Monthly Archives: March 2017

Living in the Past

Don’t ask me why, but as I’ve got older, I’ve become more drawn towards tracing my family history. I’ve always been interested in where  I came from, but recently it’s become a minor obsession.

It’s curious that, as many people get older, they become more interested in their family history. Maybe it’s because they have more time and money to spend on the research, maybe people become more curious about their origins, or maybe people just want to leave a record behind. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a combination of all these that has fuelled my search into my family’s past.

After a few false starts, I finally began to make a serious attempt to research my family history at the start of the year. The catalyst was a conversation with my sister early in 2016: we agreed that we needed to leave a record of our family behind. We were both surprised at how quickly living memory fades, meaning that something more permanent was needed.

To start the project I read as many books as I could find on family history. There’s lots of material out there, in print and online, and it took a while to figure out the best way to do the research. Many people launch straight into internet research, paying lots of money for a membership to one of the many genealogy site available. This isn’t necessarily the best way to go about things, and a more considered approach can produce better, and cheaper, results.

Thinking carefully about it there seem to be four stages to tracing family history.

1 Methodically tracing sources of information from different sources and recording them. This is probably the driest and least interesting part of the work as far as I’m concerned, but it’s probably the most important. I’ve had at least three unsuccessful attempts at tracing my family history, and they’ve all failed because I wanted to get onto the more interesting bits.

2 Interpreting the information to try and get a coherent picture of the family history. This is where it gets interesting. I’ve been surprised by how little trace people left behind them before the digital age, so it’s not unusual to have gaps in your knowledge that can’t be filled. Often the best you can do is make an educated guess to fill the gaps, and it can be fun doing this.

3 Putting family history into a wider context. This is where family history turns into local history, and I find it fascinating trying to relate the past lives of my family to the times they live in.

4 Using all the research to write something creative and interesting. There are lots of different options, including traditional family histories, biography, or fiction. I’m not sure what I want to create yet, but I want it to be more than just an annotated family tree.

At them moment I’m still at stage one, doggedly recording what information we already know and searching out additional facts. It’s really difficult because I want to jump ahead, complete the family tree and get writing. But for once I’m trying to be self disciplined, and being mostly successful.

Even at this stage, I’ve unearthed some interesting glimpses of family rifts, sad casualties of war, and ordinary people living extraordinary lives. There don’t appear to be any millionaires or nobility lurking in the background, but I’m happy with the mill workers, engineers and coal miners I’ve found so far.

Finding out about my family history is proving to be really satisfying. It’s not a quick process, but well worth the effort.

Catching Up

I hope you enjoyed last week’s review of The Vampyre, and feel inspired to read some good old-fashioned horror stories. Something to get your teeth into, maybe!

I’m relaxing a little this week after the latest event for Ryedale Dog Rescue: Woofs in the Wood. We teamed up with the Yorkshire Arboretum to arrange a fun dog walk. The Arboretum has 120 acres of woodland, with an amazing range of trees from all over the world. At least 70 dog owners and their families turned up with their dogs and enjoyed the fantastic weather as they walked round the woods and spent money at our charity stalls. The final figures aren’t in yet, but hopefully we’ll make a decent amount of money to help save more dogs in the Ryedale Area.

I’m having a break from dog rescue duties for a couple of weeks. As usual I’ve got lots of things on the go, so I’m trying to catch up on a few of them. As well as reading an inspiring book on photography with some good ideas for techniques to try, I’ve been making the most of the spring weather to take a load of photographs for next week’s photo-essay. It’s all nesting swans, buds, flowers and blue skies for next week’s Spring Special!

After a couple of weeks of inactivity, I’m also making  some progress with the family history project. At the moment this means going through mounds of old family papers and trying to get them into some order, so we can use them when we start tracing the family tree. Glamorous it isn’t, but I’ve found a few interesting documents that will be useful later.

It’s not all going to be work though. On Friday I’m catching up with some old friends from work, and it’s inevitable going to mean more beer than is good for me. It would be rude not to join in though, so I’ll just make the best of it,

On Friday this week, I’m publishing a more detailed article on the family history project. I hope you find it interesting and that you’re inspired to look in to your family’s past.

