Monday, 28 December 2009

Women at War

Books and Banter

In April 2009 Doreen Peacock spoke about Women in Wartime.

Her presentation was a mixture of reminiscences, fact and poetry. She started with three poems based in wartime including Bernard M Jackson's "Short Trousers Days" and Eddie Coward's "Seven Spirits in Flight' about the loss on landing of a bomber crew.

Doreen's acting kept us entertained by using a wide range of props which she had hidden in a suitcase. She donned a large wrap over apron and showed us how the women did their hair using pipe cleaners and rags as curlers, before protecting it with a headscarf tied in a bow at the front.

She explained how children were sent to the shop each day to buy the newspaper - not any newspaper but the one with the most pages. This had many uses, not least being cut into squares to be hung by a piece of string through one corner for subsequent use as toilet paper in the privy at the bottom of the garden.

Alternative the pages from the paper were rolled up and made into 'sticks' for lighting the fire.

"Make do and mend," was wartime advice which Doreen illustrated by the patterns and home made clothes of the times. Pegged rugs, often know as 'proddies,' made from scraps of clothes started as bed covers in the winter before moving to the floor in the bedroom eventually progressing downstairs to the front (best) room, living room and the kitchen as they wore.

The role of women as bus conductors, factory workers, ATS and the Land Army were included as well. These reminiscences struck chords with many in the audience who were children at the time.

"Careless Talk Costs Lives," was another slogan that impacted on some women especially those whose husbands became members of Churchill's Last Resort. The reasons for their evening 'meetings' could not not even be divulged to their wives who probably thought they were just going down the pub.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Murder Ink

In April I met the crime writers Sheila Quigley and Ken McCoy at the local library. Their talk session was entitled ‘Murder Ink.'

They both come from the North of England, Sheila from Houghton-le-Spring and Ken from Leeds.

I have only read one of Sheila's four published books based in Houghton-le-Spring and featuring Detective Inspector Lorraine Hunt.

Ken McCoy has written c17 books including a number of sagas and a series featuring Sam Carew. I have to admit I haven't read any of his work.

You can find information and details about their work on:

Sheila Quigley -

Ken McCoy - and

There were a lot of interesting comments in their question and answer session. Initially they asked one another a set of pre-planned questions before taking questions from the audience of over 60.

Ken McCoy had no ambition to write a book. For a long time he was involved in copy writing for the greeting card industry. Other than that he had been doodling with odd stories in exercise books. Then he started writing ‘Once with Scraps' [in Leeds this is an order for fish and chips]. He had written 40,000 words before he admitted he had a book on the go. He finished the book in 3 months; intended as a humorous story he sent it off and was told, "Yes you can write." After several rewrites over about 18 months his agent suggested that there was an opening in the market for saga writers. His first published work was the saga ‘Cobblestone Heroes' which resulted in a contract for more. He has now written 8.

‘Once with Scraps' was eventually published as ‘The Fabulous Fox Twins.'

Ken said he does not plan a book in detail but lets the story carry on. He may write one or two chapters in detail and develop his characters. At this stage he may only have a vague idea for the ending. He claimed that he only planned his 17th book in detail together with a 12,000 - 13,000 word synopsis.

13 of Ken's books are available in audio form. The first was read by actors but Ken thought that although well produced they did not capture the Yorkshire dialect and idiom. Now he narrates them himself completing a 40 minute recording in about 50 minutes. The difference in made up by ‘drop in editing' to correct any mistakes.

He takes part in regular ‘meet the author' sessions like Murder Ink at libraries. He also gets engagements as an after-dinner speaker - the one that provides the humour after all the serious bits. At one library session with a largely intellectual audience, in which he had injected some humour about being in a skiffle group, he received a comment that he ‘was not very intelligent'. He's sure they meant intellectual.

His favourite authors tend to be crime writers such as Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Tess Gerritsen. When he was young he favoured Damon Runyon and P G Wodehouse. He considers Leslie Thomas of Virgin Soldiers fame as one of the best writers there has been.

At school Sheila Quigley tried to avoid reading out loud; when she could avoid it no longer she was unable to read a word. She eventually taught herself to read by learning five words a day from the local newspaper. At 11 she had written a play, performed with a friend in her wash house. By 21 she was writing in her head nearly all the time.

