred Waterhouse, son of a wealthy Quaker mill owner from Aigburth. Alfred’s dream was to become an artist but his father advised him against it, saying there was more money to be made from a career in architecture. His advice turned out to be sound – Alfred became a prolific and popular architect, designing some 600 buildings in all, including eleven in Liverpool, Manchester’s Town Hall, and The Natural History Museum in London.

Money for the university was raised by public appeal with wealthy merchants, ship-owners and philanthropists donating large sums. Henry Tate (Tate & Lyle sugar) donated £20,000, with an extra £5,000 to provide books for the library. William Hartley (Hartley’s jam) donated £4,300 to provide the clock and bells for the tower. The original estimate for building was £35,000, but it eventually cost £53,000 – nothing changes! The University College of Liverpool was built near the site of a disused lunatic asylum and in 1882 opened its doors to 45 students. Twenty-one years later it became The University of Liverpool. Who could have foreseen that over a century later Liverpool would welcome tens of thousands of students from home and abroad to its colleges and universities? Although we were visiting during the summer vacation, evidence of student occupation was all around us, with cranes visible on the skyline as another huge accommodation block is being erected nearby.

The tour lasts one hour, and so provides only a ‘taster’ of everything on offer inside the building. The interior is a marvel of pillars and Moorish-influenced arches, tiled in the browns and greens favoured by the Victorians. The floors tiles are the original – mainly in the Roman mosaic design. A moment on the tour to pause and wonder how many feet had trod those tiles before us – what did they go on to achieve?

In what was the Women’s Reading Room there is an original fireplace, designed by a woman and also carved by a woman – the wife of a Professor at the university. The little boy accompanying us was quick to spot the various animals skilfully carved into the surround. A magnificent tiled fireplace still exists on the ground floor in what is now the Waterhouse Café.

The museum exhibits are housed in a mock-Tudor ‘Great Hall’; Waterhouse was obviously given free rein to indulge all his favourite architectural styles – but it works, because a wander through this building provides a surprise around every corner. There are permanent exhibits in glass cases in this room, but there is also a large exhibit which will, I think, change next year. This is a mock-up of a ‘dig’ in Turkey in the late 1800s, when archaeologists went to discover proof of the Hittites, previously thought to be a mythical biblical tribe. This must prove a very popular exhibit with children as there are opportunities to dress up, dig in sand to discover hidden treasures, etc. (For the times of specific events consult their website). I was particularly drawn to a photograph taken in 1913 by Lawrence of Arabia!

This building contains far too much of interest to do it justice here. There are sculptures; zoology and dentistry exhibits (including a complete dentist's surgery); paintings by Turner, Lucien Freud, JJ Audubon; icon paintings from Crete, Greece and Russia collected by Professor Roaf; Rembrandt etchings, and much more.

As a grandchild of Spanish immigrants, I was particularly interested in the exhibition by Kurt Tong, who explores his Chinese heritage through his own modern photographs, treasured family photographs and writing, which he began ‘as a visual storybook to share his roots with his daughters’. A visit to this gallery is concluded at certain times of the day by a Chinese tea ceremony! A wonderful experience hosted beautifully by volunteer Yeshan, who made and poured delicious Jasmine tea into tiny bowls that looked particularly delicate in my husband’s large hands. I’m told there may even be a photograph on the Gallery’s Facebook page!

Once our guide had left us, we wandered into the Quad, a peaceful (at least when we were there) outside space designed and built for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. From our seat in the centre we were able to gaze at the historic buildings, the Ashton, built for the Faculty of the Arts in 1913; the Harrison Hughes; the Johnston; the George Holt. Famous Liverpool men immortalised in brick and stone. I spotted a blue plaque on the Johnston building commemorating Sir Donald Ross (1857-1932), the discoverer of the transmission of malaria by mosquitos, who had worked in the building. I thought back to the tiled floor inside the VG&M – had we perhaps walked in his footsteps?

The inevitable conclusion to our trip was coffee and a chocolate muffin in the pleasant Waterhouse café, and as we wandered back down the hill to Lime Street Station, we vowed to come back soon and explore each room in detail.

Thank you to the receptionist who came running after me when I left my handbag on the sofa in Reception. Thank you Yeshan – I hope I’ve spelt your name correctly.

And finally, a big ‘thank you’ to Barbara for being such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. I would recommend anyone visiting the building for the first time, to take a guided tour – without Barbara pointing it out would we have noticed that all the pillars are designed in contrasting pairs?

Monday 1 July 2013

Reflections on Santiago

In a recent edition of the town and parish magazine, Your Berkhamsted, I read an article by Kate Perera, Singing in Santiago, which evoked my own thoughts of the city.

I made my own very special pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the year 2000, researching my family tree. My maternal grandparents were from Galicia and I had been told that my grandmother left Santiago in the early 1900s after a double tragedy and settled in Liverpool, where she met my sea-farer grandfather and where my mother was born. I knew very little of my grandmother’s life in Spain except for anecdotes passed down through my mother – my grandfather had died before I was born and my grandmother didn’t speak English – so I went to Santiago with no information but a great deal of hope.

The Museo del Monasterio San Martin Pinario was crucial to my search. This magnificent building also houses the church archives for Santiago and it was here in June 2000 that I met the young priest – by an incredible coincidence also from Liverpool – who was to prove invaluable in my search for my roots.

