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Looking for the answer


papa soldier

Went to The National Archives at Kew yesterday to look for my granddad, James Scott.

He’s the one who said he fell off the Mauretania in New York. I had forgotten, in these days of being able to sit in front of a computer and find stuff at the click of a mouse, what a monumentally tedious task it is to search through original records. Plus, I had a bit of a hangover.

Took me bloody ages to get to Kew, and it was a blazingly hot, beautiful day, and there were several moments when I wondered if I was several twigs short of the full tree.

Granddad, according to my mum and my aunt, worked on the Mauretania, the fastest ship on the Atlantic for 20 years until 1929, and he was a steward or a waiter. My auntie had his registration book, but mysteriously, all the pages had been torn out of it.


My first bit of digging put me in touch with some specialists in the merchant marine who gave me the file names of the records I would need to search. I am absolutely certain they told me that each folder would be thin little thing containing about three bits of paper. I’d be through them in no time.

So you’re not going to be surprised when I tell you that the archivist at Kew took me to a enormous trolley overloaded with 34 hefty box files and smirked, she definitely smirked, as she waved her hand at them and said, ‘All yours.’

I sat down and began. Each log was about three inches thick, on stiff expensive paper, sewn together; gritty and grimy round the edges.


They were utterly fascinating. There were about 550 crew on each voyage, all dedicated to getting the 800 or so passengers (and mail) from Liverpool to New York in about three days and in as luxurious a manner as possible. There were 300 or more firemen, who spent all day stoking the boilers, 200 trimmers, who (I think) just broke up the coal, pages of cooks (a special Jewish cook, a confectioner, vegetable cooks, pastry chefs, sous chefs) and stewards and linen mistresses and waiters and barbers, and musicians and an interpreter and ships’ engineers, and a ship’s surgeon and, oh yes, all the sailors.

The captain’s notes were terse but illuminating. Flynn, O’Halloran, and Smith confined to quarters on being found too drunk to work. Hawker, fireman, on feeling ill, made his way to sick bay where he collapsed. Ship’s surgeon examined him and found him dead from heart disease. Upon inquiry I have found no further grounds to investigate. A short service was held and his body committed to the deep. His possessions included a pair of boots, three pairs of overalls, a good suit and a pair of silk socks. A woman in steerage was delivered of a male child this morning. Ship’s surgeon in attendance.

And there, on July 5, 1911, New York, 8 am, is the note, the following men deserted the ship taking with them their effects: James Scott, Frank Moran, Joseph Pendere, Henry O’Neil, James Nolan, Wm Lynch, Wm Hogan and Patk Branagan, firemen 

mauretania desertion

Hard to tell if it was the James Scott who is my granddad, (I didn’t get through all the files, I couldn’t verify the address, and the age isn’t right) but falling off a ship is as good a way as any of telling your daughter you jumped ship, and conditions were appalling. About five to ten men, especially firemen left the ship at New York on every voyage. And there were plenty waiting to take their place. It paid £6 a week, which was an enormous amount of money. Of course the irony is, that the harder the men worked, and the faster the ship went, the less they got paid.


I wouldn’t be surprised if he did jump ship. It would explain why he tore all the pages out of his registration book, which would mean he could then sign back on, on another ship in a job (as, say, a waiter) with better conditions.

But to make certain, I’d need to go back to Kew, and finish off the trolley. At 6pm yesterday after getting through 10 of the 34 files, I jumped ship. I’m not sure if I want to go back.


Pictures courtesy of creative commons:







Someone to watch over me

central control

Tessa worried about her mother. Eadie was 92 and getting a bit frail. And she lived on her own. True, Eadie lived in a warden-controlled flat, but what good was it if the warden did come round every Tuesday? What would happen if Eadie had an accident on a Wednesday?

‘I’ll be fine,’ said Eadie. ‘Look, there’s a pull cord in every room. If I have an accident I just tug on that, and it alerts Central Control.

‘Central Control?’ echoed Tessa. ‘What, like when they send a rocket to outer space?’

