Today, in the United Kingdom, it was Mothering Sunday, or Mothers’ Day, as it is now referred to. I’m happy to say that I was thoroughly spoiled by my own five children, who gathered here in our home with their own children, to bring me gifts and cards but more importantly, to spend time together as our family. How blessed I am and I know it.
I turned on Facebook and of course it is full of my friends paying tribute to their own mothers, still living or passed on. Indeed, I posted a couple of photos of my own dear departed mum. My thoughts turned back to my childhood and life with parents who never had that much but always gave me and my sister all the love and protection that parents should and I had a happy childhood, secure in the knowledge that they loved me.
This week, however, I’ve had much cause for reflection. Our eldest daughter, Joanne, is a mature student at Derby University, studying Criminology. Because my husband, Tony, has worked in a Secure Unit (a prison for young offenders under adult prison age) and has also been a prison chaplain for our church, visiting regularly four prisons in our area for ten years, he was invited to give a presentation to the students on Joanne’s course. I went along with him at his request and I was very proud of how well he did. Of course, being a teacher of long standing, he is a natural and immediately had the young people engaged and kept them so until the end. I knew he had much more he could have shared with them, had time allowed, after all, hadn’t I spent hours listening to him after his visits, telling me about some of the heart-rending stories of the prisoners he’d visited? Not of the crimes they’d committed, but of the treatment they had received at the hand of our so-called justice system and the way they were still suffering, basically because no one cared; many who should have been freed years ago but the system continually failed them. (Apart from the unfairness to the prisoners, but also keeping a person in prison costs the taxpayers a lot of money – so stupid when they actually don’t need to be there.)
One point Tony was trying to make was that the greatest majority of these men, and the children in the secure unit, had all had similar starts in life; broken homes, put ‘in care’ by the system, no one who really cared about them, drugs given to them at an early age by the very people who should have been protecting them, and also being led into prostitution and other drug-related crimes. Many have learning difficulties or have simply never had a proper education. He spoke of one nine year old girl in the secure unit, who had been sold into prostitution to feed the drug habit of her mother. Totally shocking, and yet this kind of thing goes on all the time, and with children much younger even than that girl.
Since I’ve been a user of Facebook, I’ve come to ‘know’ quite a few people who have had less than happy upbringings for various reasons. I know that alcoholism and abuse has been prevalent. I personally know people who have had very bad backgrounds involving things that I could never have imagined in my childhood. Years ago, I worked in a children’s home and although we loved the children there during my time, there is no doubt that some of the home’s residents did not have good experiences in the care system, some being passed from one foster home to another and some went home again to face life with an abusive step-parent. These are common stories I know – sad, but true.
I would imagine that ‘Mothers’ Day’ means something quite different to so many. They have no cause for celebration; recalling their childhood means experiencing pain and heartbreak. And yet, many still think of the mother they had and in spite of everything, there is still some love, some longing, for something they could have had but never did. It is those people I’m writing for today. I know I’ve barely touched the surface, can never really know the suffering of a painful childhood, but I want them to know that I think of them in sympathy and admire those who have been strong enough to overcome their terrible starts in life in order to become good mothers and fathers today, bringing up their own children in a way they never experienced, in love, security and the protection they deserve. These people are today’s true heroes.
I bought this book at least a year ago. Frankly, I was avoiding reading it because I felt it was going to be a traumatic experience, knowing it to be a true story. This weekend, however, I took the bull by the horns and decided to go for it. I thought it would be hard to read but actually it was very easy. The author wrote it in a style that made you feel that she was talking to you personally, as if sitting in the same room, sharing a pot of tea.
I have always said that it would be the most terrible thing if one of my children died before me but I am fortunate indeed that all of my children are still alive; as yet I have not had that experience. It’s hard to know exactly the anguish that Dave and Louise Rule went through, seeing their beloved son die the way he did; as a mother, I can understand some. Louise tells their story in such a way that it’s almost dispassionate but we can feel that this is not a woman who will scream and shout and make everyone know her pain. One felt for her desperately that she didn’t get the help that she so needed when she finally saw the bereavement counsellor – what point is a counsellor like that? The reader is also confused and angry at their consultation with the registrar.
