Magna Carta

Today is the 807th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. A link to the Wikipedia article on the Magna Carta is here, but there are pieces all over the internet. It doesn’t always mean what people think it means, and a lot of it has been repealed, but it is still vitally important. Before this, a monarch could do what they wished, regardless. Afterwards, the ruler was brought under the rule of law. It made the king accountable and, as such, was almost immediately repealed. However, with the death of King John soon after and the long minority and turbulence of the reign of his son, Henry III, the Magna Carta was reinstated, amended, quoted, argued and somehow endured.

I’ve read a translation, and I found it very interesting. Most of it wasn’t about truth and freedom. It was more about money.

It went something like this – the king was supposed to fight wars. To fight any sort of war, a king needed soldiers. Back in the days of William the Conqueror, a lord got his land in return for a promise to fight for his king, usually bringing along some other knights and foot soldiers with him. This was a great theory for the time, but it fell down pretty quickly. The lord could be too old to fight, or sick or injured. He could have died and the heir would be too young to fight or, shockingly, a woman. So the lord paid up something called scutage or shield money, so that the king could hire someone to fight in his, or her, place.

When it comes to humans, theory and practice very rarely run along the same rails. As the theory of warfare evolved and changed, having the local squire turn up with his father’s sword and a few likely lads from the village wasn’t enough. The king now needed skilled archers and well trained cavalry. They needed people who spent their lives training for battle, like professional soldiers. In those days, that meant mercenaries, and good mercenaries were expensive. Kings started asking for scutage even if the local lord was willing to fight. It was much easier to pay regular soldiers than have someone turn up in second hand armour, serve for the regulation forty days and disappear again.

King John had managed to get bad blood between him and practically every noble around him. He took hostages and forced loans. He extorted every tiny corner of feudal custom to pull in every penny. He couldn’t rely on the barons to fight for him, as he had managed to annoy, insult or fine most of them, so he needed those expensive mercenaries.

King John exploited every loophole. Under feudal law, he had control of those too young to manage their lands, and he plundered those lands, leaving them a shell. He married off those he could to his mercenaries as a way of payment. He also married off wealthy widows, forcing them to wed the man of his choice who would be anyone who could bribe the king. It was an easy way to pay his important mercenaries but it made him even less popular. Rich barons did not like seeing well born ladies married to thugs for their dowries. They may have had eyes on those dowries themselves, but there was also a sense that forcing someone to marry ‘beneath them’ was a step too far. The first clause of the Magna Carta was to give freedom to the English Church, but the next eleven clauses are concerned with protecting those vulnerable to extortion and financial abuse by the king under feudal law and clauses six and eight are protections from forced marriage in this context. The often quoted habeus corpus or freedom from imprisonment without due process is down at clause 39.

I’ve often wondered what it was like for the great ladies, perhaps mourning their first husband, who were bundled swiftly into marriage with someone who had been born little more than a peasant. There must have been times when the gulf was wide. And the sort of man that could rise from being nothing to a place where a king marries you to a great heiress may not have made a comfortable husband.

One of those mercenaries was Falkes de Bréauté or Fawkes de Bréauté. He married the recently widowed Margaret Redvers, and got control of a lot of land, plus control of her son, the heir to the Earl of Devon. According to Wikipedia, he was not of noble birth and could well have been born a peasant. It doesn’t sound like it was a happy marriage – Margaret tried for a divorce later on and fought to regain control of her lands. Fawkes may not have been a good husband but he was, however, very loyal to John and his son, Henry III. Looking over the Wikipedia entry it sounds like his life was complicated but not boring!

Part of the property that Fawkes got through marrying Margaret was a manor in London, south of the Thames, which became known as ‘Fawkes’ Hall’ which became ‘Fox Hall’ which then became ‘Vauxhall’. This became the site of the Vauxhall Motor Company. So the name that started as a forced marriage between a high born lady and a low born mercenary became the name of a competitively priced British car. History can be quirky like that.

