The Chalk and the Cheese

The month of May brought myself and the band to Wiltshire. Our first stop being Avebury which lies on high chalk grassland.

I first spent an hour in The Henge Shop for a book signing, an emporium of esoteric ephemera: crop circles, crystals, tarot and books on everything from barrow mounds to green men. I challenge any cynic to dismiss wanderings into mysteries and wonder, for beneath the goddess knick-knacks and swaying dream catchers are far greater and more complex questions. After sitting for an hour in this world of spiritual exploration I felt more open to creative endeavour – even if I still believe that crop circles are a marketing strategy organised by the Wiltshire Tourist Board …

Remaining open to possibility is a great human quality. The pedestrian and authoritarian world of certainty stunts creative development. Surely it doesn’t matter that we don’t understand?

The next day Captain Swing and the Blacksmith roamed the stones and stumbled across a spinney of ancient hornbeams. Votive offerings had been left by visitors which swayed above extraordinary tangled roots – a wild maze of searching lines that sit on a raised hillock above the mysterious stones.


Great Somerford, that lies on a clay vale, the traditional northern cheese making area of Wiltshire, was the destination of our next performance.  The addition of Downton Chamber Voices who bravely wandered north of the M4 was a beautiful addition. We had one group rehearsal before the show and all went well and beyond expectations. Their voices lifted and emphasised the drama of the songs giving a tantalising taste of the possibilities of what could be achieved in a full folk song musical.




When Songs Collide 2…

More plots from vengeful sweethearts and moonlight shenanigans…this is a first draft from student Georgia Lewis…who has caught the rhythm and pulse of ‘Rockley Firs’ – a fantastic song that I can’t wait to sing in May.

‘The air was crisp and cold in Rockley Firs, awash with the bright light from moon and stars. That was the night, when they came to search for me. Catching sight of their bright uniforms, I held my breath and ran. Crouched over, doubled, silently creeping from bush to tree, till finally I was free from the thicket and took refuge in the tavern that lay at the foot of the gully.  I hid amongst the loud cheers and jeers from locals drinking that Saturday night and called for a bottle to quaff and to add to my disguise a pipe to smoke. But alas, I had not noticed that they’d seen me all along and with a warrant from the parish they brought me in to be confined in Cole’s Kitchen.

The day tired as empty threats were flung from Hanks the gamekeeper, “but I saw you there, with my own eyes!”

“It’s not me you saw but a shadow passing by,”  I returned triumphantly.

The jury, clearly grappling in their irksome way to pin the blame, were unable to find fault with me. Defeated in their hungry ploy to transport another they sentenced me with a caution and a quarter dozen months confinement.

Elated at the pleasant news, I skipped past the defeated Hanks and sighed “Maybe next time, dear old chap!” And with that I donned my cap – “No ship nor boat nor sailing vessel shall take these boots to far off lands”. I marched off down the darkened tunnel to where the swinging gates and scraping doors, coughs and cries dimmed the spirits of every new arrival.’

Story inspired from ‘Georgie Barnell’ …

‘When I was a little girl, not much over the age of sweet 16, all on a summers day I was caught by the fairest man my eyes had ever seen – his name was Blacky-Grey. He had strong arms and thick set thighs, and when he caught my gaze, I saw such passion in his eyes. We lay amongst the golden grain, till the last rays of sun cast shadows from the pines. But what happened in the weeks to come I could never forgive what Mr Triles had done.

The local lads went out to hunt the roving hare and dum pheasant. Why Blacky-Grey thought I’d be impressed, well it makes my bleeding heart pain. All I can say is the very next day, they caught and charged all six lads for illegally poaching on Mr Triles’ land.

I was sick with anger and rage to hear of their outlandish sentence to be transported to Australia never to be seen again. I was powerless. I was helpless. But little did I know that I was not yet finished and would yet serve my own sentence all for the charges made by Mr Triles.