Somehow, I managed to read most of it dry-eyed, except one bit had me in tears. I shed them because I felt Rob’s trauma, his realisation, and Louise’s pain. Very moving. I was reading this book at a time when I was myself ill and it left me thankful that my illness was nothing. I knew I would get well; Rob didn’t.
At the end of the book, Louise talks about organ donation and her investigations into skin donation, something she had never heard of and neither had I. A very worthwhile book and I wished I’d read it sooner.
From time to time I write my memories of my childhood living in Norfolk. I call these my ‘Norfolk Reflections’. Here is the latest:
Moving Experiences (or Not)
We have just been away in our caravan. Compared to our first caravan, or even our second, this one is the lap of luxury for us. This is because it has a bathroom, with a sink, shower and a working loo, something we never had with the other vans. However, the loo, which all caravanners of this age will know, is a chemical one that has to be emptied periodically down a ‘grey waste’ place on the site. To lessen the number of times hubby has to do this, we always use the on-site facilities, at least during the day. Our little one in the van is for in the night and emergency use only. Emergencies such as when the site one is closed for cleaning and your body insists you have to ‘go’.
As I was walking back from the site loos yesterday, my mind suddenly cast itself back to when I was a child. We lived in a house that had no bathroom. Baths were taken in a tin bath brought into the kitchen and filled with hot water from a free-standing boiler with a tap in it. This was also used on Mondays for the washing (the boiler, not the bath). To go to the loo, we went outside to the door next to our back door. Hence our expression ‘the back door trots’ when one got diarrhoea.
From that, which was at least a proper loo that flushed by pulling a chain, (I still say, have you pulled the chain’ when I mean, ‘have you flushed the loo?’ Fortunately, even the younger members of my family know what I mean) my thoughts wandered onto the Silks’ Farm in Southrepps. My sister, Cheryl, was friends with their daughter, Audrey Silk, and we sometimes got invited to pay them a visit. This was absolutely fine; the farm was an interesting place to be and Audrey’s parents were very nice to us and always gave us a fine tea.
The drawback was the loo. To use it, this involved going across the garden and walking carefully through a narrow path, with nettles waiting to attack your legs. When you reached the toilet, a very glamorous name for what was essentially a small shack, inside there was a wooden seat with a hole on which you were required to sit to do your business. It wasn’t a flushing loo like the one we had at home, but was simply a bucket or something under the wooden seat. I had no idea where the body waste went to after it had been expelled. What I did know was it stank to high heaven. Cheryl and I both hated it. Even when the Silks later had a bathroom put into the house, they still required us to use the outside one. With the inevitable result that Cheryl and I tried to avoid going at all costs and would ‘hold it’ all the hours we were there until we got home and then it was a toss-up who would get into the toilet first! Being younger and smaller, I usually had to wait. Sometimes our next-door neighbour would let me use hers if I was desperate.
I have a vague notion that Mrs Silk did once take pity upon me and allowed me to use the inside one, but the memory of the Stinking Shack has overridden every other memory of being on their farm.
Another abomination in my world of toilets was the ones that were at Cromer Junior School. In an outside toilet block, they were the prime place for disgusting girls who liked to write rude things on walls and doors, and even worse, those who took a delight in stuffing a whole roll of Izal loo paper piece by piece down the loo, bunging it up so that, when flushed, the water would flow over the top, bringing any solid bits of body waste with it – ew! I was exceedingly grateful that I went home for lunch, which meant I didn’t have to ‘hold it’ all day, because there was absolutely no way I was going to use those terrible facilities.
Just a little word about Izal; who remembers that appalling stuff? What was the point of it? It was non-absorbent, so it did nothing but spread the wetness around. Mum used to hold both ends of the pieces and rub them together vigorously to make it softer, in the hope of inducing it to do a better job. It was far more useful as tracing paper; us kids felt it would be better employed in the classroom than in the loos. Thank heaven for Mr Andrex, whoever he is.