Eadie looked confused. ‘No, it’s a lady called Brenda at the council. I talk to her sometimes when I pull the cord by mistake.’

Tessa felt better. At least the pull cord worked. There was somebody looking out for her mother. But then something else occurred to her, and she said, ‘But what happens if you fall over and you can’t reach the cord? What then?’

‘Tessa, you’re being ridiculous,’ said Eadie. ‘I might be old, but I’m not stupid. I will be fine.’

That night Tessa couldn’t sleep for worrying. Her husband was working a night shift, so she had nobody to confide in. And then the phone rang. Something had to have happened. Why else would the phone ring at 3am? She got up in a hurry to answer it and fell over the dog. She lay for three hours with a broken leg before her husband found her.





image courtesy of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/mission_control_center via creative commons

Slice of life


I’ve had a lot of trouble with language lately. I told my exercise teacher (well, Sue in the village) that I’d just eaten a jeely piece and she had no idea what I was on about. (She’s Welsh, I’m Scots, and a jp is a jam sandwich).

Fellow blogger Barry wrote a post containing the word schnook. Apparently it means ‘nerd’, and is not the same as ‘schmuck’ which I had no idea (honest, guv) meant penis.

Another fellow blogger, Naptime Thoughts, (from New Jersey) thought I was having her on when I said I thought a Twinkie was a chocolate bar (that’s twinkie, not winkie). And whaddya know, it’s a cake. More on that later, as we are now set to engage in a programme of exchanging fondant fancies in order to further our cultural bonds. Amazing what posting on WordPress can lead to.

And, with the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow today, can I just help out any passing visitors with this vital information: ‘whaur’s the cludgie‘ means where’s the loo, and ‘yer bum’s oot the windie‘ means, you’re wrong.

So, in the meantime, while thinking of something really worthwhile to post about, and waiting for cake to fall from the sky, I post this film, which shows, that no matter how bad we humans are at misunderstanding each other, a computer in a lift can beat us every time.

picture from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chocolate_cake#mediaviewer/File:300x300_choc_rose_cake.jpg via Creative Commons.

Publish and be damned

m turbayne

I spend my off moments fossicking about with my family tree. I can confidently state that I’m not related to Charlemagne, or William the Conqueror, or even God (unlike Mathew Pinsent on a recent Who Do You Think You Are).

I come from long lines of ordinary people. None of them set the world on fire. Some of them even lived in a place called Dull. They were all agricultural labourers, and fisher folk and weavers, and strong women. Strong women such as my great great grandmother Margaret Turbayne (above) who, in the late 1800s, brought up 13 kids in a two-roomed farm worker’s cottage (what they call in Scotland, a But and Ben). And then there’s my great grandmother Barbara Annan (below), who saw four sons go off to war in 1914, and only three of them come back. My grandfathers and great grandfathers might have taken ridiculously small fishing boats out on the North Sea, but it was my grandmothers and great grandmothers who waded out to the boats with their men on their backs, so that they started their voyages in dry clothes.

barbara annan and d speed

My favourite, though, has to be my great great great grandmother, Catherine Cruickshank, sometime linen weaver and agricultural labourer, who had two children by different fathers, who never married, and who died a pauper aged 58. I have no real idea why finding her popping up in all the censuses made me smile. Just her tenacity, I suppose. And when I found that she too was illegitimate, her mother seemingly seduced by a travelling salesman in 1802, (and that’s a bit before they invented Ford Mondeos), my liking for her rose even higher.  This was in a Presbyterian community, after all, and I should think that she and hers came in for a fair bit of censure from the elders of the kirk. (Bugger them, Catherine).

