Monday 16 November 2015

National Short Story Week 2015: Strangers in the Night

In celebration of National Short Story Week, 2015, I hope you enjoy my short story.

Beryl put her paperback away and glanced around at the other occupants of the station waiting room. Her fellow travellers were two middle-aged couples - the women looked like sisters - and an elderly man, who seemed immersed in his newspaper. She shifted on the hard seat. The numbness that had begun in her feet about half-an-hour earlier as she waited for her connecting train, had now travelled up through her legs and she wondered whether, if a train eventually did arrive, she would be able to get up.
   The elderly man glanced up briefly, nodded his head, and said, 'Jolly bad show this, isn't it?' The other travellers didn't respond, but she smiled, noncommittally. Jolly bad show? Where did he think he was - in a scene from Brief Encounter?
   He folded his newspaper, placing it neatly on the seat beside him, and leaned forward. 'I noticed you earlier, on the last train. I was going to sit next to you but the train was so crowded I had to make do with a seat further down the carriage.'
   'Just as well; I wouldn't have been in the mood for conversation. I had a book I wanted to finish.'
   'But you've finished it now. You've just put it in your bag.' So he hadn't been as immersed in his newspaper as she'd thought!
   'Going anywhere special?' he continued. The other two woman had stopped chatting and were trying to look as if they weren't listening in to the conversation.
   'A family party.'
   'Me too, or at least I was until this fog came down. There doesn't seem to be anyone about to ask for information.' He glanced around the waiting room. 'We must be the only ones waiting for a connection.'
   Beryl nodded in agreement. 'I'm on my way to visit my grandchildren,' she volunteered. I don't see them all that often; their parents are very busy and I find this journey a bit daunting in the winter. But I couldn't miss this weekend; the whole family is getting together for Sunday lunch. It's going to be really hectic.'
   'That's a coincidence, that's exactly what I'm heading for this weekend too, a family get-together - or it was. What do you think are chances are of making it?'
   Before Beryl could answer, the waiting room door opened and a railway employee popped his head in. 'Sincere apologies, ladies and gentlemen, we've just had word that there are no more trains leaving from this station tonight, the fog's too bad. I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave so I can lock up. We should have closed hours ago, that's why the heating's gone off and the coffee kiosk is shut.'
   Beryl stood up stiffly. 'Are there any hotels nearby?'
   'Yes, madam, there's one just across the road. You can't miss it, even in this fog; it's called the Railway Hotel.'
   The elderly gentleman laughed. 'Reminds me of a song, something like, And all I could find was the Railway Hotel! Here, let me carry your case,' he said, turning to Beryl. 'It's the same size as mine and I can easily manage both of them. By the way, my name's Ken.'
   'And mine's Beryl,' she replied. 'So you'll be going across to the hotel too?'
   'Looks as though I've no option, even the taxi drivers have given up and gone home, and I'm not going to drag my son all this way out to pick me up - not in this weather. You don't mind do you?'
   'Mind? No, of course not. Why should I mind? I just hope they've got rooms.'
They ventured out into the foggy night, crossing the road with care, although there was no traffic about, and entered the warm and brightly-lit hotel foyer; closely followed by the two middle-aged couples, who were obviously still eavesdropping on their conversation.
   'This is more like it,' Ken said, putting down the cases. 'I'll check if they have any rooms then we could have a stiff drink. Or do you need something to eat?'
   'A drink sounds fine to me. I had a snack on the train.'
   'Me too.' Ken walked briskly to the reception desk. Beryl waited just inside the doorway, smiling as the two women glared at her. She looked over to Ken and thought how distinguished he looked; that silver hair and neatly clipped mustache. He carried himself well, and she liked to see a man in a suit. Too many men slopped around in so-called 'sports gear' nowadays, although they often looked as if the only exercise they took was a walk to the pub, or the chip shop.
   The receptionist was a young, pretty blonde. Beryl worried how the girl would get home when her shift ended, then comforted herself by surmising that there was staff accommodation on the premises.
   'Yes, sir, you're in luck, we have a number of vacant rooms tonight; cancellations due to the fog. Will that be a single, sir?'
   After glancing across to Beryl, who had begun quietly humming, Strangers in the Night, Ken turned back to the receptionist. 'No, a double please. King-sized bed if you have one, and if it's a four-poster that's even better. In the name of Smith, Mr and Mrs Smith, and I'll pay in cash.'
   Five minutes later, they were in the best room in the hotel, door locked, giggling like a pair of teenagers. Beryl sat on the edge of the bed and kicked off her shoes.
   'Ken! You are awful. Did you see the reaction of those two couples? They were so obviously shocked, staring at us quite openly! Will you ever grow up and stop playing games?'
   'Why should I, pet? Anyway, you're just as bad, and it adds a bit of spice to life. Let's give the kids a quick ring to tell them we won't be there till tomorrow. Then open that mini-bar!'

