Observations in the time of lockdown by val wood

 April 2020             

               

At the beginning of the Covid 19 crisis I had been sitting at my computer for many hours, clacking away on the keyboard in an attempt to reach the ending of my current novel in progress. I stood up and almost fell over, so dizzy and sick with headache and a neck that felt as if it were filled with concrete.

The next morning I woke at 6.30 am as usual, made a pot of tea and clambered back into bed, rejoicing that I had decided to take the morning off, read a book, and make notes for the said novel. But old habits die hard. Eight o’ clock and time to get to grips with myself and not act like a wimp. I climbed out of bed.

I’m quite used to isolation as, like most writers, I sit and write every day, and I can cope with that, in fact I relish it for I can’t write with anyone else there; I need to be alone when transporting myself back into the 19thc which is my preferred period for writing regional historical fiction: but the concept of losing the freedom to walk and breathe a different air, to fetch my own newspaper and groceries or pass the time of day with neighbours, strangers even, is a very strange notion indeed;  I am considered to be at risk, being elderly and with some past health issues; not matters that I normally think about.

I looked out of the window which looks down on the long road leading out of town. Silent as midnight, except that the sun was shining; a beautiful morning.  

One car went by, driving at 30 mph which is most unusual, for few drivers observe the speed limit; then two runners, male, both dressed in black shorts and tee shirts and running one behind the other on the footpath. Another car, and a minute later, a white van.  A man and his dog, another man walking in the opposite direction with a newspaper under his arm. 

The road was getting busy, crowded almost, for along came a man and woman walking side by side, must be family members, and then a young woman running, her long pony tail swishing side to side. Three people within less than five minutes.

So this is our world as it is today. It seemed to me as an observer, and observing is one of the most important things we learn when becoming  writers, was that life was changing; are we I wondered, entering a different life, akin to a dystopian novel where everything we hold dear disappears and we clutch on to the basics of life to survive? Or are we on the cusp of something special as scientists search for a cure for our ills; as people obey the rules and keep their distance or turn to help each other when they realize that nothing in the world can compensate for loss of life, friendship, love or humour.

The sun shone bleakly during the afternoon, barely warm but bright and I thought that to clear my head I must get out of the house and as my small garden is not big enough to really stretch my legs, I would walk a larger circular route than usual.

The common land of Westwood and the Hurn in Beverley is barely ten minutes from my home, so I reckoned that ten minutes there and ten minutes back was my permitted time out whilst walking alone. I saw few people as I walked, but many cars were parked in the drives of houses; I passed the police station which was once part of the old Sessions House and the House of Correction and I’ve used it in my books; I always pause and imagine how it used to be for the inmates in bygone times, locked in and only a rare possibility of coming out.

As I reached the top of the road leading to the Hurn, intending only to lean on the fence  and admire the greenness and solitude, two men and a young woman caught up with me and I slowed to let them pass and we all kept our distance. The last man to go through the gate closed it behind him and said ‘Thank you.’

For what, I wondered, for I had given no service, but I smiled and nodded anyway. I stood gazing at the wide sky and the vast greenness and decided to step onto the grass; it seemed imperative that I should; it is common land free for us all to walk on.

I went only a short distance but it was wonderful to feel the springy grass beneath my feet and I breathed in good air I stood and pondered, as is my habit. A dog barked from a neighbouring garden and stood on his hind legs to look at me from over his fence. He continued barking though his tail wagged.

I spoke to him and still he kept barking until I left and went back through the gate. If I had been a dog in such a wondrous place,  I too would have given a warning to say ‘keep off my patch,’ and as I turned to walk down the hill, another couple were coming towards me and then waited: it was my turn to say ‘Thank you,’ and as I walked down towards home there were but a few other couples, some with pushchairs or holding hands with a small child, or occasionally a single person, sometimes with a dog and we all shifted our positions to accommodate the others and all said a cautious, rather embarrassed greeting or a self-conscious ‘Hello’ or ‘Hi,’  and I don’t quite know why I felt moved, with a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. 