The clauses that prevented widows being forced into a marriage or wards being married to someone below their station have been repealed and replaced with more suitable legislation. I wonder, though, about the stories behind these clauses. I wonder about men and women struggling to deal with that forced relationship and whether they flourished or failed. I wonder if they managed to be happy, regardless.

For me, the Magna Carta isn’t a dusty document. It is a point in time which shows the stresses and strains and perhaps utter desperation of real people. It shows how rights and liberties come from pushing back against injustice and unfairness. It may have been a privileged class pushing back against a king, but that first step to make a government accountable to law started on a path that led to freedoms that we take for granted. And I am grateful for it.

Write What You Know

MacBook Pro near white open book
Image from Unsplash, taken by Nich Morrison

Someone asked me about research today, and it got me thinking. How much research do I do? And then I wondered – what is research?

The thing about being an author is that all sorts of stuff gets lumped in. For example, in my story It’s a Deal included in the Grumpy Old Trickster Gods anthology, part of the story is set at the seaside. I didn’t research it. I remembered. When I was a kid, living within a reasonable drive of the North Wales coast, we visited the seaside towns a lot. I remembered the rundown amusements lining the promenade and the greasy fish and chip vans that sold the most amazing food. I remembered the sand on the pavement and the seagulls calling over the rumble of the generators as the hot fat sizzled and spat.

Looking over my writing, mist keeps turning up. I’ll admit to checking the chemical composition of the London smog and the formation of fog in an urban setting as I wrote Out of the London Mist. I remembered the time we were driving over the Denbigh Moors. I must have been around four or five at the oldest. Father stopped the car, right in the middle of nowhere, and we got out. It was a single track strip of tarmac with moor and mist either side. There were no fences, and sheep loomed in the mist. Father explained to me that we were in the middle of a cloud – that the clouds were so low that they were hiding the hills and we were in them. When I write about mist, I remember the sense of wonder and mystery that went with it.

And speaking of Out of the London Mist, I was given a facsimile copy of Mrs Beeton’s Household Management, a Victorian book of housewifery and recipes, as a wedding present, over thirty years ago. I was fascinated by it. I think I read it through, and then I picked up other old housewifery and cookbooks. When I came to write about Lady Clara’s household crises, I knew which cookbooks to consult. I had seen adverts in the endpapers for the first types of baking powder and tinned meat. I double checked with all sorts of sites for the details. Anything I mentioned in Out of the London Mist and Under the Bright Saharan Sky is absolutely double and triple checked. All the food and drink was on sale and easily available in 1900. All the places, currencies, even Shepheards Hotel in Cairo, were checked and rechecked and absolutely there in our world. But it was the memory of the fun I had with the cookbooks that helped me to know where to look.

And it was the memory of a classroom project, over forty years ago, that made me double check the maps of the East End of London for 1900 rather than currenGoogle Maps. Between the London Blitz and the redevelopers of the 1960s, the streets of London’s East End of are now very different to the streets that the monster stalked. It was memories of news coverage when the Canary Wharf Tube Station, that opened in 1999 that made me check whether certain tube stations were open in 1900 and whether there was a direct line between points of interest.

I have the attention span of a concussed sparrow, so I can enjoy topics like Medieval law, neolithic copper mines and feathers on dinosaurs. I don’t pretend to know much about these subjects, but because of the interest I’ve taken, I know a little and that I need to look. I have an idea where to start. For me, research is Sporcle quizzes, YouTube videos, documentaries and non-fiction books in all sorts of subjects so that as I write I remember that I have to check, and double check and re-check.

When writers are told to write what they know, perhaps this is what they mean. That writers should dip into their memories and experience so that even though the story is peopled with vampires and werewolves, there is still that edge of reality about it. That the detail of lilac in May and honeysuckle in August make the far-fetched story a little believable. Besides, if you take a broad view, research is so much fun!

Old and New

Today has been a junk sort of day. I write something, then I junk it. I write something more, then I junk it. It’s like one of the days where, no matter what you do, you keep getting a knot in your shoelace.

