Category Archives: Victorian

Winkling out the past

As we advance the clocks it’s now warm enough for me to work in the ‘Philosopher’s Hut’, my pimped garden shed geared up for writing, and I have much to think about. I’ve been ruminating of late on existential topics, reading Joan Forman on the nature of time and Simone de Beauvoir on the meaning of what it is to live and to die. It’s partly the work on our new book, Beer & Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Cambridgeshire, that led me to Forman’s writing, which in turn led me to revisit works that I haven’t read for years such as T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

My cerebral batteries have also been re-charged by a fresh dialectic between a long-proclaimed Cambridge family doctrine and the ‘truth’ that lies behind the life and death of my great-great grandmother Susan Anstee (1864-1914), whose name I learned only last year thanks to a disclosure by a distant cousin. 

As a child I wanted to connect with people from the past. I was drawn to stories that shifted our sense of time and history. Particular favourites were Tom’s Midnight GardenThe Secret Gardenand Charlotte Sometimes. It’s a revelation for Tom Long that neither he nor his new friend from the midnight garden are ghosts. He discovers whilst different people have different times, they’re really all bits of the same big Time. People are not really living in the past but are instead living out their individual existences in different layers of that same big Time.

I didn’t know then that I would have to wait over forty years to experience that interruption of now, that moment of timeless synchronicity, when a far family memory is revealed in all its unseemly glory. Consequently, as well as continuing my researches on the topics of Cambridge college servants (which I began in 2016) and the life and work of the author Norah C. James (which I began in 2018), I’m now looking into plight of sex workers in Victorian Cambridge.

Yesterday I attended a course at the Cambridge Central Library – ‘An introduction to memoir writing’. The whole session was a series of writing exercises, what I call ‘fast-twitch’ writing. Whilst stimulating, this was slightly disappointing. I wanted us to talk about what we mean by ‘memoir’ and to hear about published works that might be a good read.  During the last six months I’ve read A Lincolnshire Childhood by Ursula Brighouse; I Lived in a Democracy by Norah C. James; In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, and A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir. For one of the workshop tasks we were given a few minutes to write about food that we did or didn’t like. I wrote about a memory from when I was eight or nine.

Gritty, chewy bogies on toast. My grandad would use a needle to delicately pick out the winkles one by one and lay them across a slice of thickly buttered toast. He offered me a taste and, not wanting to displease, I screwed up my eyes, held my nose and popped a tiny grey morsel into my mouth. He didn’t seem to notice my revulsion and smiled approvingly. Trying not to chew, I swallowed as quickly as I could and then took a gulp from my glass of lemonade.

The workshop was certainly a useful anaerobic interlude, prompting a return to the blog writing and a review of my collection of filled notebooks. These are not diaries but ‘sketch’ books, much like my husband Trevor’s but unlike his, filled with words rather than drawings.

Whilst my muscles do need stretching, it’s probably a good thing that my running days are over. The recent unsurprising diagnosis of osteoarthritis in my ankles and knees means I have more time to spend in the hut. Last year I completed The Curious History of Mazes which had to be written according to a strict schedule set by the publisher. Immediately after that I went on to the research and curation for the Window on the Warexhibition on women in Cambridge during World War I, and to the research for our first ghost book, Beer & Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Bedfordshire.

Last January I stepped down from the Monday Collections volunteering at the Museum of Cambridge, to release more time for me to assist Trevor with paid work in the studio. Besides working on the next in our Beer & Spirits series, I’m delivering many illustrated talks for a range of groups and societies on three topics; The Remarkable Story of Heffers of Cambridge, 1876-1999The Curious History of Labyrinths & Mazes, and Beer and Spirits: tales of sightings, sounds and sensations in our local haunted hostelries.I enjoy engaging with different audiences and I enjoy winkling out the past, unsavoury though it may be for some.

My distant cousin said the other day, ‘I suppose you’ll be writing about Susan’.

I most certainly will.