Months passed on, and I grew sick, my stomach ached and no food was kept. It was painful to see that I, without a husband present to marry, had fallen. I was heavy with child and faced a now bleak and destitute life ahead. So angered was I that a woman could be cast and left aside by her community that my idle mind turned to plot revenge…’




When Songs Collide…

When songs collide anything can happen…I think ‘The Housemaid’s Revenge’ is a ballad in the making – several students saw this as the inevitable denouement after slicing and grafting, ‘The Blacksmith,’ with ‘Georgie Barnell,’ and ‘Rockley Firs.’

Here’s a lovely first draft contribution from Chris Lethbridge:

‘The place where I was born is a place of woodland. A place of soft dark moss underfoot. A place where the wind whips the tree tops scattering the crows and rooks into the sky like charred remnants of old paper, caught in the updraft of an autumn bonfire. I was a maid of just sixteen, when the village blacksmith wooed me. A fine man, so I thought, ten years my senior by the name of Adam Triles – ‘Brown Adam’ they called him. One fine night, we lay together on those mossy banks at Rockley Firs, Adam and I, the moon and the stars winking between the swaying branches. And after he wrote me a letter – a contract of betrothal surely binding us as husband and wife.

Ah but false Adam, his heart may have been mine, but his head lay elsewhere – with a girl of higher station. And so nine months on with winter across the land and the last beech leaves falling, the time of feasting upon us, I bore to him a child. So much for goodwill for a shamed young woman such as I. Every door slammed shut, no friend would own us. And so I gathered my few belongings, took my child in my arms and made for London where if I could not support us both by honest means, I would live by my wits. I recalled Adam had told me of a nephew apprenticed to a merchant in Cheapside. I determined to seek him out and so my plan took shape. Oh Brown Adam, God shall indeed reward you well for slighting me. And I shall be his instrument.’

Enervating Wiles…


There is nothing like a good folk song rhyme… poor old Georgie Barnwell is beguiled by the ‘enervating wiles’ of a certain lady to murder his ‘Uncle Triles.’

This six verse song is the sparse remnant of a 49 verse ballad dating from the early 18th century.

A young apprentice is seduced into a life of crime by a ‘gallant dainty dame, and sumptuous in attire’ – named as a certain Sarah Milwood, who further encourages him to return to the country and murder his uncle for more money. It was adapted into a play by George Lillo in 1730. Dickens referenced the play in Great Expectations – poor Pip, when apprentice, is teasingly called Georgie Barnwell, and the play foreshadows the criminal activities of Magwitch.

I strongly suspect that Sarah Milwood has more to say…is she a cold, calculating narcissist? Is she working for someone else? What circumstances drew her into a life of deception? Is Georgie quite as innocent as he makes out? After all he committed the murder, allegedly under her command. Excited to hear this ‘naughty woman with a vigorous eye’ tell her own story.



Spadgewhistles and Goozegogs

Creating a Historical Voice with Dialect

It is impossible to accurately replicate the voices of the distant past as we cannot hear them. The way we speak is constantly developing, vowel pronunciation being the most open to change. We can, perhaps, attempt an echo of that voice which gives the reader an invitation to step temporarily into another time and place. Yet, that time and place is only ever an interpretation of a reality created in the present. The historical novelist acts as a translator of the past – a go between, making language palatable for the modern age and choosing judiciously which echoes make sense in our contemporary lexicon.

Discovering the historical facts is not the only task for a writer, but the way people spoke is just as important if your characters are to become credible. The view point of the servant, or working-class voice has become ever more popular in our inclusive age. Silent bystanders to the shenanigans of their betters, these characters are perfect narrators as they follow their employers into intimate domestic spaces. Yet, their voices remain the most unrecorded. Thus, folk song lyrics became a huge resource for phrasing and word choice while writing ‘Captain Swing and the Blacksmith’. Court records are another possible source, but unreliable because of the prejudice towards those who spoke in dialect. The condemned presumably would have changed their voice to mimic ‘their betters’ and probably used every lie under the sun to escape transportation or the noose.

Dialect can define character and separates class. The balance of your inclusion of dialect is tricky as it is very easy for it to sound hammy – especially West Country which is easy to use in jest. My story deals with serious social and political issues, yet, it is good to keep humour as people laugh and use language to laugh at themselves. Within my character Ginny Scammell’s ‘nanny-fudging’ [tall-tales] there are bitter truths.