I want to keep Wednesdays as a sort of chat day, about what I’m writing (I’m stuck and using harsh language), what gives me ideas (everything gives me ideas – I’m not safe to be let out) and life in general. I woke up today feeling flatter than week old cola, and the writing shows it. I was stuck looking at my emails, and that shows how desperate I am. And that is how I was reminded that today is National Old Stuff Day.

Apparently there are a number of different ways to celebrate this. You can look at different ways to do things and reject the ‘same old same old’ feeling. That would have been fine yesterday when I cleaned some windows with hand sanitiser and it worked! As I have a low boredom threshold with the attention span of a concussed kitten, there aren’t many ‘same old same old’ routines. I could perhaps do with a few, but that’s another post.

Another way to celebrate is to look out some old things and cherish them. I have a few things that I adore, and I thought I would share one. It’s the book above, the atlas of my grandfather’s aunt who, by all accounts, was something of a character.

She was a ‘pupil teacher‘ which was a system where pupils learned how to be teachers at school as a sort of apprentice. I think she used this book as part of that. She also was the village Postmistress for a while.

It’s an amazing book, with historical maps, like that of the Roman Empire

As well as a nineteenth century map of the New England States.

I dipped into it while I was writing Out of the London Mist and Under the Bright Saharan Sky.

And now I am going back to something old and new – the new and hopefully stunning sequel to King’s Silver set in a medieval world.

Hugs and good health to all.

It’s Today!

My first medieval fantasy novel is now out. I am so thrilled. This is an incredible step for me.

I first had the idea for this novel around 1995 or 1996. I put the ideas down, wrote scenes and ideas, but never got it off the ground.

I started practicing writing. I wrote responses to writing challenges, and I played around with short stories. I had always promised myself that I would not write anything set in the modern day world. So then I ended up accidentally self publishing The Forgotten Village which is set in the modern day, albeit with vampires, werewolves, boggarts and all. The Forgotten Village was followed by Digging up the Past, Dinner at Dark and the series set in the White Hart. You can find the details above.

I then found myself writing steampunk. I remember reading and re-reading The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne when I was a kid. I thought I could never write anything like that as I really didn’t understand science. Now there is the internet to check facts, there were a few coincidences, and I wrote Out of the London Mist and Under the Bright Saharan Sky. Keep watching for Into the Shropshire Dusk.

Now I am back to the first book I wanted to write, and here we are – King’s Silver. It is a story that is dear to my heart and I have a lot more stories to tell that are in that world. It is an incredibly important milestone to me, and I feel like I am finally an author. I hope that you feel able to dip in and enjoy it.

(For anyone interested, the other genre of fiction that I swore that I would never write is Romance. I don’t have any current plans, but please don’t quote me)

Sweet Stuff

Today is National Marzipan Day. It’s an odd time to have a celebration of this sticky stuff. Most people are still recovering from an overload of sugar at Christmas and couldn’t face another sweet morsel. Besides, Christmas in England is one time when most people get their yearly sample of marzipan as a layer on a Christmas cake. For those who aren’t fans, and for those who have had far, far too much of the Christmas cake and marzipan fruits, it must be the last thing that they feel like snacking on.

I am not a huge fan of marzipan. I used to love it, but Father got given a bottle of Amaretto, and it went downhill from there.

My late father liked a drink. He wasn’t a drunk. He wasn’t drinking from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag on a park bench. He liked his Famous Grouse whisky with Seven Up (never straight lemonade) and he enjoyed it. When this story happened, he was in his eighties and took the view that he may as well have a little of what he fancied. What he enjoyed was his whisky, his football, his rugby, his crosswords and his Chinese takeways. He wasn’t a fan of anything sweet.

Then somebody gave him a bottle of Amaretto as a Christmas present. This is a very pleasant almond flavoured liqueur. It tastes of marzipan and it is sweet – far too sweet for Father. But he couldn’t get rid of it – it was a nice drink from a good friend who had kind thoughts. So he put it on the table next to me and told me to help myself. I agreed, thinking that I could have a nice glass later on.