She wrote a screen play based on cigarette smuggling. She was told it was okay but that she would be better writing a book. The screen play was never published; her first book was completed in about 4 months. The titles of her four books are based on song titles. A fifth, The Road to Hell has been accepted for publication but will come out after her sixth. Thorn in My Side is based on Holy Island with the main character being an ex-policeman. A collection of short stories called Criminal Tendencies is to appear in April or May with proceeds donated to breast cancer.

One critic has commented on her crime novels that there are more murders in Houghton-le-Spring than in Midsomer Murders. There is a murder trail event based on her books held in Houghton-le-Spring in October.

She tells of an old lady in Houghton who waited on the corner to ask her whether she had been asked to reduce the amount of swearing in her books. When Sheila said no, the lady asked, "Please can we have the swearing back?"

Sheila has also been asked, now that Lorraine Hunt and Luke Daniels have got together in her books, will she be writing passionate sex scenes. Sheila's reply, on the basis you should write about what you know, was that it will never happen.

Her favourite authors are Stephen King and James Rollins. She tends not to read crime books but prefers horror and fantasy.

Interestingly she says there is too much comedy in real life to write about it. She told the story of a policewoman who was not very tall. The WPC and a policeman were called to a disturbance at a pizza take away. Just as they arrived they were met by a very large man hurrying out. When he saw the police he turned and rushed back into the pizza place. There was pizza all over the floor, and he slipped over flat on his back. The policeman followed him in and slipped over as well. The WPC also slipped and landed spread eagled on top of the large man. "You're under arrest," she announced. The large man looked up and replied, "I'll have you for sexual harassment."

Ken McCoy commented that approximately 90% of the audience were women. Apparently this is normal for events like Murder Ink. He added that publishers want writers to aim for women readers - there are more of them. One of his books (Stryker) awaiting publication has been criticised as being too ‘boysy'.

Ken has never had writer's block. He writes every day, but has no set writing hours. He believes that with the advent of the Internet you are able to do all your research on-line.

Both writers recommended the Harrogate festival in June and the Crimefest at Bristol.

All in all the two hours of their talk was well worth the time. Now I shall have to read more of their books.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Do You Trust Your MP?

The answer's probably not if you have been following the expenses scandal recently in the news.

The opportunity to listen to Martin Bell at Stockton last week was too good to miss. He referred early on to the book he 'wasn't promoting.' As an ex Independent MP elected as a result of the Neil Hamilton 'brown envelope' episode some years ago Bell's views were enlightening to say the least.

The book he wasn't promoting starts with a poem that needs no explanation. I have been given permission to reproduce it here:

Swindlers’ List

I wish I had my own duck house,

Redacted and anonymous,

A shaded pool where ducks could float,

A pond, a river or a moat,

A place unto the manor born

Where moles would not uproot the lawn.

I was not born to privilege,

But loitered at the water’s edge,

And played the Honourable Member

From January to December.

I wish to thank the voters’ sense

For choosing me at their expense;

On their behalf I did my best,

Including things they never guessed.

Though my accomplishments were zero.

In fiddling I was next to Nero,

I was a self philanthropist,

Master of the John Lewis List;

I had a profitable innings

And duly pocketed the winnings,

The subsidies, the perks, the pay,

The petty cash, the ACA.

The Tudor beams, the chandeliers,

The bills for swimming pool repairs,

The hanging plants, the trouser press,

Nothing exceeded like excess,

The whirlpool bath, the horse manure,

Whiter than white, purer than pure.

And so it was until, alas,

The MPs’ scandals came to pass.

I was your Honourable Friend –

A pity that it had to end.

And then to avoid the sneers of Mr Paxman

I wrote a cheque and sent it to the taxman.

This poem by Martin Bell is extracted from A Very British Revolution: The Expenses Scandal and How to Save Our Democracy (Icon Books, Oct09) by Martin Bell.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Pets As Therapy

Luka was the star of the drop in session held at Yarm Library in February.

Luka is a Bernese Mountain Dog which weighs 8 stone 2 lbs. His front paws are the same size as my hands.

The Pets As Therapy charity has approximately 3500 dogs and 90 cats visiting people throughout the UK. Luka visits the retirement homes of Ayresome Court in Yarm and Hawthorn Lodge in Stockton on a regular basis.

His owners, Susan and George Evans, are registered volunteers for the charity. The visiting scheme is accepted as therapeutic and brings happiness to people of all ages in various kinds of establishments. It is the largest scheme of its kind in Europe. The dogs are recognised by the Royal College of Nursing and welcomed by many medical authorities.