Combine these memories with Coeliac Disease and you will understand why I have a toilet fetish. I cannot stand to be somewhere without a toilet nearby. Just a few days ago we went to a lovely beach, smooth sands, few people, calm seas, blue skies. Was I completely happy? No. Why? Because I knew that the toilet block that had once serviced that beach was now closed and boarded up. Okay, so I was able to stay on the beach for a few hours but in the end I insisted we had to go because I couldn’t trust my body any longer. Even after all these years, hubby doesn’t really understand this insecurity. He sort of does, but not completely. I always end up feeling like a baddie because I’ve dragged him away from a lovely place because I can’t stand the thought of not being able to ‘go’ when I need to.
Oh! I’ve just remembered another appalling but amusing toilet incident. Years ago, when my oldest two children were small, we went to stay with my friend Diana in her very nice flat in Plymouth. One day, she said, would I like to visit a friend of hers who lived just over the county border into Cornwall? She warned me that the house wouldn’t be very nice; her friend and the husband were very poor but had managed to buy a house that was pretty much a shell and didn’t even have proper floors in it as yet. That was fine, so we went. The house wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d imagined and all went well until I needed to ‘go’. There were some public toilets on the opposite side of their road but they were shut by that time, so I was directed to the garage, with the rather strange instructions: ‘Mike is in there working on a car, just sing, so he knows you’re there.’
In the garage, Mike looked up as I went in and pointed me to what looked like a sheet of corrugated iron standing on one end. I walked around it and found the ‘convenience’, which was in fact, a bucket, surrounded by three sheets of corrugated iron, forming three ‘walls’. The thing that concerned me most was the fact it was open at the front, and if anyone walked around it, they would see me on the bucket in all my glory, underwear and trousers around my ankles! I knew that Mike knew I was there, which was good because I really didn’t feel like singing. I took my courage in both hands and sat down. Well, no matter how long I sat there, I just couldn’t go. The knowledge that I was exposed, that Mike was in the garage not far away from me and the fear of making a smell, rendered me completely incapable of using these luxurious facilities. In the end, I gave up and exited the garage, waving to Mike on the way out and rejoined everyone else in the house. There my memory ends, for I can’t remember if I coped or not until we got back to Diana’s. Perhaps it was so bad that it’s been wiped from my brain, but I’ll never forget that Bucket in the Garage. I fervently hoped that they did manage to get a bathroom in their house and that their children were never tainted by a loo fetish like mine.
Since I developed more aggressive symptoms of Coeliac, there were many times when poor hubby has driven all over the place to find me a loo when we’ve been out and I’ve ‘been’ in all sorts of unlikely places; the most recent being in a toilet in a gay bar after having just eaten in the House of Commons dining room (which I was assured was perfectly safe for me) but something went drastically wrong so Jeanette spent some considerable time in that loo, being completely unaware where I actually was but grateful to be there, while my friends, one man and several women, had to sit around a table drinking and waiting for me. No doubt a man with a harem of women were somewhat out of place in a gay bar full of men!
At least I can never say that I haven’t had some moving experiences in some interesting places…
Some time ago, before I started writing books, I belonged to a group on Facebook called Fast Fiction. At one point we were challenged to write a story around an inanimate object, and so I wrote a short story called ‘The Seat’. The seat in the title was a stone bench in an old garden. My latest book ‘Aunt Bea’s Legacy’ grew out of that short story, extra inspiration gained through my love of the house I’ve set it in.
When I wrote ‘Aunt Bea’s Legacy’, I had intended it to be a one-off, stand alone. However, no sooner had I finished it, another story clamoured to be written. The idea for it came unbidden into my head and wouldn’t give me any peace. So, I wrote it, very quickly indeed and ‘Aunt Bea’s Legacy’ suddenly became book 1 in a series of stories that will centre around River View Farmhouse and the village of Sutton-on-Wye.
While book 2, ‘By the Gate’ is being beta-read, I am face with writing Book 3. But what to do? I didn’t want Sutton-on-Wye to become a place where people died wholesale, like in ‘Midsommer Murders’, nor did I want it to be a revamp of Rebecca Shaw’s ‘Village’ series. My village is rather different and in any case, her central character is a vicar and the ‘big house’ in her books is a posh place, a private health club (as far as I can remember) and my ‘big house’ in Sutton is a nursing home. ‘Aunt Bea’s Legacy’ is not a murder mystery but it does involve a crime investigation. ‘By the Gate’ is the story of the investigation into a seventy year old murder after a skeleton is unearthed in a field. I have an idea what the fourth book will be about but first I have to write the third one.
