Not lost, but abandoned

It was 1986 when Nottinghamshire social worker, Margaret Humphreys, was first contacted by a former child migrant in Australia.  She was asked if she could help track down his family in the UK.  That was just the start of a long journey for Margaret, and for the many individuals and families she has helped since that day.

In 1987 she established the Child Migrants Trust, which continues to do vital work in tracking down families and raising awareness.

Here is an excerpt from the Child Migrants Trust website that explains a little of what the children were subjected to:

‘After being told fanciful tales of travel to the ‘Land of Milk and Honey‘, where children ride to school on horseback, child migrants were sent abroad without passports, social histories or even basic documents such as a full birth certificate. Brothers and sisters were frequently separated for most of their childhood; some were loaded onto trucks for long journeys to remote institutions, only to be put to work as labourers the next day. Many felt an extreme sense of rejection by their family and country of origin. Others felt like characters from Kafka’s novels; their punishment was obvious – exile from their family and homeland – but the nature of their crime was a complete mystery.

The tragic reality for many child migrants was appalling standards of care which fell well below standards found within British institutions. Children as young as seven, sent to institutions in Western Australia, were involved in construction works without basic safety measures. Many were injured in building accidents at an age when they would have been in school if they had remained in the United Kingdom.’

Families were torn apart – many never to find each other again.  In a recent news article (Daily Mirror, 30th August 2018) Rex Wade – one of the last child migrants to be sent to Australia in 1970 – tells his story:

“The whole experience ruined my life. We were treated like slaves. It was wrong and should never have happened.”

These and many other stories inspired me to write The Forgotten Children  – in the hope that it will increase awareness about this terrible period in British history.

The Forgotten Children is available now for pre-order from Amazon and will be published on November 29th.

The Queen of Crime!

On the 15th September 1890 Agatha Christie was born.  She started writing novels  in her early twenties and a hundred years later her books are still being read by millions!

Among those readers is Janie Juke, young librarian and amateur sleuth, whose hero is Hercule Poirot.  Janie has made a name for herself in the sleepy seaside town of Tamarisk Bay, where she uses all she has learned from Poirot to solve crimes and mysteries.

The Janie Juke mysteries are set in Sussex in the late 1960s – when Agatha Christie’s books were already famous the world over.

Now, to help celebrate the birthday of our wonderful Queen of Crime, you can buy the whole Janie Juke trilogy in one compilation.

The Sussex Crime Mysteries is available now for pre-order via Amazon at a special discounted price for just 15 days – don’t delay, the clock is ticking…

What makes a great author?

I’ve been finding out more about that wonderful Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie.  Having just read her biography, I have discovered some interesting facts about her.  Here are some of them:

  • her ideas for plots, characters and settings came in a random way – she filled numerous notebooks, but there was no order or organisation to her note-taking
  • she lived a busy life outside of her writing and was prepared to try her hand at all sorts of pursuits – even windsurfing!
  • she travelled extensively
  • she loved her privacy.

While reading about her I have tried to deduce what it was about her writing that made her as famous and well-loved as she was – and still is.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Agatha Christie lived for 85 years and was writing for most of those years – her first book was published in 1920 – when she was thirty years old, and she was still getting great reviews for newly published works in the 1970s – fifty years later
  • her books have been translated into numerous languages and have been read by millions
  • it seems to me that her focus was always the story – she loved the psychology of crime – creating twists and turns throughout to keep her readers guessing.

In the words of her biographer:

‘Agatha’s books last because they are good, if sometimes hopelessly improbable stories.  The reader, once hooked, wants to know what happens next.  They deal with myths, fantasies, obsessions shared by people of every sort: quests and contests, death, sex, money, murder, conspiracy, transformation, power, the triumph of the simple over the complex, the importance of the mundane as well as the cosmic.  They construct a pattern, assigning facts and emotions to their appointed place as problems are resolved and guilt and innocence established.’

‘Agatha Christie – A biography’ by Janet Morgan (published 2017)

So, how does all this help a rookie author called Isabella Muir, who has developed a fascination for writing crime mysteries?

Well, by delving into the life of Agatha Christie’s life I can see that she lived a full life – grasping opportunities to explore and to learn about people, places, experiences.  It seems to me that it was a life well lived.  Inevitably that spilled into her writing and her energy and enthusiasm meant that she just kept on going – writing and living.