Luka has recently started to visit libraries. At Stockton Central Library in January, he and his owners had an audience of over fifty at a Books and Banter meeting. It came as a bit of a shock to Susan and George when they were asked how long their talk would last! Luka took it in his stride – it just meant there were more people than usual to stroke, cuddle and talk to him.

Pets As Therapy have a simple fact sheet covering their application and registration process to help you decide if you would like to become one of their volunteers. Two character references are required – for you, not for your pet. Your dog or cat has to have a vaccination certificate. Volunteers pay an annual subscription but receive no payment for undertaking visits.

The dogs and cats come in all shapes and sizes; pedigrees, cross-breeds or mongrels. They must be older than 9 months and to have their temperaments assessed by a local assessor or vet. The pet should be sociable and friendly, calm and gentle when stroked or handled, and not afraid of new unexpected stimuli. The dogs wear a yellow jacket when they are working. An identity tag and a photo ID tag are also worn by the cats and dogs. Volunteers also have a photo ID badge. Dogs must be kept on a lead during visits.

Details of the scheme may be found on the charity’s website –

As you might expect the drop in session at Yarm was a relaxed and informal affair. The local press sent a photographer to cover the event. One lady came to pick up information about the scheme as she wants her young Cocker Spaniel to become registered with Pets as Therapy when old enough. A second lady came just to see Luka. Her mother at one of the retirement homes had told her about one of his visits.

I’ll admit I went to see Luka as well. He’s a lovely dog but I wouldn’t want his food bill. He won a local dog show a few years ago. Susan and George had hoped to show him at Crufts. The Kennel Club would not accept him for the show when they learned that he had had a dislocated elbow – a common problem with dogs of this breed.

At home Luka has the run of the house, downstairs only. When he was young there was a ‘baby’ gate two steps from the bottom of the stairs. Although the gate has gone, Luka may put his paws on the two steps at the bottom but never attempts to go any higher.

Bernese Mountain Dogs have a double coat and shed a lot of hair when they moult. Susan says Luka’s gives her a never ending job with the vacuum cleaner. Luka has two walks a day in the local park where he knows every corner; he gets taken there in an estate car. He has a special ramp to enable him to climb into the back.

More details about Bernese Mountain Dogs may be found on:


In March came the bad news:

I was informed by his owners that Luka has had to be put to sleep. He was found to be suffering from an inoperable cancer and peritonitis so his vet recommended that he be put down.

He was a lovely dog and I am sure he will be remembered by everyone who met him at the Care Homes.

It was a privilege for me to write about him

Monday, 7 December 2009

North Yorkshire Village Dogs

I talk to dogs and a year ago I started a series of articles about the ones I meet.

North Yorkshire Village Dogs

In a North Yorkshire village there is every breed of dog between Airedale and Weimaraner, without taking any account of the many cross-breeds. This series is about a few of the dogs which may be met on walks in the lanes and fields around the village.

Bess, a nine year old black collie cross with white paws and chest is always pleased to see you when she is on her lead. She knows that if she lets you stroke her without her jumping up she will be rewarded with a biscuit from her owner's pocket.

Bess was bought from a Leicester rescue centre when she was two by a university student; Bess later moved to live with the student's mother and to her current Yorkshire home. Described as a black fox because of her tail and ears, she is able to keep her ears together in the centre of her head or spread them wide apart and even point them backwards at the slightest sound.

Trained with her owner by an ex-RAF dog handler, Bess behaves well when on or off her lead and responds to commands to ‘sit' at the kerb and then ‘walk on' when crossing roads. Since she was attacked by an Alsatian, Bess is not too keen on other dogs if she does not know them, warning them off quite fiercely when she is on her lead.

Micro-chipped and covered by pet insurance for £17 a month; Bess's visits to a vet are just for annual distemper/rabies injections. Her owner ensures that she receives flea treatment regularly. However Bess is not too keen on having baths even when she has rolled in something best not described.

When on a walk Bess always checks the fields for the horses from a local riding school. She watches these intently when they pass by her garden too. She loves to chase rabbits, squirrels and even ducks, but appears to accept that she will never catch them other than by accident.

She is safe with children, but her owner watches just in case. One place where Bess is really welcome is when she visits people in a care home where she is always wanted back.

As with many pets Bess likes her comfort; she sleeps on a duvet on the bedroom floor - long gone is the intention that she would be a ‘downstairs' dog. She knows however that she may use two covered chairs but not any other furniture. Bess is a loyal pet who loves to run in the fields and a local park. She has a collection of toys including some that squeak but her favourite ‘hamburger' is in need of urgent replacement as she has chewed it almost to destruction.

