Friday, 9 November 2018

Families at War

Remembrance has always been a strong element in my family history. As a child I never understood why, but years later I completely understand.

Family history is a passion for me-I love to discover where I came from and each person's history is fascinating. I first heard about the "uncles" when I was eleven. I had a school project to do and the old photos of the First World War came out in force. The looked strange and really old. The First World War was eons ago as far as I was concerned.Yet it was only my grandparent's generation who had experienced it. My dad's family were the ones in question-mum's father was only 18 at the end of the war and was in a reserved occupation and unable to join up. Which was good-because he met Grandma who was working on munitions in Vickers at Barrow-without that meeting I would not have been here.

So the "Wilkinson" side was most prominent. This was Nannie's family-my paternal grandma-the soldier she showed me was her brother John. The tinted picture was not terribly flattering-really emphasising his heavy jaw. However, he looked quite young. The story was that he had joined up but had been rejected due to poor eye-sight. Lucky I thought. Not so lucky because later in the war when they were running out of men they relaxed the rules and off he went to the Royal Garrison Artillery and the Somme. He was shot and injured in March 1918 and succumbed to his wounds dying peacefully (as his commanding officer told the family in the obligatory letter of condolence) on 28th March 1918 in Wimereaux Field Hospital. The family story was told of the bill Great Granny received for his burial blanket, of the poem written for him by Canon Rawnsley and of his name on the war memorial at St Andrew's church in Coniston. Later I discovered much more, including his last leave two weeks before he was killed, a mystery fiance "F" in his diary and mourning which was carried on for the rest of his mother's life. He is remembered by all of us, and in my uncle's second name as well as many Johns in following generations. 

My sister and her friend took me for my 40th birthday to find his grave. It was the first time I had been to a war grave and we took a rose to place beside him. I wasn't prepared for the sadness and emotion I felt and how humbling the experience would be. The small cemetery in a typical Northern French village is unusual because the grave stones are flat to the ground rather than upright, due to subsidence. We found him and I spared a thought for his mother-who only saw a sepia photograph of the original wooden cross marking his grave. His sister, my Nannie and my Granddad did visit in the 1950s, one of three such graves. Granddad had served and lost two of his brothers, so one can only guess what he was feeling revisiting the Somme so many years later.

These stories will follow in the next blog

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Back again...

Contrary to rumour-I am still, in fact, alive! I have had a variety of reasons for not writing-but I hope I can resume now and will endeavour to write more frequently.

Some book news-which will be of interest I hope: 

Firstly-many people have been asking me recently when the next Out of Time novel is out! It has been long delayed-both in the writing and the production for many reasons. I am at the point where the story is reaching its conclusion. Its a longer book than the others and has been beset with delays and changes, but its on its way finally. Publication hopefully will be next year. The title is "The Michaelmas Stones" after lots of debate and deliberation. A few twists and turns in this one!

So, one of the delays has come from my other books-I was commissioned to write a picture comparison history of Barrow-in-Furness. This was a successful title and was followed by "Secret Barrow" -my personal favourite and "Work in Barrow". A slight departure came next with the "Lake Windermere, Grasmere and Coniston Water Through Time" and last but not least-"50 Buildings of Barrow." I am commissioned to do two more next year and am in preparation for these. All books are Amberley Books and can be found in the usual places.

A busy time is ahead-writing, a school history project, Patron of Reading Visits and Furness Abbey Fellowship activities. Luckily, my time is my own for five months-seasonal work can be useful! I have lots of fairs planned so my books will be available for Christmas presents.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Closure... coming to a park near you

Play parks are little havens of space and recreation set aside to allow people in urban developments to have a safe space for children to play. I admit I have never given it a lot of thought before... I have visited many, having brought up three children and now as a grandparent we are revisiting and discovering new ones. We moved last year and were pleased to see there was a small park behind our house-over the last ten months we have observed its use casually. Children of all ages, accompanied and unaccompanied have used the park at all times of the day and evening. No trouble or issues have arisen from what we have seen.

