Saturday, 18 May 2019

Down by the Lost River Effra

Kennington's Gorgeous Bats

It's been a glorious week in London, just as late spring 'should' be. By contrast, there are ghastly things looming large in the world, and a fair percentage rock up in my courtroom. The  lunch break is my sanity check, and I  head to Kennington Park bearing salad box and writer's notebook. Stress  falls away - thank the Lord for riotous flower beds, sculpted lawns and centuries-old London Plane trees.

The Sculpted Lawns and Ancient Trees

Kennington Park  was common land for hundreds of years. It's first recorded officially in the 1600s. There were village settlements, semi-wild forest and the River Effra, a proud Celtic tributary of the River Thames. The first Queen Elizabeth sailed her barge down the River Effra to Sir Walter Raleigh's Brixton home, but now, like both of them, the River Effra's six feet under the ground.

The Lost River Effra

I wonder whether Sarah Elston walked on the banks of the River Effra. Sarah was the last poor woman to be burned at the stake, in England.  She had murdered her husband and they consigned her to the flames, here in my beautiful park, charged with witchcraft and treason. History does not record what the husband had done to provoke her, but whatever it was, they wouldn't have burned him for it, of that we can be sure.

Sarah Elston's Memorial Garden

I'm lucky to live in the 21st century - albeit in a country where I won't be pilloried or burned at the stake, where my body is my own and my choice of religion likewise. I work on my novel, drafting a few plot points before I have to return to the world of witnesses, legal bundles and oath statements.  Very often I'm joined by a chittering squirrel or, in late afternoon, a family of bats who circle me with eery accuracy and total silence before returning to their roost. Perhaps they too are haunted by London's Lost River Effra.

When the wind blows
The quiet things speak
Some whisper, some clang 
Some squeak.

When the wind goes - 
suddenly
then,
the quiet things 
are quiet again.

Lilian Moore 1909 - 2004



Jennifer Pittam has been published in: Aquarist & Pondkeeper, Astrology Monthly, Cosmopolitan,  Ether Books, People's Friend, Prediction Magazine, Romany Routes, The Lady. 

Competitions won: Coast to Coast Short Story Competition, 2nd Prize; Writers' Village Flash Fiction Competition, 1st Prize.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Bolton: Hearing the Shadowy Horses

It's a week when British temperatures rise from near-freezing to idyllic. Just miles across the English Channel, the Notre Dame Cathedral burns, and I travel to the north west of England for a court case.

Bolton le Moors


I've never been to Bolton le Moors before and, as always, I look forward to my trip. For a writer, it's great to have somewhere new to see. Writing tutors tell you time and time again, 'write about what you know'; took me years to realise that also means 'write about what you come to know'.

Bolton turns out to be a town of immense age, with a proud history in the cotton trade. James Arkwright invented the Spinning Jenny here,  so my Stanford's Guide tells me, and the building is now a funky record shop. The Grammar school was founded in 1516.


James Arkwright invented the Spinning Jenny here...

I didn't find the school but I loved being so near the parish church, St Peter's of Bolton-le-Moors. Amazingly in this modern world, the church is open and active every day. I was bowled over by the atmosphere in this place - the brooding, shadowy secrets of the moor loom, even though you're sat in the pews for a quiet word with Our Lord.

The Parish Church of Bolton-le-Moors


Armed with my trusty guide-book, I head off to the local pub 'The Olde Man and Scythe'.  This tavern is a glorious, black-and-white timbered affair, and the landlord very content to tell me all about it (at length, but landlords, like cab drivers, have to be allowed their say).

The Old Man & Scythe has a lovely landlord...


Bolton was staunchly 'for Parliament' during the English Civil War (perhaps more properly known as the British Civil War since everyone was drawn into it). Unfortunately for the 17th century populace, the surrounding lands were all for the King. Consequently, the little town suffered invasion and beseige on many an occasion. At one point it was stormed by 3,000 hostile soldiers, led by Prince Rupert of the Rhine and some 1,500 people died. Strong stuff, and obviously, someone must be to blame, so the Earl of Derby lost his head.  'Spent his last night at this very bar,' concludes our host, and gulps his pint with unholy relish.


Photos by Jennifer Pittam



I hear the shadowy horses, their long manes a-shake
Their hooves heavy with tumult, their eyes glimmering white;
The north unfolds above them clinging, creeping night.