It takes time to find out all this stuff, and I like doing it, which is why I’m rather disheartened by Ancestry.com’s decision to close down their publishing arm MyCanvas.  I’ve put all my stuff in their lovely picture books and, if I say so myself, they look great. But they’re liquidating this service, and all the stored data, in September, and unless I get a move on all my work will be lost. Over the years I’ve researched my in-laws’ family trees, and I’ve done my mother’s. It’s involved about 1,500 photographs and certificates and census returns, not to mention laying it out and making sense of it all. And it does take years, because I am a normal person and I have a family and work, and a social life.

wonder woman

Now I’m climbing through my father’s tree, but it’s proving even more of a fiddly process than usual. There’s lots of things I don’t know about my dad and his family; he was on special operations in Italy in 1943, and there’s a second cousin who drowned mysteriously in the Panama Canal. It won’t all be done by the time I have to send it to press, and that annoys and disappoints me.

If Ancestry had not made this decision, I was planning, when I had finished my dad’s book, on going back to the other trees and unravelling the scandal over Jeffery Kaye’s will, and William Armstrong’s naval service during the Boxer Rebellion. Now, I don’t know what to do. I can’t download the MyCanvas data; all I can do is print out everything I’ve done. I’ll have to put it in a folder and anything new will just have to be stuck in. It won’t look anywhere near as good will just be a mess.

Ancestry say they’re making this move to concentrate on their core business, but without being able to publish what you’ve discovered, even if it is just for your family, what is the point? Or is that just me?

New bills, please


Bills are written by newspaper sub-editors. They are displayed by shops to tempt innocent passers by, and are part of that list of weird slogans yelled by street vendors (‘orrible murder, gitcher news ‘ere, standard! standard!) But, sometimes, the sub in question has an off day…








Images courtesy of Alistair McIntyre at the Daily Drone, the world’s greatest website

Summer lightning


Woke up this morning at half past three with a bloody great crash bang! I thought the house was falling down, or the Royal Philharmonic had crept into the attic to play the 1812 overture. But no. It was just the mother and father of all thunderstorms.

And then I thought, hell’s teeth, the washing. The line out in the garden was loaded with it. All dry. (Which is important when you are a dilettante washerwoman).

I thought about leaving it. And then I thought about all the other washing waiting to go out…So two minutes later there I was, in my jammies, lightning cracking over the greenhouse, feverishly tearing the pegs off the line and throwing clothes in a basket while raindrops as fat as grapes burst on my head and shoulders.

Then there was another enormous kettle drum of thunder and, almost instantly, the sky split with a horizontal flash as if it were taking a picture of the garden.

The pattering on the leaves stilled for a moment, and then the rain roared down. I picked up my basket and fled.

Back upstairs, job done, I dried myself off, went back to bed with a cup of tea, consoled two uncertain dogs and watched the lightning arc across our neighbour’s field. I felt very, very smug.

Until I had to get up four hours later.

On the money

Piggy Bank Front Shot

Sybil and Edie went out together every week. Edie loved those trips. Every Sunday they would get in Sybil’s car and go somewhere different for lunch. Sometimes, on a Monday, if there was a special deal for pensioners, they went to the cinema. Sometimes, on a Wednesday, because Edie and Sybil loved watching TV programmes about antiques, they went to an auction. And sometimes, Marge or Phil would go too. It was fun.

Edie’s daughter Tessa came to visit. ‘Sybil has this great idea,’ Edie said. ‘She’s put a little box between the front seats in her car. She’s cut a slot in the top, so whoever gets a lift can put money in the box to help pay for her petrol.’

‘Why’s that great?’ said Tessa. ‘Why can’t she just ask for a contribution?’

‘Well, said Edie. ‘That would be embarrassing. And this way, we can put a pound in whenever we like.’

‘A pound?’ said Tessa.

Edie looked at her daughter. ‘To help with the costs.’

‘Yes,’ said Tessa. ‘But think of the cost of petrol. You’d need to put more in than just one pound.’

‘I know that,’ said Edie. ‘Sometimes I put in two.’