I’ve been learning from Agatha, at the same time as Janie Juke has been learning from her hero, Hercule Poirot.  Janie has successfully solved two mysteries so far in ‘The Tapestry Bag’ and ‘Lost Property’, with her third – ‘The Invisible Case’ waiting in the wings for publication this June.  Janie and I have a long road ahead – but if we keep Agatha Christie in her hearts and in our heads then we are in good company!

The Invisible Case will soon be available for pre-order on Amazon – watch this space!

Follow Isabella Muir on Twitter @SussexMysteries for the latest news about the Janie Juke mystery series.

Agatha Christie’s secrets

I’m continuing to follow the trail of Agatha Christie!  (while channelling Janie Juke, of course!)

I have come across a fascinating book, entitled: Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.  The author, John Curran, had the great fortune to have ‘unfettered access’ to all of Agatha Christie’s papers, as well as the hospitality of her grandson, Mathew Pritchard.  Curran then spent some four years delving into over Christie’s notebooks – over seventy of them.  He has done an excellent job, as the book is littered with excerpts from the notebooks, all of which give the reader real insight into the vibrant mind of the ‘Queen of Crime’.

It seems that all Christie needed in order to capture an idea was a blank page – it didn’t matter whether that page was within the cheapest exercise book, or, as Curran puts it:  ‘hard-backed multi-paged notebooks with marbled covers’ which seemed to be ‘more worthy recipients’.

My feeling is that the notebooks became a reflection not only of Christie, the author, but also of Agatha, the wife and mother.  Scattered in amongst her exciting ideas for novels and short stories are the more mundane essentials of everyday life, such as shopping lists and reminders for hair appointments.  It seems that there was little rhyme or reason to the order in which she made her notes. Curran explains:

‘In only five instances is a Notebook devoted to a single title. [otherwise, the] …use of the Notebooks was utterly random.  Christie opened a Notebook […], found the next blank page and began to write.  It was simply a case of finding an empty page, even one between two already filled pages.  And, as if that wasn’t complicated enough, in almost all cases she turned the Notebook over and, with admirable economy, wrote from the back also.’

(from ‘Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks’ by John Curran, published 2010)

For anyone who likes to gain an insight into Agatha Christie, the author, this book is a delight.  You can see how her mind was working when, for example, she devised the fatal seating plan for Sparkling Cyanide.  She plays around with various positions for each of the main characters, until she settles on the one that works best for the storyline.

From other notebook snippets we see how she devised her characters.  She tries out names and brief descriptions, amending her ideas later on within the same notebook, or even another notebook.  There is a similar process for her scene plotting, where she allocates letters (for example, A to L) but then moves scenes around until she reaches the one that, in her mind, will work best.

Having read through Curran’s fascinating book, what struck me most was Christie’s ability to juggle with so many storylines, characters, settings and plot twists and turns – with what looks to the outsider as little order or organisation.  It seems that she was literally bursting with ideas.  It is no wonder that she was such a prolific author and that her books continue to be just as popular more than forty years after her death – and almost one hundred years since the publication of her first crime novel: The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Which brings us back full circle to Janie Juke’s first mystery: The Tapestry Bag, where snippets from this first of Christie’s novels provide Janie with a subtle helping hand.

More about Agatha Christie soon!

On the trail of Agatha Christie

In the Janie Juke mystery series, my protagonist, Janie, refers to her passion for Agatha Christie novels.  In particular, Janie loves the stories featuring Hercule Poirot and has learned many of her investigative skills from him.  As she tackles the mysteries occurring in Tamarisk Bay, she draws on many of Poirot’s techniques to follow the trail of evidence to solve the crimes.

So, I’ve been following my own trail!  With the wonders of the internet it’s easy enough to discover the facts and figures about Christie’s incredible writing career.  For example,  I learned that Poirot featured in thirty-three of her novels, whereas Miss Marple featured in just twelve.  This was despite the fact that Agatha herself described Poirot as an ‘insufferable’ man.

The statistics of Christie’s writing career are astonishing – her novels have sold more than a billion copies in English and a further billion or more in translation (in 103 languages).  In fact, a Wikipedia article suggests her books are second only in popularity to the Bible and Shakespeare.

But it was a story of another trail altogether that helped me to learn a little more about Agatha Christie, wife and mother.  In 1922, aged 32, she accompanied her first husband, Archie, on a ten-month voyage around the world – South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Canada.  Archie had been invited to join a trade mission to promote the British Empire Exhibition, due to take place in 1924.  Agatha was determined to go with him, even though it meant that her two-year-old daughter had to be left behind, in the care of Agatha’s sister.

