A Day Out In History

The Black Country Museum from the Chapel steps

          I visited the Black Country Museum the other day.
          It’s an open air museum, dedicated to the industrial history of the Black Country, with many reconstructed buildings, illustrating what life was like in the area from the late 1700s to the 1930s.
          We chanced on a day  when many steam engines were chuntering around the site, and as we stepped from the entrance building, we breathed in coal-smoke, and ash I hadn’t smelled in many a long year.  It was the smell of my childhood. (Davy, a Scot and country boy, started coughing immediately, and said that he wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in Ye Olde Blacke Countrie.  My family lasted, but it’s true that we have generations of bronchitis, severe coughs, sinus trouble and catarrh behind us.)
          We saw the ‘nodding donkey’ Newcomen engine steaming away.  It’s one of the oldest surviving engines, dating from 1712, and originally built to pump water from Lord Dudley’s mines, only a couple of miles from where it stands now.
          From there we visited the mine.  It’s a ‘fake’ mine, but within the constraints of not actually injuring or killing visitors, an effective one.  As you go round, tableau are illuminated, and a recorded voice – supposedly that of an old miner – tells you about the work done by the miners in the 19th century. 
          The low, narrow, dimly lit tunnels give a very real sense of the claustrophobic, awful conditions: and the mock ‘blasts’ and roof-falls are scary.  We emerged into the daylight profoundly grateful, yet again, for having been born in the 20thCentury, and not having spent a childhood crouching in total darkness, to open air-doors.
          The mine also provides a vivid impression of the dangers of the Black Country’s famous ‘thirty-foot seam’ (9 metre seam) – the only place in the world where you climbed a tall ladder to cut coal.  Bringing the roof down was no game.
'The Ghost Wife' ebook by Susan Price - Art by Andrew Price
          Walking around above ground, I pointed out the dark ‘Staffordshire Blue’ bricks that topped most of the walls, and made the pavements and roadways.  I realised that the red and blue brick, the grey smoke and the greenery in the gardens made up the colour palette of my childhood – as my brother has so well captured in his cover for my ‘Ghost Wife’, set in the Black Country.  I hadn’t realised that until I visited the museum.
          We joined a lesson in the school, chanted our times tables, and practiced our handwriting on the slates, and we toured the 1920’s fairground with its helter-skelter and swingboats.  We went into the cinema – we got two of the better seats, avoiding the hard benches – and watched a showing of Chaplin’s ‘Getting Acquainted’, which I have to say I found completely incomprehensible, though Davy was chuckling.
The Dudley canal tunnel
          But what Davy really wanted to do was go through the canal tunnels under Dudley’s hill.  So we joined the narrow boat and were taken into the dark, dripping tunnels that have been there since 1792.  It’s not very comforting, when you have a whole hill hanging above you, to think that the boat battered brickwork around you, seeped through with calcite from the limestone, is 220 years old.
          It’s a memorable – if wet – experience, as your boat passes the sinister openings of old limestone mines, or floats from darkness into a brilliantly lit, green basin, open to the sky and birdsong.  In many places the walls of the tunnel are hung with beautiful calcite ‘curtains’ of crystals in glittering lacy folds.
          After the boat-trip, we visited the ‘Bottle and Glass’ Inn, where they will serve you a pint of old ale – but the place was grimly comfortless compared to a modern pub, even in the saloon bar (and no respectable woman would have crossed the threshold).  Opposite the pub, of course, was the Methodist Chapel, which is used for carol services at Christmas.
          There are several shops, of different dates.  Davy liked the one displaying old motorbikes, and I always enjoy Emile Doo’s Chemist’s.  The grocery shop was being swept out by a woman in Victorian dress.  A visitor called out to her, mockingly, “I’ll have ten pounds wuth of grey pays!”
          The shop-keeper replied, tartly, “I doubt yo’ve got ten pounds to yer nairm, madam – look at the sight on yer – wearing a mon’s trousers, and on a Sabbath!  Yo should be ashairmed!  Out on it – goo on!”  The visitor was laughing too much to think of asking why the shop was, disgracefully, open on the Sabbath.
A Black Country pike
          I was sorry to miss the magnificent shire horses which are sometimes to be found on site (at other times they’re at the Sandwell ValleyFarm) but there were a couple of very happy Gloucester Old Spot pigs grubbing around in a cottage garden; and the stretch of canal down by the old lime kilns has become something of a nature reserve.  Davy, a fisherman, was much impressed by the clarity of the water and the big fish (including a small pike) – and I liked the moorhen and chicks.
Happy pigs
          All in all, a good day out and one which, if great lumps of imagination are used, can give you a glimpse of the old Black Country.  But the real thing, it needs to be pointed out, was much grimmer, dirtier and far more cruel.  The men who worked those lime-kilns, for instance, were blinded: and there was no ‘nanny-state’ either to change the conditions that caused the blinding or to look after them once they were blind.