Image courtesy of radnatt at

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Out of the Shadows - Part 2

In Part 1, I mentioned the newspaper extracts provided, and translated, by Kirsty Hooper, which had given me an insight into my Spanish grandmother's family background. One item in particular solved a mystery which had puzzled me for the past 15 years. I had always been told by my mother that my great-grandfather was an artist and I understood that the painting of the Madonna and Child which hung in my grandmother's house in Liverpool, and was buried with her when she died in 1950, was one of his. I was also told that my great-grandfather used to travel between Spain and Buenos Aires to sell his paintings, and undertake commissions painting murals for churches. Yet on my grandparents' marriage certificate, Micaela's father is described as a 'labourer'. A Spanish newspaper extract from 1904 which mentioned his return from Buenos Aires was proof that he did travel to Argentina, unlikely if he was a labourer, but there was more exciting information to come.

An article in El Compostelano dated 16 July 1923 describes a 'Regional Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture' taking place in the Casino de Santiago, and lists a selection of the works on display. These included two paintings - Fuente de las Platerias, (Fountain in Silversmith's Square) and Interior of St Mark's Venice, (oils), both by José Vilarelle Vázquez - my great-grandfather! I reasoned that if he had been so well-known as a painter that he had exhibited, then perhaps I could find some record of his paintings and that was the main aim of my trip to Santiago de Compostela last March.

We had visited the Museo do Pobo Gallego - the Museum of Galician People - on previous trips to Santiago de Compostela simply as a matter of interest, now that I had some clues perhaps I could find out more. Ever the optimist, I was hoping the museum might even have one of his paintings! The young woman on the reception desk spoke excellent English and I had no difficulty in explaining my mission. She introduced me to Rosa, who I think was the head archivist, and translated my request. Within minutes, we were being led down corridors, up staircases, in and out of lifts, until we reached the administrative heart of the museum, where it is unlikely any other tourist had ever been admitted. For the next hour or so, Jim and I sat at a desk, in awe at the willingness of Rosa and an assistant to search through boxes and boxes of documents looking for paperwork relating to the Exhibition. I was beginning to feel embarrassed at the time they were investing when Rosa, smiling triumphantly, handed me an original catalogue. It was small, unlike the expensive, glossy catalogues one would expect at modern art exhibitions; photographs of some of the paintings had been glued onto the pages, and at the back of the catalogue were printed the names of the exhibitors and the titles of their paintings, in alphabetical order. Sadly, there were no photographs of my great-grandfather's two works, but there was his name and I was holding physical evidence of his profession.

Obviously, I was unable to keep the original, how wonderful that would have been, but Rosa did scan the front of the catalogue and the relevant page to take away with me, and that was the next best thing. Rosa thought she remembered seeing one of the paintings, she wasn't sure where, but it might have been the Consorcio de Santiago, and we left with the address, again in the Rua do Vilar, the street which seemed to have so many connections with my ancestors, and the name of the man to ask for. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts at trying to explain in Spanish, we were asked to return the following day and when we did were simply handed a business card with an arrow pointing to the address of their website!

We had more luck in the History of Art Archives at Santiago's University, where again two archivists were more than generous with their time and efforts. Another couple of hours produced a second catalogue; in August of 1923 the Exhibition had moved to Coruna and there was my great-grandfather's name, but this time only one of his paintings was listed - Fuente de las Platerias. Did this mean that the other painting had been sold? I hope so.

Another department of the University Archives holds plot numbers of the graves in Boiseca Cemetery, where my great-grandparents were buried but despite a thorough search, and finding their names and dates of burials in the archives, the plot numbers were missing. I've visited the cemetery several times, but it covers acres of ground, and together with the Spanish system of removing bones and 're-using' graves after a number of years, it's impossible to find an original burial place without an exact plot number. So my wish to place flowers in memory of my Spanish great-grandparents, on my grandmother's behalf, has to remain unfulfilled.