A few hours later, Father nodded at the bottle. “It’s not gone down much.” I fetched a glass. I wasn’t sure what to mix it with and it didn’t look that strong, so I poured myself a neat measure and settled back in my chair.

Drinking Amaretto neat is like being mugged by an alcoholic Christmas cake, but in a good way. It wasn’t one of the fancier brands, but it was smooth, it hit my sweet tooth right on the spot and warmed me all the way to my toes. A small measure was just fine as I was watching the Christmas film. Father frowned. “It’s still not going down very quickly.” I poured another measure.

Amaretto is all very well in small doses, and I am sure that there are plenty who can drink it all year round. I can’t. I don’t think I will ever be able to drink it again as Father kept putting on the pressure with meaningful glances and I kept pouring myself another tot. I drank the entire bottle in three days. Father outpaced me with the whisky, but it was Christmas, after all, and he was fine. I wasn’t. Amaretto gives a foul hangover, especially if you are looking after an excited kid the next morning. I couldn’t look at Christmas cake and craved salty snacks for the contrast. I have never finished a glass with so much relief as when I had the last drop from that bottle. Father approved and was very happy to have given me such a treat. I felt nauseated.

So I will not be celebrating Marzipan Day today, except to remember wistfully the days when I looked forward to the Christmas cake and the traditional marzipan fruits. And for those who enjoy the stuff, Easter and the marzipan filled Simnel cake isn’t too far off.

Clean Up Your Computer

Did you know that January is ‘Clean up Your Computer’ Month? They suggest opening up the computer and clearing out any dust. I don’t dust anything unless I absolutely have to and I have a terror of opening up my laptop. What if it never works again? What if I accidently hack something? What if it all goes horribly wrong? There is stuff on my computer that is older than my teenage son and has followed me from machine to machine for years! I can’t risk losing that.

On the other hand, it isn’t a bad idea to have a sort of cyber clean up. I am desperately in need of it. I have three separate folders labelled ‘knitting patterns’ which lurk on my desktop or nestle within other folders. And I have all sorts of helpful snippets and useful guides stashed all over my desktop and in a swathe of folders. I wish I could remember to look at them. Perhaps I need a ‘clear up your memory’ month.

For example, I have a really cool guide about how to search using Google. I found it as I was rummaging. I wish that I had found it earlier when I was looking up the details for The King’s Silver (coming soon – watch this space!). It would have been a real help. It obviously looked good as I saved it in two different places, neither of which I checked when I was looking for the type of saddle used in Medieval Europe. I suppose I could create a new folder labelled ‘Useful Guides’. Then all I would have to do is remember to read it.

‘Create New Folder’ has not been as helpful as perhaps it could have been. I want to be organised, and I desperately need to be organised, but I end up having a gazillion and four folders nestling inside each other like Russian dolls holding ghosts of projects. Besides, which of these dratted folders holds the exact document I’m looking for?

An example is a story that’s been on my blog called ‘Cold Chills’. It features Rev Darren King, who has appeared in The Forgotten Village, Digging up the Past, Dinner at Dark, Tales from the White Hart, More Tales from the White Hart and Further Tales from the White Hart. He’s also in quite a few of the short stories that I use for my Monday writing gym session. I’m in the middle of collecting them into a book, so I can’t link anything, but I think that there’s around half a dozen stories where he is featured. This means that this short story could belong in any of five separate folders – I counted. Perhaps I need a folder that holds an index to folders?

When the nights draw in and it’s great to snuggle in with a mug of hot chocolate, scented candles, and some relaxing music, I suppose it is as good a time as any to spring clean the computer. I suspect that it could easily take me all month.

