Showing posts with label Leeds. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Leeds. Show all posts

Spooks Week: Stone Tape Experiences.


I've titled today's blog 'Stone Tape Experiences'. A long time ago there was a scary and highly original  television drama called The Stone Tape. You can read all about it here, and I think you can even find a copy of the drama online. When I first watched it, it terrified me. I went back to it more recently, and found it very much of its time, and less riveting than it had once been. The original thesis of the programme is still a fascinating one: that the stones of which a building is constructed can somehow retain images, scents, sounds of events that have taken place there - and that certain people can, in the right circumstances, 'play them back'. The twist at the end of the play is a very good one that still gives me a little frisson of horror - so I won't spoil it here. But I've had a few experiences myself that have made me wonder about so called 'residual haunting.' 

When I was a very little girl, we lived in a tiny flat above my grandparents' two small shops in Leeds. You can see the shops in the picture above. That's me with my dad. One was a sweet and tobacconist shop that sold chocolate and cigarettes to nearby factory workers, and in the other my grandfather dealt in fishing tackle. My grandparents lived next door, just out of shot of that photograph, in a tall thin house with a back yard. You can find out a lot more about that time and place in my book A Proper Person to be Detained, about a murder in my family in 1881, and its aftermath. The story of the murder recently featured in A House Through Time. 

I was often ill with asthma as a young child because there was massive industrial pollution from the printing company next door. I spent a lot of time at home, in bed, wheezing. Treatments weren't nearly as effective as they are today. But I used to have vivid dreams, and one of my dreams was both recurring and oddly comforting. I used to dream about three people, sitting around a table in the window of what was effectively our living room and kitchen combined, playing cards. The flat was cramped and we seldom had visitors. Any family get-togethers were held in my grandparents' house next door. 

As far as I remember, there were two women and a man. I was vaguely aware that they were dressed in dark, very plain clothes. But they were my talisman. I often had bizarre and disturbing fever-induced dreams, but even in my dreams, I knew that if I could see the 'people at the table', the nightmares would fade and normality would resume. I could and did deliberately invoke them. They were never aware of my presence. They were just there, enjoying a quiet time together. And whenever I saw them, any nightmare simply faded away. 

I thought nothing of this, assuming that it was part of my very active imagination, until many years later, when I told my mum about it. She looked taken aback. 'But they were real,' she said. She went on to explain that when she was a child, back in the 1920s, and even earlier than that, the small flat had been rented to a family of two sisters and a brother, who had habitually sat at the table in the window and played cards. She barely remembered them herself, working people of my grandmother's generation, and she had certainly never mentioned them to me - but I still think about them affectionately, even now.  

Two more stone tape experiences occur to me. One was during a holiday with friends in an old castle in beautiful West Cork, where we had an apartment divided from the rest of the castle by a solid partition, with no door through.  One of our party - quite young at the time - came down for breakfast in the morning and wondered 'who was the man standing in the corridor in the night?' We were in an adjoining bedroom, and had seen her get up to cross to the bathroom, pause, and gaze along the corridor. There was nobody there. Or nobody that we could see, anyway...

Finally, another friend went back to her childhood home in a small Scottish town, and, invited in by the current owners, was delighted to be able to have a look around. 'We love the house' they said. 'But tell me, when you lived here, did you ever hear the sound of a musical box playing and a dog howling? Because we sometimes hear it at the bend in the stairs.'

She had to confess, somewhat shamefacedly, that during her childhood, there had been an old musical box just at the bend in the stairs. It made the dog howl. So, kids being what they are, they had occasionally played it, just to upset the poor dog. No ghosts were involved, unless you count the dog - but it did seem very much as though the old stones of the house had somehow absorbed the sounds and in certain atmospheric conditions, played them back for the current residents. 

Food Parcels and Fags: My Polish Grandmother

Lucja Szapera 
This is a picture of my Polish grandmother. I met her very briefly when she came to spend a couple of weeks with us in Leeds. I can't even remember the exact year when she came, but I think it must have been when we had moved from my grandparents' house in Whitehall Road to a chilly flat in an old vicarage in Bellevue Road, which would place it some time in the late 1950s. You can read about some of this in my recent book, A Proper Person to be Detained, because although that book is about a murder in my family in 1881, I moved the story forward into my own childhood, in an effort to get some perspective on those long ago events.

What I didn't tackle though, was the troubled relationship between my father and his own mother, Lucja.

My middle name is Lucy. I was named for her.

One night last week, I woke up with a start and remembered the food parcels. It may have been because I had just said - not entirely in jest - that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, we might have to ask our son, working in the EU, to send us medicines. Perhaps that had triggered the memory, because I hadn't thought about Lucja's food parcels in more than forty years.

After the war, when my refugee dad was in a resettlement camp in Yorkshire, like so many displaced persons, he hadn't the foggiest idea whether any of his family had survived. For many years, we believed that his father, Wladyslaw, had been sent to Siberia and had died there. As it happened, that wasn't the case, but it took a great deal of research before we found out the true story. He didn't survive. He was never going to come knocking on our door. His tragic story is one for another day, another post. Maybe the book or books I seem to be edging towards writing if I can find a way into them.

Aunty Wanda
But in those post war years, the Red Cross did sterling work in trying to reunite families. Eventually, we found out that dad's beloved Aunty Wanda had survived and was still living in Poland with her husband, artist Karol Kossak, in a spa town called Ciechocinek. I visited them and their daughter Teresa in the  early 1970s, and immediately felt at home with them.

In the late 1950s, we also discovered that Lucja was alive, living in a town called WaƂbrzych in the south west of Poland. She and my father corresponded, and because times were hard in communist Poland, especially for elderly ladies of very limited means, we sent food parcels to her. I remember the shopping, the careful wrapping, my dad filling in endless forms, taking them to the post office with my mother, hoping that the things actually got there, because pilfering at the borders was rife. As were food shortages.

And then Lucja came to visit.