                                                 ----

Week Seven. May 5th. 2020

I don’t think anyone imagined that self-isolation would have lasted so long. Nor that it would have such an impact on our well-being. I don’t know a single person who has Covid 19 and yet everyone that I have contacted for conversation, by telephone, text or e/mail is in fear of it.

I have now sent off my novel to my editor, well in front of the deadline as I intended. I had reached The End late one afternoon; I switched off the computer so that I didn’t feel compelled to tinker with it. The ending had arrived quite naturally after much pondering and deliberation and I was happy with it. A satisfactory finale after much conflict. A relief to know The End had finally been written.

But had it? Sleeping on it is a different matter entirely and emerging the following morning from the hypnopompic state, which is often the time to explore the part-hidden dreams of the night time, I reached inside my nineteenth century characters’ minds, two of them, male and female who, it seemed had come to the same conclusion. 

There isn’t always a cut-off point, clear and sharp in every one‘s mind when finishing a novel, any more than there will be a cut off finale with Covid 19. The pandemic will live on in our minds even if it moves away from our bodies. 

In a book of fiction the author has control even if it sometimes appears that the characters are speaking for themselves, as they appear to do even to the author. But as I listened to my characters, seriously listened, I realised that the original ending I had planned for them, wasn’t entirely true to their own individual selves as I had created them, and that they would have acted differently for themselves and not for me or my readers; and so I changed the ending; and this time I am sure I have got it exactly as they would have wanted it, if they had indeed been as real as they appeared to me.

And that brought me full circle into thinking of how we flesh and blood people are behaving now whilst under pressure of self-isolation, of obedience, of an inner rage and frustration against an unseen enemy. There are some who have already lost the battle; there are always innocent casualties, but what about the rest of us? We need strength and fortitude to continue; we can’t hide behind a curtain of fiction. This is real life and we can’t yet write The End.

Val Wood. 2020

Women's Suffrage by Val Wood

There have been many brave and determined women throughout history and it would take more than a few pages to describe or eulogise them all. We all have favourites and many of mine have come to my attention throughout my twenty five years as a novelist.

 

There have been the fisher wives of Hull and Scarborough who worked in icy water with numbed fingers as they cleaned and fileted the local catch; there were the girls and young women working in cotton mills, some as young as eight, shuffling beneath the moving frames to clear the debris; those working in coal mines and we have all heard of the little match girls.

 

This year of 2018 stands out as the centenary of when women achieved the vote, when suffragettes and suffragists worked tirelessly on our behalf to achieve parity with men. Did we attain it? Most did, some haven’t yet and what interests me as we consider the question is that some stand out because of their tremendous achievements and set the standard for others; some of these brave and strong women are in the recent past of the 19th c. which is my favourite period for creating fiction. 

 

One of these was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who became a suffragist and the first woman physician and surgeon to qualify in Britain; she co-founded the London School of Medicine, a hospital completely staffed by women.

 

Another was her daughter Louisa Garrett Anderson who qualified as a doctor at the London School of Medicine, became a suffragette, more militant than her mother and spent a brief time in Holloway for throwing a brick through a window. In 1910 the mother and daughter made an appeal to Prime Minister Asquith for women to be given the vote.

 

During the same period another woman doctor, Dr Mary Murdoch, qualifying at the same hospital, became Hull’s first female house surgeon at the Victoria Children’s Hospital, Hull’s first female general practitioner and founded the Hull Women’s Suffrage Movement. A blue plaque adorns her former home on Beverley Road, Hull.

 

The list is endless but an important woman, whom I admire greatly and who was not British, was Marie Curie, known for her Nobel Prize in science. She was born in Warsaw in 1867, then part of the Russian Empire and educated by her school teacher parents who believed in equal education for all. Her later education continued in Paris where there were more possibilities for women than in her home country of Poland.  Her achievements were many and made at great sacrifice and I will publish a separate essay on her life at another time; amongst her finest accomplishments were those made during the First World War when she invented and developed the first mobile X-ray machine which she personally took to the Front and by her scientific ability possibly saved thousands of lives.      

 

One hundred years ago my granny was alive. Did Granny know of women’s suffrage?  Did she ever hear of women acting on her behalf who in 1918 had finally won the vote for some women; but not for all? 