W. B. Yeats 1865-1939




Jennifer Pittam has been published in: Aquarist & Pondkeeper, Astrology Monthly, Cosmopolitan,  Ether Books, People's Friend, Prediction Magazine, Romany Routes, The Lady. 

Competitions won: Coast to Coast Short Story Competition, 2nd Prize; Writers' Village Flash Fiction Competition, 1st Prize.


Saturday, 6 April 2019

Summer in the Light, Winter in the Shade




This week I saw the first flight of swallows come screaming into Kennington Park as I took a much-needed breath of fresh air.  I just love to see them arrive, so streamlined, so keen to be here. In London, this is the season of sudden squalls, of instant hailstorms followed by beautiful, blossom-fragranced days.



It's been a bit like that in the mother of parliaments, too. Almost three years ago, 23 June 2016 to be precise, our Prime Minister, David Cameron, put the question of 'in or out' of the European Union to a democratic vote by the British people. We weren't prepared at all for such an important referendum, except with shameless lies and deception by both sides of the argument. We voted to leave by 51.9%  - hardly a huge majority. Whilst I'm grateful to live in a democracy, and I don't underestimate how precious that is, quite frankly if there were still a pillory in London I'd like to lock that hapless former leader inside for an Easter gift.



The pillory was a medieval idea. Whoever thought of it I can't imagine, but there have been pillories in Britain since 1351, and the principle was that the perpetrator of a crime, usually one of fraud or deception, had his hands and head shut in a wooden frame, somewhere very public. Then, he was subjected to the wrath of those he had injured.

 The most prominent pillory in London was sited just off Charing Cross, where the statue of King Charles I is now. Whenever I'm in that part of town I get a vivid picture of the scene, with the criminal forced to stand there all day, the roar of the crowd, the pelting of rotted fruit, dead animals, offal, ordure or worse (if there is worse).

Where the Statue of King Charles 1 is now

It was vile, cruel and primitive - but generally reserved for those who had ruined the lives of others on a grand scale. The issue with Brexit is not so much which side of the argument one falls, but the sheer uncertainty that becomes more ruinous each day for the small British manufacturers, importers, shopkeepers and nurserymen, to name but a few. Some of those in the hallowed halls of parliament might do well to try and imagine the feeling of sheer frustration and helplessness we feel out here in the real world.

The Roar of the Crowd

'It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold, when it is summer in the light, wnter in the Shade' 

Charles Dickens 1812-1870




Jennifer Pittam has been published in: Aquarist & Pondkeeper, Astrology Monthly, Cosmopolitan,  Ether Books, People's Friend, Prediction Magazine, Romany Routes, The Lady. 

Competitions won: Coast to Coast Short Story Competition, 2nd Prize; Writers' Village Flash Fiction Competition, 1st Prize.




Saturday, 2 February 2019

Back to Dear Old London


So we're one month into the year 2019, and the British public learned that just because you voted for 'Brexit' two years ago doesn't mean we're any closer to it, really.  There was a lot of snow, which was too much for the BBC and the trains. Meanwhile I hurtled back to my home town, dear old London.

Dear Old London ~ Photo by Jennifer Pittam


Whatever the weather, I travel widely in my job as a Clerk of the Court, to trials all over Great Britain. However, my home is in a semi-wild part of North London, once famous for coaching inns and highway men. Each morning, if I haven't been sent elsewhere, I whizz across the City to my regular courtroom. This is a feat in itself, because Londoners are legendary for their prejudice about 'venturing over the River', which in this case means the mighty River Thames (pronouned 'Tems').

The Days of Horse-drawn Coaches - Photo by Jennifer Pittam


I love my morning journey, even though it's in the 'rush hour' when all of London seems to want to go somewhere. Because my home is at the end of the metro, I can expect each morning, not only to get a seat, but my preferred seat in the front corner of the carriage. There, I write, read, meditate and listen to music without interruption.  Except that, Londoners are so wonderfully voluble, talkative and reactive that I rarely take a trip without gleaning some sort of amusement from my fellow passengers.