It was not, on the whole, a success. I find myself digging around in my memory, trying to analyse the tensions that I, as a little girl, could only have been dimly aware of. The word that best describes it might be disappointment. I think she was disappointed, had been disappointed and angry for years - angry and unwell and disappointed. She had expected more from the visit. She had expected much more from life. And she had lost everything except her life.

She was, I believe, the child of a wealthy pharmacist, in the prosperous Polish city of Lwow, when she met and married my grandfather. You can see them together in the picture below, possibly taken in the summer of 1929 when my dad would be about three: handsome Wladyslaw, who always reminds me of Maxim in Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca and pretty, plump Lucja in her early 20s, with her summer dress, her pearls and her hat and her little son, Julian, still in his traditional girly baby clothes and haircut.

Spoilt Lucja who got her own way in everything.

She had always expected more from life. The picture at the very top of this post shows her at about the same time or just a little earlier - newly married, well made up, glossy in her fur coat. Uncannily, I recognise myself in her eyes, and her hair. She certainly gave me her hair.

The family were ostensibly Catholic, but the name Szapera suggests a Jewish heritage somewhere along the line. The family also claimed Hungarian forebears. Wladyslaw, who had a reputation for immense charm, must have met her socially in Lwow and swept her off her little feet. He was wealthy too - on paper at least, although not so much in hard cash.

The family were 'szlachta': the old, minor aristocracy. Wladyslaw's mother, Anna Brudzewska, had been from an even more distinguished family. Wladyslaw had inherited the estate from a wealthy uncle and stood to inherit another place in Prszemyslany.  He had a nice house, a ruined mansion, an ice house, the only car in the district, plenty of land, prospects - and a pet monkey. Lucja must have thought that all her dreams were coming true.

They were very young: Lucja was born in 1906, and Wladyslaw in 1904, which made her only twenty when her son was born. I'm sure for a while they were madly in love.

But she was a city girl, and I imagine that she soon found the countryside not at all to her liking. I suspect she didn't like the mud or the flies or the horses or the dogs or the guests that stayed for days on end. Besides, Wladyslaw was not quite as rich as she had believed. He was always thinking up ways of making money: growing mushrooms in the cellars of the old manor house at Dziedzilow that had been burned down in some previous conflict or inventing perpetual motion machines that - of course - didn't work.

She had probably been used to city life and entertainments, nice clothes, a little luxury, and here she was, marooned in the country, and then doubly marooned after my dad was born.

I suspect too that my grandfather found that he had fallen for a pretty face but, like Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, had found himself married to a rather foolish woman. This seems harsh, but my father once confessed, reluctantly, that he had always been much closer to his father and his aunt Wanda than he ever was to his mother. They seemed to have very little in common.

Pre war Lwow.

Nevertheless, my parents went through the complicated and stressful process of inviting Lucja for a visit. From the start, it was clear that she disliked postwar Leeds intensely. When I think about it now, I'm very sorry for her. She could speak no English and my mother no Polish, so communications were difficult. At home, she worked in one of those little kiosks that sell cigarettes and bus and tram tickets. She suffered badly from arthritis and lived with somebody we knew as Aunty Nusia. I think, although I can't be certain, that this was her sister but it may have been a cousin.

She had expected us to be rich. We were very far from that. She missed Nusia. She didn't like the food, she didn't like my mother, I'm not even sure that she liked me very much. She must have been very homesick, even though she didn't like her home much. Children bored her. The fortnight was spent mostly playing cards with assorted patient Leeds relatives, while she smoked cigarettes and grumbled. She went back with more food and more cigarettes, as many as she was allowed to take. The correspondence continued, as did the food parcels and the medicines for her arthritis that my dad managed to acquire. I believe she died in 1971, just before I went to Poland myself, and met my other surviving relatives.

Julian at Dziedzilow.
Many years later, dad told me all about his childhood, but said very little about his difficult relationship with Lucja.  I think it saddened him. He had been a country child, heart and soul, brought up among the trees and flower meadows of this part of Poland, loving dogs and horses, riding almost as soon as he could walk, ski-ing in winter. Reading a great deal.

He adored his father, but at some point in the 1930s, Wladyslaw began an affair with the wife of a local schoolteacher. I think my dad saw this as a betrayal, naturally enough, although he was too young to articulate it properly.

Just on the verge of war, Wladyslaw and Lucja separated, and Lucja took my dad, Julian, back to Lwow. He didn't want to go. I recently found the address among his old papers and looked it up online. The apartments are still there, and seem quite smart. Wladyslaw visited them there as often as he could and as a boy Julian would often travel back to Dziedzilow to spend holidays there. He was always happier in the countryside than in the city. Always happier with his father or with his Aunt Wanda and Uncle Karol and other family members who lived nearby.

Later, more precariously, when the city of Lwow and the house at Dziedzilow were under occupation and his father was in the army and then in a Stalinist prison, Julian would travel back to the village to stay with his beloved nanny. She was a Polish girl married to a Ukrainian so he might have been in extreme danger, but he was never betrayed. Instead, the local Ukrainians sheltered him.

In due course, he would come back to the city with eggs, apples, meat.

More food parcels for Lucja.

A Proper Person to be Detained

My new book is up for pre-order on various sites, including Waterstones so do have a browse - especially if you're interested in all kinds of things, including family history in general, the Irish migrants who fled hunger and privation to become 'hands' in industrial cities, the treatment of women in Victorian Britain, discrimination and poverty, prison conditions, law and order - and murder.

When I began this project a couple of years ago, I didn't intend for it to be quite as relevant as it seems to have become. I simply set out to research and write about a family mystery: who murdered my Irish great great uncle John in Leeds, on Christmas Day in 1881; did the murderer really, as some family members believed, get away with it - and what happened afterwards?

It wasn't simple at all though. It was difficult and complicated and harrowing and tragic, especially for those left behind. I made unexpected discoveries, and sometimes it seemed as though each one was more distressing than the last.