However, this latest trip had proved fruitful. I now had definite proof that José Vilarelle Vázquez was an artist whose paintings were worthy of exhibiting. Not only that - the Casino de Santiago, where the Exhibition took place, is now a café bar, and is only a couple of doors away from where my great-great-grandfather had his hat shop! A very fitting place to end my visit, enjoying churros, the treat my grandmother used to make, but this time dipped in thick, hot, melted chocolate, unimaginable in those war-time days of my childhood.

Sunday 5 July 2015

Interview with Mary Rensten author of Letters from Malta

Today I am delighted to welcome Mary Rensten to my website. Mary is a Vice President of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists and the author of Corazon’s new release, Letters from Malta.

Mary, you have many years’ experience of writing for magazines and newspapers – how long have you been a Vice President of the SWWJ? Perhaps you could give me an insight into what the position means to you?

I’ve been a Vice-President since the 1990s – I can’t remember the exact date, but I know that it was just after I’d steered the Society through its Centenary year 1994. The honour was bestowed upon me, I was told, for all the work I had done to make our celebrations the success they were. We had so many big events that year… Looking back it’s hard to believe we did so much: a major literacy campaign, a reception at the House of Lords at which we honoured exceptional women of the year, a national Biography competition, a national library programme with SWWJ speakers in libraries up and down the country… and lots more. Lady Longford was our Life President and Nina Bawden our President. I am very honoured to be a V-P of such a prestigious writing organisation. Although it is now 120 years old, it’s bang up-to-date. Do have a look at the new website

Was it difficult making the change from journalism to writing fiction and what inspired you to write Letters from Malta?

No, not really difficult. I am also a playwright and there was always dialogue in my magazine interviews, so writing a novel was a case of combining the skills, for want of a better word, that I had been using in my other work, including creating a good plot, of course!

As to what inspired me to write Letters from Malta … it was visiting the military cemetery at Intarfa on my very first trip to Malta. My husband and I came across it quite by chance. It was so different from other military cemeteries I had seen; no serried ranks of white crosses, just weathered stone slabs and headstones, a worn path and cypress trees with fallen cones around them. So peaceful, so very like an English country churchyard. I looked at the graves of soldiers and airmen, even the graves of children, and wondered about their lives, and how the British boys had come to die and be buried so far from home. There had to be a story here!

Had you visited Malta previously, before you even thought of writing the book, or was your research trip your very first experience of the island?

This was my first trip, and it was purely a holiday – but since when did writers not make use of a holiday in a new place, even if only to store up mind-pictures for a possible future piece of writing! The research visits came later, including a major one in 1995, the year in which the book is set.

What was the reaction of the Maltese people to your research – were they helpful? Were you able to speak to people who had lived on Malta during World War II?

Oh yes, very helpful, one person sending me on to another – ‘He will know, he was here in the War.’ ‘Her father worked at one of the airfields.’ So much information, some of it you wouldn’t find in the official records, poignant family stories.

Which sparked your interest first, the period in which Letters from Malta is set, or the island itself?

The island. Definitely. Of course, I knew a bit about Malta’s part in WWII, the George Cross and all that, but being there was such a revelation. You know, meeting people, hearing their stories, seeing where the airfields had been, the amazing harbour at Valletta … also things like the birds and the wild flowers … and the prehistoric stuff, ancient cart tracks and stone altars … and the Blue Grotto and … You’ll have to stop me; I could go on and on!

Have you been back to Malta since completing the book?

Yes, once. I’m hoping to go there later this year.

I am always interested in how other writers plan their writing days. Do you have set times in which you write – or, like me, are you easily distracted by other demands on your time?

I plan, yes, but the plan doesn’t always work out! But if it does, it’s 10am to 1pm, with a quick break for coffee, and then, again if there’s no distraction, another hour in the late afternoon for revision. I don’t always enjoy this bit – everything might look wrong, and I’d have to start again. On the other hand, it might be okay, and then I can go straight ahead the following morning!

Do you need a special place to write; a room of your own, a desk, or just the corner of the dining room table, and do you jot down ideas on paper first, or write directly onto a PC or laptop?