London Humour - Photo by Jennifer Pittam


People will tell you that Londoners are surly, unfriendly people, but that's not true. We're just reserved with strangers.  It's quite common on some of the main lines into the City to sit on a crowded train with no-one speaking at all. In a busy working day, many people treasure that 50 minutes solace amongst strangers as precious time to themselves.  However, on a line like mine, the same people, more or less, board the train each day, and then something magical appears - London humour.

Two of my favourite travelling companions are Mrs D, or Marj, from No. 14, and her friend Mrs H, or Joyce, who lives above the newsagents' shop.



'I've started stocking up on drinks for Easter, Joyce'
'Have you, Marj?'
'I tried to get some of that yellow stuff, Joyce, but it's too dear in Tesco,'
'Avocado? I don't like it, Marj.'
'Advocaat. Do you find it too thick?'
'Yes' Marj, 'I do. How do they make the pears into a drink anyway?'



Jennifer Pittam has been published in: Aquarist & Pondkeeper, Astrology Monthly, Cosmopolitan,  Ether Books, People's Friend, Prediction Magazine, Romany Routes, The Lady. 

Competitions won: Coast to Coast Short Story Competition, 2nd Prize; Writers' Village Flash Fiction Competition, 1st Prize.



Sunday, 8 July 2018

Hooray for the Bonnets o' Bonnie Dundee


It's fortunate for me that one thing so often leads to another. Whilst I was in the Highlands of Scotland for a court case anyway, I got a little commission to write about marmalade. Like Paddington Bear, I've had a lifelong attraction to the stuff, so this was one I couldn't resist.


Arguments abound on the internet and elsewhere about the origin of marmalade. There's little doubt that preserves containing peel were eaten, and mentioned, as early as Shakespeare's time.  However, for me the definitive story is that, in 1700, a storm-tossed ship bearing a cargo of bitter Seville Oranges took shelter in Dundee harbour, off the coast of Scotland.


The ship's master sold the now damaged cargo to a local grocer, who was down on his luck and hopeful of saving the family fortune. Once he got the organges home, how many tons is not recorded, he and his wife discovered that they were too bitter to eat (wonder what she said to him? 'Wheesht, Mr Keiller,' probably).



Undaunted, she set about making jars and jars of preserves with the oranges, and thus the Keiller fortunes were not only restored, but remade a thousand fold.



Marmalade's still made today in Dundee, particularly by the Mackay family who use the traditional, copper-pan method.  For modern tastes, it is not sweet enough, apparently - but for me, it's a marvellous start to the day on toast or Scottish oatcakes. Just like Paddington bear, I've got to have some with me wherever I travel.


Marmalade used to be notoriously good for treating sea sickness, before the days of modern drugs. My Nana told me that this is the origin of the name, as in Mer Malade, particularly as the journey to France from Scotland, beating down the east coast in foul weather, was liable to produce plenty of mer malade.


This explanation seems lost in the mists of time, and if you Google 'marmalade' today, you'll get all kinds of explanations - that in Portugal they make a quince jam called 'marmelot', for example.

To me it seems tenuous, and who cares?

I'll stick with my Scottish Nan.



Come fill up my cup, come fill up my can
Come saddle my horses and call out my men
Unhook the West Port and let us gae free
For it's up with the bonnets o' Bonnie Dundee

Scottish Traditional 



Jennifer Pittam has been published in: Aquarist & Pondkeeper, Astrology Monthly, Cosmopolitan,  Ether Books, People's Friend, Prediction Magazine, Romany Routes, The Lady. 

Competitions won: Coast to Coast Short Story Competition, 2nd Prize; Writers' Village Flash Fiction Competition, 1st Prize.







Saturday, 30 June 2018

All Aboard for Camp Nano Wrimo




In the month when Saddleworth moor burned in the heat and England fans watched a football game to gladden their hearts, I whipped up to the beautiful highlands of Scotland for work.


The trip coincided with the run-up to Camp NanoWrimo. I've partaken of the annual November 'how fast can I churn 50,000 words of rubbish' that is Nano more than once - and adored it. For those who are looking puzzled, NanoWrimo is an international writing 'extravaganza' which takes place on the internet each autumn.  You sign up, it's all free, and you attempt to write a novel in one month.

Of course, most of these novels won't be saleable, but that's not really the aim. The idea is to devote that month, as best you can, to the project - even though you may have family, studies, work, a court case, whatever, to cope with as well.  It generates a huge sense of belonging and satisfaction, and voluntary donations to NanoWrimo have sponsored all kinds of charitable literacy projects since its inception.