If you love researching your family history, and are the kind of researcher who wants to know more than the bald names and dates - if you are fascinated by the stories that lie beneath the surface - then this is the book for you. I think almost all of us, embarking on this kind of research, will uncover more than we bargained for and often, those discoveries will be profoundly distressing.

This book also stands alone as an exploration of a true crime: what led up to it, how and why the murder came about - and what happened afterwards in terms of justice and imprisonment.

And finally, it is a very personal reflection on the part that migration, poverty and prejudice have played in my personal history: the extraordinary confluence of the varied influences and experiences that have helped to make me what I am today.

Remembering Olenka - The Story of a Friendship

Strawberry Street where Sandra lived.

I've never written about this before but because I've been writing about my childhood in Leeds for my new book, A Proper Person to be Detained, it has become very fresh in my memory. Even though I didn't include it in that book, now, in Easter week, I think the time has come to remember Olenka. This is a long post but it seems like a long story.

When I first knew her, she wasn't Olenka. She was Sandra. Her Polish name was Aleksandra, Olenka for short, but at school she was Sandra Jankowski, just as I was Catherine Lucy Czerkawski. It was only later that we both had the confidence to insist on the female 'a' ending for our respective surnames. I carried on using the English/Irish version of my first names but Sandra became Olenka.

I don't have a picture of her. Not even a school photograph. I wish I had. She was a pretty little girl, with very dark hair and an almost translucent complexion with a rosy spot of colour on her high cheekbones, like a doll. We both had fancy clothes: mine because my mother was a talented seamstress whose sisters worked in tailoring, and Sandra because her mother, Irene, spent all her spare cash - of which there wasn't much - on good clothes for her much loved daughter.

We started school more or less at the same time in 1955. Holy Family Primary School in Armley was a small, very ordinary Roman Catholic school in a not-very-well-off part of Leeds. I don't think we were best friends from the start. My friend at that time was a girl called Christine Danby, but a year or so after we started school, she and her family moved to Drighlington - not too far away, as it turned out, although it could have been Mars for all two six year olds knew about it. Then Sandra arrived. I have a feeling she started school later than I did, but it may have been because there were two 'intakes' at that time, depending on age. While I started in the autumn, Sandra may have started just after Christmas.

Sandra's mother was a widow: Irene (presumably Irena) Jankowski. I never knew what had happened to her father, but only that he had died, possibly as a result of injuries sustained in the war, so Irena was left to bring up Sandra on her own. We were two 'only' children - not lonely, but certainly a little spoilt, precious, and a bit precocious too. Also, we knew that we were Polish and proud of it. In my case, I knew that I was Irish too. And English.

We became friends. Neither of us quite fitted in at school but I think I fared better. I had a strong Leeds Irish mother and a father who was respected (and quite possibly indulged) by the teachers because of his academic prowess coupled with his typically Polish charm. I was seriously asthmatic, and I spent plenty of time at home. There was always somebody to look after me: my grandparents were on hand and my mother helped out in their little sweet shop. It didn't do me any harm. I read avidly and my father taught me the rest. Sandra couldn't skip school. Her mother worked long hours in Armley Mill, and there was nobody else to look after her, so come hell or high water, she had to go, even when she wasn't very well. She had, I think, the reputation for being a 'nervous' child although I didn't find her so. She just wasn't very robust. I was often ill but as strong as a horse.

We spent a great deal of time together, Sandra and I. She lived on Strawberry Street, which sounds prettier than it was. I lived in a tiny two roomed flat on Whitehall Road, next to my grandparents' house, until we moved across the city to a big, chilly, council flat in Bellevue Road. She loved Cliff Richard. I didn't. When we walked down the hill from school past the big cemetery, she would make up stories about the ghosts she had seen there. I half believed her. We shared hopes and dreams.

One of our teachers was notorious for having almost daily tantrums and throwing the furniture - and herself - about, at the risk of her pupils' life and limb. I can still remember the terrible noises, the shrieks and roars that emanated from her classroom. At the end of one school year, just before I was due to go into her class, my dad paid a visit to the school, and - miraculously it seemed to me - I skipped a year and went straight into the next class. Sandra, with no father to fight her corner and a shy, struggling mother, had to face the gorgon. Then my dad got a temporary placement at a scientific research institute in Mill Hill and we moved to be with him. At some point during that year, a rumour from relatives in Leeds reached our ears that quiet, well behaved Sandra had stood up in the middle of the classroom during one of the teacher's all too frequent crazy spells, thrown her books and her chair on the floor, put her hands over her ears, closed her eyes and screamed and screamed and screamed, bringing the other teachers running.

So she moved classes as well, but with far more trauma than me.

When we came back to Leeds, we moved into another chilly flat in Rosemont Road in Bramley to discover that Sandra was living just around the corner in Hough Lane. When we started secondary school, we made the journey to Notre Dame Grammar School, a walk and two bus-rides, together. Irene had remarried a man called Stanislaw Wilk and Sandra had gained a stepfather. Mr Wilk - Mr Wolf in English - was quiet and kindly: a good man who loved his new wife and his stepdaughter and his garden.

We slid back into friendship again. Sandra came on all our expeditions, My dad was keen on expeditions: hill-walking on the moors, blackberry picking, museum visits. We  went to cricket matches at Headingley, and played tennis on the public court in the nearby park. I celebrated various Polish festivals in her house, but most particularly Easter.

Irene Wilk always cooked an Easter feast: feather light yeast cakes with crumble or apple or plum toppings that filled the whole house with their scent, dense and delicious baked cheesecakes, rye bread and frankfurters and sauerkraut, boiled eggs and gherkins and salads of all kinds. There would be pisanki, hand painted eggs that my dad made as well, and the grownups, friends of Irene and Stashek, would drink vodka. These parties were memorably hilarious, warm and foreign, and I loved them.