That Bess is slightly overweight is a fact that is hidden somewhat by her thick coat. She is fed each evening; her meal consists usually of a Pedigree Pouch topped with some ham and cheese. Titbits are won from time to time; but Bess's idea of bliss is the ice cream treat she gets each evening. Then it's time for her duvet and dreams of tomorrow's walk.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Pools of Gold

John Barton Watson, a poet from the Yorkshire Dales, has made several visits to Stockton Library's Books and Banter sessions.

I first listened to him early in 2008 when he explained the stories behind the poems in his collection 'Pools of Gold.' The poems in his book are illustrated by the water-colour paintings of the Wensleydale artist Walter Parker. The paintings bring the poems to life.

From High Tees, Stockton's Oxbridge School, Coverdale to Scarborough John's poems touched on areas well known to his audience. The collection ends with The Border Reivers and takes its title from this poem's last verse:

'Come on the wind when the days are long
And the sky's a saffron glow
Reflections dark in pools of gold
The ghosts of riders show.'

In September last year, John came back to read and explain the stories behind his favourite poems.

He linked the ghostly connections between Walter de la Mare's Someone ('Some one came knocking') with Nicholas Nye (the old donkey standing alone 'would brood like a ghost') and the Listeners ('Is there anybody there? said the Traveller').

From Betjeman John chose A Portrait of A Deaf Man (Betjeman's father was stone deaf), Felixstowe or The Last of Her Order (The nun left on her own after the death of the other nuns)and Slough ('Come friendly bombs, and fall on Slough'.

Everyone in the audience laughed during Jenny Joseph's Warning('When I am old woman I shall wear purple')but were more subdued listening to Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est.

John Watson finished his reading with Robert Burns. I never knew that the clipper, Cutty Sark, had a figurehead of a witch's hand holding a horse's tail. This is derived from Burn's Tam O' Shanter where Tam is chased by a witch wearing a short shirt (cutty sark). Witches cannot cross running water and as Tam rode over the Brig o' Doon the witch pulled off the horse's tail and was left with it in her hand as Tam and his horse Meg escaped.

This poetry session was one of the most popular of the year and a very entertaining hour and a half.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

A Good Read for Christmas

The Christmas Edition of Writelinkers E-zine is available at:

It contains stories, articles, poems and photos submitted by Writelink members. There are a few puzzles as well.

It's well worth a look.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Bridge to Bridge

Bridge to Bridge

Thursday 14th May saw the official opening event of the Infinity Bridge over the River Tees at Stockton.
The programme of sound, light, big screens and fireworks was spectacular and already videos and photos are on the internet. Why is it called the Infinity Bridge?
When lit up the shape of the bridge and its reflection in the water make up the infinity sign.
Next day as part of the Infinity Spring Festival there was a series of talks entitled ‘Bridge to Bridge’ at Stockton Central Library.
Beth Andrews, River Tees Natural Heritage Officer, traced the development of the river over the last 10,000 years from the last Ice Age to the present day. Teesside has been noted for many years its major chemical plants. Not everyone understood that these are built of land reclaimed since the straightening of the river in the early 19th century.
In a second talk Beth spoke about the bridges over the Tees including the oldest built at Yarm by Bishop Skirlaw in the early 1400s. This bridge widened and repaired still stands and carries the 21st century road traffic.
Yarm Bridge with the railway viaduct behind.
With the advent of the Stockton Darlington Railway and the need to ship coal from the Tees, Stockton was the site for the first railway suspension bridge in the world. Insufficient iron was used in its construction and wooden trestles had to be put in to support the railway with a limit put on the number of trucks on the bridge at one time.
Middlesbrough’s world famous Transporter bridge, first suggested in 1873 was opened on 1911 by Prince Arthur of Connaught. It wasn’t dismantled by that mob from the Tyne in ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet. ‘The Transporter remains the bridge over the Tees nearest the sea.
Alan Betteney, a local author/historian covered shipbuilding in Stockton and Thornaby including wooden and concrete ships and the part that Stockton-built ships played in the American Civil War.
The construction of the Infinity Bridge was explained by Russell Smith, Regional Director of White, Young, Green. His talk was illustrated by photos from piling of the foundations to the completed bridge.
The final talk was given by Alan Slater, River Manager, British Waterways who spoke about his work on the River Tees before the building of the Tees Barrage in 1995 and the transformation of the river over the years. When he started the river was tidal upstream to Yarm; at low tide the banks were black mud and if you put your hand in the water it would remove your skin. Completion of the Tees Barrage in 1995 limited the Tees' tidal reach, and created upstream a new wetland sports and leisure area for Teesside where you can take part in windsurfing, water-skiing, sailing, rowing, angling - even powerboat racing and white water rafting. The barrage itself is an impressive structure and includes a fish-pass (with viewing area), navigation lock and canoe slalom.
With the industrial pollution cleaned up, the Tees Barrage has seen the water temperature rise by 2 degrees in the last 15 years. Alan Slater says he can watch a kingfisher from his office window. The salmon are back but so are the seals. When the salmon are fitted with pressure and temperature sensors you know they have gone when the temperature recorded reaches 34C, the stomach temperature of the seals. They believe that sixty-six percent of the salmon are taken.
The purity of the water now supports an invasion of mussels and pipefish love the oxygenated water created by water pouring over the barrage gates. A yellow legged gull more normally seen in Spain and Portugal has discovered the existence of the tasty pipefish.
Above the barrage the water is always fresh; coarse fish are no longer swept down stream and lost when the river is in spate.
It had been estimated when the barrage was built that it would be five years before the stocks of coarse fish would recover – in fact, it only took six months. The Tees above the barrage is now a triple A rated fishery.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Al Khatun