Camp Nano is a different idea - like going to summer camp, but in the virtual sense. You don't have to write a novel - work on a play, a short story, anything at all. For the first time, I've chosen to share a cabin with 20 others and, like me, they're all editing a project.

These cabin mates are situated all over the world, but you only know where exactly if they choose to tell you.  You work under a 'username' in your pretend cabin, to protect everyone's privacy, and they don't see your work, unless you choose to share it. What they do follow is your progress against your stated goal - words written, pages revised, hours spent working in a creative bubble. You can chat, ask advice and share tips or documents. There are also daily lectures and 'word sprints', all kinds of extras.


Already, I'm sensing that some of my cabin mates could become friends - but one step at a time. I'm slavering at the prospect of immersing myself in creativity and camp-fire chat for a month.

Call me daft but when I sign into Camp Nano and see that tent and jungle screensaver gives me the sense of a real writing retreat.




Not all those who wander are lost ~ 
J.R.R. Tolkien 1893-1973

Jennifer Pittam has been published in: Aquarist & Pondkeeper, Astrology Monthly, Cosmopolitan,  Ether Books, People's Friend, Prediction Magazine, Romany Routes, The Lady. 

Competitions won: Coast to Coast Short Story Competition, 2nd Prize; Writers' Village Flash Fiction Competition, 1st Prize.



Monday, 16 January 2017

Tube Strike Riots? Not Really





So the entire London underground, which some call a Metro or Tube, closes because of an all-out strike. Are there punch-ups, furious rows, knife attacks on the staff ? Well, actually no. A few rants perhaps. In the face of adversity, the old Cockney humour erupts all over town.


We take to buses, we take to the overground, we take to the riverbus and to marching like one massive, over-age Sunday school outing. Since 98% of us have a mobile phone, we take to Twitter, with a hilarious hashtag game #tubeStrikeaPlay, in which you have to post a message based on both the strike and a play, song title or book. A modern, spontaneous version of 'Charades'. The first was the message #Tu be or not Tu be? quickly followed by #Twelfth Strike ha ha!

Why do Londoners tolerate strike action at all? It's to do with history. There are almost no native Londoners - we were all immigrants once - in Celtic times and Roman, in Viking and Saxon. From Scotland after the Highland Clearances, and from Ireland after the Potato Famine. France gave us the French element when the Hugenots had to leave. We have Jewish Londoners from many parts of the globe by now after pogrom, holocaust and countless other outrages. More recently, refugees came from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Syria - the list goes on.


Any whiff of oppression, real or imagined, and something primeval surfaces.
'This must be just like the London Riots, a group of schoolchildren tell me as we stand together at the bus stop. 'Everyone on the streets like this, init.'
 'Oh,' say I, 'in 2011 you mean? Were you there? That must have been scary for you.'
 'No,' they chorus. 'the apprentices riots in in 1595.' Apparently, they're doing it for a project.

 'Have you seen this one? they ask me, referring to Twitter again. #Much aqueue about Nothing
We clutch our sides laughing and they commandeer the whole of the bus queue into researching their project for them.

'Can you remember the apprentice riots ma'am?' they ask me. 'Of course not,' I reply, seriously  offended. 'Although, thinking back, I can remember the Poll Tax riots in 1991.' #An Inspector Calls in Sick (screams more laughter).










'Well,' says an elderly lady standing just behind us. 'I can do better. I remember the Jarrow Hunger March.'
'What?' the children choris. 'Respect, ma'am'.

I am truly humbled. When I was at school, I don't think I knew about the Jarrow Hunger March.  Or respect.Oh dear. #Don't worry uncle'l van'ya

'They came all the way from Jarrow on the River Tyne,' she said. 'Walked the whole way from Newcastle. They had so little, but people came out of their houses to cheer them on, and to give them food to keep them going. My mother did. And we had little enough ourselves. That was in 1936, my dears.' #The Curious Incident of the Walk Until Nightime

We are silent for a moment, thinking about the Jarrow men and what they stood for. We don't exactly enjoy tube strikes (and that's a massive understatement) but hell, there's a principle at stake here. #Late expectations says one of the boys, looking at his phone.