Sandra and I found ourselves in different classes at Notre Dame which meant that the steady drift apart had  - although we didn't know it or acknowledge it - already begun. I was academic; she was a little less so, but intensely artistic and creative. We both loved to draw and paint and read. Then, when I was twelve, my father, with his new, hard-won PhD in biochemistry, got the offer of a position at a government research institute just outside Ayr. We moved to Scotland and went back to Leeds only a handful of times. Once, in the year following our move, I stayed with the Wilks for a week. It might even have been during the Easter holidays. We wrote to each other, but then the letters stopped.

In the mid seventies, when I was doing my Masters at Leeds University, we met again, just once. Olenka, as she liked to be known now, was living with her boyfriend, while I was still fancy free. She cooked a meal for the three of us. She didn't want to talk about the past at all. We made no arrangements to meet again. I wondered if we even liked each other very much. Now, I chiefly remember how her childish prettiness had turned to a truly exquisite beauty, stunning in its intensity, and how she was planning to pursue an artistic career.

I stayed in touch with her mother, more than with Olenka. Looking back, I can see that Irene loved me very much, but I was young and busy with my life and thoughtlessly selfish. We sent Christmas cards and Easter cards too, in memory of those Easter feasts. I can see Irene now: small, energetic, always cooking or cleaning, always cheerfully, volubly Polish when she was at ease with you as she was always at her ease with me. I've wondered since if she was - at that time anyway - slightly overawed by her own daughter, or perhaps by her daughter's singular beauty.

And then one day, in the early 1980s, I and my partner returned from a weekend away to the dreadful news that Sandra had died, taken ill, quite suddenly, with a bleed on her brain. Worse, her mother and stepfather had been away too, on a long anticipated trip back to Poland. Her funeral was the first I had ever been to involving somebody so young, a contemporary. She had been my first close friendship.

Irene and Stashek are long gone, although somewhere in my box of Easter decorations, painted eggs, fluffy chicks, there are one or two Polish Easter cards with greetings in Irene's familiar, spidery handwriting. Mr Wilk died first, leaving her alone. One year, there was no card from Irene. There was nobody left to tell me what had happened to her.  Their house is still there. I've walked past it, virtually, on Google Maps and given myself a frisson of sadness.

I find myself wondering if, had Olenka still been alive, we might have reconnected on Facebook, shared notes and lives, remembered the terrible teacher, or the expeditions to Bolton Abbey, the cricket matches, the clumsy, giggling tennis, the picnics at Adel Crag and Ilkley, the bonfire nights with parkin pigs and treacle toffee  - or Mrs Wilk's spectacular Easter feasts that every year I think of replicating - and every year, without fail, find that I can't.

Sitting on top of my piano, the piano I've had since I was thirteen years old, is a small, nicely modelled plaster head of a young girl, with her long, thick hair in plaits. It was the last gift Sandra gave me. Before I left Leeds, we were old enough to spend time painting our nails and experimenting with face packs. We pretended to be grown up, but we were still little girls. On Saturdays, we would sometimes go into Leeds, to the shops, more often than not with our parents or my aunts, but we were allowed to browse the shopping arcades by ourselves. Sandra always had plans for the things she was going to buy. She would save up her pocket money, although I think her mother and stepfather would give her whatever she asked for. One Christmas or birthday, when I was eleven or twelve years old, this figurine was her gift to me.

'I bought it because it looks like you,' she said.

And it did.

I've treasured it ever since. I still play the piano and whenever I look up and see this young girl with her plaits, I remember Sandra - Olenka - and the story of our friendship.


New Book News: A Proper Person to be Detained.

Me and my nana
There comes a moment in the gestation period of any new book when you see the text in its typeset form, and you think 'now it really looks like a book!' That happened to me a couple of weeks ago, when the first typeset draft of A Proper Person to be Detained dropped into my inbox. All this happens in digital form, of course, and this was still only text. There are some pictures, family tree charts and, most important of all, a cover, still to be decided upon. Nevertheless, it feels as though it really exists now.

The book is a true crime story that begins with a murder, but I hope and believe it's so much more than that. On Christmas night in 1881, John Manley, a poor son of Irish immigrants living in the slums of Leeds, was fatally stabbed in a foolish, drunken quarrel. John was my nana's uncle. That's her, holding me in the picture above. It's exactly as I remember her, plump and soft, with her hair always held back with a tortoiseshell slide, and wearing one of the fresh gingham pinafores she made for herself. She had never known John. He had died at the age of twenty one, some years before she was born. But she had certainly known about him. He was never forgotten. Stories were told about the murder in my family and I had always been intrigued, always wanted to know more.

I had no idea, when I set out on the search for the truth about the murder and its aftermath, just what a sad and harrowing story it would turn out to be. Because there were other victims in all this, not least the women in the family. Like so many people researching their family history, I uncovered a whole lot more than I bargained for. If I had known in advance how tragic, how terrible some of that story would turn out to be, I might have turned to a less harrowing project. But something urged me on, some need to give voice to people so often maligned by the society in which they found themselves - and still to a large extent maligned today.

It's a tale of poverty, tragedy and injustice, but also one of resilience, and changing fortunes. Publication is due in early July. Watch this space!

A Little Pre-Christmas Ghost Story

Last month, I wrote a short post about my new book: A Proper Person to be Detained. After that, I plunged back into more revisions and time consuming fact checking. A genealogist friend has given me more help than I deserve - bless her - and I don't think I could have undertaken this project without her. The book is the true story of a murder and its aftermath, as well as a complicated tapestry of a part of my own family history, the Irish part, about which - before I embarked on this book - I confess I knew very little.

Now I know a lot more. Sometimes, over the past year, it has struck me that I know rather more than is good for me, because it has turned out to be a harrowing tale. But then every family has a harrowing tale or two, somewhere in its past.