 

Probably not. She was a widow with five children, some emerging from childhood and on the cusp of early adulthood still to be fed and clothed, though two of the boys were already working in the local mines. My grandfather had been a publican and died in middle age, leaving her to fend for herself and their progeny. Which she did; as many women had to during those dark days. She rented and opened a shop, presumably with the little money he had left her in order to make some kind of living and if she had considered the extraordinary events taking place, she might have thought that these women hadn’t done it for her, that it wouldn’t make a scrap of difference to her life; and indeed it didn’t, at the age of thirty under the Representation of the People Act she qualified to vote, but was disenfranchised under the Property Act.

 

You might think I’m a sceptic and perhaps you’d be right, for reading beneath the lines, which I did extensively during the writing of my novel No Place for a Woman, which was set prior to and during the First World War and included the women’s suffrage movement, I had to look carefully at the small print, and found that during 1916-1917 the House of Commons Speaker, Mr James Andrew Lowther chaired a conference on electoral reform which recommended a limited women’s suffrage.

 

Why now, you might ask? After years of campaigning, when women prior to the Great War, had strongly and sometimes vociferously stormed the Houses of Parliament, chained themselves to railings and suffered extreme indignities, tantamount to torture in prison hospitals, and had withdrawn their suffrage activities but not their beliefs in order to help the war effort, which is another story altogether; and why, you ask again, did it happen at that particular time. 

 

Because there was an election coming up: votes were needed and troops returning from that bloodiest of wars, if they were lucky enough to do so, were not entitled to vote. They too were disenfranchised if they were not property owners, and very few of them qualified under that status. 

 

The politicians therefore were persuaded to allow the Act to abolish all property and other restrictions for men and extended the vote to include all men over the age of twenty-one. Women had to make do with their small victory which meant that 60% of the total of women were still unable to vote. But forgive me that is negative thinking, 40% could, which in real terms was considered to be a huge success. 

 

However, it was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women over 21 were able to vote and women finally achieved the same voting rights as men. This act increased the number of women eligible to vote to 15 million.

 

There are women who consider that they have still much to achieve regarding complete equality, especially in the work place. Some contemplate that they are as equal as they wish to be. Women are rarely tied to the kitchen sink nowadays, most, though not all, can make choices about their lives, and women have more freedom than many would have thought possible a century ago. Women do not have to pioneer businesses or patent inventions under their husbands’ or fathers’ names as they once did – read Deborah Jaffe’s  Ingenuous Women for examples. Their own names are sufficient. They are free to be scientists, builders, electricians, or fly to the moon if they are clever enough or brave enough. Or be Prime Minister. Now there’s a thing.

 

And as for my stoical granny. She would have been astonished.

 

Val Wood.

June 2018

Manners and the 'Old Days' by Val Wood

I said some time ago that I would write essays on various subjects to give opinions or commentaries on topics that interested me and might or not interest anyone who wanted to read them. I hadn’t thought at the time that I would use this space for a rant.  In my Collins Thesaurus a rant is also described as a bellow, roar, bluster and such like.

It is true that I shout at the radio or TV if something stupid, obvious or condescending is stated, but as I am mostly alone and no one else is listening who could take offence, then I consider that is my right.

What I don’t think is acceptable and this point is aimed straight at some of the Radio Four presenters, male – who ask their invited guests to give an opinion on a subject and no sooner have they opened their mouths to speak, than the presenter(s) interrupt to give their own opinion, which I assume they think is more relevant than the one about to be offered by their speaker. The female presenters, I have noticed, generally wait until their questions are answered, and then offer an alternative reasoning, and I am not suggesting this is because females are less aggressive than their male counterparts, some are, some are not, but waiting for someone to finish speaking before interrupting was once taught to children and young people along with other lessons in good manners.

However, the above wasn’t the subject I intended to write on that hot July morning; in truth I should have been writing fiction which in doing so often allows me to let off steam, but in this case it wasn’t relevant, though it would have been if I were writing about the years between the end of WW2 and the 1950’s and this is where my rant came in. 