The Grand Tour is a wonderful collection of photos, newspaper cuttings, journal entries and letters and has been edited by Agatha Christie’s grandson, Mathew Pritchard.  Agatha frequently wrote home to her much-loved mother, telling her of all the fascinating places they visited and the interesting people they met.

Reading through the letters and anecdotes has given me a wonderful sense of Agatha as she was then, observant, intrigued, ready to take on new challenges.  Here is one snippet that made me smile:

‘I made a lot of discoveries about fruit.  Pineapples, for instance, I had always thought of as hanging down gracefully from a tree.  I was so astonished to find that an enormous field I had taken to be full of cabbages was in fact of pineapples.’

(from The Grand Tour, edited by Mathew Pritchard, published 2012)

Once they arrived in Honolulu she was determined to try her hand at surfing and with perseverance started to master the sport:

‘After ten days I began to be daring…The first six times I came to grief …[but] Oh, the moment of complete triumph on the day that I kept my balance and came right into shore standing upright on my board!’

(from The Grand Tour, edited by Mathew Pritchard, published 2012)

There are so many wonderful snippets in this book and it is easy to see how the things she experienced during her travels influenced her writing, helped shape her characters, her settings and her plotlines.

As authors, we are encouraged to ‘write what you know’ – well, a trip around the world certainly helped the famous ‘Queen of Crime’ to expand her knowledge, so that nearly one hundred years on we are still enjoying the benefits.

EARLY ONE MORNING

(by Virginia Baily, published 2015)

A kind friend lent me this novel when he discovered I was interested in learning about what life was like in Italy during the Second World War, as part of the research for the third book in the Janie Juke mystery series.  The perfect about this storyline is that it is set in the very year and region that I had been focused on – Rome, 1943.

This was the year when Italians changed their allegiance and the English went from being their enemies to being their friends.  In truth, I am sure that for average Italian the English were never considered the enemy – but with Mussolini choosing to be pally with Hitler, well, it didn’t bode well.  Then, after a ‘vote of no confidence’ in July 1943 Mussolini was arrested and in October that year Italy declared war on Germany.

Early One Morning captures all of the difficulties of life at that time.  It has a powerful start, with the protagonist, Chiara, saving the life of a young Jewish boy – Daniele – when his family is rounded up by German troops.   As the story unfolds we learn how that single moment has devastating results for Daniele and Chiara for years to come.  We meet Chiara again in the 1970s to discover how she copes when she receives an expected phone call.  A phone call that brings back memories she had hoped to forget.

The tale is beautifully told, well written, and full of detail that helps the reader to see, smell and taste what life was like in Italy in the forties and again in the seventies.  It was during the seventies that I made many of my own trips to Rome, with family and with friends.  My memories of pizza al taglio is perfectly described here:

‘Customers were coming out of the baker’s, clutching pieces of something hot, wrapped in waxed paper, biting into it before they even got out of the door, so irresistibly delicious was it.’

And here, a description of one of Rome’s famous squares:

‘…Piazza Navona, with the three fountains, the water bouncing off the great white statues now and sparkling in the bright midday sunshine.’

All in all, the book was a joy to read and took me back there to that place and that time, without me ever having to leave my house!

 

 

 

A brave lady

I read an article this week that made me feel sad and inspired, in equal measure.  It was an interview with the daughter of the wonderful, and much missed, Helen Dunmore.

I have loved Helen’s writing since I first discovered her novels, maybe 15 years ago or more.  The first title of hers that I read was, A Spell of Winter, (published 1996) and since then I have gone on to read several more, including, The Siege; House of Orphans; The Greatcoat and The Lie.  

Right now I am in the middle of reading Exposure, published in 2016, just a year before she died.

I haven’t read any of her poetry, but it is her eighth collection of poetry, Inside the Wave, for which she was awarded a posthumous prize of the Costa Book of the Year.  Her daughter, Tess, and her son, Patrick, received the award on their mother’s behalf.

“Poetry was in Mum’s soul,” Patrick Charnley told the audience, thanking her poetry editor, Neil Astley, in particular. “This collection contains some of the most beautiful writing she completed in her life and it came at the time of her death. It is so personal and so wonderful, we hope it will touch a lot people who face this thing that we all do.”

(excerpt from The Guardian, 30 January 2018)

Two weeks before she died, Helen wrote a poem for her children.  She was creating even then.