The last couple of months have been taken up by ordering yet more PDF birth and death certificates from the General Register Office (I might as well have mortgaged my house to them when I add up how much I've spent there) and browsing Ancestry, trying to solve mysteries, some of which have remained tantalisingly insoluble to this day. In November and early December, and with the book written and more or less edited, but with questions still remaining, I spent some time surrounded by dozens of bits of paper, trying to piece together the final jigsaw puzzle of fact, error and speculation. The mark of a great editor is not that they try to change your style or rewrite  - it's that they have the knack of asking exactly the right difficult questions! I have a great editor.

One thing you learn very quickly when undertaking research of this kind is just how many of the online details are wrong. You learn to take nothing for granted. People make assumptions based on what they think they know about the past. Once you realise that they have made wrong assumptions about people whose details you know well from memory and acquaintance, you learn to treat a great many other supposed 'facts' with a certain amount of scepticism. Often the simplest explanation will be the true one - but not always. There is as much misinformation as information out there.

But I promised you a little pre-Christmas ghost story, didn't I?

So here it is. When you're writing something as immersive, as personal as this book turned out to be, you become so absorbed in the world you're exploring that it can be hard to escape. And just occasionally, something strange happens, something seems to intrude from that world into your everyday life, rather as though you had conjured it. Just as a few weeks ago, something like this happened to me.

In the picture above, to the right of the man with the beard and the tar barrel, sits my great grandfather, James Flynn, sometimes known as Michael. He's the one with the moustache. He was born in Ballinlough in County Roscommon. One census record says he was born in Liverpool, but as soon as he is allowed to write his own details onto the form, he is very precise about his place of birth, as were the rest of the family, who spoke of his strong Irish accent, and the fact that he had come over to Leeds as a road builder. In fact, he was a paviour, quite a skilled job.

I never knew him, but everyone who had known and loved him described him as a kind and generous man. He had his faults, but he was certainly a good man. I wrote about him, and about the role he played in my great grandmother's life. And as I wrote about him, he became very real indeed to me.

I was, of all places, in a supermarket car park. It was a fine day for once, and the low winter sun was shining full in my eyes and dazzling me as I headed towards the shop, when I felt somebody tugging gently at my arm.
'Madam, madam,' he said, 'Can I trouble you for a moment?' and the soft Irish accent was unmistakable. I peered at him through the halo of light, and a thin, kindly face, smiled at me. Surprised, I had stopped in the roadway, and again very gently, he ushered me onto the pavement. 'I was wondering,' he said. 'If you might be able to give me a little money to buy some breakfast. I really am very hungry, and nobody back there ...' he glanced towards the shop front 'will help me.'
He looked quite hungry. And he looked - well, he looked dusty. Dusty all over. Not dirty or unclean, just muddy. A working man in working boots. 'You see,' he said, as though it explained everything, 'I've come from Ireland.'
'Yes,' I said. 'Yes, I can hear that.'
I gave him a fiver for his breakfast - it was all I had in my purse at the time - and he said 'God bless you, madam, God bless you,' and raised a hand to me and walked off across the car park.

When I looked back, he had gone.

Coincidence, of course. All coincidence, the more prosaic among you will think. And so do I, in a way. But it shook me. I walked into the shop, feeling the tears starting behind my eyes. I kept wanting to tell somebody about it. I did my shopping in a dream and for all kinds of inexplicable reasons felt both sad and happy about the encounter all the way home.

Long Silence = New Project

Me with the BIG bow in New Wortley, Leeds in the 1950s

I must apologise for the long silence, but my excuse is that I've been working on a new book, and it has proved to be so tricky, so time consuming, so all encompassing, that I haven't been able to think, let alone write about anything else for a long time. Now, my editor has said that she likes it very much and my publisher has started to speak about publication dates next year, even though I know that there is more work to do. But it means that I can begin to speak about it, and to wonder exactly what it is that I have created.

It will be called, I think, A Proper Person to be Detained, and it began with a murder that happened in my family, in Leeds, in 1881. I had always known about it, but only in the most general terms: a family story. 'Your great great Uncle John was stabbed in the street, in Leeds, at Christmas.' That was where I started, but not at all where I finished, because John's story led to a great many other revelations about the plight of 19th century Irish migrants in the industrial North of England, and elsewhere. It also involved the tragic story of what happened to John's younger sister, Elizabeth. 

It was a little like trying to do a vast jigsaw puzzle, without benefit of any picture to guide me, and - as it turned out - no edge pieces at all. Then when the picture emerged, it was heartrending and sad beyond belief. This is the most difficult, most harrowing, most alarming piece of writing I have ever done. But it was also oddly heartening. I began to admire that side of my family, especially the women of my family, more than ever. We survived. 

There will be more about all this as soon as I'm on top of edits and tweaks and all the other bits and pieces involved in publishing a book, especially a piece of non-fiction like this, which is still a long process. 

Quite apart from the sadness involved - and sometimes the story felt just plain unbearable - it made me angry.  Although it's good to be angry, if it prompts you to recognise rank injustice where you find it; if it leads you to you try to tell untold stories like this one. 

More about all this in due course. 

A Yorkshire Childhood Word

My nana, Mr Tubby Bear, myself and Frisky the cat.
Today, I found myself reading a piece in the Guardian about a somewhat curmudgeonly bookseller in North Yorkshire, who charges people to browse in his shop. Oddly enough, it made me think of my grandfather. 

My nana and grandad lived in central Leeds. Next to their tall, narrow old house, they had a sweet and tobacconist's shop and my grandad had his own fishing tackle shop alongside it. Neither of these were what you might call large enterprises, but they kept the wolf from the door. I used to sit with grandad in there, watching him work, and no doubt distracting him, although he never once complained. We were a mutual admiration society of two. I loved him to bits and could wrap him around my little finger.

My Polish immigrant dad was working in a mill as a textile presser and studying at night school so that he could go on to get his degree, so the three of us, my parents and I, lived in a tiny two roomed flat above the shops. Money was very tight, although I can't say I ever noticed it, never went hungry, never went without anything I really needed. 

