Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Adventures Continue!

At a YHA hostel somewhere in Lancashire
At the age of 22, after a series of disastrous relationships, it looked like I was going to be ‘left on the shelf’. At that age it was expected that you’d be either married or at least seriously courting.  All my friends were either married or nearly so, all the men I met were either married or seriously courting and I was desperately lonely.

Following the advice of all the best agony aunts, I joined a youth hostelling group, going with them on rambles or walking weekends. It was all right, I suppose, but I was never the athletic type. I was more interested in meeting people, girls as well as boys, enjoying the evenings spent in the pub more than the actual walking. I remember once a crowd of us going up to the Pendle Hill (of witch fame) area for the weekend and being desperately tired after hiking about 20 miles on the Saturday, spending much of the Sunday in the pub and catching the bus home. The group later decided to get more involved in rock climbing which didn’t appeal to me at all so gradually I stopped going. The following summer, I learned that one of the girls had fallen to her death in Snowdonia.

I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with my life, yearning always for some indefinable thing beyond my reach. Then, out of the blue, in the early summer of 1961, an opportunity arose to do something completely different. My parents were, by this time, working at the HQ of a local packaging company, Mum as a cook for the directors, Dad as a chauffeur taking directors and visitors to and from the station. One of the directors asked Dad if he would drive his Bentley to Cannes, while he flew, so that he could drive the car while he was there. The director would pay for Mum and my brother Mark, then 8-years-old, to go along. Somewhat diffidently, Dad asked if it was possible for me to go along too and they would pay for me. He agreed and wonderfully, marvellously, unbelievably, we were off to France for two weeks in a Bentley.

No words could ever describe my feelings on that holiday, the way it changed my life, but I’ll try. Having grown up with a chauffeur for a father, I was used to riding in luxury cars but none of us were prepared for the deference with which we were treated on the way. We flew from Lydd Airport, Kent, and drove down to the South of France in a leisurely manner, calling at various hotels on the way. I can still remember our stopovers. Abbeville, where they spoke beautiful English, and Maçon, where they didn’t and I had to practice my now rusty school French. We were so shocked, too, that the French showed no scruples, men or women, about urinating at the side of the road. One man was even eating a sandwich with his other hand. High on the Corniche, in baking heat, we stopped for ‘une thé’ only to find it was made with goats’ milk with globules of fat floating on top.

In Cannes, once Dad had delivered the Bentley to the director, who was staying on La Croisette, the rich palm-fringed mile or so of hotels, restaurants and private beaches, we were free to enjoy ourselves for about ten days. Our hotel, the Belle Plage, was in the old part of the town, overlooked by the floodlit monastery high on a hill. Unfortunately, Mark got sunstroke very badly and had to be kept indoors for a few days, watched over by either Mum or Dad, which curtailed our enjoyment a little.

The American fleet was in port, with dozens of ships anchored in the bay, and the old town bars were packed with American sailors. There were so many of them, all of them confident and extrovert, I was a little afraid of them and stayed clear. That was until I met Butch on the beach, with Mum of all people. He wandered over to us, chatting in a friendly manner and calling her ‘Ma’am,’ which impressed us both.

When he asked if he might take me out, I agreed, and found him not at all how I’d imagined American men to be – ‘overpaid, over-sexed and over here,’ a legacy of the war years. He was quiet and a little lonely, not unlike myself really, and we had a rather sweet romance for a few days.

Then the fleet left, leaving the bay and a large part of Cannes desolate. To my surprise, most of our part of the town closed up for a couple of days, to recover, I presume. Fortunately, I met a German girl, Margrethé, and she and I chummed up together, so I was able to get out in the evenings with her. With everywhere being so quiet, she and I ventured up to La Croisette, calling in one of the more posh cafés for a cup of coffee, all we could afford. There, we got chatted up by a couple of Italians, who were working in one of the big hotels. I’d always thought of Italians as being dark, yet one of them, Max, was actually a blond, something that fascinated me.
We complained to them about the lack of night life in our part of town and they promised to take us to a quiet little place with good music and dancing. It sounded ideal so we agreed. Even when we entered the French apartment block, with atypical blue flaking paint on its walls, we didn’t suspect anything; we thought perhaps it was a private club. It was only when they opened the door to their shared apartment that we realised that they had tricked us. With a glance at each other, we fled back down the stairs, with the two of them hanging over the bannisters, laughingly taunting us all the way down.
Margrethe, Me, Mum and brother Mark
Maybe it was with staying in the old town, but I was surprised to find myself being mistaken for French several times. Once, in the main square, we saw a young man running for a bus which was just pulling away from the kerb. Without thinking, I called out to him, ‘Vite! Vite!’ He paused briefly, called something to me in French, probably suggestive, before he made a last minute sprint for the bus. And I became so used to telling enquirers that I couldn’t speak French that when someone asked me, ‘Parlez-vous Anglais?’ I automatically replied, ‘Non, non, m’sieur.’

