Thursday, 22 September 2016

The story behind The Spyglass File



Not exactly prolific at these blog things, am I...? You’d think that I’d be better at it, what with being a writer and all! Anyway, here's blog number three. It's about the inspiration behind my latest book, TheSpyglass File. You might want to stop reading if a) what you've already read here is too exciting for you or b) you've yet to read The Spyglass File – and, if that's the case, then what are you waiting for—go ahead and read it, then come back here!

So, The Spyglass File... I've been fascinated by WW2 since I was very young. I'm not quite sure where this interest came from, but it led to my writing two non-fiction books—Hastings at War (2005) and Hastings Wartime Memories and Photographs (2008) - both available from Amazon. These books looked at the minutiae of life in a Sussex seaside town and how it affected the lives of normal citizens. Part of the research process for these two books involved interviewing dozens of men and women who had lived through this period and who shared with me such varied memories: happy events, funny anecdotes, strange stories and many recollections of the death and destruction brought into their lives. This gave me a good insight into the realities of living through the Second World War; I knew whilst writing The America Ground (the prequel to The Spyglass File) that I wanted the next book to be set during this period.

What happened next was rather strange…just as a potential story thread that I had been pursuing fell apart, so another was dropped into my lap. On the 10th July 2015 I discovered that I had an aunt — an older sister to my father - who was born in secrecy in the midst of the Second World War. We met fifteen days later; a bewildering and yet wonderful experience. I could, however, have happily kicked myself for not having found her years ago whilst my father was still alive. I started researching my Goodwin tree in 1998, but never thought to run such a basic search in the indexes for children born to my grandparents; there was my dad and two younger sisters—that was the way it had always been as far as the family was concerned, so why would I have bothered to double-check more widely? But actually, sitting in the birth registers for the June quarter of 1943 was another sibling born to my grandmother whilst my grandfather was captive as a prisoner-of-war. This is the basis of the inspiration for The Spyglass File.

Joyce Gingell, a twenty-year-old machinist married my grandfather, Albert Leslie Goodwin on the 22nd December 1940 in St John’s Church, Kensal Green, London. Albert was a twenty-three-year-old soldier, who had enlisted in the Royal Army Service Corps in March of that year.


The marriage of Albert Leslie Goodwin and Joyce Avis Gingell

Having completed a short period in St Nazaire, on the 12th July 1940 he was posted to 292 company as a driver. On the 29th October 1941, Albert and the rest of 292 Company embarked for services overseas. He was posted to 54 Infantry Brigade on the 6th January 1942 and the Brigade left Singapore the same day, becoming embroiled in the disastrous Fall of Singapore. He, along with 80,000 other men were part of the largest ever surrender in British military history on the 15th February 1942 when the Japanese army conquered Malaya and then Singapore. One month later, Joyce was informed that her husband was missing in action. She received no further information, not even whether or not he was still alive.

At some point around the end of June 1942, Joyce met a man—purportedly named Henry Francis Rowe—an electrician from Burton-upon-Trent at a dance. The result of this liaison was that Joyce became pregnant with this man’s baby. One can only speculate as to the state of her mind during these turbulent years of war, and not knowing whether her husband was dead or alive must only have compounded the matter.

From the records available, it seems that between Joyce and her parents, the decision was made that, as soon as the baby was born, it was to be adopted. Later that year, her father wrote, ‘I am anxious to clear this matter up as soon as possible…’ At some stage during the pregnancy, Joyce was removed far from her home in London to an address in Nottingham. The house was owned by a widow, one Kate Buxton, who intriguingly shares the same surname as Joyce’s grandmother, although I have yet to find a connection between the two women.

Just ten days prior to giving birth, Joyce received official notification that her husband, Albert was indeed alive and was a prisoner-of-war in Japanese hands.



On the 24th March 1943, Joyce gave birth to a healthy baby girl weighing 7 ¾ pounds. Joyce registered the birth of her daughter on 9th April 1943, naming her daughter Valerie. The process of adoption began in Nottingham soon afterwards. However, the process faltered as Joyce had erroneously noted Albert Leslie Goodwin as the father of the baby and, on the 26th August 1943, accompanied by her father, she was forced to return to the register office and have the certificate amended.