I have a study/office, and my computer is there … and there’s no phone unless I choose to take it with me. There’s quite a lot of ‘thinking writing’ time - the process in my novel that my heroine’s husband doesn’t understand. Mine did. - with jottings in a notebook: a time line, characters’ ages and background, etc. and an outline of the plot, which every now and then becomes a full chapter with dialogue, or a scene in a play. Time for the computer now, just a rough document, full of typos, but at least it is down! Then it’s back to the note-book, unless I’ve got carried away on the computer and found myself well into the next chapter or scene. Nice if it happens, but it’s not often.

How long did the research for Letters from Malta take? Did you make more than one trip to the island? I know that it is possible nowadays for some research to be done without leaving home, but your novel gives a real sense of place that I recognise from having visited Malta myself.

Thank you for that. The research took a long time, but like many writers, I enjoy doing it. Once I knew I was going to write this book there was plenty of research about the war years I could do in the UK, and of course there were letters! This all started pre-Google, so the correspondence I had, via SAGA Magazine, with dozens of ex-service personnel who had been stationed in Malta, was invaluable. For the 1990s part of the book, which is totally fictional … well, I simply had to go back to the island! Especially as I now had friends there, friends I had made doing research in the cemetery at Imtarfa: I couldn’t have known what the interior of an old |Maltese house was like if I hadn’t been invited into one.

Thank you so much Mary, for sparing the time to speak to me today and I wish you every success with Letters from Malta, an intriguing and most enjoyable read.

Thank you for inviting me. I am so pleased you liked the book.

Letters from Malta by Mary Rensten

When Jane Thornfield finds an envelope hidden in her mother's bedroom drawer it heralds the beginning of a journey of discovery. Long buried family secrets are unearthed and Jane is forced to question her very identity.

Jane's search for the truth takes her to Malta, where she learns about the harsh realities of life during the Siege of Malta in the Second World War. But her attempts to unlock a fifty-year-old secret are met with suspicion and a wall of silence.

Letters from Malta is about a woman's quest to make sense of her present and her past. The setting of Malta is brought vividly to life in this moving, perceptive tale of love and loss.

Sunday 21 June 2015

Out of the shadows - Part I

When we begin to research our family history, obtaining birth, marriage and death certificates is usually quite straightforward. Except of course if the side of the family you are interested in lived and died abroad. In this case, you need more than a little luck; for me it was a series of small miracles, as related in my book Chasing Shadows. 

It is very exciting when you discover these certificates. I have amassed quite a collection over the 15 years I have been researching my Spanish roots. When my Spanish grandmother left her native Santiago de Compostela to settle in Liverpool in 1904, she left behind a large family, parents, siblings, grandparents, and because they lived out their lives in the heart of that historic city, untouched for centuries, it was possible to locate all the houses they lived in, the churches where they married and the cemeteries where they were laid to rest. This is not the case in Liverpool, where the bulldozers and the Blitz wiped out all traces of the Hispanic society that once existed in the city.

Obtaining these certificates fulfils your basic curiosity; they can reveal some family secrets - and tragedies. Other records are also useful, my Spanish grandfather's seaman's certificate reveals that he was 5'6" tall and had a tattoo on his left forearm, but they can't tell us what our ancestors were really like, the minutiae of their daily lives. What do we know of those who were neither rich, famous, nor infamous enough for their lives to be of interest to the general population? Is it ever possible to find out what kind of people they were? To my eternal gratitude, Kirsty Hooper, co-ordinator of the Hispanic Liverpool Project - - was able to unearth information about my family that gave me a window into their lives.

I first met Kirsty when she was head of Hispanic Studies at Liverpool University and I attended one of her lectures. We kept in touch and in December, 2014, I was delighted to be asked to speak at the Information Afternoon on Liverpool's Hispanic History, held in the Central Library. Earlier this month, I was invited to contribute to the Hispanic Liverpool Community Collection project, hosted by Fact. After so many years trying to trace a Liverpool/Spanish connection, through these projects I have been able to meet families from similar backgrounds to mine and compare notes. I spoke to people whose Spanish grandparents were neighbours of my Spanish grandparents. I learned of a tight-knit community of Hispanics whose men, like my grandfather, mostly worked for the Larrinaga Shipping Company, or kept the boarding houses where those who hadn't settled in Liverpool stayed when on shore. However, I never dreamt of discovering any facts about the social lives of my grandmother's family back in Spain, any letters that were exchanged having long since disappeared. Following the December meeting, I learned that Kirsty, very generously, and quite unknown to me at the time, had carried out a piece of research on my behalf. Accessing the archives of various Santiago newspapers for the period 1885 to 1945 she had unearthed information that would make my trip to Spain in March this year even more special than usual.

