Wednesday 28 October 2015

Archives as a writing resource

Leicester University is an amazing local resource for writers. With one of their research library tickets (free of charge as long as you’re happy to research on site) you can enter the most amazing worlds, research the most obscure areas, discover the most exciting things.

Yesterday I attended a session run by Simon Dixon and Selina Lock from the Leicester University Library Archives. The aim was to encourage writers to use archive materials to inspire their writing. There were many tables of fascinating items for us to look at, handle and hopefully write about. 

A note about the furniture: The chairs in the Archives Department were older than some of the exhibits and they made their presence known... loudly! They came from the original University College, shown in the photograph on the left as it was in the 1920s. It is now the Fielding Johnson Building. The chairs were rickety, creaky and provided a continual source of distraction and amusement which we were happy to overlook in deference to their age!

Following my earlier post about the decommissioned church of St Peters in Belgrave, I now have a mission to read up about leper windows in general and the leper window at St Peters Church in particular. With this in mind I chose to begin the session at the table with local history books. Burton’s History of Leicester published in 1622 told me nothing that I did not already know about the Burton Lazars leper colony and nothing at all about the church at Belgrave.

I temporarily dismissed my mission and threw myself into the session proper. I became absorbed by an account of a highwaywoman, called Jenny Fox, who choked, bound and robbed her victims mercilessly. She was even recorded to have committed the same “handsome frolick” on her husband. She was finally caught in 1655, was sentenced to hanging but poisoned herself and died a terrible death. Cheerful stuff!

There were exhibits from Joe Orton's archives and from Sue Townsend's, but the final table that I chose to work at had a rare copy of the Wicked Bible on display. This book provides such a fascinating story that I will save it for a whole blog post of its own. But an equally fascinating event happened at this table. I found myself sitting next to a woman who, it turned out, is a Friend of St Peters Church. One of her co-members knows quite a bit about the leper window and she is arranging for me and my co-researcher friend to be allowed into the decommissioned church. How’s that for synchronicity?

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Copyright-free images

The British Library have made available over one million images which are copyright free. As a blogger I am always interested in accessing copyright free images. There is no doubt that illustrations add a lot to a page of text, however eloquent the words might be. So I thought I'd give this week's blog post over to sharing the links with you and pasting up a few of my favourites (not that I have had a chance to look at all one million, you understand!)

All the images are from the 17th, 18th and 19th Century so copyright is not a problem. They have been loosely arranged into themes. There is a section of Highlights from which I have selected a Japanese illustration.

From the section entitled book covers I have chosen The Adventures of George Washington Pratt which I was amused to note was on sale for 1/-. (That's 'one shilling' for you post-decimilsation kids which is a mere 5p in today's money.) 

I was surprised to see a whole section on cycling and have chosen the only type of bike that I would feel safe on. (I may have mentioned before that I have absolutely no sense of balance!)

The section on comic art had me bemused. Humour has certainly become more sophisticated, although I suspect I know what the question to this punch line was:

There's a section on ships and one on illustrated lettering but I thought I'd share one more section with you and that is children's book illustration. This is the sort of image that would have fuelled my childhood nightmares:

Ok, who is going to be the first person to provide the first part of the 'ajar' joke?

If you go and look at the images and find some really exciting ones then do let me know and you might also know of other copyright-free sites. It would be good to share.

p.s. I'm continuing to research the history of leper windows (see previous post) and hope to blog some more about that very soon. 

Wednesday 14 October 2015

A Church Window...

...and why it made me sad.

A few weeks ago I blogged about Belgrave Hall not far from the centre of Leicester and yet an area with a feel of the countryside about it. Next to Belgrave Hall is a church, St Peter's Church. It is now decommissioned, unused, locked up for most of the year and that made me sad.

I can see why it has been decommissioned. There was once a bustling community living in the area and I understand that a church without a congregation is not really a church. I stood looking at the priest's vestments, all laid out on display, brightly embroidered each with different coloured threads, labelled for the particular festivals for which each would be worn. They should have been washed, pressed and awaiting their turn at a service. They made me sad.