I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, my aunt, who lived with them and, of course, my mum, who worked in the sweet shop.

But the thing that struck me most, reading about the Yorkshire bookseller, was that my dear grandad would have been perfectly capable of behaving in that way, because he could be - as we would have called it at the time - maungy. 

Until that moment, I'd forgotten all about the word and it astonishes me because it was used quite frequently in my little world. 'Don't be maungy!' or 'She's maungy. She must be tired.' Along with the term 'past herself'. 'She's all maungy. She's past herself.' 

It means stroppy, moody, generally fed up. When you're past yourself you're tired out and consequently quite likely to be maungy. Most children are. 

Grandad Joe, much as I adored him, could be maungy on his own behalf. I never saw it. He was never maungy with me, which was - so I was told, many years later - a source of great wonder to his own children, who had occasionally seen the maungy side of him. 

Somewhere, there's a picture of him. I've been hunting for it, but I can't find it. When I do, I'll post another piece about him. Meanwhile, there's me and my nana up at the top - and my dad, my mum and me below. These pictures look so 'historical' that they make me feel a wee bit old! Nice to remember though. 

Needing My Fix of Wuthering Heights

Top Withens, the site, if not the building, that inspired Wuthering Heights.

Every so often, I find myself needing to reread  Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights all over again. I love this novel so much. Something reminded me about it today and (having read several paperback copies to bits over the years) I've just transferred the file to the newer of my Kindles. I don't know why but from time to time, these days, I also find myself acutely, almost painfully homesick for Yorkshire - but I think it's the Yorkshire of my childhood and that's a hard place to visit! 

I was born in Leeds. When I was young, we used to visit Haworth - my parents and myself - and we would walk over the moors to the already derelict farmhouse called Top Withens, said to be the site - if not the actual building - of Wuthering Heights. This was my mother's favourite novel as well and the reason why she chose to call me Catherine which isn't a family name at all. In fact family legend has it that my parents trundled me over the moors in a baby buggy, before I could walk and there is an old black and white snapshot to prove it. 

Ponden Hall  - much quoted as the model for Thrushcross Grange - is actually much closer to the appearance of the Heights, albeit not its situation. Browsing online today, I was enchanted to discover that you can stay there for Bed and Breakfast and they have an Earnshaw Room with - oh joy! - a box bed like Cathy's. 

I now want to go and stay there so much that it hurts. 
We'll see what this year brings. 

Here I am, right in the middle of a deeply Scottish writing project and I can feel my Yorkshire roots tugging at me, reminding me of something else I'm longing to write. Isn't that always the way of it? 

But really, Wuthering Heights has influenced so much of my writing - not least in my Scottish novel Bird of Passage which was always intended, not as a rewriting, for that would be impossible and undesirable, but a reimagining,  a 'homage' to the original if you like. 

One reviewer, Susan Price, describes it as a dialogue with the older book, and I like that idea very much. Sometimes it feels as though I've spent my whole career in a kind of dialogue with Wuthering Heights, never quite getting to the end of it as a source of inspiration. 

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Amazon (Part 1 - Early Years)

Catherine in Blue Organdie
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to do a talk loosely themed on 'how I got to where I am now'. Quite apart from the fact that I'm not quite sure where I am now, the actual exercise of looking back over all these years of writing, producing and publishing was a salutary experience. The wonder of it is that I'm still here, still writing. Clearly, it's an obsession. I can hardly remember a time when I wasn't writing, and I definitely can't remember a time when I wasn't happier making up stories than living in the real world.

 I was severely asthmatic as a child. Books, radio and the power of my own imagination were my salvation back then. I've looked at my old school reports and it's clear that I spent far less time at my primary school than I ever did at home. Those were the days when you were kept at home with asthma. The available medication was ineffective and had unpleasant side effects. We lived next door to my grandparents and my mother helped out in their tiny sweet and tobacconist's shop in smoky Holbeck, not far from the centre of Leeds, so there was always somebody to look after me: my mum, my aunt, my nana or my beloved grandad.
Aunt Vera, Dad, Mum and Me
As well as the asthma, I had a string of other illnesses, one after another it seemed: whooping cough, mumps, serious measles, influenza. (I'd like to give them all to the milkman's horse, instead of you, my grandad used to say, only half in jest.) The world of make believe was so vivid, so enticing, that it became a place of retreat for me from the miseries of sickness. Actually, if I'm honest, I hardly remember being ill at all, although I have vague memories of the sense of 'unease' which was always the preliminary to some nasty affliction or other. I do remember struggling to breathe, the hideous, concentrated panic of it. And being delirious, and seeing, quite literally seeing, dark horsemen galloping across the foot of my bed. But I also remember the pleasure of being at home, of beginning to feel better, of being free to listen to the radio and read my books and play complicated and inventive games with my toys. I remember the time my Polish father spent with me, lots of time, even though he was working by day and studying by night. But he always seemed to have time to tell me stories, and draw with me and read to me and make things for me.

Then, when I was twelve, we moved to Scotland where dad had secured a new job in a scientific research institute, and everything changed - except my need for make believe. Nothing in my life till then had prepared me for the cruelty inflicted on an awkward, ugly duckling of an English thirteen year old by her Scottish schoolmates. One with glasses and a Yorkshire accent at that. I didn't help myself much, it's true. I was naive, shy and desperately homesick for Leeds. I suffered two years of misery, leavened only by the bright beacons of vacation in a sea of educational despond. None of it was physical. They just froze me out.They mocked my accent, they mocked the way I looked, they sniggered and passed clever, insulting remarks just loud enough for me to hear them, while I stood like a rabbit, caught in the headlights of their self satisfaction, and all the time, as bullied children will, I blamed myself and told nobody. Afterwards, as an adult, I thought what hell it must be to be a bullied child in a boarding school. At least I got to go home at nights. Sanctuary. Not that I told anyone at home what was happening at school. I used to pray for the illness I had suffered when I was younger, but on the whole, I could breathe more easily in Scotland.