Emails to an Author: The Wolf's Footprint

     Recently, I was delighted to receive the following email through my website: -
Hi - I work at Upperby Primary School Carlisle and one of our classes has been reading TheWolf’s Footprint.’  Their class teacher has asked them to write their own ending to the story and the children would like to email you theirs. I do appreciate you may not be able to answer them all, but I would be grateful if you receive them could you possibly reply to one or even reply back to me.
Thank you.
Mrs Denise Cannon
     I sent back a reply saying that I would be very happy to see the children’s endings.  I enjoyed writing ‘The Wolf’s Footprint, and I love reading it in schools, so I was curious to see what the children had to say, and how they would have ended the book themselves.
     For those who don’t know the book, it’s a fairy-tale, set in that familiar old-fashioned fairy-tale land. It begins like Hansel and Gretel with two children, a girl, Elka, and a boy, Daw, being abandoned in the forest by their parents.  They are rescued by wolves, who show the children how they can shape-change by drinking water from a wolf’s footprint…
     I enjoyed reading the email’s so much, and was so struck by the inventiveness, that I asked if I could put them on my blog and email, and received this reply:
Hello Susan
Thank you so much for your reply. I have just read this out to my first group of children and in fact Mrs Lancaster, their class teacher, just happened to be here also.  They were all really happy when I told them you had replied. Mrs Lancaster, myself and the children are very excited to hear that you would like to put their endings to the Wolf's Footprint on your website so of course the answer is yes we will certainly be looking forward to seeing them on there.
 Best Wishes
From Denise Cannon (ICT teacher) and everyone in Fantasia Class

     The children’s emails follow: - 

Message: our class heve been reeding wolfs  footprint it was amaising elka and daw most be brave we have nilly finnisht it and this is my ennding is hear it gose i woud like elka and daw to live whith the king and the hunters to find find the mother and father and all live in the kins castel so they will help evrybody and the poor people not poor and live happly eaver after hope you like it but not as good as yours. from your biggest fan chloe
Message: Our class has been reading The Wolf's Footprint.It is a very awsome book.I's beter than my story's I love.oh we have done our own ennding .Here's my'n.Daw loocked for Elka and took her to the Man's footprint but all there fammily died .However the King died to and all of them had a funrell. The end.
Message: this is my ending to the wolv's footprint story       when daw walk up he went to the fire, the king said wear gouwing to find your sisster then daw asked cane we find my mum and dad to ok, declade the king.they fownd daw's sisster,mum and dad they where so happy to see each other they went to the fun fair together they had a good day out. and as for the wolve's they stade in the forest they all lived happy ever after.
Message: My ending to the wolfs footprint story is When Daw was hunting they came accross Elka.She wined "Daw how are you a human again?"
Come with me,"ansewed Daw
He lead Elka to the mans footprint.Unfortunetly,there where no water it had all absobed into the mud...Luckily by looking into Daw's eye's she turned into a human
Message: my ending to the wolf's footprint is The King takes Daw to Elka. Daw prswaids Elka to drink from the man's footprint. Daw and Elka live happily however there parents starve to death.

 And, I also recieved this one, from EmilyRuddock -
Message: Dear Ms Price,
I just wanted to let you know how much pleasure your work has brought me. When I was maybe 10 years old I read The Horn in Gene Kemp's compilation Ghouls, Ghosts and Other Nightmares. A few years after I left primary school, that story kept coming back to me but I couldn't remember its author. I tried Google, other authors, and various other websites, to no avail. For years I searched. Finally I found it again. I'm 23 now, I bought Kemp's compilation, and The Horn is still one of my favourite stories within it. It must have affected me in a big way when I was ten years old. Thank you for that. I just wanted to let you know that you made a big impression on a little girl, and an adult won't ever forget that. Emily

     And thank you, Emily!  One of the joys of writing for children is that you get letters and emails like that, and although writers for adults get fan mail, and doubtless enjoy it, I don’t think they can ever get quite such a thrill as your email gave me!

     I must go and look ‘The Horn’ up myself!