The amended birth certificate

With Albert’s details removed from the birth certificate, the adoption process continued. Joyce returned to London with the baby, living in the Salvation Army Eventide Home in Denmark Hill. Finally, in what must have been an agonising eight months for Joyce, the adoption went through and the baby was handed over to a childless couple from Nottingham.

As far as the family is aware, the baby was never spoken of again and it is assumed that Joyce returned home, never telling Albert about the baby. His prisoner of war camp in Thailand was liberated by the allies in 20th September 1945 and he was repatriated back to England on the 12th October—three and a half years after having been captured. He was awarded the 1939-45 Star, the Pacific Star and the War Medal 1939-45.

Albert died in 1971. In 2001, Joyce received compensation on Albert’s behalf for the privations suffered during his internment. She died in April 2006. The long process of Valerie — Pauline under her new name — discovering the circumstances of her birth began less than five months after Joyce’s death in September 2006, when she was unable to locate herself in the birth register indexes; the following year it was confirmed to her that she had been adopted.

If you have already read The Spyglass File you will have noticed the parallels that run between Joyce’s life and those of the main character in the book, Elsie Finch. Although there are similarities between the two women, I deliberately did not want to try and retell Joyce’s story. Elsie and her role in the WAAF were based upon a great deal of research into the vital work that these women undertook listening, transcribing, translating and decoding communications between the Luftwaffe pilots who flew over the south coast of Kent.














Thursday, 19 November 2015

Butter my wig! - the Sussex dialect

To my ears as a young boy, the accent of my grandmother's second husband was a strange dialect which resembled that of a farmer from the deep West Country of England. I would not have been surprised to learn that he was born and bred in some tiny rural Cornish parish. However, he had spent his entire life in Sussex and his accent and some of the phrases he used were pure Sussex. Sadly, like many dialects, it is now dying out, having been slowly watered down and changed over time owing largely to greater mobility.

I decided to set my most recent genealogical crime mystery - The America Ground - in and around Hastings, Sussex in the 1820s and very much wanted the characters' dialogue to be as genuine as possible. Inevitably, some compromises had to be made in the writing process and I had to make it so that unfamiliar words could be understood by their context. (Anyone fancy a Huckle-my-buff?)

For my research, I drew on several books that dealt with the Sussex dialect, most notably The Reverend W.D. Parish's A Dictionary of The Sussex Dialect.


First published in 1875, the book's introduction neatly summarises the gradual decline of the dialect: 'In 1924, the rural novelist Sheila Kaye-Smith rather beautifully illustrated her fears for the future of the Sussex dialect. How would three generations from the same Sussex household respond verbally today, she asked, to the question of whether a storm was coming? Well, let's start with 'Grandfather', born perhaps in the 1860s, and accustomed to country ways. 'Surelye, fur de ships' tails is all to wind'ard,' the old man would observe, sagely, in pure bucolic vernacular...representing the next generation would be 'Father,' who had received a state education: 'Well, it may be, for the glass is low.' Finally, and most worryingly, it would be the turn of 'Sonny,' a child reared in a period of unstoppable 'Londonisation'. What do you think, Sonny: is there a storm coming? And in the universal cockney, 'Not half!' would be Sonny's depressingly cheerful reply....The time was fast approaching when a large number of people living in Sussex would be clueless about its traditional words, and deaf to its traditional pronunciations.' 

Parish begins his dictionary with suggestion of the origins of certain Sussex words or phrases, many of which lingered from past invasions. 'What a peter-grievous child you are!' Parish believes this phrase, like many others, to derive from the French, petit grief and 'We're all of a dishabille' from d├ęshabiller. Other languages such as Latin were also drawn on and some Old English terms, such as 'maxon' for manure heap and 'mew' for a seagull were also in use.

Parish noted the 'not unfrequent' use of the reduplicated plural, which I rather like! He states that 'a Sussex man would see nothing absurd in saying, "I saw the ghostessess, sitting on postesses, eating of their toastesses, and fighting with their fistesses."'