Kate’s mention of the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, also brought back memories. This is now a sumptuously and historically furnished parador, where my husband and I were lucky enough to spend one night a couple of years ago. In my grandmother’s day it was the hospital for Santiago, with its own chapel, and during our stay I was able to lay my hands on a physical piece of my family history. It still makes me weep to remember the story behind it.

And so to Santiago’s magnificent catedral; I remember the first time I traversed its wide aisles before climbing the steps behind the high altar to touch the statue of St James. I am not a Roman Catholic, unlike my ancestors, but during a pilgrim’s mass on that first visit I had the unforgettable sensation of a distinct link with the past. On a later visit, I was also lucky enough to be present on a holy day when the botafumeiro was swung; the one now in use is a replica as the original was stolen by Napoleon’s troops!

Kate’s article made me feel nostalgic; it has been two years since my last visit to Santiago and I must return soon. Since my first visit 13 years ago, I have unearthed more information about my grandmother and her – my – family than I ever thought possible. And it is only now that I fully understand what a brave woman she was. I hope she would have been pleased that I’ve visited her city; when I walk the streets she walked as a young girl I feel that I’m taking her home. I also hope she would be pleased that I’ve recently been interviewed about my search for my roots in the Galician newspaper La Voz de Galicia.

Monday 17 June 2013

A chat with Janet MacLeod Trotter

Janet MacLeod Trotter
Today, I am talking to Janet MacLeod Trotter, successful author of family sagas and historical novels.

Janet, having just read, and very much enjoyed, No Greater Love, I see from your website that the ending has been changed from when it was originally published and I wonder what prompted this?
This was a new edition for the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison (the suffragette martyr who was trampled to death by King George V's horse at the Epsom Derby) who inspires my fictional heroine Maggie Beaton. As I was revisiting the story, I decided it would be interesting to take the action a little bit further than in the original, so it's more of an addition than a complete change. Also my daughter has always wanted a different outcome, so it was partly to please her!

I found some passages very disturbing. Given what the suffragettes went through to gain women the vote, what do you think about the low turnout of voters for local and general elections?
It upsets me when women don't exercise their right to vote. Three of my own great-aunts and my great grandmother (also called Janet) were very actively involved in the campaign for the vote, and I'm humbled and proud that they marched, sold newspapers and took part in civil disobedience to achieve emancipation. If they were prepared to risk their liberty and careers, then turning up at the polling station is the least we modern women can do.

No Greater Love by Janet MacLeod TrotterWhat is it about the period this book is set in that you find particularly interesting?
I find the Edwardian era fascinating. Coming on the heels of the Victorians, changes were happening for some women such as greater education, travel and careers, yet they were still having to battle the constraints of class and strict social conventions. Then comes the world-shattering experience of the First World War, which throws both men and women's lives into turmoil – grist to the mill for a writer!

How much historical research do you have to do, and how do you go about it?
A lot! I spend several months reading and researching a topic or an era that intrigues me – for example suffragettes or Italians living in Britain through the Second World War – and from this the ideas for the plot and characters grow.

Is there a period you haven’t yet visited in your novels but would like to tackle?
I would love to do a novel based on the Scottish heroine Flora MacDonald, which would take me to 18th century Scotland and also America. My MacLeod ancestors were living on the Isle of Skye when Flora was helping Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after the Jacobite Rising, so perhaps one or two of them could sneak into the novel!

In your own reading, is historical fiction your favourite genre, or are there others?
When I was a teenager, historical novels were my favourite, but I'm happy to read a whole range of different novels – contemporary, mystery, foreign novels – and I also enjoy non fiction, especially travel. I'm in two reading groups, so am often introduced to novels that I wouldn't have tried otherwise.

What real life characters have interested or inspired you?
Well I have to say Emily Davison, don't I?! I might not have her courage but she certainly inspired me to write No Greater Love. My Jarrow Trilogy is inspired by the life of Catherine Cookson – she was such a complex and interesting person who rose from her impoverished background to be a great observer and writer about the people of North East England. Another Edwardian!

I was interested to learn that you use photographs of women from your own family for your book covers, what prompted you to do this?
Because they are such interesting women! I re-branded my historical novels when they were published as ebooks and wanted strong images of real women on the covers, so I raided the family archive. My mother was an actress in her younger days and so I've used her lovely photos on more than one cover – it's just a pity she never lived to see her latter day fame.

Have the real lives of these women influenced characters or events in your books?
Not specifically, but the novel I'm researching now is set largely in India and the background is based on my grandparents experience there in the 1920s and 30s, expressed through old diaries and letters from my grandmother to her parents back in Edinburgh.

You have had incredible success with your e-books. How did the journey start – and did you have any idea in the beginning of how popular your novels would prove to be?
I've been writing for many years and published originally by a traditional publisher. But the ebooks I have done myself and it's such a thrill that my novels are being enjoyed by a whole new generation of readers all over the world. The most satisfying thing is receiving emails from readers and hearing their stories. People like to relate to the women in the novels and many have said how the stories bring the past alive for them.

How much of the publishing process for your own novels are you involved in, for example, design, formatting and marketing.
I'm very involved but do bring in professional help with graphic design, ebook conversion, copy editing and newsletter production. My husband is also a co-director of the publishing company and helps with business strategy and marketing. It's a family business – our daughter and son have honed their proof-reading and researching skills – and my daughter appears on two of the covers!