All too soon, our magical holiday was over and it was time to drive back. Unfortunately, the director wanted the car until the very last minute which didn’t give Dad much time to drive back to Calais. It was a question of driving flat out in time to reach the ferry. Unlike our leisurely journey down, this was a mad dash through the darkened French countryside, with only the very briefest of stops. I felt sorry for Dad having to do all the driving and wished I’d carried on with my driving lessons. When Dad had tried to teach me, however, we’d had a bad experience, which put us both off. I’d put my foot on the accelerator pedal instead of the brakes, the car shot out of control into someone’s garden, narrowly missing a schoolgirl. Still, I kept him company throughout the night, forcing myself to stay awake, chatting about inconsequential things, while Mum and Mark slept in the back. On the outskirts of Fontainbleau, we stopped in a lay-by for a brief sleep, then it was on to catch the air ferry.

If I had been dissatisfied before France, deep discontent set in when we came back. Horwich seemed so dirty and smelly, with the blue sulphur smelling haze from the Locomotive Works hanging over the town, the people so parochial after the brief glimpse of cosmopolitan life in Cannes, that I couldn’t settle. The question was, what to do about it?

You’ll have to wait for my next blog post to find out!

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Wine & chocolates with Elaine Chissick

A complete change from my usual memoir-based blog today! I’ve invited my lovely writer friend Elaine Chissick to have a chat over wine and chocolate. Elaine are Facebook friends and, though we’ve never met, I feel we are kindred spirits.

Welcome, Elaine, and do help yourself to a chocolate as well as a glass of wine. So, tell me, how did you first come to write?

As an only child, I loved to read and would happily sit alone with a book, comic, or magazine, I think it was inevitable that eventually I would start writing snippets of scenarios with different characters. As a teenager in the 80's, I met a girl in secondary school who shared the same interest in writing these snippets. Most were handwritten or typed on a typewriter and were never more than about twenty pages, except one story that I started with two characters called Nick and Sasha.

A couple of years later, we left school and I was told that writing wasn't an option for me, that I had to grow up, get a job and pay my way - so that's what I did and any dreams of writing were filed away and left in the past, but I never gave up on the reading.

Fast forward to 2002, and you’d find me married and working a full time job. Although my husband had children from a past relationship, a family would have been great but due to certain things, we couldn't have our own children, and so we started down the route of adoption. In 2004, our son and daughter came to live with us. 
Elaine Chissick, in the glasses, at a recent author event

Now, my husband and I are not perfect, we are not rich, we are not in the best of health and there is a 16 year age gap between us, but we got through the adoption process and found ourselves with a family. At that point, I felt like I needed to tell people that if they wanted a family too, they didn't have to be perfect either, and so I sat down and wrote 'Willing and Able, a True Story Of Adoption', which is a true account of what my husband and I went through to adopt our children. Unfortunately, the agency who I thought would be interested in the book, were not, so, not really knowing what to do or where to go from there, I shelved it.

In 2007, we relocated 123 miles away and resettled on the North East coast. For some reason, around 2011, I pulled out the adoption manuscript and sent it out to 25 agents. 13 refused it, the rest never got back to me, and then my husband bought me a Kindle ... That opened my eyes to self-publishing and in 2012, I self published 'Willing and Able'.

At that time, I was still reading lots of books but nothing grabbed me, nothing quite managed to pull me in completely - although a couple came very close - but some of those books made me think about the stuff I used to write back in school, and on 1st September 2012, Sasha and Nick barged into my mind quite unexpectedly with the story I had been craving, which resulted in me sending an email to my friend which simply read, "am having a go at fiction, a love story, I think,"

Those characters changed their names to Alexandra and Gabriel, and I threw myself into the writing, (it's a good job my family love me because for seven months, I might as well have not been there as the book took over my life.)