Various certificates had proved that my great-great-grandfather was a sombrerero, or hatter, but it was a different matter to see the report of an attempted break-in in 1883, 'at the business of the well-known hatter... by one of the nasty little thieves who currently thrive in this city...' In 1885, another newspaper had an advert for his shop, which gave the address. No longer a hat shop, it is now a cafe bar - El Paradiso - and we were able to lunch there each day, following my ancestor's footsteps over that threshold some 130 years later.

His son, my great-grandfather, must have been of some standing in the city for his return from 'America' - presumably Buenos Aires - to have been reported in January 1904, the same year that my grandmother emigrated to England. Another extract reports that Carmen, my great-aunt, was preparing for her first communion in July, 1920. On an earlier trip, I had visited the church where my great-aunt Maria was married in July 1925, but the newspaper report of her marriage, describing her 'natural charm and beauty highlighted by a delightful silk dress and the classic Spanish mantilla' brought the bare facts to life.

I have a photo of my great-grandparents. It shows a stern-looking couple, sitting well apart, who don't look particularly appealing, yet the detailed report of their Golden Wedding celebrations in the newspapaper El Compostelano on 24 December 1930 describes them as 'both beloved and appreciated by all the social classes of Santiago, as are their children...who have been able to create, by their assiduous labour, one of the most honest homes in Compostela'. It appears they were able to put the indiscretions of their youth behind them - their eldest daughter, my grandmother, was born three years before they married and their second child followed barely two months after their marriage! The obituary for my great-grandmother in El Compostelano on 7 April 1945 is fulsome in its praise, describing her as 'a kind-hearted person who enjoyed general admiration', and in her funeral cortege two days later 'were full representations of all the sectors of the city, showing plainly - albeit for such a sad reason - the general sympathy enjoyed by the deceased and her family'. A sad contrast to the funeral of her daughter in Liverpool less than five years later - buried in a pauper's grave far from the land of her birth.

Newspaper reports also gave an indication of where the family's sympathies lay - in January 1934, one of my grandmother's sisters subscribed to a 'Children's Festival - organised on behalf of the poor children of Santiago', and also that month, four sisters subscribed to a 'Regional Tribute to the Secretary of the Committee for Autonomy'. 

All of these newspaper extracts have strengthened my connection to Santiago de Compostela, the city I've grown to love; there is also a sense of sadness that my grandmother lived out her life without this strong network of a well-respected family to help her through the bad times. But she wasn't the only one of my great-grandparents' children to cut themselves off from what appears to have been a comfortable life in Spain. And what did I discover about my great-grandfather the artist? Did the newspapers help in that search? More in Part 2...

Sunday 10 May 2015

The Photo Shoot!

When Laura from Reader's Digest emailed me to arrange a photo shoot at my home for the beginning of March, informing me that their Art Director, Yvey, would accompany Chris, the photographer, I was puzzled. I had expected them to want a small photo of me to accompany the story, but an Art Director? I was even more puzzled when, a couple of days later, I received another email requesting photos of my living room. I began to get nervous - especially when it was followed by a request for a photo of my kitchen! Don't get me wrong, I love my home, we've lived in it for over 52 years, but it's 'comfortable', not glamorous. Were my home-making skills about to be judged as well as my writing? At the time, our two eldest granddaughters, aged 11 and 9, were staying with us and were given strict instructions that the living room was out of bounds, no scattered Lego etc, until Grandad had taken the requested photos and emailed them to Laura.

Having received the photos, Laura explained that Chris just needed to see how much daylight came into the house - our living room is fairly small but has a large window with curtains that draw right back to let in the maximum amount of light.

As the day for the shoot drew nearer, I became very nervous, Yvey and Chris were to arrive at 4pm on Monday, 2nd March, and would be with us for about two hours. What would they be like - would they be friendly - would we get on? Jim had already commented, 'I'll only be in the way, I'll make myself scarce'. In the event, far from being in the way, his furniture-shifting, curtain-hanging, etc, skills were in great demand!