Take care


Fangs for the Memory

I know it’s not to everybody’s taste, but I’m really fond of eighteenth and nineteenth century literature. Nowadays a lot of the writing from this period seems old-fashioned and stilted, but the best writers created strong stories, with vivid prose. If you’re not sure whether it’s for you, why not try reading this collection of short stories as a taster.

The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre, is a collection of short stories, published by Oxford World’s Classics. The headline story, The Vampyre, was written by John Polidori and first published in 1819. Polidori was a doctor, and travelling companion of the poet, Lord Bryon. The Vampyre was written during a stay at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva. During Byron’s stay there the weather was so bad that his party couldn’t leave the villa.  To amuse themselves they held a ghost story writing competition. The most famous story to come out of this competition was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. 

Polidori’s tale started a craze for vampire stories that still continues today, in print and on film. Polidori’s vampire is still recognisable in the one played by Christopher Lee in the Hammer horror films. Although the vampire has remained a popular cultural figure, Polidori’s fate was tragic. He was never successful as a writer and committed suicide at the age of 26. The Vampyre, though, still has the ability to excite and chill.  With it’s mysterious central character, gothic setting and naive narrator, The Vampyre has all the ingredients of a classic horror story.

As well as The Vampyre the Oxford World’s Classics book contains thirteen other stories, ranging from ghost stories, to tales of murder and gothic style mysteries. I’ll not review them all here, but the three below will give you an idea of what to expect.

For something ghostly, turn to Sir Guy Eveling’s Dream, by Horace Smith. This very short story neatly moves from normality to terror. It’s obvious that there’s something wrong from the start, but you’re kept guessing exactly what until the end.

For a more human drama, read William Carleton’s Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman. This is a dramatic retelling of true events in Ireland, and a precursor of the ‘troubles’ of the twentieth century.  Although there’s no supernatural element to this story, the setting and descriptions of the main characters make chilling reading.

Finally if you want a gothic tale of death, mystery and horror, read Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. I found this story to be the most complete and satisfying in the book, with convincing characters and a pacey story.

What all the stories in this collection share is a sense of ‘otherness’. Maybe they feel different to us  because of their age, but I think there’s more to it than that. All the authors in this book have set out to create situations that, while they seem fairly normal at the outset, change into something strange and horrific by the end.  What’s also interesting to me is that all of these stories were originally published in magazines. They were meant to be widely read and weren’t considered as high art in their time. It’s often very easy to consider eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction as highbrow, but the stories in this collection are the popular fiction of their time.

If you fancy something different try reading The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre. You can pick a copy of this book up online fairly cheaply, so there’s not much lost if this isn’t your style of writing. On the other hand if you enjoy this collection, try reading Dracula by Bram Stoker, by far the best horror story I’ve ever read.

Spring? Yeah right!

Hello everybody, I’m writing this editorial on the day of the spring equinox. At last the days are longer than the nights, and spring is supposedly well under way. How come then it’s wintry here in North Yorkshire? I think nature is having a laugh at our expense.  I’ll just have to put the shorts and sunglasses away for another day or two.

Liz and I have just come back from a few days away, visiting friends in Belfast. It was a good rest, but we also managed to see some of the sights, including a trip round the Crumlin Road gaol. The gaol has been closed to prisoners for 20 years, but it makes an interesting museum, complete with condemned cell and execution chamber. The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Titanic museum. It tells a fascinating story, not only of the ship and it’s fate, but the city and people who built it. It also does a cracking afternoon cream tea!

Now we’re back home I’m planning to get round to some serious work on the family history project. I’ve started by sorting through the six large boxes of family documents and photos that have lived in my loft for years. There’s lots of useful information there and some fascinating glimpses into the past, including my grandfather’s diary from the end of the first world war. Next week I’ll post some more information about what I’m planning to do with all the research: I’m hoping there’s a couple of good books in there somewhere.

This Friday I’ll be publishing a book review on a collection of short stories I read recently The Vampire and Other Tales of the Macabre. It’s an interesting mixture of stories from the nineteenth century, and might be a good read if you like a bit of spine tingling on dark and stormy nights.