Many thanks, Janet, for taking take time out from what must be a very busy schedule to talk to me. One last question: is the surname ‘Trotter’ particularly associated with the North East, I’m thinking of Catherine Cookson’s ‘Tilly Trotter’? 
The name Trotter is a Scottish Border name – one of the wild Reiver clans who rampaged around the Scotland-England border for centuries – so it's not surprising that some Trotters  ended up in the North East and that Cookson should choose the name for her character. I was born a MacLeod (of Viking descent) and acquired a Trotter on marriage – so our children have inherited some feisty genes!

Visit Janet MacLeod Trotter's website.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Two days, two cities. Part 2 - Liverpool

St George's Hall, Liverpool. Photograph by fabiopauleri, reproduced under Creative Commons licence.'s_Hall%2C_Liverpool_(2007).jpg
Sunday the 9th of June, saw me back in my favourite city – Liverpool – the city where I was born, went to school, had my first job, and met my husband! Our intention was to walk straight from Lime Street Station down to the waterfront; it was the last day of the Mersey River Festival which has entertained the city’s many thousands of visitors over the last three weekends. However, passing the side entrance to St George’s Hall, we decided to drop into their coffee shop for a caffeine boost first. (Readers will notice how many of these blogs mention coffee shops!) As we’re familiar with the building due to numerous visits over the years, we didn’t intend to linger this time – but we couldn’t help ourselves. It was only 30 minutes or so after the Hall had opened and we soon realised we were the only visitors in the building – even the ground floor coffee shop was deserted. Venturing up the stone staircases to the third floor, we found, to our disappointment, no sign of the quintessential English tea room that used to be there. It was a decidedly eerie experience wandering the building without coming across any signs of life, especially when we walked into the Court Room and found the dock occupied by two life-sized models of Victorian female prisoners! Venturing along the corridor that contained the original cells, it was unnerving to hear the ghostly cries and shouts of long-dead prisoners, even though we knew they were only sound effects. Some of the cells were ‘occupied’, and the fact that we were the only two visitors in the building added to the eerie atmosphere.

As we stepped out of the side door, we were relieved to see other visitors were beginning to arrive, and as we were even more in need of caffeine we crossed over to the café in the Central Library.

(Another Liverpool ‘first’ – St George’s Hall had the first air conditioning unit in the world.)

Down at the waterfront, the scene was as buzzing as it has been over the previous weekends; happy crowds enjoying themselves in the sunshine, street theatre, sea and air displays, the Sights and Sounds of India performing on the World Music Stage; in short, something for everyone.

We couldn’t miss the opportunity of boarding the schooner Kathleen and May. Built by Ferguson and Baird at Connah’s Quay in 1900, this is the last remaining three-masted, wooden hull, topsail schooner. In 1961, The Duke of Edinburgh discovered her in a bad state of repair in Plymouth and this led him to set up the Maritime Trust in London. Kathleen and May was bought by the Trust in 1970 but when they failed to secure a £2 million National Lottery bid, she was eventually bought by businessman Steve Clarke and fully restored in 2000. As a result of his efforts in restoring the schooner, Mr Clarke was awarded the OBE in 2008. We were more than happy to give the £1 donation asked for in order to have a good look around this historic vessel.

In contrast, we walked along to Princes Dock where the Celebrity Cruises’ INFINITY liner was berthed. Some of the passengers were disembarking as we passed and I felt proud of what the city had to offer those visitors as they stepped ashore.

After a couple of hours, we found a quiet spot to enjoy our lunch – yes it is possible, if you know where to look – and after another caffeine boost (at the very attractive Bean coffee shop at Princes Dock) we made our way, footsore but with plenty to talk about, back to Lime Street Station.

Two days, two cities. Part 1 - The John Rylands Library, Manchester

By Stephen Richards ( [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Saturday 8th June. Living exactly half-way between two northern cities – Liverpool and Manchester – means that great opportunities for visiting art galleries, museums, theatre trips (not to mention shopping!) are available within a 40 minute train ride to either city.

Saturday found us in what is probably my favourite spot in Manchester, The John Rylands Library, situated on Deansgate. This Grade 1 listed building, one of the best examples of Neo-Gothic architecture in Europe, was founded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John. John Rylands came from humble beginnings but rose to become one of Manchester’s first multi-millionaires. The Library was designed by Basil Champneys in 1889, took ten years and £500,000 to build, and was opened to public readers on the First of January 1900. It is now part of the University of Manchester and houses Special Collections and Exhibitions and hosts Events and Tours and because of the collections it has acquired over the years is considered to be one of the finest libraries in the world. Public access to the building is free, and although visitors are now unable to handle any of its contents there are always interesting exhibits on display.

As well as enjoying wandering around this stunning architectural gem, my particular interest this weekend was a talk by Zoe Kinsley of Liverpool Hope University and author of Considering the Manuscript Travelogue: The Journals of Dorothy Richardson (1761-1801). The talk was entitled ‘Collection Encounter: The Travel Diaries of a Georgian Lady’. These travel diaries were written by an unmarried lady of leisure, Dorothy Richardson, who travelled around England with members of her intellectual and scholarly family over a period of four decades.

Richardson’s diaries were in manuscript, considered at the time to be less constraining than the printed form, yet they had all the characteristics of printed works; indices, appendices, even mileage charts. Richardson was also an accomplished artist, the entries being accompanied by fine drawings of buildings and landscapes. Even the bindings of the diaries were designed to give the appearance of printed books when placed on a bookshelf.