Cheering Charney

Charney Manor
          I write this blog in a hurry, as I'm only just back from the Scattered Authors' Society's annual conference/retreat/get-together/shin-dig.
Uffington white horse
     It's held here, in the beautiful Charney Manor, a medieval manor house in the vicinity of the famous white horse.  Are you jealous yet?
          This year was a smaller gathering than usual, due to the demands made on writers' purses by the recession, the Olympics, the Children's Writers and Illustrators Conference (in September, at Reading) and the IBBY conference - but Charney was all the friendlier for that.  The group was so small that were were able to meet and talk with everyone there.
          I was especially glad to meet Frances Thomas and Joan Lennon, who I've come to know via e-mail, but never met, and who had never been to Charney before - and Sharon Jones, who runs with the poodles, and who was new to Charney and the SAS.
In the solar, getting set for the quiz.
          What do we do at Charney?  Well, we talk a lot - a lot! - and we eat a lot, while talking - and we drink a lot of wine, while talking - and we sit up late, while talking.  And we laugh as much as we talk.
Another Charney visitor
       Most years we do a lot of this talking on the lawn, in the sun, while the Charney swifts swoop, soar and scream around us.  And we usually go for a walk on one afternoon.  But this year it rained, the rain it rainethed every day.  So, less sun and less swift-watching this year, but just as much talking and laughing. (And eating and drinking.)
         We pretended to work. Kath Roberts and I brought people up to date with our e-book adventures, and answered questions on the whole process.  There was, as last year, a lot of interest.
          Miriam Halamy led an excellent poetry workshop, during which I found myself writing stuff which surprised me, as I'm no poet.  Miriam has a gift for poetry and for getting others to think they can write it - check out some of her poems on her website.
The lavender friinged courtyard
          Di Hofmeyr and Penny Dolan led a session on book-trailers, showing us a varied selection and getting us to think about what made them effective or not.
          Mary Hoffman, the History Girls organiser (where does she find the time and energy) gave a talk on the blog, on organising a multi-blog and writing historic fiction - with help from the other History Girls present, Penny Dolan and Linda Newbery.  (And I chipped in a History Girl Reserve.)
          There was free time to cram in a little writing - and on Wednesday evening there was the famous Charney quiz, organised and presided over by Penny and Lynne Benton.  Score was kept by Cindy Jefferies.
A Charney work-session in between downpors
          The quiz was hard-fought, as ever.  I was on Celia's Reivers, led by Celia Rees, together with Sharon, Joan, Kath and Yvonne Coppard - but the intellectual power-house that is Mary Hoffman led Mary's Marauders, and they also had Joe Friedman, who proved an ace mime-act in the charades round.
          Celia's Reivers therefore did all we could to distract and infuriate the opposition, with psychological undermining, nobbling with strong drink, overdoses of chocolate and surprise attacks with screwed up paper balls - but as Celia, Charney quiz veteran, predicted, we lost despite it all. (Her address to her troops went, 'You do realise, don't you, with that Hoffman on the other team, we're going to be utterly trashed?')
          Charney was, as ever, wonderful.  Now, back to work.
The gardens at Charney Manor
          And here's Blott, the writer's muse...

The Dogs of Papier Mache

    The photo is of a whippet sculpture, made by my friend and frequent commentator on this blog, Madwippit, aka author Karen Bush.  (Not only an author, but an expert horsewoman and riding teacher, a dog-trainer, and now we see, also a pretty nifty sculptress.)
         Karen says:
Karen Bush
Here's a picture of a papier mache greyhound I made of Maxi for her owner, who won it in a charity auction.
           Karen sent me the photo because of my post last week, about my persistent brain-worm that pestered me to make a Green Man mask.  I woke up with the idea in my head of making one out of papier-mache – I suppose simply because we used to make paper-mache things when we were kids.  I seem to remember the older of my brothers setting out to make a brontosaurus (he was mad about dinosaurs).  The thing ended up looking more like a cat, so he painted it black and called it 'Tiddles.'
          Karen has knowledgeable tips about papier-mache (as well as horse-riding on a budget, and planting dog-friendly gardens.)  She says:

          It's fun - have a go. It's also cheap - newspaper torn (not cut) into strips is perfect (tissue paper is good for the finishing layers) - wallpaper paste is easy to use and keeps for weeks and weeks - make up a small batch and keep it in a tupperware type container with a lid. If you want to sculpt more you can make your own papier mache pulp but it's a bit of a faff and much easier to buy it in dried form which you add water to - use an electric hand mixer to whizz it and add some PVA glue to make it a little more plastic and stop it from drying too quickly. The pulp sets like rock when it's dry. I prefer using just newspaper, but pulp is handy for detail like toes or the coats of shaggy dogs.
          Look forward to seeing your Green (Wo)Man! 
                   Karen :-)
          This is quite encouraging.  I can feel the call of papier-mache pulp and PVA.  But I must resist!  I have the Sterkarm book to finish; I have an outline to work up for my agent (which I haven’t even starting thinking about, but which I have Davy researching.  That is, he's reading a book he wanted to read anyway, and reporting back to me on it.)  And next week it’s the Scattered Authors' Society's four-day conference, and I haven’t even started to begin to think about organising myself for it…

         But just look at that lovely whippet.  Could I make something as good as that?  Could I?

         If you want to see more whippets, have a look at Karen's blog here. 

         And if you're interested in ghostly Black Dogs, you might like my contribution to Lucy Coats' Fantabulous Fridays blog here.

         And a review of mine is up on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure's review wing here.