For those interested, I found while writing this that if I right click on the start button, I can go down the list and search for ‘file’. This is pretty good, especially if I can remember what I’ve called the dratted thing. And you can defrag my model of computer by going to the ‘Control Panel’ and following the instructions I found with an internet search. There are so many types of computers these days that I don’t feel qualified to give any more guidance than that, and I suggest that you take independent advice!

Happy ‘Clean up Your Computer’ Month!

And while I am here I thought I would add a copy of that guide for Google Searches before I lost it in the folders.

Still Need to Do Day

I look on the calendars a lot. Not to see what I should be doing or when an appointment is due. I just look to see what sort of day it is. I don’t mean Mother’s Day or Father’s Day but something more fun, like National Flip a Coin Day in the USA on June 1st. The world is a strange and wonderful place, and I love finding strange corners like that. Besides, flipping a coin is a useful way to make a decision. You find out what you really wanted when the coin lands and you are pleased or disappointed. Then you can go away and do what you actually wanted because the coin flip wasn’t legally binding.

If you go on the right sites, there are often a list of things that the day is for, some more serious than others. Today, 29th December, is the celebration of the Constitution of Ireland, which is important. It is also a day to celebrate Pepper Pots, which some may argue is also significant as it isn’t about the containers for pepper that are put on tables as I first thought, but about the soup, Pepper Pot, which is said to have won the American War of Independence. I found a recipe for it here, on I’m not going to make it. The last thing I need in my life is to start cooking tripe.

It caught my eye, though, that today is National ‘Still Need to Do’ Day and Tick Tock Day, both of them a subtle, or not-so-subtle, nudge to clear your ‘to-do’ list, and get moving to clear the decks for the New Year.

This is a great idea. I fully support it. I’m not acting on it today, though. If I sat down and wrote a list of all the outstanding tasks, half finished projects and looming deadlines, it would run to several volumes. I may spend the day making a start of a list…

One thing that I am learning, slowly and the hard way, is that it is easier to avoid entries like ‘sort out the disaster area called the dining room’ and instead have separate entries like, ‘clear one of the book shelves in the dining room’, ‘find a use for that cute tin or throw it out’ and ‘sort out the socks’.

I wonder about any ‘to-do’ list that my characters may have written. I wouldn’t touch any written by Mrs Tuesday or Lady Freydis. I think the ‘to-do’ list of Lord John Farnley could be full of engineering stuff and very short on things to do with his home or title. I may add ‘write to-do lists of characters’ to my to-do list.

One of the entries on my ‘to do’ list is learn Instagram. It’s mainly pictures and I don’t have the right way of looking at the world, so I struggle. However, in the spirit of the day, I have taken a picture of a to-do list, shown above. It is an authentic, true to life representation of the way I use to-do lists and my awful handwriting. Wish me luck on getting my list moving, and I would love to hear what you think about lists and your experience of them.

Feeling Poetic

My son is coming up to his GCSEs. For those who are unaware, GCSEs are the national standardised exams, usually taken at the age of 16 by everyone. Schools are marked on how well their students do, and funding is allocated accordingly. Students have access to further courses limited by their GCSE scores. I sometimes think that there is more pressure on these classes than the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

With most of the subjects I just nod, smile and encourage. It’s all changed since I was sitting the equivalent, back in the eighties, and I was never much good at the STEM subjects that my son enjoys. The only time that I would venture a slight opinion is on English Literature. I am deeply envious of the works that he has to study. My son has Macbeth (a lovely, meaty play), An Inspector Calls, A Christmas Carol and a selection of poetry.

I don’t head to poetry regularly. I have old-fashioned and, I suspect, shallow tastes. I do enjoy it, though. Years ago I had a huge tome of poetry that was mainly nineteenth century English poetry with a few outliers. It got me fascinated by Shelley, gave me an appreciation of Byron, and made me very comfortable with rhyming poetry – not necessarily a good thing. I suspect that I miss out on a lot.