The 1700s was the era of early ‘industrial tourism’ and Richardson’s description of Bacup in Lancashire, known as the Vale of Famine, was rather less than flattering! She gives a minutely detailed description of hat-making when she visits a factory in Bent, Oldham, and was not averse to trying various techniques herself, not very successfully according to the diaries. One can’t help wondering what the factory workers thought of these visitors!

Although the small group of us who had booked places on the talk were unable to handle the diaries, it was good to see them out of storage and placed on a table in front of us. Assisted by John Hodgson, Zoe opened them at various entries and illustrations and we were able to view them closely, marvelling at the minute and meticulous handwriting. Presumably, Richardson made rough copies on site and wrote them up later.

In a modern, ground floor annex, The Rylands Library has a coffee shop/cafe with friendly staff, and you can also browse a small selection of interesting/unusual gifts or souvenirs.

If you’re in the area on the 13th or 29th of June, why not book to hear the talk on Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing 1860, and ponder on what she would have thought of today’s NHS!

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Liverpool's Central Library Reopens

By John Bradley (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The long-awaited re-opening of Liverpool’s Central Library took place on Friday, 17th May. Restoration was complete, the hoardings came down and once again the library’s 1860s façade was revealed in all its glory. The highlight of the opening was late on Friday evening when, in an interactive sound and light animation, book shelves were projected onto this historic façade. Much to my disappointment, I wasn’t able to stay in the city late enough to view this, but I certainly made the most of my daytime visit.

The approach to the entrance via the ‘literary pavement’ is impressive, I found myself mentally ticking off the books I’ve read; and those still to be enjoyed. Once inside, the visitor is met by the spectacular sight of the four-storey atrium; there was a buzz of excitement as necks were craned, oohs and aahs were heard, and cameras constantly clicked.

What to see first? The escalator to the first floor beckoned and here, I think, is where tourists will head for. There is no doubt that this building will become an important visitor attraction as well as a working library because on the first floor are situated the impressive Picton Reading Room, Hornby Library, and Oak Room. The Reading Room was the first library in the UK to be lit by electric light.

It is impossible to convey the magnificence of these rooms in words; if you can’t visit them in person then you must see the photographs on the library’s website to get at least an impression of their grandeur.

The building’s design and architecture does justice to the treasures it holds. Treasures that for three years have been housed in secure storage, deep in a Cheshire mine the size of 700 football pitches and 150 metres below ground. Looking at the sheer number of books in the Picton Reading Room alone, it is almost impossible to imagine the logistics involved in removing them into storage, keeping them safe, with controlled temperature and humidity, then returning them when the refurbishment was complete.

And of course it was not just the number of books and artefacts that needed to be considered, but their value and historic importance. On display are the original seals used when King John awarded the city its Charter – or to be more exact, Letters Patent giving it trading rights – in 1207, together with part of the actual document. Difficult to imagine Liverpool at that time, a small village consisting of only seven streets with between 100 and 200 inhabitants!

Also on display are documents dating back to the 15th century; some of the earliest examples of the printed word; a letter from Nelson and, perhaps the piece de resistance, John James Audubon’s illustrated Birds of America. The Central Library has a full, four-volume set – there are only a few complete sets in existence – of what is said to be one of the most expensive (and surely one of the biggest) books in the world. How did it come to Liverpool? Audubon came to the city seeking sponsorship support from the Earl of Derby, and stayed with the Rathbones at Rathbone Hall. In the volume on display, a page is turned each day revealing a new illustration.

The escalator takes you only as far as the first floor, from there, stairs spiral upwards towards the atrium with dizzying views both up and down – for the less fit there are of course plenty of lifts. There are all the necessary attributes of a good lending library; factual books on every subject under the sun, all genres of fiction to relax with, plus computers, a gaming room, a new children’s library, a local and family history research department – the list goes on. For the visitor’s convenience, there are toilets on every floor. There is also the welcome bonus of a coffee shop on the ground floor, with an outdoor terrace should we ever get decent weather, and a fourth floor roof terrace with views across St John’s Gardens from where you can spot some of the city’s landmarks.

I went back two days after my first visit and I still haven’t seen everything, so next time you’re in Liverpool, when you visit the Walker Art Gallery and the World Museum, don’t forget to visit the Central Library also – you won’t regret it.

Monday 6 May 2013

How much of Liverpool can you see in four and a half hours?

{{Information |Description={{en|1=Wheel of Liverpool situated by the Echo Arena in Liverpool, England, United Kingdom.}} |Source= |Author=Neil T |Date=2010/01/03 |Permission= |other_versions= }} [[Category:Ec
Not enough! Nevertheless, on Sunday 5th May, that was all the time I and my visiting grandchildren, aged 9 and 7, had while the rest of the family were at the Liverpool v Everton game.

It wasn’t the first time the girls had visited the city and they were looking forward to riding on the Echo wheel again so we worked our way down to the Albert Dock from Lime Street Station.

First stop, St George’s Hall, no time to go inside unfortunately, but the girls are now old enough to appreciate the splendour of the exterior and to marvel at the statues of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on horseback. From there, we crossed to the statue of Wellington, the girls full of questions as to how it had been possible to place him on top of such a dizzyingly high column – unfortunately, I didn’t have the answers, but I intend to find out! On a beautiful hot day we were glad of the cooling spray as we passed the Victorian fountain on our way to the Walker Art Gallery and glancing up we were surprised and delighted to see all the coloured pigeons on the roof and the window ledges! Lambananas, penguins, and now pigeons – what next?