It says a lot for Yvey and Chris's friendliness, as well as their professionalism, that within five minutes of their arrival, I felt relaxed and ready to enjoy the experience, although Yvey's remark that my living room looked 'pristine' didn't hold true for long as Chris staggered in with what seemed like a whole studio's worth of photography equipment. And Yvey unwrapped a pair of very large net curtains! Rather than a straightforward photograph, a scene was to be set to illustrate my story and we would have to wait for dusk to fall. Time for Jim to get the stepladder out and improvise as he attached the net curtains to our curtain rail with bulldog clips. The next problem was we have two sofas in the living room and the photograph called for me to be sitting in an armchair. Luckily, we have one in the dining room which Jim was able to manhandle into place. Then the room was too crowded - there was now a generator in one corner, and two large pieces of lighting equipment - the three-seater sofa was in the way! 'No problem,' said Jim, 'I'll stand it on end against the wall.' Chris must have seen my look of absolute horror as he hastily said that wouldn't be necessary. It was pushed to the end of the room, blocking the doorway, meaning it had to be moved each time Chris went in and out to his car for yet another piece of equipment. Did we have a table lamp? Yes, there was one in the bedroom. A small coffee table? Yes. Jim was kept busy and things were coming together. But the best was yet to come.

A blue flashing light - to represent the arrival of the police car - was to be set up outside the house as dusk fell. It was first balanced on top of Chris's car, but this was too far away to have an impact. Cue the stepladder again as Jim and Yvey positioned it on the path outside the window and placed the light on top. All this preparation had taken what seemed like, and probably was, hours. I can't imagine what the neighbours must have been thinking - our front door open, cables and wires snaking from various pieces of equipment outside the house into our hall and living room, and bright flashes from Chris's camera every couple of minutes as he tested the lighting for my 'pose'.

Eventually, the scene was set and I sat in my armchair for 'A Quiet Half Hour', reflecting on what I'd done, and ready to accept the consequences, Chris took dozens of photographs and at 7pm, it was 'a wrap'. Is that the correct terminology? We were all exhausted, I had a headache from the camera flashes, but I was 'buzzing'. At 75 years of age, I'd won a national writing competition and taken part in a photo shoot. My late parents and in-laws were subscribers to Reader's Digest and we've kept up the tradition, but none of us could have foreseen that one day I'd actually be featured within its covers.

When it was all over, the net curtains taken down and all the equipment packed away, Chris set off for his four-hour drive home. Yvey was catching the London train so we gave her a lift to our local station. It wasn't until she arrived home that she realised she'd left her personal camera in the back of our car. We sent it off to her by special delivery the next morning with Jim's comment, 'You could have left the net curtains behind!'

Thank you, all you lovely people at Reader's Digest; the judges who voted my story the winner, Laura, Sub-Editor, Yvey, Art Director, and photographer Chris. You gave me a day to remember - and the prize money funded a family history research trip to Santiago de Compostela. But that's another story...

Thursday 23 April 2015

Winning the Reader's Digest 100 Word Story Competition

Reader's Digest 100 Word Story Competition
Sometimes – and it must be said that in later life this happens very rarely – you experience a period when exciting things happen – events which are so unexpected that you have to pinch yourself to prove you’re not dreaming! March this year was such a period for me; a month of exciting personal success.

The chain of events began in January, the deadline for the Reader’s Digest 100 Word Story Competition was fast approaching, should I enter? Since coming to writing late in life, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of writing a story in just one hundred words. I’d used it as an exercise in my U3A creative writing group, finding it hard work but enjoying the challenge. This time, there was a story already in my head, begging to be written. The idea came from a Victorian painting by L C Henley called A Quiet Half Hour; but my imaginary ‘quiet half hour’ was very different to the cosy Victorian image depicted in the painting. Yes, I would take a chance and submit it as I knew there were a number of prizes, two runners up and a further story chosen each month throughout the year.

I’d had some success during 2014 when submitting articles for magazines, but this was a totally different challenge. For a magazine article, you can do the research, know exactly what type of article will appeal to a particular readership – and you usually have between 1,000 and 1,200 words to develop your piece of writing. Now I had just 100 words in which to bring the story to life.

Over the following weeks, I was mostly successful in putting the competition to the back of my mind. I expected the judging process to take some time and knew that due to the number of entries they would receive, I wouldn’t hear from them if my story wasn’t chosen. What happened next came as a complete surprise.