I can almost hear you asking ‘why don’t you make the fourth book the third one, if you know what it’s going to be about?’ Good question. The only answer is that I have to have some key players in place before that and they will arrive in book three.
All this got me thinking about my other books. ‘The Hiraeth’ was intended to be a one-off but evolved into a trilogy and my children’s book, ‘Robin’s Ring’ was also going to be a stand alone, but will now have more books to follow.
It seems that writing books is more like ‘real life’ than I realised. One decision made leads to another, or an original plan ultimately becomes something different. Writing – and life – can also be a struggle, or a puzzle, but eventually it pieces together and evolves into something that makes sense – we hope!
I’ve never written a review of a book on my blog before but I was so impressed by this book that I had to do it.
Firstly, an honest confession that I had put off reading this book, feeling it would have content that would make my heart ache. I was right, it did indeed make my heart ache and there were times that I felt I wanted to cry. But don’t let that admission of mine put you off, for this book is so worth reading.
The story centres upon the two main characters, Jem, a young boy of fourteen and Katrina, a social worker and each chapter is seen either through the eyes of Jem or Katrina. You know straight away that Jem’s situation isn’t what it should be; he is a caring young lad trying desperately to look after his family because his mother is ‘ill’. The situation escalates from a bad situation to worse and the social services are brought in, where we meet Katrina.
One can’t help wondering about this woman, who is the best social worker in her office but it seems that essentially it’s because she doesn’t care. But does she? The story surrounding her unfolds in an interesting way.
I am not into giving spoilers in my reviews but I will say that I have worked in child care and have myself written a book based around it. Ms Spencer shows that she has great understanding of the complexities of addiction and the consequences of bad situations in childhood affecting the adults that those children grow up into. However, don’t get the idea this is heavy reading, it’s very far from it. It gripped me from the beginning and found it hard to put down; these characters evoked tender feelings in me as they played their roles. I rather loved the boy nick-named ‘Spooky’ and I do wonder how many children are so injured by the thoughtlessness of the people who are supposed to love and care for them. I have known and worked with children like him – and loved them too. Spooky needed someone who cared, and in Jem he found someone who did, and likewise Jem was the recipient of caring and help from his friend in the only ways Spooky could provide. This friendship touched my heart.
This book is, I feel, a triumph and should be read by lots more people. Thank you for this inspiring story, Barbara Spencer.
When you are feeling prickly
And the rains are thundering too,
When you’re finding it hard to stand straight and tall
‘Mid the winds that are battering you,
Please put your trust upon The One,
Who will always be with you.
He will take your hand and be there
Until your trials are through.
The storms that come along life’s way,
Are tough and hard to bear
But the rains don’t last for ever
Nor do the clouds of care.
And when the sun begins to show
You will find there are left behind,
Jewels you never saw before
And you’re richer now, you’ll find.
In ‘guest interviews’ I often get asked what inspires me to write. The short answer to that is usually ‘places that capture my interest’ i.e. Gwrych Castle in North Wales became ‘Castell glas’ in my trilogy, The Castell Glas Trilogy, comprising of three books with Welsh Titles: The Hiraeth, Bronwen’s Revenge (with ‘Bronwen’ spelt the Welsh way) and Yr Aberth, subtitled The Sacrifice. I have blogged before about Gwrych and how it looks like a conventional ‘fairy castle’ from the road but is actually now a ruin, much beloved by a boy called Mark, now a man and a professor of Welsh History, who has campaigned since he was ten to preserve this wonderful place.
As I am on the threshold of publishing my seventh story book for adults (and young adults), I felt I should say a little about what really inspires me. My latest book, ‘Aunt Bea’s Legacy’ is set in a lovely old ‘black and white’ farmhouse that I lived in when I was a late teenager. My mum and I loved this house, although we only rented it, and that love lived on. A few years ago I ventured to visit it and met the people who live there and they showed me around and I told them how it was in my day, fascinating for us both.
It is an interesting thing about the human mind that, however old you get, the places and people that have been important to you actually never leave you, even though you might have left them. Therefore, when I wrote my first book, The Sixpenny Tiger, it was my memory of the children’s home I worked in, and my love for the children I cared for that inspired me.