I first published 'Ties That Bind' in 2013, it was a huge learning curve in both the writing and the publishing, and in 2016, I followed with the sequel, 'Ties That Harm'. Both have had their covers redone professionally, and I'm very proud of them.

Tell me, what genre would you say your books fit in to?

'Willing and Able' is true life. 'Ties That Bind' and 'Ties That Harm' are hard to place, they are romantic fiction, contemporary fiction, and also have an element of eroticism in them, insofar as they have descriptive sex, but without the addition of extras like ... sex toys, whips, chains, you get the idea. Does this mean that they are not quite erotica? Is there a genre for contemporary romance with added steaminess? That could be a subject for another blog discussion ...!

Interesting thought, Elaine. Coincidentally, in one of my books I included a short ‘hot’ scene. Afterwards, I realised it would have worked just as well without it.

So, what are you currently working on?

I'm currently doing research into writing a murder mystery/thriller that's set around the life of a club owner. I've never written in this genre so it's taking me a while to get it right. I also have plans for another true life book centered round adoptive fathers, and I also have plans for a recipe book at some point.

Something that always fascinates me, do you have a dedicated work space?

Ha ha! I do ... I have a little office/cubbyhole (ironing room/room to pile all the books, wrapping paper, junk, hoover, hairdryer, etc) which has a regular office desk in it. There's a big window in front of the desk which has a roller blind on it, and on that blind is pinned the full family trees of my main characters. However, in a bid to get me out of the cubbyhole and back into the living room, my husband bought me a much loved and much wanted pedestal desk, so that is now my main working space. As you can see, I work using two screens, have low level lighting and wear earbuds so I can listen to music while I work. The only thing I'm now missing, is the family tree, I couldn't get away with pinning a four foot wide bright orange piece of paper to the living room wall!
Elaine's evocative writing space

All that being said, I've been known to take my laptop to the pub, to my son's football matches, to bed, and to the beach ...!

What sort of books do you read for pleasure? Favourite author?

I like to read a bit of everything, but I do like comedies. Favourite authors are Sue Townsend, Dan Brown, Sophie Kinsella, E L James, and Jackie Collins to name but a few.

Besides writing, what is your other passion?

Cooking and baking. I love baking. My day job involves working in a kitchen and it's something I really enjoy. It's also a skill I've passed on to one of my characters, and the reason I would like to do a recipe book.

Thank you so much, Elaine. I’ve really enjoyed our chat. It’s fascinating finding out about other writers’ modus operandi.  Do have another chocolate.

All three of Elaine’s current books can be found at Amazon by following this link http://bit.ly/ElaineChissickAmazon

She can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/elainerchissick and her website is http://elainechissick.wixsite.com/chissickchat 

Thursday, 17 August 2017

1958 - A Year of Adventure

That's me at the back with the hunky Spaniard!