There was I finishing off my breakfast; soft boiled egg, a slice of toast, a glass of orange juice if you’re interested, and listening to Radio Four to find out what was happening in the world. This is part of my morning ritual.

Yes, it was hot, I agreed with whoever was speaking, I had actually noticed that, hence my windows and doors were opened wide and unusually for me as I’m generally a cold person, I was wearing a loose top and skirt, comfy shoes and sun cream, factor 50, – and a hat placed by the door for when I go outside to feed the birds and top up their water bowls. I managed to do all those things by myself without advice from anyone, in spite of the fact that at my age I might be considered chronologically challenged.

What really irked me was that one of the guests, a woman, invited especially to talk about the difficulties we could encounter as the world became hotter because of global warming, lack of rain, our housing that isn’t equipped to deal with overwhelming heat and the alarming suggestion that in another fifty or sixty years we might have to stockpile food which would not be easily accessible due not only to Brexit but that we won’t be prepared for what is coming. I don’t know why I was alarmed as I won’t be around to have to deal with it, but many others I know perhaps will be.

‘People used to stockpile food during WW2,’  the male presenter sensibly said.

‘Ah, yes’ said the guest, whose name I didn’t catch. ‘But our tastes have changed. Back then people stockpiled food such as corned beef and Spam and tins of peas, they ate boring food compared with what we eat today. Today we are used to things like olive oil, olives, tomatoes and other more exotic food.’  I’m improvising here as I can’t recollect the order, and besides, my blood pressure was already rising.

Boring? Clearly she hadn’t tasted my granny’s beef and kidney pie, cooked with onions and served with thick gravy, mashed potatoes, broad beans, cabbage or carrots, depending on the season. Or her roast beef or pork and Yorkshire pudding with apple sauce or fresh horseradish sauce so hot as to take your tongue off, roast potatoes, stuffed and buttered marrow (courgettes grown large, dear, I muttered, in case she hadn’t heard of them), fisherman’s pie cooked in herb flavoured white sauce, cheese and hardboiled egg, or baked fish on a Friday, and I haven’t even started on her brown skinned rice puddings and apple pies. And yes, people did grow their own vegetables Back then, and have I mentioned the hens that roamed the back yards and finished up hanging from a nail by the back door.

I can’t remember ever having tinned peas, and still don’t today, but I can remember podding them from the vine and being caught out popping their sweetness into my mouth when I thought Granny wasn’t looking. I can also remember the aroma of baked ham in the range or boiled ham in the copper. For those who didn’t eat meat they would eat more vegetables or fill up on home-made bread, made fresh most mornings.

Were we deprived Back then?  Hard done by? I don’t remember being so.  Will people in fifty or sixty years’ time still be eating pizza and reminiscing over the tastiest that came from a pizza house down the road and do they know that it is actually made from flour just as bread is and was the staple and cheapest food that Italians could make and kept them alive during the difficult years of the war, just as bread did for us?

In 1996, I wrote a cookery book, Mrs  Scryven’s Yorkshire Pye, sadly no longer in print – but maybe one day it will re surface. It was inspired by research into the kind of food that was cooked, baked and eaten in the 18th and 19th century and the kind of food that my fictional cook, Mrs Scryven might have prepared. I put out a call to various Yorkshire newspapers to ask if anyone could suggest recipes and I was inundated. Some were original 19thc receipts and many from the war years, First and Second.

I cooked, baked and tried every recipe bar two; Giblet Pie which somehow I couldn’t face, plus my family warned me in advance that they wouldn’t eat it if I made it, and the other was Nettle Porridge from an 1850 recipe for Spring Medicine; the nettles had to be young and it was the wrong season, or so I told myself. 

What astonished me was the ingenuity and versatility of what people would and did do to preserve, conserve, create and bake good food in spite of wars, depravation and without the convenience of a shop, supermarket or pizza place just around the corner, and I hope the speaker on the radio eventually comes to realize that we don’t have to depend on what is on offer on the shelves, but that we must think for ourselves and get back to the basic necessities of life.

Val Wood July 2018

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