A little slice of immortality

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Good news always makes a day go with a swing, puts a smile on your face, a bounce in your step. Makes your fingers dance on the keyboard. My good news this morning is that one of my short stories, Bowler and bunnet, felt and fascinator, has been shortlisted for the H G Wells Short Story Competition, the theme of which was class (to be interpreted as you wanted). http://hgwellscompetition.com/2015/09/21/junior-and-senior-category-competition-shortlists/comment-page-1/#comment-430

So happy to have achieved this as my story will now be published in their anthology. Whee!

Now class to someone in Scotland, and the rest of the UK, could mean a story about manual workers and landowners, or unemployed and politicians – plenty material there for creativity. But no, what I decided to write about was hats. Why? Well hats were a giveaway about a person’s class – still are in some ways. Think of the Ascot races or royal garden parties, the plumage on show; the old films of people stomping to work in shipyards or factories, caps on heads; top-hatted politicians striking a pose; head-scarfed women shopping for essentials.

Cold heads, warm hearts

Lots of bunnets here – my grandfather is one of them. There is however one bowler hat, lying on the plank Probably the shop steward.

Memories and images of family and strangers churn around my mind, providing a store for me to draw on when writing, though it has taken a while and some elbow grease for me to realise how I could tap into it. My past and experiences have provided me with the acorns, the kernels of ideas, quite a few recently. My new book Any news from India? is very loosely based, for era and material though not for personalities or personal events) on the stay of an aunt and uncle in end of Raj India from the nineteen thirties until after Indian independence in 1948.

Any News from India_front cover

Years ago, when helping my parents clear my aunt’s house, we held bags of family history in our hands as it was bundled up to throw out. Thankfully my husband had the forethought to keep some letters and other material. It lay hidden in a drawer for years until one day it hit me that I could use the material as the setting for a novel, or, as it turned out, part of a novel.

Sealed with a blob of red wax

Ah, sealing wax! Not something seen on letters nowadays.

I dug out letters, old passports (British and British Indian), a map stamped with the name of the company my uncle worked for, a track chart showing their route, and a map of the Nagpur railway in the days before Pakistan and Bangladesh were even thought of, air routes drawn in blue pencil. Postcards of boats told me the vessels sailed on, each with their own fascinating history, all built on the Clyde or the Tyne. A menu for a fairly lavish (by immediate post war standards) landfall dinner on their final trip home, must have caused a few mouths to drool as Scotland still survived on meagre choice and limited quantity under rationing.

All in white, like a bride

Franconia, one of the ships travelled on. The kind of ship I like, think of as a real ship, not a floating city like the liners of today.

My uncle’s only reference to his years in India was the use of a few Indian English words – tiffin (lunch or afternoon tea, or picnic), punkawallah (ceiling fan operator), dhurrie (flat-woven rug), and the tiger and leopard rugs with bared teeth, glassy-eyed heads and moulting claws that lay on the floors of their house. This aspect of his time there is captured in a few small photographs of hunting party with bounty. With the rise of more politically and ethically aware attitudes to hunting, my aunt latterly insisted big cats were only killed if they had attacked, for once they had tasted human blood they would attack again. Rarely did my uncle talk of his work, so it was fascinating for me to winkle out what information I could in my researches.

These boots were made for…

No idea why I keep these – my aunt had small feet, UK size 3. Somewhere a leopard skin coat lurks, though we sold the tiger rug many years ago. Looking at the moulting skin and glassy eyes was too much. I suppose I keep them as they are a link to a member of my family, part of my history.

A tiger entering the bedroom when she was confined to bed with malaria, and a scorpion bite – those were the two stories I remember of my aunt’s time living in a bungalow miles from another European woman. She remembered trips to a convent where nuns taught young girls how to sew, and where my aunt bought embroidered cotton lawn nightgowns, all pure white. And I already knew from photographs of the silver-studded pale blue sari she brought home to be made into my mother’s wedding dress.

She never spoke of the fear that must occasionally have stalked her, the loneliness, the feeling of exclusion from a society she knew little about. In 1930s Scotland there was little opportunity to learn of life in India, or anywhere else, so she must have travelled knowing only what my uncle had told her of his previous years there.

Why do we wait until answers to questions are impossible before wanting to ask them? When young, I could have asked my aunt and uncle at any time to tell me more of their stay in India, to describe the smells, food, scenery around their bungalow, her impressions of what was Calcutta and is now Kolkata, their journeys across the continent, life on board ship, Ghandi. So many questions but only a few mementos and the internet to provide answers.

Des res

The bungalow where my aunt and uncle stayed, somewhere near Birmitrapur in Orissa state.