It was mid-February, I’d had a busy day and it was late evening before I had a chance to sit down, laptop on my knee, to check my emails. I was alone in the house; my other half was at Anfield watching an LFC mid-week home game. Only one email – but it was from Reader’s Digest! Before opening it, I stared at the subject line; ‘Re your 100 Word Story entry…’ Wow! I must be a runner-up… I clicked to open and read the first sentence:

Dear Joan, Many congratulations! After a long and difficult judging process, you’ve been declared the winner of this year’s 100-Word-Story Competition in the Adult Category and will receive the £500 first prize…

Anyone watching me over the next couple of minutes would have thought I was completely deranged. The laptop almost fell to the floor. I turned into a human windmill, arms flailing, as I jumped up and down, rushing from living room to hall, hall to dining room. At the same time, shouting, ‘Oh my God…Oh my God…’ And there was no-one to tell! I thought I would burst, unable to physically contain my excitement – was it too late to phone my sons, at least the two who live in this country? No, I felt justified at disturbing them; I knew they would be thrilled at the news, as Jim was when he returned home – after initially thinking my excitement was because Liverpool FC had won their match!

Reader's Digest May 2015
The following morning, after a sleepless night, I had calmed down enough to email Laura at the Reader’s Digest with the personal information she had requested. The wait until the story appeared in the May issue of the magazine would seem endless, but in the meantime there was more excitement to look forward to. Laura’s email had also said:

‘Our art department will contact you in due course about setting up a photo shoot…’

A photo shoot! It would be arranged for early March – but that’s another story…

My story is in the May issue of Reader's Digest, which is out now.

Tuesday 27 January 2015

The 75th Anniversary of Rationing

When the first stages of food rationing were imposed on the British public in January 1940, only months after World War II broke out, I was eight months old. When it finally ended in June 1954, I was 15 and about to leave school. I therefore spent the whole of my childhood accepting as the norm that the amount of food my mother could buy for the family – Mum, Dad and three children – was restricted not only by what she could afford but by how many ‘coupons’ were left in the family’s ration books. I watched my mother cream together lard and margarine when she was making sandwiches, without realising that it was a thrifty measure to make the margarine ration go further. I can remember that a childhood favourite was a slice of bread spread with dripping from the meat tin, sprinkled with a little salt – very tasty! Years later, when creaming together 4ozs of margarine, two eggs, and 4ozs of sugar to make my own children a batch of fairy cakes that would disappear very quickly, I’d forgotten that I was using one adult’s weekly ration of those staple foods.

My father, a small, wiry man, had failed his medical for the army due to an untreated childhood illness (possibly polio) which left him with wasted muscles in one leg, yet throughout the war he did a physically hard job and fire-watched in the evenings. Needing energy, the meagre sugar ration was a particular problem for him; we used to joke that he put tea in his sugar rather than the other way around. As we children grew, my mother, in the interests of fair play, used to divide the week’s sugar ration into five separate jars with our names on. Of course, Dad’s jar always emptied first, and ‘selling’ him what remained of my ration at threepence a go earned me my first pocket money!

I don’t know at what age a child received its own ration book, presumably at eight months old I would not need margarine, eggs, sugar, etc, but I do remember queuing up with my mother at the Congregational church in Huyton to renew the green ration book I was entitled to up until the age of five. This enabled my mother to buy me bananas or oranges – although since it was extremely rare for these to appear in the shops during the war years, it was not much of a concession.

There were aspects of rationing which would have had absolutely no bearing on my family. I’ve read that central heating was prohibited during the summer months. To working-class families, central heating would have been a ‘pipe-dream’! The living room in our ‘two-up, two-down,’ terraced house was heated by a coal fire which scorched your legs whilst leaving your back freezing! There were also small fire-grates in the bedrooms but you had to be practically at death’s door before a fire was ever lit in those – and if it was, the black smoke that billowed back into the bedroom would probably make your illness worse. I can remember winters when there was ice on the inside of the bedroom windows and you put your socks on in bed before putting your feet down on the freezing lino. Living in the north of England, I believe that we were entitled to a higher coal ration than those lucky southerners basking in warmer climes – but the coal still ran out before the month did. It was common to see children walking along the railway line that led from the colliery to the goods yard, picking up pieces of coal which had fallen from the wagons.