I haven’t posted a memoir-based post for some time so I’ll take up the story from when I first broke-up with my Beloved Bad Penny (see post from 8/11/16). This would around the beginning of 1958. All my friends seemed to be either engaged or at least seriously ‘courting, by then, considered essential in those days if you weren’t to be left ‘on the shelf.’ Help was at hand in the form of Winnie, whom I had met through some mutual friends. She had just broken up from a fairly long-term relationship and was as much at a loose end as I was, so we started going around together. Winnie was a year or two older, smaller than me, but with a jolly, cheery manner that made her fun to be with. Even then, Winnie was saving up to immigrate so couldn’t afford a regular holiday. We read about Friday Bridge Agricultural Holiday Camp in a newspaper advertisement and wrote off for details. When the brochure arrived, we learnt that the camp had originally been an Italian POW during the war. It had lots of the same facilities as a normal holiday camp but you could work on farms during the day to earn some money. We decided to give it a go and it turned out to be one of the best holidays I ever had.
            The accommodation was very basic, army-type beds and a single locker in a dormitory, and the food left much to be desired especially the sandwiches handed out after breakfast. The work was varied, mostly strawberry picking, and it was hard, back-breaking work, very often dirty, but great fun. We didn’t work every day; we took a couple of days off to hitch a ride into Wisbech and March, or Cambridge to look round the colleges. And everywhere, the juke boxes were playing Bobby Darin’s ‘Dream Lover.' You can hear it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVHAQX5sSaU
            On the camp, there was a bar and a dance several times a week but best of all there were lots of lovely foreign students, French, German, Dutch, Spanish and Swedish. Our own favourites were two Swedish boys, Bjorn and Georg, but as they left after our first week, we consoled ourselves with a lovely dark-browed, dark-eyed Spaniard from Madrid called Fernando. It was all good innocent fun; with everyone sleeping in segregated dormitories, there wasn’t much opportunity for anything else.
We made friends with a Londoner, Jean. Tall, slim, tanned, with an urchin haircut, she was stunningly attractive and a complete extrovert. She had a way of saying things like, ‘Disgusting – but dee-lightful’ that made it sound very naughty. Or she’d say with a dramatic sigh, ‘Roll on death and let’s have a bash at the angels.’ She was so different from anyone that either of us had ever met and we admired and envied her. Yet she was not in the slightest bit conceited. Instead she had warmth and spontaneity, which we later learned was characteristic of an East Ender, which she was. She worked for Zetters football pools which, being a seasonal occupation, left her free during the summer to take jobs such as strawberry picking. Her life seemed so glamorous compared to our humdrum existence.
Besides the two Wakes Weeks in the summer, Horwich industry closed for an additional few days in September and we followed up Jean’s invitation to visit her in London. Neither of us had been previously and although we were only going on a long weekend, we were nervously excited. We travelled overnight on a coach, arriving at Victoria Coach Station very early in the morning yet Jean was there to meet us. Groggy from travelling overnight and stupefied by the clamour of early morning London, we ascended into the cavernous heights of Liverpool Street Station and into the madhouse that is Commercial Road.
Our first real sight of Stepney on a Saturday morning had its own peculiar sights and smells, stale fat, rotting vegetables, urine, all mingled with a tangy heady aroma that we later learned came from joss sticks. That area of London was even then a polyglot of humanity from all corners of the world. Awesome sights and smells never to be forgotten for two lasses from a Lancashire mill town. Jean lived in a tenement-like flat in Flower and Dean Street, with her father, a Maltese sailor who was at sea at that time, and her mother, a diminutive sandy-haired woman. Being a Geordie who had lived most of her married life in Stepney, she made us doubly welcome though the flat was cramped and crowded with exotic knick-knacks.
London, shared with us by Jean, was a unique experience. It was the time of espresso coffee bars and we went to them all, including the Two I’s where Tommy Steele had been discovered. One of the most widely played records on the juke box then was, ‘Volaré’ (you can hear it here  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-DVi0ugelc ) which seemed to sum up the heady continental atmosphere of the coffee bars at that time. Our own favourite was Heaven and Hell. It was split over two levels with the ground floor all white plastic and chrome, while the basement was dim, dungeon-like and wildly exciting.
I think it was in there that I met Stefan, who was a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Despite our general ignorance of world affairs, we all knew about the Hungarian Uprising, possibly because it involved the young. We’d been stirred by the sight of the students rioting against the Russian tanks and been saddened to see them mown down. The Uprising had lasted only days and most of the dissidents had fled, Stefan being one of them. It made him seem very glamorous to me, even though he could barely speak a word of English. He later sent me a postcard from Budapest asking if he could come and work in Horwich and live with me and my family. I never replied, I’d got cold feet by that time.
We went all over the place with Jean, dancing at Hammersmith Palais on Saturday night, Petticoat Lane Market and the Tower of London on the Sunday, gawped at the prostitutes still walking the streets of Soho, a crazy pub called Dirty Dick’s on Commercial Road, which had cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and sawdust on the floor. It was a big tourist attraction. I don’t know if it’s still there but I’m sure Health & Safety legislation would have something to say about it. At least the glasses were clean.
Horwich seemed decidedly parochial after London and we were left with feelings of dissatisfaction over our lot. Winnie met her future husband shortly after that and they were already planning to emigrate to Australia. What followed, for me, was a troublesome period when I seemed to meet up with the wrong lads/men who I’d prefer not to talk about. It was to be another few years before I plucked up the courage to leave Horwich and go to America.
It’s kind of ironic because, with my books being centred around Horwich, the town now plays a bigger part of my life than when I lived there! 
And as a postscript, Friday Bridge looks like it's now run by a recruitment company for migrant agricultural workers. You can read about it here. http://www.wmsfridaybridgecamp.co.uk/ It doesn't look to have altered much except for the much posher accommodation.