I did very well academically. The classroom was another, lesser refuge. I can remember wishing that we had no break times at all. I spent even more time living inside my head, and I began to write poetry. Things improved during my third year in Scotland and when we all changed schools for our final two years and travelled out of town by train each day. I was beginning to find my place, lose weight, make a few friends, although I was always aware that I didn't quite fit in and possibly never would.

I was still writing. And starting to be known and acknowledged within the school community as the girl who wrote stuff. Then, in spite of a longish spell in hospital with another severe bout of asthma when I was sixteen,  (during which I had a couple of only-half-joking proposals of marriage from two kindly young male nurses from Mauritius!) I managed to get a place at university and set off for Edinburgh where, once again, everything changed. For the better this time.

Next week: Poets and Parties and Protests: Edinburgh in the Seventies.

Eliza Marshall's Tale - For National Short Story Week

We first moved to Scotland when I was twelve years old and - although I've travelled about a bit - I've considered it my home ever since. Much of what I write is set in Scotland. But recently, I've begun to want to go back to my Yorkshire roots. Memories of Leeds are tugging at me, especially the place where I spent the first seven years of my life, industrial Holbeck, demanding to be explored and examined. Next year, therefore, I plan to write Yorkshire Girl,  a very personal memoir of what it was like growing up in Leeds back then. It's something I've tinkered with and thought about for a long time, but now it's positively demanding to be written! Meanwhile, for National Short Story Week, I'm posting a short piece of 'made up truth'. Poor Eliza Marshall gave her testimony to the Factory Commission in 1832 and you'll find her true story here on the wonderful Leodis website. Eliza's story is heartrending. I took some of her words and shaped them into a monologue with a Yorkshire accent. I remember Marshall's Mill from when I was a little girl. Even then, it seemed to be a strange place, one set apart from the clearly industrial buildings round about.

Cellar Dwelling
My name is Eliza, Eliza Marshall, and I live in Bayton Street. We live in a cellar. I pay a shilling a week for it. Nobody lives with us. Not now. What do I do? I do nothing and no, I have no mother. I live with my little sisters. There’s three of us. The youngest is going fifteen. The other’s sixteen. I’m turned eighteen. It’s cold, even in summer. There’s a range when we can get coal but we can’t always afford it. Sometimes we get given a bit. If the neighbours have owt to spare. Damp runs down walls. You can’t keep owt. It all goes black. And there’s bedbugs.  They smell quite nice. I don’t like them. No. But you can squash them if you catch them. What you must do is scrub beds down with paraffin and water, but they get into blankets and there’s nowt you can do about that. My sisters work. They’re spinners an all. I have two and six a week from town. That pays rent and a bit more but I can’t go out to work. Not now.
Yard off Meadow Lane
I were born in Doncaster. I were nine when we came to Leeds. We’d no father so we all had to work one way and another.  Later, we’d a stepfather but he were a great big waste of space. Great big lump of a waste of space. He’d take money and drink it. We lived on Meadow Lane first and I worked at Marshalls. Same name as me. That big mill with great pillars outside.  I thought I were going to church first day it were that strange. Like a palace or something. Then I went to Burgess’s in Lady Lane. That were where I learned to spin.        
I worked from six in morning till seven at night. There were a knocker upper went down street but you’d to pay him a penny a week so we didn’t always do it. Besides, everyone else in house were running up and down stairs so you’d hear them anyway. Nobody slept in. I got three shillings a week and then three and six. After a bit  Mr Warburton took over. I were a good worker so he set me on to doing five to nine. Five in morning till nine at night. You got half an hour for your dinner which you brought with you and heated up. And you knocked off at five on Saturdays. That were good.
Workers in Marshall's Mill
I weren’t lame then. I had my strength very well while we worked from six to seven. I had my health very well till I took from five to nine.  My sister were well an all. She began to fail when we began long hours. I were just turned ten when I began long hours She were turned nine. I tried to leave. I were like killed wi it. My legs were like to break in two. It were work and hours together and always having to stop  flyers wi your knees. It were having to crook your knees to stop flying shuttle as much as owt else. It were heavy and it went that fast and it clattered against your legs and you couldn’t rest.    
Marshall's Mill
Our mother tried to find work for us at Wilkinsons. Wilkinsons were better.But Warburton said I must come back and work for him. I asked Wilkinson what I should do and he said I should go an all. I didn’t know but they were hand in glove at that time. He said Warburton weren’t happy to lose a good worker and he were right. So Warburton asked for me and Wilkinson made me go. What could I do?
It were after I went back that he knocked me down. Warburton. He hadn’t struck me since I were little. He strapped me many a time then. It were a common thing for him to beat hands then. I’d been glad to get away from him. But not long after I went back, he came in and he were that vexed with me for having left him that he just walked up to me and hit me with flat of his hand and sent me flying against my machine. I slid down onto floor and lay there looking up at him. I couldn’t think. He knocked thoughts clean out of my head and I don’t think I've been same since. Mind you I were that weak I were soon knocked down.
I were about eleven when I started to go lame. By the time I were seventeen I couldn’t work in factory. It were just as well because my mother were ill by then. She got  very ill and I had to mind her. When she died my stepfather walked out and left us to fend for ourselves. He said we weren't his and that were true enough.
Timble Bridge
I used to go to Sunday school so I could read a bit. I were learning to write and I could sew. When I couldn’t work in factory any more I thought maybe I could be a dressmaker. I went to Mrs Darley of Timble Bridge to learn. Where that tall house is, near bridge end.  But then my mother fell ill so I had to give that up. And then I were very poorly myself. I’ve never been able to go backwards and forwards since.
The iron is so heavy. It supports me so that I can stand up but I don’t feel any stronger. Sometimes I’m a bit better and then again another day, I can hardly stir.
My sister says we should move closer to Timble Bridge so that I can start sewing again. There's money in sewing. But lessons cost half a guinea a year and besides  I don’t want to move. We’ve lived here seven year. We have friends here to help us if we need them. If my sisters need them. I shouldn’t like to leave them. Where would you be without your friends? No. I shouldn’t like to leave them behind.