So using what I had and what I could find out, I stitched together a story of a couple, Bethida and Johnie, who bear only a glancing resemblance to my relatives, bringing in other characters who also discover how little they know of loved ones, bemoaning questions unasked, along with Aitken who is bereft at having to sell his family home in the Scottish Borders. Far from being unaware of his family history, Aitken can recite it, revels in it and feels Berefield his family home encapsulates the essence of his being. Selling Berefield is like tearing himself apart.

So Any news from India? is about identity, family, choices, what makes us who we are. It’s a journey I’ve taken myself in researching bits of my family tree, in writing novels and stories, drawing on things that have meaning for me, things remembered, things important. And I suppose as you get older it’s good to remember what you have done and those who surrounded and encouraged you, giving all a little slice of immortality.

A bit scruffy, though it is an end of Raj souvenir.

My family history, part of what makes me the person I am. Any news from India? is a novel that asks what makes people who they are.

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About jingsandthings

I am me. What do I like? Colour Shapes Textures Paintings, photographs, sculptures, woven tapestries, wonderful materials. The love of materials probably comes from my father who was a textile buyer, and I grew up hearing the names of mills and manufacturers which sounded magical and enticing. Glass in all its soft and vibrant colours and flowing shapes, even sixties glass which makes its own proud statement. A book I can immerse myself in. Meals with family or friends with lots of chat and laughter (and probably a bottle or two of wine). The occasional trip abroad to experience the sights, sounds, food, conversation, quality of light and warmth of other countries. To revel in differences and be amazed by similarities. I like to create and to experience, to try and to achieve. And then there are words – read, heard, written at my keyboard, or scrawled on sticky notes, or along the edges of dog-eared supermarket receipts excavated from the unexplored nooks of my handbag. What do I dislike? Cold Snow Bad design Fast food Condescension
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10 Responses to A little slice of immortality

  1. lenathehyena says:

    The unexpected revealed of lives close to us but hidden over time. Family homes can be real treasure chests as I have discovered. What an exciting find! Piecing together an impression of past lives from papers and objects and photographs is fascinating.

    Congratulations on the short story and the very best of luck with the new book. I’ll be checking them both out.

  2. Thank you so much. One of the great things about keeping such material is what you can find out about people and places you knew little about. Respect for my relatives grew when I sat down and considered what they might have faced. Lots of people have done really interesting things but often they don’t speak of them and by the time you find out it’s too late to ask for more information.

  3. Chris says:

    Congratulations! That’s wonderful news about your story. And the book sounds fascinating. I know what you mean about waiting to ask questions until it’s too late. Have been trying, with limited success, to collect my father’s stories.
    Don’t ever give away those shoes.

    • Thank you, Chris. A little bit of success really boost confidence and lifts spirits.
      Do persevere with your father’s stories. It’s so important the past is remembered from personal viewpoints as well as from the opinions of historians. And it’s so good to be able to draw on these memories when writing. As for the shoes…well, I like having mementos of family around me so they’ll probably continue to gather dust for a while.

      • Chris says:

        I agree. The personal viewpoints are so important. They tell us so much more than what is cherry-picked for inclusion in the big books of history. They also are the gems that those historians hunt for when they delve into a forgotten bit of the past. Plus, unless a family is famous, the stories of the generations of the past will be lost–Most people know very little about their great-grandparents’ day-to-day lives. Diaries get thrown out, no one remembers all the stories behind knick-knacks passed down, or even keeps all the knick-knacks (who has the space?).

  4. Sheila says:

    Congratulations on the short story and the book! That must have been fun to imagine all the details of their adventures in India. It’s a great way to feel closer to family members too.

  5. Many congratulations on your good news! I think our own history is such a great place to start writing from – it can be so evocative in comparison to more impersonal stuff. Having said that, I confess to getting some ideas from Who Do You Think You Are sometimes…

    • Thank you, Tara. Who Do You Think You Are would be a fruitful place for ideas. Must start watching again. Gave up ages ago as I didn’t recognise the ‘celebs’, but if I ignore that and regard it as research then it could be useful.

  6. carol1945 says:

    Dorothy, I just ordered your book from Amazon. Also, I found the book about Fanny Stevenson that you mentioned, so I want to read that as well. Congratulations on everything!!!

    • Thank you so much for buying my book, Carol.

      I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book on Fanny Stevenson. She had a house in San Francisco that survived the 1905 earthquake, and she was a patron of the arts. She became a very wealthy woman, and her daughter followed in her footsteps. Fanny always got a bad press here where she was viewed as something of a gold-digger despite RLS’s mother and father accepting her. Some jealousy and hurt egos amongst his literary friends, I think.

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