So it was with great surprise that we discovered a notice saying the park was closed by the council. Other parents were upset and astonished and the local paper covered the story. The reason given for closure was "health and safety". So apparently the park is unsafe. I am no expert on "h and s", but having worked with children I judge myself to alert to hazards and I can say the park does not pose any high risks from my observations. The safety floor is raising slightly in a couple of places and the equipment needs a lick of paint but other than that it appears sturdy.

Obviously, being a complete cynic I interpret this as a sure fire way to close anything-its hard to disprove and nobody wants litigation following accidents-but I believe its a calculated way of saving money. The council is in an unenviable situation. Its funding has been slashed and it must make cutbacks-however the public outcry would be so much louder if frontline services were cut-so its simpler to attack soft targets like parks.

However, there are underlying issues to this which need addressing. First, no public consultation was given. An edict was issued in council without any alternative solution, such as public donations, help from local businesses etc. In fact some councillors allege they didn't know about it at all.

Secondly -the children in the town require safe places to play-period!

Thirdly- these play parks are often part of a planning requirement when housing developments are initiated. However, after ten years the developer ceases to be responsible and it is passed to the council-who now are unable or unwilling to fund its maintenance. Now this seems to me a massive piece of hoodwinking. There is an obvious flaw in the planning policy which needs solving. What is the point of planning agreements if they are only temporary? It makes a mockery of the whole process. Its easy for the builder to offer a park to get the project off the ground-but then ten years on-they wash their hands completely-as apparently do the council. How many of us realised this? This requires a complete change in council planning policy!

Last week on my way to the abbey I passed the park next to Red River-part of the housing estate on Lesh Lane. Guess what? A massive padlock around the gate closing the park to the public ! No notice or information to the public-just an arbitrary closure.

So is this the thin end of the wedge? I would say yes. I have heard via a reliable source that these are the first of many closures! So residents of Barrow are you going to watch while your children's play areas disappear one by one? It IS happening before your eyes, by stealth and silence. Erroneous reasons are being used which is probably why nobody has been informed properly. What is the point of elected officials if they "didn't know anything about it" or are complicit in rubber stamping the edict of the paid officials in their quest to "save money". In the scheme of things, how much money will it actually save? Where will it end?

On my walk I also noticed the dilapidated state of the Greenway to the abbey. Gates removed or hanging off, litter in abundance, overgrown banks-yet the farm boundaries appear to have been renewed. How long will it be before this is closed too due to "health and safety"? My musing over this might be misplaced but the state of the path has degenerated over the last few months. On to Abbotswood- a remarkable place under the care of the council again. Although trees have been removed where unsafe the general state of some pathways and fencing is looking poor and again, the "h and s" spectre hangs heavily over this too. If play parks can close so swiftly and without consultation, what would stop this policy being extended to places like the woods? This is not a point of fact-merely my own musing... but it could happen- after all, a wood is not an essential service is it?

I hope there is a solution to this and while I condemn the council for this action, I do have a certain sympathy for them. Money is short and cutbacks have to be made-but surely we can be a little creative and innovative before we decide to remove the facilities which enhance the town. We talk about attracting new people to the town-this is never going to happen. The town is looking like a slum, knee deep in litter and weeds-the infrastructure is collapsing, shops are non-existent and rubbish removal is unreliable. Its time this changed before its too late 

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Long time, no speak...

This blog has probably been consigned to history seeing as its an age since I wrote anything on here. I have had many issues and events which have prevented me from doing so- and to be honest with the enormity of some of them the blogging seemed unimportant. However, I do at this moment feel inclined to write.

The world appears to be descending into chaos as we watch. The extreme polarisation of political views across the world is staggering and frightening. I'm not too keen on the "genital measuring" (or sabre rattling as they used to call it) of certain "so-called" alpha males in the world either. However, there can't be much to worry about as I believe (according to the Daily Mail) that Cumbria is the safest place to be during a nuclear attack. I am assuming that the two nuclear power stations we sit between and the nuclear submarine base we are situated on have assumed protection from a Potteresque cloak of invisibility.