Time for a refreshing drink and cake in the cafe before showing the girls one of my favourite paintings, Fantine, and viewing the new exhibition – bales of waste – I found it impossible to explain the concept behind it to children, mainly because I don’t understand it myself!

Walking past the Central Library, I was mentally re-organising my diary to make sure I’m free and in town for the re-opening on 17th May.

Another all too brief visit, this time to the World Museum, where I was pleased to see that the pirate ship was still on display – I’d expected it to be removed on 21st April; the girls were very interested having seen the film last year. We just had time to visit a number of the exhibitions on the second floor – a taster session before our next visit – before we started on the long, hot walk to the Albert Dock and ‘The Wheel’! We timed it just right, no waiting, no queue and we were soon rising slowly above the Echo Arena enjoying the views along the river from one side of the carriage and the majestic Anglican Cathedral from the other. Four circuits later we were reluctant to come back down to earth.

Just time for tea in Jury’s Inn before we were met by the returning – disappointed – LFC fans, the girls were on their way back South and I was on my way home.

Photo of the Echo Wheel by Neil T at

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Transported Back in Time

The Museum of Liverpool
This weekend, I spent a couple of hours in The Museum of Liverpool viewing the Liverpool Overhead Railway (LOR) exhibition. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a beautifully restored carriage – all that remains of Liverpool’s elevated railway, the first in the world. The LOR was opened in 1893 to service the docks and its carriages were divided into three, a First Class compartment being sandwiched between two Third Class.

In the exhibition, two of the compartments are ‘peopled’ with lifesize-models; so realistic that I did a ‘double-take’ when I first saw them. Visitors to the museum have access to one of the Third Class compartments and it was while sitting in this that I was transported back to my schooldays.

I attended Childwall Valley High School for Girls (1950-54) and the school was divided into four ‘Houses’ – Gladstone, Langton, Huskisson and Sandon, the names of four of the docks along the railway. We wore small, coloured badges on our uniform – blue, green, yellow or red – to denote which House we belonged to. I’m embarrassed to admit that after all these years I can’t remember which was which, perhaps someone out there remembers? Worse still, I can’t remember which House I was in!

I do remember being taken on the 13-mile LOR round trip with the school. As schoolchildren, we all knew who Mr Gladstone and Mr Huskisson were, but I never knew if the other two docks were also named after prominent gentlemen. Today was an opportunity to find out. Thanks to the very helpful Maria and Tom at the museum’s information desk, I now know that Mr Langton was a member of the Dock Commission and a former Chairman of the Bank of Liverpool. Sandon Dock was named after Sandon Half-Tide Dock, but unfortunately I still don’t know whether there was a Mr Sandon.

The LOR wasn’t just used for workers and school trips, it was a popular day out for families at weekends – you could even get a special ticket for your dog.

The overhead railway was affectionately known as The Dockers’ Umbrella since walking beneath its elevated track gave protection from the weather. A less congenial nickname was The Pneumonia Express as the windows of the carriages were open in all weathers to disperse the smoke and the smell of the workmen’s clothes. Sitting in the carriage today I also spotted a sign that I remember being displayed on all forms of public transport in my childhood – ‘Spitting Prohibited’.  

Due to the prohibitive cost of repairs necessary to keep the LOR running safely, it was closed on 30th December 1956 and demolished in September 1957. At the time, I was working in an office nearby and I can remember the general feeling of regret that such an integral part of the city scene was vanishing. It was also in 1957 that the city lost its trams – the first street tramway in Europe had opened in Birkenhead in 1860 – I still have my ticket from Liverpool’s last tram journey.

If you want to be transported back to the 1920s when in Liverpool, you should call in at the Sapphire Lounge in Bold Street; comfortable armchairs, attractive lighting and décor – and a ‘flapper’ to serve you coffee and cake in the afternoon! Take a trip downstairs and you’ll discover a secret; a door disguised as a bookcase leads you to Dillinger’s speakeasy where in the evenings cocktails are served in china cups – or so I’ve been told! Check it out on

Monday 15 April 2013

Every Picture Tells A Story - Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

The Walker Art Gallery
Figures issued by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions show that in 2012 National Museums Liverpool attracted a total of 3.3m visits, making it the most popular outside London and its most successful year to date.

The Walker Art Gallery is part of National Museums Liverpool. I’m lucky enough to live within a 40 minute train ride from this gallery and visit it regularly. The building itself is stunning – Liverpool also has the highest number of listed buildings outside London!

Sometimes I’m drawn by a particular exhibition; last year’s ‘Rolf Harris: Can you tell what it is yet?’ drew huge crowds and was mainly responsible for an increase in visitor numbers of 40%. However, I often drop into the gallery when I’m in the city simply to visit a couple of my favourite paintings; paintings that evoke a personal response.

The first of these is ‘Fantine’ by Margaret Hall, painted in 1886. A large painting, it hangs on the gallery’s magnificent staircase and my attraction to it pre-dates the popularity of the stage musical and latest film version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I have a framed postcard of this painting hanging on my own, very ordinary, staircase because it reminds me of my grandmother. It’s not a physical resemblance, my grandmother was Spanish; it’s the look in Fantine’s eyes, a look that foretells tragedy.