The Chancel in St Peter's Church, Belgrave
The building has been up for sale. It didn't sell. I walked around it after my visit to Belgrave Hall and tried to imagine flats where pews have stood for centuries. Who would live with the grand stained glass window that was once part of the chancel?

The chancel window on the left is not the window that gave this post its title. 

I was far more interested in looking at a small side window. It's known as a leper's window or squint window. The sign in the church indicates that this window was installed in the Middle Ages so that priests could give Communion to the lepers as they travelled to Burton Lazars Leper Colony. Not for them the shelter and relative comfort of the pews or the beauty of the adornments. They had to stand in the churchyard, amongst reminders of their mortality. Who would incorporate this window into their lovely new flat? That thought really made me sad.

Burton Lazars is a village not far from Leicester. Inevitably there is no leper colony remaining, just the earthworks of the hospital which were uncovered in 2001 by the University of Leicester Archaeological Society. The hospital buildings were destroyed some hundred years after the Reformation but it had served the needs of lepers from the middle of the 12th century. It was founded by Roger de Mowbray and was said to be the largest leper colony in Europe. I knew nothing about it until I visited St Peter's Church and saw the window with its inscription. I apologise if the photograph is a little dark. It is in a tucked-away corner. I wonder what life might have been like for those lepers. I am determined to find out more about the lepers from Burton Lazars.

The Leper Window:

Inscription beside the window: Through this window the priest in the Middle Ages would give Communion and hear the confessions of lepers journeying to the leper colony at Burton Lazars, which was founded in 1135 by Roger de Mowbray. The stained glass is circa 19th Century

Research Footnote: I have started researching this at the local Records Office and am now wondering if this really was a window for lepers. 
1.  The Church is unlikely to have been en route to the leper colony. 
2.  Lepers would not have been welcomed where there was a large congregation. 
3.  Confessions cannot appropriately be heard through an open window in a public place. 
I am continuing to research this subject so, as they say, watch this space.

Monday 5 October 2015

Everyone's Reading

Last week Leicester was alive with reading and writing events for this year's Everyone's Reading Festival. I went to quite a few sessions and thought I'd share some of them with you here.

I attended a poetry writing session run by the talented Helen Mort. Helen inspired us to write portrait poetry which ranged from the personal to the surreal. It was a great evening and I can see why Helen has been the Derbyshire Poet Laureate for the last few years. I'd like to know why Leicester doesn't have a poet laureate.

I visited the Leicester Writers' Club for an open evening. I used to be a regular member in the last century! (I feel so old!) It was lovely to go back and meet old friends and they were all so welcoming. Their evening consisted of a panel of six members who had each chosen the book that inspired them to start writing. More about this when I've told you about the rest of my week.

My signing table at Waterstones Leicester
I was invited to BBC Radio Leicester to talk about The Children's Book of Richard III and my imminent appearance at Waterstones Leicester. It was going to be a proper interview but there was so much happening last week that they didn't manage to squeeze in more than a quick shout-out but it was fun and when I arrived at Waterstones there was a queue waiting for me, so it must have jogged a few memories.

I love to hear the questions that children ask at these bookshop events. I'm humbled by the awe that they express when I tell them that I did, indeed, write the book. I would like to think that my book, and the story I tell them about writing it, inspires some of them to have a go at writing themselves, which brings me back to the topic of 'books that inspire us to write'.

The panel from the Writers' Club said that they had great trouble selecting one book that inspired them to write and I'm not surprised. I've tried to think of one but I'm stumped. I think that the inspiration must have come from a mighty mixture of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and newspaper/magazine articles.

I can come up with several books that influenced me in life. As a child I was totally enthralled by Enid Blyton's Famous Five and Secret Seven. I wanted to have a secret den and plans of trips by boat to deserted islands with lemonade, sandwiches and a scoundrel of a dog to add to the excitement.

When I became a teenager it was Wuthering Heights that had me gripped. I was besotted with the hopelessness of their relationship and the depth of love and indeed hate that this relationship created. It suited and probably fuelled my mood of teenage angst. I spent several years collecting old versions of the book and still have them all on my book shelf.

I'm intrigued to know which books have most inspired you.