To top it all there is the atrocious "alt-right" (or Nazi as they used to call it) events in Charlottesville US, where we can see a reinvention of Kristallnacht, again unchallenged by the leading politician of that country. As an amateur historian it is all too easy to draw comparisons and there are those much cleverer than I who can identify more refined similarities.

Then there is "history" what is its use if we do not look at what is gone and take lessons from it? We appear to rewrite it in the same way older people gloss over the difficult times in life and only remember the good times. Nostalgia is a glossy, rose-coloured view of the past and we tailor what we remember to suit our particular preferences and hopes. This is not authentic or real and presents a simplistic view which can then make the present seem worse than the past. This allows discontent to creep in and the constant harking back to the "good old days". I suppose I feed into this by writing about the past-but I do try to be balanced and to reflect the bad and the good alike. I have especially tried to do this in the book I have just completed "Work in Barrow-in-Furness". I have been amazed with how much I have discovered about cause and effect and I understand better why our town is how it is today.

The "rose-coloured" aspect of history is a worrying one. Mary Beard one of my favourite historians has been vilified for suggesting that Roman Britain was multi-cultural-because this does not fit with the traditional view that many of us were taught. The objectors want to ignore or dismiss the evidence (of which there is much) because it impinges into their perceived knowledge of the subject. One only has to look at evidence in the museums dotted along Hadrian's Wall to know that diversity was the order of the day. It worries me when historians, scientists and teachers are attacked-indeed in a number of countries today we are seeing such people being arrested or gagged and history is being rewritten. We must not allow this to happen here. We must accept our history "warts and all". We, as many other countries have shameful and reprehensible acts in our past. It is pointless, in my opinion to apologise after so long-this achieves nothing-but we must own up and accept our misdemeanours. Rather than apologise let's demonstrate in the way our politicians speak and act that we have learnt form those errors and that we will fight tooth and nail to avoid them happening again. Let us show we can learn from the past and secure a better future for our children. Most of all, let us ensure we never gag, limit, remove those who speak these uncomfortable truths because we do not have to look too far back in history to see where this leads.

Hadrian's wall manned by Romans, Spanish, French,
Belgians, Germans, Romanians and North Africans

Monday, 25 July 2016

Books, adventures and Enid Blyton

Books tend to be a bit of a passion with me. I love reading them. I even love writing them. I love sharing them. Books fill my house. We are supposed to be clearing out because we are "supposed" to be moving (you can tell this isn't a positive as far as I'm concerned)so thinning them out would be a good idea. I say this because last time we moved they had to get two vans because we had so much junk. I clearly remember (as do the Mr Shifters) that they were about to set off and I said, "Oh have you cleared the small bedroom then?". They looked puzzled. I pointed to the door on the landing, opening the door. There were thirty boxes of books standing neatly to attention.
"What's in 'em love?"
"Books," I said, smiling nervously.
"But we've already put loads of books in the van!"
I shuffled a bit-feeling rather embarrassed.
They said no more and began carting the heavy boxes down the stairs. When they finished they looked relieved.
"I've never seen anyone with as many books! Have you actually read 'em all?"
I admitted there might be on or two not yet read, but most had been... if not cover to cover, then dipping in and out for research. I don't think they believed me.

Obviously, having been a teacher, Patron of Reading, mother and Grandma I have always believed in reading... and books. I replicated my birthdays and Christmas for my children by loading up the books. I love giving books, but love receiving them more. Relatives groan when they ask what I want as a gift-they can't understand the joy of unwrapping a book. The feel, the look and the smell! My heart misses a beat. Yes, I've dabbled with Kindle but its not the same!

I first began book collecting at about 7 years old. I used to get 2/6d pocket money and every Saturday we went to town. Every Saturday I would mount the stairs to the top floor of my favourite shop-Heaths. I'm glad to say its still a thriving book shop today-in fact they are promoting my new book. In front of me were shelves full of every sort of book, but my favourites were "Armada Paperbacks" and in particular Enid Blyton. Ideally the books were 2/6d. I amassed quite a collection-many of which... you guessed it... I still have!