Finding the right balance is integral in presenting dialect. I wanted to use every day words in dialect throughout the text to give a thin skim of difference to the language. After much procrastination and reading, I rested on, ‘nuthin’ and ‘sommat’. Deciding how to spell these two words took hours of my time. ‘summat’, ‘nothin’ ‘nut’in’? In speech, this word is almost reduced to a glottal stop or mere jerk of the neck, but too many speech marks can look clumsy and awkward on the page – nuthin it is.

My protagonist, Sue Trindall, was born in Wiltshire, 1822. No doubt, she would have had, to modern ears, a thick West Country accent which she would have attempted to alter if speaking to a ‘person of quality’. The book is written in 1stperson which gives another issue. In order for the story to be at all readable her voice had to be educated to some degree – when I did this my narrative changed and a whole new dimension to my research began. The beauty of writing itself, the act of shaping letters, and the power of words to manipulate and control became a theme. Her father became a far more important character, insisting that his two daughters could read and write in a county with 56% male literacy and 44% female literacy [1838].[1]He steals phrases from famous poets to write love letters for a fee and then turns his skill to writing the threatening notes sent to landowners, used during the Swing Riots before the destruction of their property.

Using dialect to colour my writing was an enjoyable task and there are many words, I feel, we should bring back in to regular usage. I tried to make subtle differences between characters. Sue comes from a small town, with some influence from bigger cities. Their voices were more likely to have incorporated slight vowel differences from Salisbury or London. The characters in the remote village of Imber, have precious little contact with outsiders, or, like the elderly Mother Buxton, don’t ever go anywhere at all. I gave her voice idioms and colloquialisms, peculiar to herself. In this way dialect is a great tool for characterisation as long as not too thickly spread.

I found the word ‘prinit’ from a Wiltshire dialect online source. This apparently meant, ‘take it’. It was assumed that this derived from the French ‘prenez’, to take, which came back from WW1. I created a back story for Mother Buxton, whose husband had returned from the Napoleonic wars with the word, and it became indigenous to the village of Imber.

Many Wiltshire colloquialisms have found themselves into the general everyday lexicon as the flow of population from rural to urban areas has been constant for over 200 years. I made good use of these as it helped the tone of voice and everyone understands them: ‘belly-button’, ‘cack-handed’ [to describe left-handedness], ‘dribs and drabs’. Wiltshire phrases charmed their way into my pages: ‘up-along’- a little way up the road, and its opposite, ‘down-along’. ‘Somewhen’ [its opposite is back-along] is a favourite and I think should definitely become more popular. It lies somewhere between sometime and in my dreams…

Nouns or adjectives in dialect had to flow with the narrative and not sound too alien. Readers need to be able to interpret meaning from the context. Some words seemed to fit easily into her speech:

‘shrammed’- exhausted, cold and finished.

‘caddle’ – confusion

‘finnikee’- fussy.

I have not created a true early 19thcentury working-class voice, but hopefully with a smattering of words and subtle turns of phrase an impression of rural poetic voices of the past. There was one word I couldn’t find room for: ‘spadgewhistle’ – apparently a toothbrush? Hopefully I won’t forget to put this in another Wiltshire tale…

Some other favourite words:

addled – gone off [as in a bad egg]

arse over tip – to fall headlong

blather – fuss, uproar

bone shave – sciatica

chucky pig – woodlouse

crousty – bad tempered

diddiky – rotten, crumbling

dimpsey – half lit, dusk

dollop – large lump

fair t’middlin – so, so

fuddled – confused

gallivantin’ – straying from home

glory-hole – place/cupboard for rubbish and odds and ends

goozegogs – gooseberries

half-baked – dim-witted

loppity – to feel out of sorts

main – good, excellent

narration – fuss, commotion

ninny hammer – foolish minded person

pelt – in a passion or a rage

slammock – slatternly woman

zammy – simpleton


E.J.Hobsbawm and George Rude, Captain Swing, pub.1970, Lawrence and Wishart, London.