If you would like to read more short stories, I have a couple of small collections available on Kindle
A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture 
Stained Glass.

Oven Bottom Cakes. Family Secrets, My Irish Nana and Me

The Irish Famine by George Frederick Watts
I recently spent some time rewriting the blurb for Bird of Passage before a forthcoming free promotion (16th, 17th and 18th August). It's one of the big advantages of Kindle publishing that you can go back and refine something in the light of reviews, reader feedback, or just general intuition. The novel is set in Scotland, but it's probably the most Irish thing I've ever written, with the exception of a sad little story called Civil Rights, first published in the Edinburgh Review some years ago, and scheduled for another airing during the Edinburgh eBook Festival. 

I was born in Leeds, and my nana was Irish. Her name was Honora Flynn. Anne Honora, to be precise, although everyone called her Nora. Her father, James Flynn, was registered in Liverpool although later records mention Ireland as the place of his birth - maybe he was just off the ferry! - in 1856 or thereabouts which means that the migration of the family was probably related to the after effects of the Irish famine. 

Family tradition puts their place of origin as Ballyhaunis in Mayo and Flynn is certainly a Mayo name. By 1887, though, James was living in Leeds. He was a 'paviour' as the records state - which means he built roads. At the age of thirty, he married one Mary Terran or Terens who was a widow with children. His father Timothy was dead by then, but the marriage was witnessed by Charles and Mary Flynn, (his brother and sister?) who couldn't write, so marked their names with an 'X'. My nana, Anne Honora was born the year before their marriage, but it's a fairly safe assumption that she was Mary Terran and James Flynn's child. They went on to have more children, Timothy, Michael and Thomas. 

Later, my nana met my auburn haired grandad, Joe Sunter, in Holbeck, in Leeds, but at some point, she went to Canada looking for work and a new life. She didn't find it and sailed back again, to find that Joe was home from a trip to Singapore with the Merchant Navy. They were married not long after and had five children of whom my mother, Kathleen Irene, was the youngest. 

My grandad's family had been dalesmen - of Norse descent in all probability - from the upper reaches of Swaledale, lead miners turned coal dealers and farriers, and they were staunch Methodists. My nana's family were Irish Catholics and there was always a certain Irish element to my upbringing. I think the Catholic Church is a bit like Hotel California in the song - you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. I went to a small Catholic school, although we weren't what you might call 'red hot' in our religious observance. But when, at the age of 16, I first went to Ireland, working for a family in West Cork, looking after their children for the summer, it felt strangely familiar. 

The extended family, two sisters, with their husbands and assorted children, were renting an apartment in a big, beautiful, tumbledown house. It was a farmhouse but it must once have belonged to some minor Anglo Irish gentry before the 'troubles' changed everything. There was a dusty ballroom, an overgrown fountain in the garden, and a fearsome sow who would come galloping through the undergrowth in pursuit of strangers. The big holiday apartment had once been the servants quarters and the mice partied in the attics all night long. I was one of two nannies, temporary nursemaids, mother's helps, whatever we were. I looked after eighteen month old triplets and three older children by day,but at night, when they were mercifully in bed, the other nanny and myself went dancing in the nearby villages escorted by various local boys. I fell in love, just a little bit, and walked back down the long drive in the moonlight with a good looking boy called Paddy (what else?) who kissed me beneath the damp buddleias. I can never smell that honey scent now without remembering it. 

Later, I worked in Dublin too and everything about that time and place fed into the fiction which would come after. But much as I loved Ireland - much as I still love the place and its people - I didn't realise until years later that the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries and the cruelty of the Industrial Schools was still going on, even while I had been innocently holding hands with Paddy on that moonlit lane. Which is a chilling thought, even now.

Tattie Howkers
Tied up with all that is the story of what happened to my beloved nana, and how we - my elderly aunt and I, because my own mother was dead by that time - came to find out something about Nora which she had kept secret her whole life - which she had taken with her to her grave. Nobody knew, until much later when somebody, ferreting through official records, found it out. Later still, I wondered if that had been why Anne Honora had decided to leave for Canada. Maybe she felt that she had no more to lose. But she had come back and married my grandfather anyway. 

I wrote about it when those most closely concerned with it were dead even my dear aunt, who had been deeply upset by it. I wrote the poem below, Oven Bottom Cakes, before ever I wrote Bird of Passage. But although it's quite different, and Anne Honora's story is nothing like Finn and Kirsty's story - I still feel those little connections and inspirations, nipping away at me like midges on a summer night. For Bird of Passage is a story about secrets and lies, about concealment and shame as well. 

And I think the inspiration for these two quite different pieces of work must come from the same beloved place. 


My Irish nana made oven bottom cakes
with the last of the dough,
furiously working the elastic on
cold marble, her hair thrust back
like a schoolgirl’s with a clip.
I see her print pinafore and her body
flex as she presses her thumb into
the middle of each cake then
leans across the rag rug to throw
deft flour into the oven to judge
if the temperature is right.

On a February morning in smoky Leeds
in 1910 my nana, a shirt maker,
gave birth to twin girls Gladys and Ethel.
She named no father and they died within days.
Later, she told nobody.
They were erased from our story
as surely as if they had never lived
until years after her death when
some  remote cousin gleefully
excavating the family tree,
sniffed them out and spilt the beans.

Toddling, I would nap with her
in the afternoons and she would
push me out of her bed for
fidgetting, my soft breasted nan.
Did she see in me those
babies she had buried?
My nana baked bread for me.
How she loved to feed me good things,
made oven bottom cakes and we’d
eat them with the best butter
and blackberry jam that
nipped your teeth with seeds.

Catherine Czerkawska.