I study Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Waiting: An English fireside of 1854-55’, for the same reason. Despite knowing it’s a topical painting about a wife waiting for her husband’s return from the Crimean War, I can visualise my grandmother, in Spain almost half a century later, as she nursed her sick son. The painting intrigues me; the position of the child on its mother’s lap looks unnatural and the red glow reflected on its gown makes me think of blood and death rather than hearth and home. A small painting, only 30.5 x 20cm, yet it has a big impact on me.

Another favourite is John Lee’s ‘Sweethearts and Wives’. Although this Liverpool dockside scene was painted in 1860, my imagination can make the leap forward to my own family’s connection with the seaport. My Spanish grandfather was a merchant seaman who sailed out of Liverpool and there must have been countless emotional partings with his wife and children. My husband also spent a short time in the Royal Navy, so I have experienced watching a ship sail out of port with a loved one aboard.

Frederick Cotman’s ‘One of the Family’ (1880) is a favourite of the whole family. Many years ago my late mother-in-law fell in love with this painting. We bought a large print from the gallery, had it framed, and it took pride of place on her dining room wall until her death. Sadly, it now languishes in our loft; we don’t have the space to hang the print but our family have forbidden us to dispose of it!

To enjoy visiting art galleries, I believe it isn’t essential to be knowledgeable about old masters or modern innovators; understand different techniques; or discuss the motivation behind the paintings; although these can certainly be an important part of the experience. But art appreciation can also be on a purely personal level, without being an expert you can love a certain painting because it ‘speaks to you’, as these do to me.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Titanic and Beryl Bainbridge exhibitions in Liverpool

I've just spent a ‘Titanic’ couple of days! I’m reading Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself, so took the opportunity of visiting an exhibition at Merseyside Maritime Museum, ‘Titanic & Liverpool. The Untold Story’. Well worth a visit, so try to catch it before it closes on 21 April. I spent a couple of hours reading details about the ship, its crew and passengers, looking at photographs, watching old film clips, looking at articles brought up from the seabed, and reading original letters. The latter were perhaps the most poignant part of the exhibition. There were a couple of letters sent by a crew member to his motherless children just before he set sail. He wasn’t one of the survivors. Neither was a steward whose young daughter, May, had written her very first letter to her beloved ‘Dada’ – the ship sailed before it reached him and it was ‘returned to sender’. Last year’s street theatre spectacular, ‘Liverpool’s Titanic Girl’, which mesmerised the city over a period of three days, was based on this letter.

After refuelling on coffee and cake – there’s a world of choice for eating and drinking at the Albert Dock complex – we strolled across to the Museum of Liverpool. Whatever the visitor’s personal view on the exterior of this building – a marvel of modern architecture, or a blot on the landscape in a previously iconic waterfront scene – its contents cannot be faulted. Impossible to do it justice in a full day and we only had a couple of hours, but I was concentrating on the Skylight Gallery and its exhibition of Beryl Bainbridge’s paintings. No – I didn’t know she was a painter either! The exhibition is entitled ‘Artwork by Dame Beryl Bainbridge’, and is also due to close soon.

Beryl’s paintings are heavily autobiographical, like her novels. She said she wrote to remember her life, to make sense of it, and many of her stories are based on her own experiences, with an added plot – usually a murder. In the paintings, family and friends often appear, even in those based on events and people in history; one depicts her dancing with Napoleon!

Art appreciation is always subjective, so my personal reaction to Dame Bainbridge’s paintings is unimportant here, but two paintings in particular completed my Titanic-themed day: ‘Boarding the Titanic’, and ‘The Titanic and Lifeboat’. The latter is unusual in that the faces of the people in the lifeboat are a collage of images cut from books and magazines. Among these are Mickey Rooney, Dr Johnson, and Hitler as a child – the first two are easy to spot, but I couldn’t find Hitler!

I arrived home with sore feet and a bad back, but the ‘characters’ in Every Man for Himself, Captain Smith; Bruce Ismay; Lord and Lady Duff Gordon; Thomas Andrews; the crew and the high society passengers, were no longer just names from history. The book and the exhibitions all combined to bring them back to life once more.

Monday 11 March 2013

A chat with Philip Whiteland author of Crutches for Ducks

Crutches for Ducks by Philip Whiteland
Philip Whiteland is a university lecturer and writer, and author of Steady Past Your Granny's and Crutches for Ducks.

What inspired you to write Steady Past Your Granny's and Crutches for Ducks?
I’m not sure that I was exactly inspired as such.  What started it all off was when our local Ottakar’s (as it was then) ran a competition for articles about Burton’s past.  All of the articles were to appear in a book and there would be a prize for the best article.  I wrote “The Wreck” for this.  It didn’t win but it did engender some interest, and I went on to have further articles published in Times Gone By, a local nostalgia quarterly magazine (now defunct).  When the Daily Mail ran an offer to Print Your Own Book in 2005, I gathered all of my articles to date together, wrote a few new ones, and had 20 copies of Steady Past Your Granny’s printed.  This prompted me to publish a print edition of my own, which did ok, and this eventually led to the Kindle edition which has done far better than I could ever have expected.  Crutches for Ducks is the next collection of everything I’ve written in the meantime, and there’ll be a new collection out soon called A Kick at the Pantry Door.