A large number of the words in the dictionary derive from the particular coastal landscape and nature found in Sussex. Apparently there are at least 30 words to describe mud. Some nature descriptions which I particularly enjoyed reading were 'A naughty man's play thing' for stinging nettle, 'shog' for the core of an apple and 'storm cock' for a mistle thrush.

Among the other works I consulted for as part of my research process were David Arscott's We Won't be Druv. The title comes from a once-renowned Sussex saying, meaning 'We won't be driven (to do what we don't wish to do!).' Fiction work included Stella Gibbon's amusing parody of Sussex life, Cold Comfort Farm. Another book, written entirely in dialect is Tom Clapdpole's Jurney to Lunnun...told by himself and written in pure Sussex doggerel by his Uncle Tim.


This is one of my favourite scenes using Sussex dialect in The America Ground:

Harriet set the food and drinks onto a tea tray and made her way upstairs, this time ensuring that her feet fell on each and every noisy board, so as to be sure to alert the woman of her arrival.
‘Butter-my-wig, if it ain’t the newest of draggle-tails come into my room,’ Widow Elphick chided. She was sitting up in bed wearing a cream petticoat. ‘Miss Rutherford be sparing you the day, has she?’
Harriet bit down on her lip and placed the tray beside the bed. ‘Beer, water, bread and cheese for you,’ she said warmly, hastening towards the door.
‘I be a-talking to you, you filthy little wretch. You be thick of hearing?’ Widow Elphick shouted, making Harriet stop dead. ‘Least you could do is a-look at me.’

I will close this blog with some of my all-time words and phrases, which I am trying to resurrect (at least in my household!) - maybe you could casually drop some into your conversations at home?!
  • Butter-my-wig - a strong assertion
  • Chuckle-headed - stupid
  • Concerned in liquor - drunk
  • Dead alive - stupid
  • Dish of tongues - a scolding
  • Draggle-tail - slut
  • Fluttergrub - someone who likes working in the dirt
  • Gape seed - something to stare at - what are you sowing gape seed at?
  • Huckle-my-buff - a beverage composed of beer, eggs and brandy (admittedly not a great call for that in my house...)
  • Muck-grubber - a sordid miser
  • Dabbler - a gossip
  • Romney Marsh - there is a saying in Sussex that the world is divided into five parts: Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh. Love it!
  • Swallocky - appearance of clouds in hot weather, before a thunderstorm
  • Thick-of-hearing - deaf









Thursday, 3 September 2015

First blog / new book!

Hi everyone!

Well, here I am making an appearance in the world of blogging!  I had originally intended to create a newsletter to keep Morton fans up-to-date with his latest goings on, but I've opted for blogging instead, as I think it has a much greater potential for interaction and spontaneity. Let's see how it goes...

So yesterday saw the Kindle launch of my latest book in the Forensic Genealogist series! The America Ground, like the other books in the series, shifts between the present day and a past narrative, which in the case of this book, is set in 1820s Hastings, Sussex.


The front cover of The America Ground, designed by Patrick Dengate

I loved writing this book for many reasons. First of all, it was great being back with Morton - I find him very easy to write now; he's a bit of an old friend! I think he'll make the good subject of a future blog! It's a huge cliche, I know, but when I'm writing I am always genuinely surprised at how the characters come to life and do / say things that I didn't expect! 

I've had a long fascination with the real story of the America Ground (again, another future blog!) and, whilst I was writing The Lost Ancestor, felt that there was a strong story begging to be written. The past narrative chapters were the most challenging I have yet written as the style of speech and language used back then was obviously very different to today.  I also wanted to include snippets from the wonderful old Sussex dialect in the book, which presented a bit of a challenge as I didn't want to include a glossary (I think that would have been rather irritating!), so I settled on only using words where the context could be derived from the whole sentence. Hopefully readers don't find the words too annoying! But then, who could find 'Butter my wig!' as a surprised exclamation at all annoying?! 

The sub-narrative of Morton's origins builds from the previous books. I won't give too much away, but let's just say that his story moves on...

Right, first blog done! 

Nathan