My second book, a novella really, Bell of Warning, grew out of my love for my birth town, Cromer, in Norfolk, and my fascination in the knowledge that whole villages had been swallowed by the sea off that coast for centuries and that one lay just a few yards from the end of the pier. There is even a road in Cromer named after it, Shipden Avenue.
Rosa, book number 3, was inspired by the many beautiful National Trust houses and stately homes I have visited throughout my life. My parents always did that and it was something my husband and I have continued to do. Although the third book I wrote, Rosa was the first book I published, four years ago. It continues to thrill readers, both male and female.
My trilogy I have spoken about already. It has captured the imagination of many readers both sides of the Atlantic. I continue to follow the work that Mark and his team are doing at Gwrych.
So, back to Aunt Bea. When I began to feel I would like to write a story around the beloved farmhouse, the lady who lived there graciously gave me her permission to use an actual photograph of the house for my cover. However, to protect its identity I renamed it River View and set it in an imaginary village sitting on the bank of the River Wye on the west side of Hereford with the Black Mountains visible in the distance. My description of the house is a sort of mixture of how it was when I was there and what it’s like now. I so enjoyed moving back into the farmhouse with Lucy and remembering the atmosphere of the place.
Once I’d written Aunt Bea’s Legacy, suddenly, another story came which I was compelled to write, set in the same village where I’d put River View Farmhouse. And so, The River View Mysteries series was born and I really can’t say where the idea for ‘By the Gate’ came from! So much for knowing where I get my inspiration…
With a number of published books for adults under my belt and the eighth book about to come out any time now, a few weeks ago I finally published my first book for children.
‘Robin’s Ring’ was first written four years ago and I took some spiral-bound copies to the school where I used to work to get some children’s opinions on it. A teacher of a class of eight and nine year olds read it to her class and a small group of ten year olds read it as a group assignment. The results were favourable; the children all loved it, both the ones who read it themselves and the class it had been read to.
I had the great pleasure of spending an afternoon in school with these children. I met with the small group and they told me what they liked about the book and also we had a ‘brainstorm’ as to what they would like to read in subsequent stories about Robin. As one, they all adored what Robin did at the end of the book – and that was something my own dad did when he was at school! I think every child who has read the book has told me they loved that bit!
When I went to the class who was having the book read to them, I was given the great pleasure of reading to them myself – and then I answered their questions about the book and how I came to write it. I was also asked if the cave under Stoney Clouds was still there (Stoney Clouds is a local landmark and beauty spot). This was a sticky situation; I could just imagine children dragging their parents to Stoney Clouds to search for the cave!
“Well,” says Mrs Ford, “The cave is probably still there but unfortunately, the entrance was blocked up when they built the motorway so you would not be able to find it now.”
Fortunately, the children accepted this explanation – phew!
Because of the children’s brainstorm, I added a few chapters. The book was now done and ready for editing and publication. The problem was, it needed pictures – and I can’t draw. I tried to persuade my daughter-in-law who is a good artist. She did a cover but the inside pictures never got done. So, Robin and his magic ring were left on the metaphorical shelf and I got on with other things.
And then I eventually had a brainwave! A young woman who lives in the same village as me has learned how to draw and paint. I have known her and her mother for some years. I knew she could paint, in fact, I have one of her painting hanging in my living room. It was when I saw her advertising art classes that it occurred to me. Perhaps I should go to Kathryn and learn to draw. I thought about my writing and all the things I do and then thought, ‘why not ask her to do the drawings for me?’ So that’s what I did, and so began an adventure for both of us and a working relationship that is a delight to both her and me.
Kathryn suffers from ME and is not able to work but she has learned to achieve her goals slowly and determinedly by pacing herself and knowing just how much she can do at a time. Her work is slow but very good. I don’t mind slow, Robin didn’t mind slow, he knew he was going to happen at last. The next Robin book will emerge, slowly but surely and hopefully the children who have and will enjoy Robin’s first adventure will also enjoy the next.
More importantly, the emergence of Robin’s Ring is an achievement – for me and for Kathryn. Through the merging of our talents, we have created something we can both be proud of.