However it did give me a few pieces that will always warm my heart. The first poem in the book was called ‘My Cat Jeoffrey’ by Christopher Smart (1722-1771). I believe he wrote it in a lunatic asylum, and he later died in a debtors’ prison, so it wasn’t the most logical poem to come out of the Enlightenment. On the other hand, it is awesome for all those owned by cats. The poem doesn’t rhyme, doesn’t scan and doesn’t entirely make sense. In other words – it’s perfect for cats. For me, the best line is – ‘For he can spraggle upon waggle upon the word of command.’ Every cat owner knows exactly what that means and it is a wonderful way to describe a cat turning itself inside out for the sheer pleasure of it.

I hope that you feel able to click on the link above, and perhaps even browse around the poems on the site. The poem is a little long for me to put on here, so I have made do with a link and added my somewhat inferior contribution to cat poetry. And thank you for visiting this page. After browsing around the poetry, I feel encouraged to spend an evening expanding my poetic knowledge, so thank you for giving me the opportunity to be inspired.

My Lion

My little lovely tabby is looking rather sweet.
The elegant and tabby tail is curled around her feet.
Expressionless she looks at me with bland and secret eyes,
Assured the plate of sausages was dinner in disguise.

I want to read the paper but my lap is occupied.
A tabby cat is dozing so I’ve put my read aside,
And though it’s really painful as the claws are sinking in,
The sound of cat contentment keeps me tickling her chin.

It’s as if a dozen devils are fighting on the floor,
And a screwed up piece of paper is tossed from paw to paw.
It’s thrown, bit and fought and then chased across the stairs,
Then the tabby runs in panic from a fright that isn’t there.

My cat lies soft in sunlight and her fur is golden bright,
Her eyes are slits of slumber as she turns into the light,
She stretches like a lion sprawled who drowses in the heat,
And dreams of Serengeti mice are twitching at her feet.

My tabby’s meditating and her limbs are all tucked in,
Her head is nodding forward as she draws herself within,
And. who knows, if she meditates to the fire’s gentle hum,
Her focus will reward her and a lion she’ll become.

My Favourite Author

shallow focus photo of pink flowers
Image from Unsplash, taken by John Wiesenfeld

I am a bad reader. I read a lot of non-fiction, especially history, as you may be able to tell if you read my books. I re-read a lot of my favourite authors as well. Sometimes I feel I will need dynamite to get out of my reading rut. I’ll be returning to reviewing in the new year to force open my horizons.

Unfortunately I have just found that they are releasing my favourite author’s books on kindle. This is not necessarily a good thing. I know a whole bundle of amazing and talented authors, but I keep going back to Essie Summers, the wife of a New Zealand minister, born 1912. She wrote romances with a Christian feel to them and I have been hooked for years. I read, re-read and re-re-read the books to tatters. Now that they are on kindle, I shall be reading them even more. And I don’t know why.

I could tell you that they deal honestly with people. That the characters have depth, the dialogue is crisp and that the world of her story has depth. I could talk about the wonderful descriptive flair that she has, the feeling that there is a continuation of life around the story. I could talk about some of the more complicated plots (trust me, some are extremely complicated with half sisters and adopted brothers and all sorts). Lots of other authors have those. I still keep going back to Essie Summers.

I suppose I feel comfortable reading them. I relax into them. They are wholesome and fun and speak of honest feelings. It reminds me that there are good people out there. But, to be honest, it’s still something of a mystery. I’m going to be buying them all as they come onto kindle, as soon as I see them. I don’t know why they call to me, but they do.

Thinking of why I like them so much has made me wonder. Are there some books that just call to you? Is it some sort of compatibility? Could you sort personalities by favourite author instead of star sign or that thing with the letters? Perhaps it’s like food cravings – a deficiency in real life means that you crave a certain type of book? If so, I can confirm that I am deficient in New Zealand. I am not going to comment on the romance aspect, as I have been married for over 30 years and he is awesome. I’m still going to finish here and settle down with ‘No Orchids by Request

I’d love to hear if you have any authors that call to you the same way. Comment down below, it would be great to see your thoughts.