Archaeologist, linguist, mountaineer, soldier, spy, map maker, kingmaker. Not a bad list of accomplishments from a woman born in County Durham in 1868.

Gertrude Bell spoke 16 languages and once survived 53 hours hanging on a rope in a blizzard on a mountain face. She participated in the founding of Iraq, drawing its boundaries and was instrumental in the Hashemite Prince Faisal becoming its first King, although she wrote in one of her letters, "I'll never engage in creating a king again, it's too great a strain."

One of her legacies is the Baghdad Archaeological Museum - the one looted in the battle for Baghdad this century, following the overthrow of Sadaam Hussain.

Gertrude died in Baghdad and rests in the British Cemetery there.
It was said of her, "One of the reasons you stand out is because you are a woman. There's only one Khatun. For a hundred years they'll talk of the Khatun riding by."
{Khatun = lady or gentlewoman}

Ian Stubbs, Assistant Curator of the Dorman Museum in Middlesbrough, in outlining the exhibitions available during his talk at Books and Banter in May used illustrations of the artefacts collected by Gertrude Bell. She was one of the first archaeologists to propose that any treasures found should remain in their country of origin and that only 2% should be removed.

A major exhibit at the museum used to be a lion standing on a zebra which it had killed. These were part of the collection of Sir Alfred Pease. These days the lion remains on show and ‘Leo' has become the icon used to illustrate the different galleries to be seen.

A fascinating part of Ian's presentation was the famous Theodore Roosevelt African safari in 1909 when he stayed at the British East African house of Sir Alfred Pease in what is now Kenya.

Included in the presentation were movies made at the time showing Roosevelt's first lion which weighed 285lbs. Roosevelt's book, African Game Trails, contains his account of how he came to shoot the lion - two shots and a third from close quarters were required. Kermit, Roosevelt's son accompanied on the safari and is also on the film.

One of the movies showed a Ferris wheel made of wood which looked as though it had been put together with 6 inch nails. There were only four carriages and it appeared to be powered by a native pulling on a rope. Nevertheless all the carriages were full and what's' more it, and a second similar wheel, were being enjoyed by the crowd not just those having a ride.

Alfred Pease's wife went on the safari with the men. When she died back in England Pease had a memorial stained glass window installed in Guisborough's St Nicholas Church. A detail in the glass shows Pease's lion - the one that finished up at the Dorman Museum.

More information on Gertrude Bell is available at: under The Gertrude Bell Project. You can read her diaries and some 1600 of her letters and browse 7000 of the photos she took - many of which have never been published.

Details of the Dorman Museum can be found at: ]
This piece with the photos of The Pease Window was published in the Summer Edition of Guisborough Life.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Books and Banter

Books and Banter sessions are held each week at Stockton Central Library.

Presentations are given by guest speakers, Attendance and the tea/coffee afterwards is free.

I will include summaries of sessions that have interested me; hopefully these will be of interest to others.

Let me know what you think as I post the details.