Another aspect of rationing which would not have inconvenienced working-class families was the restriction on dining out. From May, 1942, the cost of meals served in hotels and restaurants must not exceed five shillings per customer and must not consist of more than three courses – only one of which could be meat, fish or poultry. The only ‘dining out’ I ever did as a child was when Dad occasionally took me to St John’s Market in Liverpool – there was a small indoor café where he would buy tea and toast before we walked the lanes of the outdoor market. I can remember getting upset at seeing the caged puppies and kittens for sale.

Any mention of sweet rationing brings back vivid memories of my local sweet shop, ‘Toffee Jones’s, so called because the paper-shop next door was owned by his brother, ‘Echo Jones’! Sweets were served, 2ozs at a time, in small, cone-shaped paper bags; Dolly Mixtures were a favourite, the smaller the sweet, the more you got in your bag.

Two sweet-related incidents stand out, both involving merchant seamen. A neighbour came home from a trip with blue 2lb sugar bags full of sweets for his two children and also one each for me and my best friend, Pat. I can still picture them, but can’t remember how long we made them last! On another occasion, when I was in hospital for a number of weeks, my seafaring uncle sent me the biggest bar of chocolate I’d ever seen. My excitement was short-lived as I was made to share it among a ward of about 20 children.

I’m surprised to learn that cigarettes weren’t rationed, because they were certainly in very short supply in our district, even after the war. I was often sent out on ‘foraging trips’ to all the local shops within a mile radius, gaining Dad’s approval on the occasions I came home bearing a packet of ten Woodbines which had been brought out from under the counter.

Clothes rationing ended around the time of my tenth birthday. Again, this would have affected the middle-upper classes more than working-class families, most of whom were already used to wearing ‘hand-me-downs’. Shoes were a problem of course; it was common practice to line them with cardboard when the soles began to wear thin – although this probably had as much to do with shortage of money as shortage of coupons, especially in large families.

My mother was a good knitter and would unravel large sweaters, leave out wool that had worn thin, and re-knit the rest into a smaller garment. A maiden aunt was also a good knitter and at the age of five I was kitted out in a warm, hooded coat knitted in dark red bouclé wool. A special treat was again due to my sea-faring uncle – on one leave he brought two gingham dresses, a red one for me and a blue one for my sister.

Often, merchant sailors would bring home jars of pickled hard-boiled eggs – a welcome change from dried-egg powder – large tins of jam, and other delights, which would be shared out among the wider family. My husband remembers his father coming home on leave from the Royal Navy with a kitbag bulging with hard, round objects. On exploring the outside of the bag, he asked what was in it and was told, ‘bombs’, and was relieved to discover the next day that they were in fact coconuts!

One thing rationing taught my generation is to hate food wastage. I will never put on my plate more than I know I will eat, and a recent innovation of our local council has met with my firm approval; potato peelings, fruit skins, egg shells etc can now be re-cycled and turned into compost. In my childhood, these were collected by ‘the pig lady’; dressed in men’s clothing and pushing a wheelbarrow, she would walk the local streets collecting everyone’s leftovers to feed her pig.

I don’t remember ever being hungry as a child. We had a garden where Dad could grow vegetables, and sometimes keep a couple of hens. There was always food on the table, although I know there were children from large families who were not so lucky. My mother was a great believer in supplements, I was regularly dosed with Virol; the iron tonic Parrish’s Food; malt extract; Scott’s Emulsion; and the orange juice and cod-liver oil available from the children’s clinic. Unlike many children, I loved the taste of all of these!

Developing chest problems at the age of eight, I also attended sessions of sun-ray treatment at a local clinic – wearing dark goggles and dressed only in my knickers. It is worrying to discover that a link has now been made between that treatment and skin cancer in later life. On two occasions I was sent to a children’s convalescent home by the sea; for three weeks at the age of eight, and later for a spell of six weeks and here, and at school, I can remember food being adequate – I even liked sago pudding, referred to by some children as ‘frogspawn’! I had my first taste of honey whilst staying at a convalescent home run by nuns who kept bees. It’s been a lifelong favourite ever since.

Whilst realising now that food rationing added greatly to the stress of wives and mothers, especially during the war years, I believe that it didn’t do the health of our generation any harm, certainly obesity was extremely rare. And medicinal supplements and spells by the sea must also have worked their magic for me, since I am still here to tell the tale!