Her daughter, Tess, explained how Helen had been so incredibly brave during her last months and weeks.  She said that her mother approached death with ‘such grace’ that it took much of the fear away.  Quite a gift to give someone when you know your time is up.

Her daughter explains:

“I think although her world got smaller, she couldn’t go out so far afield, she continued to just see the beauty in everything – which I find very inspiring.

“She just made the most of every single day until she died.”

 (excerpt from BBC News, 31 January 2108)

Tess is right.  Helen Dunmore has been an inspiration, not only to her family and friends, but to the millions of readers who have marvelled at her writing.  Let’s hope she knows what a difference she has made and how her legacy will continue.

Goodbye and thank you

Two weeks ago, I woke to the sad news that one of my favourite authors had died.  She had dealt with her illness privately and with courage, which meant that many of her readers may have been as shocked as me at the news.  Helen Dunmore was just 64 when she died.  Much too young.

I first came across Helen’s novels about 10 years ago.  I think A Spell of Winter was my introduction to her beautifully crafted writing.  Since then I have read many more and marvelled at every one.  What’s more, on a visit to the London Book Fair in 2014, I was delighted to discover Helen being interviewed in the PEN Literary Salon, talking about her latest book.

Her writing is meticulously researched so that the reader is immersed in the setting and the period.  She quite literally takes you on a journey back in time and you feel as though you have met the characters and experienced the hardship and challenges they face.

For anyone who hasn’t yet explored Helen’s writing, I have provided a flavour of her work here, by taking a look at the last couple of novels I’ve read and given a taster of one I have on my reading pile still to look forward to.

The Siege – first published 2001

This is a harrowing tale, describing the siege of Leningrad in 1941.  The novel describes the bigger picture of how the second world war affected the lives of Russians, while focusing in on the desperate daily tragedies the German blockade inflicted on them.

Some of the images that Dunmore conjures up, of families being so hungry they boil shoe leather to make soup, stayed with me long after I turned the last page.

Dunmore writes:

‘Everyone now knows what it takes to keep life in a body.  You can be separated from your life so easily.  It might happen in the street, or in the bread queue, while you’re typing or while you’re sleeping.  You can die from a cold, an ear infection, or a miscarriage.  If you have a stomach ulcer it will open and bleed.  You can die so casually these days.’

The House of Orphans – first published 2006

The House of Orphans is set in Finland in 1902.  It tells the story of Eeva, an orphaned girl who is sent to a country orphanage when her father dies.  But Eeva has a strong will and steadily battles against the challenges that her impoverished life throws at her.

Eeva has never forgotten her children friend, Lauri, who is now caught up in the resistance movement.  Lauri is drawn into terrorism as he joins others to fight against the attempts of Russia to impose its rule on Helsinki.  But Eeva shows him that there is another way of living, that it’s possible to live with hope in your heart, rather than hatred.

Dunmore writes:

‘There would be no next, he knew that now.  Not for him.  Whatever it took to make a people’s martyr, he hadn’t got it.  They had shown him photographs of a row of dangling men.  But when he looked closer there were women as well.  They had their skirts tied at the ankles, for decency.

He would go away, with Eeva.  They did not have to stay here.  He had never thought he would really leave his country for ever, but then he’d never felt like this before.  It seemed to him that the sun had stopped shining on his life here.  He was living in an eclipse.  If he stayed, nothing lay ahead of him but weariness and risk and a long blunder through darkness towards a goal that he wasn’t even sure he wanted to reach.’

The Lie – first published in 2014

In The Lie Helen returns to the first world war, but this time the setting is Cornwall, where a young man remembers his experiences in the trenches.

I have yet to read this novel, but the Guardian says of this book:

The Lie is a fine example of Dunmore’s ability to perceive the long vistas of history in which the dead remain restless…It is a book in which ghosts, perhaps, remain imaginary: but they are none the less real for that.’

And the Times Literary Supplement says:

The Lie is a substantial work, and Dunmore is able to crystallize tragedy in a simple sentence.’

What is evident from all of Dunmore’s novels is that she is doing so much more than telling a story.  She is allowing us to see these periods of history through her eyes, eyes that are sharp and wise, and through her beautifully crafted prose.

She has received many plaudits, winning the McKitterick Prize, the Orange Prize and the TS Eliot Prize, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for The Betrayal in 2010.  As well as 15 novels, Helen Dunmore has written many children’s books, young adult books and poetry.

Helen Dunmore was taken from us too soon, but she will continue to live on in her writing and in the minds of her readers.  I, for one, am grateful for that.