Can you give us an example of the nostalgic observations in your books?
I like to think that it’s not just nostalgia, which can get pretty wearing, but a combination of nostalgia and comedy that I’ve termed ‘nostagedy’ because ‘comalgia’ sounds like an unfortunate medical condition.  I’ve written about ballroom dancing at school (to be avoided), my trials and tribulations with woodworking classes, getting drunk as an adolescent and disgracing myself at Christmas and large, it’s about recalling embarrassing incidents from the past and reliving them in the hope that others will nod and think “Yes, I remember that feeling”.  It seems to work Winking smile

What reactions do you get from readers about your collections and their own memories and nostalgia?
You would have to look at the very kind reviews I’ve received.  For example, I’ve had “The author shares his memories,but in doing so,magically draws you into his tales.” and “wonderful trip back to a happy time. very funny and honest. i clearly remember the slot meters and tellies. i also recall how cosy i was with my dad's overcoat on my bed in the winter and frost on the inside of windows each morning. we were healthy, hardy, loved and very happy.” amongst many others.  I’m just pleased that my stories ring a bell with people.  It’s quite comforting to know that it isn’t just me!

Could you tell us something about your first full-length work?
Ah, you’re referring here to my one foray into humorous fiction, ‘Jambalaya’.  The story behind this is that I wrote it in 1999/2000 (which seems like a lifetime ago now), after I was made redundant from a job I’d held for 20 years.  As it was my first ever experience of being ‘between jobs’ in my working life, I decided to take the opportunity to ‘write that book I’ve always been meaning to write’ – by the way, I do not advise anyone to do this, get your next job first!  Anyway, ‘Jambalaya’ is the result.  I would probably write it in a somewhat different style if I was to revisit it now, but I still think it has some worth and some pretty funny scenes.  I had put it away in a drawer and forgotten about it, but I put an extract on my blog just out of curiosity and it was very well received, so I decided to give it a chance as a Kindle edition.  Unfortunately, it got pretty well savaged by a reviewer within a few days of publication, and has never recovered since.  I’m not sure what its future is, but we’ll see.

Do you have a favourite literary character?
There are many, but I guess my current favourite would be Commander Sam Vimes from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.  He’s very human, moral (in his own terms) and devoted to his wife and young son.

Is there a book by another author that you wish you had written?
Again, anything by Terry Pratchett.  I’ve been reading some of his short stories across his whole career, and it’s depressing to note that he was a far better writer at 17 than I am now!

What is the first book you remember reading?
Probably something by Enid Blyton.  I was addicted to her Famous Five and Secret Seven stories.  The ones that I remember being engrossed in at Junior School were the Sherlock Holmes stories.

What are you currently reading?
Oddly enough, the Complete Sherlock Holmes stories!  Wonderfully written and you can see where all the CSI etc stuff first started.

If you could only take one book with you on a desert island, which would it be?
The P..P..Penguin Patrick Campbell.  It reduced me to tears of laughter the first time I read it, and still does now.

Who would be at your dream dinner party (living or dead)?
Oh gosh!  It would be quite a crowd.  Starting with the writers, I would like Terry Pratchett, of course, Alan Coren and his daughter Victoria, Keith Waterhouse, Groucho Marx and Spike Milligan.  Also both Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise and, from the current crop of comedians, Miranda Hart, Milton Jones and Tim Vine.  I’m sure there are loads I’ve not thought of, but that would be quite a fun crowd, I think.

Visit Philip's blog.
Philip's Amazon page.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

About me

J Carmen Smith

I was brought up in the Liverpool suburbs, the youngest child in a working class family. I went to grammar school but left at the age of fifteen to start work as a typist in a Law Stationer's Office in the city centre. At the time, I promised my English teacher that one day I would take my English Language and Literature 'O' levels. I eventually kept my promise, gaining 'O' and 'A' levels while my three children were young, then a BA (Hons) in English and History when they had all flown the nest. At the age of fifty nine I graduated from The University of Liverpool with an MA in Victorian Literature.

I am now a grandmother and a group leader at my local U3A's Creative Writing and Reading groups.

Chasing Shadows is my first full-length work.

You can contact me at jcarmensmith(at) (change the (at) to @)

Here is an interview I recently did for my publisher's website:

Where do you write?
I have a small bureau in the corner of my dining room whose pigeon-holes are overflowing with scraps of paper, old diaries, half-filled notebooks etc. I’m always meaning to spend an afternoon sorting things out, but never get round to it!  The bureau is next to the window so I can look out onto the garden.

What do you find particularly interesting about the period of history your books are set in?
I find the period from the late Victorian era through to the 1950s/60s interesting because of the sense of personal connection. My grandparents were born in the late 1870s, my parents in the early 1900s and I was born just before the outbreak of World War II, so there’s that unbroken thread of oral family history.

Do you have a favourite literary character?
That’s a difficult question to answer. I’m a great fan of Dickens and love many of his characters, Florence Dombey and Little Dorrit for example, but if pressed for my very favourite, it would have to be David Copperfield – in Dickens’s own words, “I have in my heart a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.”

Is there a book by an another author that you wish you had written?
I wish I’d written Joanne Harris’s Gentlemen and Players. This was a recent book choice for my U3A reading group and we all agreed that the way the sheer evil of the main character is so casually revealed, and the twist at the end so unexpected that it was a perfect choice for discussion.

What is the first book you remember reading?
I remember walking to my local library – a mile away – with my friend, Pat, when we were both very young and we always brought home Worzel Gummidge stories.