Now I know old Enid gets a bit of a dissing theses days. They've even had the audacity to rewrite some! Look I can live with jolly japes, lashing of ginger beer and macaroons and I really don't mind the Dicks, Nobbys and Fannys at all! I mean-would you rewrite Roald Dahl or Mark Twain? I know she was a middle class snob but frankly I don't care! It never prevented me from enjoying the adventures and stories where children were clever and in charge. I never felt disadvantaged when reading about Darrel Rivers (or Waters as she mystifyingly became in later imprints)at Malory Towers. It never occurred to me that these children were privileged and rich; in fact I felt sorry that their mothers and fathers sent them away.

 I never batted an eye-lid at the comic working class characters, gardeners, maids and char ladies- after all I was still watching Sunday afternoon films with Kathleen Harrison talking in faux cockney "thank you very much, I'm sure!" I never recognised the oblique racism of the "gypsy" characters or circus performers, I took each character for their own worth-very two dimensional, either goodies or baddies! Even in 1965 the language was a little twee, but the stories overcame all that.

Whether it was "The Faraway Tree" or Famous Five I lapped them up. My favourite series was "The Five Find-Outers and Dog"-always a scary and exciting adventure, with disguises, tough criminals and a really stupid policeman Mr Goon who the hero "Fatty" (Algernon Trotteville to his parents)never failed to humiliate. After all-what other author would get away with a protagonist called Fatty?

I admit-my own books occasionally have a passing nod to Enid-the influence is embedded and I am still, at 59 waiting for a really big adventure. I still hold the hope that I will discover a long lost treasure-you will have seen me lurking at Furness Abbey! Surely, even in these sophisticated times, children still want the same? I certainly see them looking for clues at the abbey when they have read my Out of Time books-and why not? What's wrong with a ripping yarn?

Surely, the whole point about books is escapism and creating pictures in your head? If I am reading fiction I want to be transported away from mundane and pedestrian things, into a new or alien world. If I read any book at all it must feed my imagination first, whether it is fact or fiction. It's great to have "real life" or gritty books with a social message, but not always! Sometimes just let me escape to the 1950s. Let me explore the dungeons of the medieval castle on the island off the coast of Cornwall (all adventures happen in Cornwall! Or the Lake District if you're reading Ransome). Let me disturb smugglers, track down the petty thief, find secret messages and most definitely, let me sup on steaming hot chocolate with plenty of home baked scones and jam. Most of all leave the old favourites alone! They are what they are and it is an act of anachronistic vandalism to update them. And don't even get me started on Beatrix Potter and Emma Thompson! Oh and did I tell you? My mother chose my first name "Gillian" after Enid's daughter!

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Keyboard Warriors, Localisation and People Power

I can hardly believe I am writing this after two years of hard campaigning, ups and downs and anguish-but we have a result! The Planning Inspector has turned down the appeal by Story Homes for housing at Manor Road within the Furness Abbey Conservation Area. This is a triumph for local opinion and democratic protests.

We -a merry band of warriors- decided on Facebook-against the odds to stand up for this last piece of rurality-a barrier between the 21st century and the past. Meetings were held and local support was rallied. What started as a rather desperate attempt to halt this ill advised building proposal soon grew into a wave of protest and it became clear that we were voicing the feelings of most local people who know and love the field approach through the West Gate.

The commentary was unfortunately less than clear from the bodies we hoped would stand forthright against this-but this did not deter us. We battled on regardless and took flack from those (few) who disagreed with us and we were delighted that finally the council showed their mettle and rejected the plans without hesitation.

Naturally, an appeal was expected-and it was an eye opener. The power of money and influence was evident in that the appellant had the funds to bring in expensive consultants, specialists and lawyers. The council had less to spend but my goodness they fought the good fight! The 3,000 signatures on the petition helped too. The appeal stretched over a week and then a further day was needed later on. However, this was probably the decider-the site visit must have told the whole story (no pun intended). Nobody visiting could fail to see the harm (less than significant or otherwise) that would be done to the abbey approach.