[1]Captain Swing, E.J.Hobsbawm and George Rude, p64

Message in a Bottle



It was a real pleasure to be interviewed by two fellow travellers from the Creative Writing MFA Kingston. Sinead Keegan and Lisa Davison now run an online literary magazine open to submissions – this time based on themes from ‘Captain Swing and the Blacksmith’, which inspired them to call this edition ‘Message in a Bottle’.

Click here to read full interview:

Messages in bottles

Folk song lyrics say so much and so little as does a message found in a bottle. There are some incredibly touching stories of 1st World War soldiers sending love notes to their wives on the way to France, friendships spanning cultures and tragedies thought never to be told. I like this story below as it twists the assumption that messages in bottles are thrown into the ocean by desperate survivors of shipwrecks. In this case the finder is desperate and needs saving…

Escaping a regime

FOUND BY: Hoa Van Nguyen off the coast of Thailand, 1983
SENT BY: Dorothy and John Peckham from a cruise to Hawaii, 1979
TIME AT SEA: Four years

In 1979, during a cruise to Hawaii, Dorothy and John Peckham wrote notes and placed them inside empty champagne bottles, then threw them overboard.

They wrote asking anyone who found the message to get in contact with them, and they included a $1 bill in each to cover postage of the reply.

In 1983, the Peckhams got a response. Hoa Van Nguyen, a former soldier in the Vietnamese Army, had written them a letter saying he and his younger brother found one of the bottles while floating off the coast of Songkhla Province in Thailand in an attempt to escape the communist regime in Vietnam.

The Peckhams exchanged letters with Van Nguyen, and when Van Nguyen asked whether the couple could help his family move to the United States, they worked with US immigration to make it happen.

The families finally met in 1985 when Van Nguyen flew into Los Angeles from Thailand.



Our Secret History in Song

I’m very happy that this Creative Writing workshop at Wiltshire and Swindon History centre has been rescheduled to 16th March. I spent time exploring the Alfred Williams folk song collection – specific to Wiltshire – for material. So many songs to choose from! Poaching, as ever, a strong theme but I had trouble finding a good female character… ‘The Gamekeeper’ came close but I couldn’t stomach another murdered girlfriend song. Instead I will be working with ‘Georgie Barnell’, alongside tales of successful and unsuccessful poachers. The ‘naughty woman’ with her ‘vigorous eye’ caught my attention – but what is exactly going on? Why does she want his Uncle Triles [sometimes Tripes] murdered?

This is in fact a shortened version of a much older and longer ballad where all is, sort of, explained. But I like William’s version that leaves us wondering who these people are and leaves us with a vivid image of cawing rooks amongst a lonely spinney.


Near Cheapside there lived a merchant

And he was a man of very great fame

A youth was bound apprentice to him

And Georgie Barnell was his name.

Now Georgie was a very good servant

And a dutiful, beyond all doubt

He always kept within the door, sir,

Because his master would not let him go out

A naughty woman of the town, sir,

Upon him cast a vigorous eye,

She came into the shop one morning

A flannel petticoat to buy.

When that she paid down the money

She gave his hand a very hard squeeze

So that pleased poor Georgie Barnell,

And together he knocked his knees.

And soon this woman did persuade him

With her enervating wiles

To go down into the country

And there let loose his Uncle Triles

He saw his uncle in the grove, sir,

Studying over his good books,

And Georgie Barnell went and shot him

All among the crows and rooks.

Avebury blizzard forced new date!

Image may contain: sky, snow, tree, outdoor and nature

Poor Avebury was without power and roads were cut off from the outside world on Friday 1st February…I arrived in Swindon in a snow storm, beautiful chaos. All buses were suspended and when I asked for a taxi they told me, ‘there’s no-one going into Avebury and no one coming out.’ This didn’t look good for our performance. Unbelievably, accordionist Pete Watson made it through in his Honda Jazz. This is his pic. of the stones as he heads out home. Very frustrating as we were sold out! But all is well as we have a new date already: Friday May 17th. See you there!

Props assembled!

Yellow silk, threatening notes and feathered quills will be filling my suitcase for Avebury. After a brilliant rehearsal excited to perform at Avebury Social Centre this coming Friday, book signing at the Henge Gift Shop and exploring new songs at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre on Saturday…