What are you currently reading?
I’ve just finished John Lanchester’s Capital. The story is woven around the inhabitants of a London street who all receive postcards with the chilling message, ‘We want what you have’. I enjoyed the diverse cast of characters, the city financier who is expecting his annual million pound bonus; the illegal immigrant working as a traffic warden; the young African who has come to London to follow his dream of playing Premiership football; the old lady still living in the family home where she was born; the Muslim shopkeeper whose younger brother is arrested on suspected terrorism charges – it’s all there!

Which book have you always meant to get round to reading, but still not read?
Well, War and Peace was at the top of that list until a couple of years ago. I’ve now read it twice and can thoroughly recommend it. Having seen the stage musical of Les Miserables – a number of times – and the film, I would like to attempt the book to see how true the modern storyline is to Victor Hugo’s original.

If you could only take one book with you on a desert island, which would it be?
At almost one thousand pages long, it would have to be David Copperfield – and how ever many times I had to re-read it, it would probably still make me weep!

Which is the best book you have received as a gift?
Another difficult question! Even when I’ve received books as gifts, they’re usually ones I’ve specifically asked for, so they’ve all been welcomed and loved. However, Trezza Azzopardi’s The Hiding Place, was a very important gift. Trezza was a guest speaker at the first creative writing course I attended in 2000; she was just starting out on her writing career and when we spoke about my dream to write what eventually became Chasing Shadows, she gave me a copy of her first book and inscribed it with a wonderful message of encouragement that strengthened my resolve.

Who would be at your dream dinner party (living or dead)?
Charles Dickens, of course; his contemporary and friend, Wilkie Collins, whose books I also love; the Brontë sisters; Thomas Hardy – with some present-day writers for good measure, Kate Morton, because I love books with secrets, Tracy Chevalier because her stories take me, convincingly, to different countries and different centuries; and I would love to eavesdrop on Joanne Harris chatting to Charlotte Brontë after a couple of glasses of wine!

Author photo by Professional Business Photography By Geoff Beattie

A chat with Jan Moran author of Scent of Triumph

Jan Moran, author of Scent of Triumph
Jan Moran is a writer, entrepreneur, and beauty expert. She is the author of two novels, Scent of Triumph and Hostile Beauty. Her nonfiction books include the Fabulous Fragrances series.

Why did you want to become a writer?
As a child, I was an avid reader. Writers were my rock stars! Books were my passport to exotic locales and fascinating characters.

What are some of your favorite locales, objects, or activities that a reader might find in your books?
I often include my favorite locales. Paris, New York, Grasse, London, Hong Kong, and California are among my favorite places that I like to write about, and perfumery and fashion are twin passions. I’m also a strong advocate of the entrepreneurial path, especially for women.

Who are your favorite authors and books?
A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford was an early inspiration. Also love Shanghai Girls by Lisa See and The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory. And who can forget Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, or War and Peace - the best Russian soap opera ever!

Is there a message you want readers to take from your books?
Hope, triumph over adversity, appreciation of other cultures, belief in your own abilities.

What inspires your writing?
Travel always inspires me - I love to explore new cities, countries and cultures that I can share with readers. Strong female protagonists and entrepreneurs who forge their own paths to success are also a source of inspiration. Finally, I like to learn something fascinating along the way, about history, unusual careers, or interesting people.

Where did the idea come from for your books?
Most of my ideas stem from my personal experience, although my books are not autobiographical per se. But in both Scent of Triumph and Hostile Beauty you will learn about places I’ve lived and traveled (such as Paris, Beverly Hills, New York), the work I’ve done in perfume and beauty, period fashions, history, and more. I don’t like to drop designer names or labels simply for the sake of doing so, but I will when it’s germane to characterization, setting, or historical reference. I also like to include details about what it’s like to create a product, run a business, and obtain funding – key aspects of any entrepreneur’s experience. My characters are quite entrepreneurial, and I suppose that stems from my own experience as well.

Tell us about Scent of Triumph in one sentence.
Scent of Triumph is one woman’s journey, a journey filled with courage and creativity, with love
and loss, and at the heart of it all, a relentless will to survive, to triumph on her own terms.

Why is it a must read?
Scent of Triumph is a character-driven story set against a tumultuous time of history - World War II. The  protagonist, Danielle Bretancourt, is the kind of modern young woman that you really want to know, and, despite her mistakes, that you can root for. She’s a hard worker, cherishes her family, and longs for a partner. She’s wonderfully creative and has a sense of innate sense of style - even I envy her for that!

Scent of Triumph by Jan Moran

What was the inspiration behind Scent of Triumph?
Scent of Triumph was initially inspired by my love of perfumery, but the main character quickly took charge and began building a business, despite her many setbacks. I was inspired by female entrepreneurs from the early part of the twentieth century, such as Elizabeth Arden, Coco Chanel, Madame Gres, Nina Ricci, Estee Lauder, Eleanor Roosevelt, and many others in the beauty and fashion industries. Family is also vitally important in this story; Danielle’s love and devotion to her children is really the root of her ambition, as it is with many female entrepreneurs who wish to create a better life for themselves and their children. She is an ordinary woman, who achieves extraordinary things. Like any one of us can.

Is Scent of Triumph only for female readers?
Not at all! If you visit Amazon or Goodreads, you’ll see reviews from many of my male fans. Scent of Triumph resonates with both genders. Entrepreneurial struggles, family, love, and World War II are topics that both men and women can relate to.
Scent of Triumph on Amazon UK