Picture via Creative Commons, courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/teegardin/5737272581/

Perfect? Who cares?

dog eyebrows

I was leafing through one of my daughter’s fashion magazines yesterday and I came across an extraordinary article by a woman trumpeting on about what a perfectionist she was. She is such a stickler for detail, it appears, that she once ran out of an eyebrow salon with only one eyebrow plucked because she didn’t like the way the beautician had shaped it. Like that’s really going to improve your looks.

However, the author was obviously not such a perfectionist that she could see that her piece, which droned on for another whole page (wtf?) was the most self-obsessed drivel I’ve ever fallen asleep over  read.

perfectionism pic b

But. It got me thinking about perfectionism. And what a terrible thing it is. Perfectionists, it seems to me, worry so much about the detail, that they forget about the big picture. They’re so worried about a wrongly shaped eyebrow, they ignore the overall look.

I remember one of my children going to school with a brilliant story and coming back utterly dejected because the only comment the teacher could make about it was that the capital letters were all in the wrong place. Perfect teacher? I don’t think so.

perfectionism pic c

Perfection is an impossible dream. When we plan to be perfect, it generally all comes apart at the seams. And if we place too much importance on perfection, we miss the little unplanned things that make life so sweet.

Perfectionism is a pain in any walk of life, but it absolutely kills creativity. Nothing is worse, when you’re in full flow, than to feel that you’ve got to stop and alter what you’ve already written, because it doesn’t read quite right. Or there’s a spelling mistake, or….whatever.

perfectionism f

That’s why free-writing is such a brilliant idea. It means that you can just get your stuff down on paper and forget about form and structure. New ideas and phrases just appear, and you’re amazed how they got there. And when it’s all over, and your creativity has run into a wall, then is the time to go back and fossick about with the they’res and theirs and there theres.

Having said that, I did find myself self-correcting all the way through this piece. Not that I’m a perfectionist or anything…

Images via Creative Commons, from:





How To Know If You Are A Chick-Lit Heroine

Really liked this piece from Tara Sparling. Should have re-blogged it ages ago. Better late than never, I suppose. And it is very funny.

How To Know If You Are A Chick-Lit Heroine.

Steamy affair


On Sunday we went to the Hollowell Steam Rally. Hollowell is a beautiful village in Northamptonshire, and every year steam enthusiasts – that is grimy cheerful men who like driving steam engines very slowly – converge on some fields near the church and show off their darlings to all and sundry. In fact they travel so slowly, that they probably get home from the previous year’s show, just in time to turn round and come back.

steam engine

We’ve gone every year since the kids were small, because what else do you do on a July afternoon in England but eat hot doughnuts, admire the heavy horses, have a ride on a steam driven bus and enjoy a pint of Sam Smiths/Greene King/Marstons Pedigree in the heaving beer tent? (You could have cider, if you wanted, but really, why would you?). It was one of the high points of the year, and there were times when the kids insisted on going on Saturday and Sunday. There were even plans to camp over.



But time has passed, and our kids, as kids do, have been getting older and steam engines no longer cut the mustard. This year only our youngest, (and he’s nearly 15) came with us. He wasn’t going to. His verdict on the whole prospect was ‘But it’s so boring’. Then we mentioned the doughnuts, and he got in the car.


And it was lovely. There were the usual bizarre overheard snippets of conversation, ‘He said, you can’t come in here; you’re not wearing white trousers.’ ‘He’s so like his father, such an arrogant looking head. Mind you, he’s a lovely boy.’ And, ‘I came round to borrow your wobbelator but you weren’t in.’


Husband had to be physically dragged away from the stationary engines, the parade ring was a stately mass of motorbikes, Victorian prams and dogs and heavy horses. The doughnuts were fab. Husband and son moved among the motorbikes like judges at a cattle show. ‘Look dad, a BSA Bantam; mm that’s a beauty, look at the stainless steel exhausts on that one; Norton, fabulous frame.’

As we were leaving a Spitfire and a Hurricane flew over, and everyone stopped to follow them across the blue, cloud spattered sky. It was, as Lou Reed would say, a perfect day. And next year? Of course we’ll be back. But our kids may have better things to do.



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