Whatever the reasons (and the are outlined in the report) the inspector cut through the flim-flam and saw what we -the local people saw. He understood the emotional and aesthetic impact that this block of green has as one wander towards the West Gate and the build up of anticipation as you reach the point where the red sandstone of the abbey reveals itself through the gate and the trees. He cannot have failed to understand the historic importance of our amazing abbey and appreciated that to build a housing estate-however high status and beautiful-would detract from the reverence and spirituality of the approach. In short the scales fell from his eyes and the heritage outweighed commercial interest and development.

Our little group, I know, will be delighted. We believed in this wholeheartedly and our actions were not from self-interest or nimbyism. Neither were we opposed to Story Homes or the landowner in principle. However, this field was not the right place to build anything. We firmly believe that our actions have safeguarded the future of Furness Abbey and we brought together people of all political persuasions and viewpoints for the greater good. Never again will we accept that the little man or individual cannot stand up for their beliefs-this is a test case and I wish other protesters of a similar persuasion strength and belief in a just cause-it can be done.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Public consultations and planning-a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!

Well, that's at least 5 days of my life I won't get back! The final day of the appeal Story Homes vs Barrow Council ended today after a tediously long day listening to the most repetitive and boring testimony from the appellant and finished off with a yomp (that inspector certainly walks fast) around the whole site.

Who knows how it will turn out? I go from positivity to negativity quicker than a magnet and I really couldn't read the mood. Today our barrister seemed to make some good points and the other lot droned on and on with very little variation. If I had been the inspector I would have awarded us the win due to total boredom! However, in this system that's not how it works. It was hard to see what does work to be honest because interventions were prohibited in the main and it was all very legal-speak. Common sense and plain truths were not the order of the day and it made me think that opinion or judgment is very transient and ethereal. Really, you can make any case at all and fly in the face of reality. One example was the "rurality" of Manor Road and the adjoining Manor Farm and the field in question. Ironically, as we completed the site visit a pungent smell of manure drifted around our nostrils and as if to amplify the point a cow mooed very loudly! I could not help but comment that the cow must be an urban cow-then adding that I was in no way trying to influence the decision!
Urban cows at Manor Road

So much energy, effort and angst over one small field. But that's the point-it is the last field and it provides a buffer between old and new. Yes, its close to schools and a road and power lines-but it has the effect of calm and tranquility as soon as you cross its threshold. The ambiance begins as you walk down the lane and the 21st century recedes into the background. And No, Mr Lancaster it doesn't happen once you go through the 13th century gateway (insignificant though you deem it to be). The whole journey builds the anticipation and the pleasure of the final reveal of the magnificent abbey and this will be diminished by the noise of an urban estate just metres away. Yes we can see the blank brick wall of the Sixth Form College, but this is way out in peripheral vision-38 houses will be within a stones throw and I won't be able to miss them. Peripheral they are not!
Courtesy Story Homes-this will cause less than significant damage to the heritage approach apparently

But when the tale is told... yes by idiots (because they can't see the value of what's in front of them), the sound and fury means nothing! They can't tell me -or you how to feel, when to feel it or whether it's important. They can't convince me by repeating the same quotation from English Heritage that there will be "less than significant harm" done to the heritage asset (Furness Abbey to you and me). In my book-less than significant harm means that there is some harm! With a nationally important Grade 1 Listed building should we allow ANY harm at all? What of the local appraisal of "harm" and protecting this much loved heritage environment? Over three thousand people objected-this was mentioned only once and pooh-poohed by the appellant's barrister as insignificant. So, if we have a system which goes to public consultation-that would mean they want to know our views wouldn't it? But then to dismiss it at stage two as irrelevant is incongruous and unfair! Granted our merry little band got a limited hearing-but it's not representative is it? 

At the end it comes down to power-power derived from money-of which Story Homes have shed loads. They can go the course-and sit with an expensive criminal lawyer, two experts and a consultant and secretary-all beavering behind the scenes (quite noisily sometimes too) to refute, argue and contradict. Our little hard pressed council have the Planning Officer, barrister and solicitor and one expert-not present today. So its David and Goliath all over again! And I'm afraid I'm a sucker for the underdog... aren't you?

Manor Road and the West Gate