The Silent Highway

‘You can bugger off! I’m not getting out of here until you tell me what you did with it.’

Joey Garlick changed his stroke from breast to crawl and the world disappeared as he swam alone along the silent highway, half submerged in the water, Silent highway: Joey liked that phrase. Some journalist from the New York Times had written it about him back in ’93 when he’d won the mile. It was just him and M’Cusker in that race: two hundred and fifty pounds a side and Joey had won the lot in world record time. If he had the money now he wouldn’t be swimming round the mill pond, that’s for sure. He’d be far away from here, where there was sunshine to ease his aches and clean water to swim in.

Each time Joey turned his head sideways to take in air he could hear Annie berate him from the bank. Her shrill voice mingled with the swish of the water to form part of the rhythm of his strokes.

‘Out…death of cold…people think…ridiculous.’

Joey didn’t mind the din from his daughter’s voice; he often swam through it, much to her disgust. As he settled into a steady pace, Annie’s calls became the roar of the crowd lining the banks of Hollingworth Lake and the cheers that greeted him at his testimonial gala in 1925.

Joey was far away, winning the three miler in Rhode Island, when the jab of Annie’s umbrella in the side of his head brought him home. The shock of the blow made him break stroke and he trod water while he looked mournfully at his daughter.

‘What did you do that for?’

‘I want you out of there now father, you’re not staying there to die of cold. I don’t want that on my conscience.’

Annie looked out of place in her best coat, kneeling on the lodge bank. Strangely Joey felt honoured that she was wearing the coat as it was normally reserved for chapel and trips to town. Still, she looked wrong kneeling there, as if the unaccustomed contact of the woollen cloth with the ground lessened her authority.

‘If you had a conscience you’d tell me where my cup is.’ Joey said.

‘I’ve told you. I don’t know where your blessed cup is and care less.’

The cup was Joey’s last relic, stored with a few photographs and press cuttings from the old days. He had a picture of himself, dripping wet and shaking hands with the Prince of Wales after winning the quarter mile at Regents’ Park. The inscription on the small gold-plated cup said:

Presented by His Royal Highness

Edward, Prince of Wales

to Joseph Garlick Esq.,

Undisputed World Swimming Champion

26th of May, 1894

On market days, when Annie was out of the house, Joey would reach under his bed and fetch out the battered cardboard box that contained his memories. Sometimes he’d sit there alone, reading the press cuttings out loud to himself. On school holidays he’d sit with his grandson and tell him stories of his forty year-old victories.

‘There are not many mill hands that have met the Prince of Wales’; he’d tell the admiring boy.

Then, one market day, only the press cuttings and pictures remained: his cup was gone. Joey was convinced that Annie had taken it, when her coldness towards him had turned to anger. But she remained tight-lipped, only breaking her silence to deny Joey’s increasingly frantic accusations.

Now, today at the pond, Joey wasn’t going to let things lie.

‘Deny it all you like lady,’ he said, ‘and jab at me with that gamp all you want. I’m not shifting, no matter how much you prod and prattle on.’

Annie puffed up her rounded cheeks and looked offended

‘You can’t stay there forever, no matter how much you say you can. But I’ll tell you this father: if you’re not home before dark you’ll find the door locked and you can sleep on the doorstep.’

‘You wouldn’t dare, I’ve still got friends here you know. They still call me Champ in the village, so someone would take me in. Besides, you’d not live down the shame of seeing me beg for a bed.’

Annie reached out for Joey with her umbrella, trying to hook him round his neck with its crook and drag him into the bank. Joey laughed and dodged away easily, sculling backwards just out of his daughter’s reach.

‘You old beggar,’ she said. ‘You wouldn’t behave like a spoiled child if our Ted was here. You’d show him some respect.’

‘But here’s not here is he,’ replied Joey. ‘You’ve sent your husband away. ‘Cotton trade’s dead’, you said. ‘Go and look for a living wage’, you said. So he’s gone, and all you ever see of him is a thirty shilling postal order every fortnight.’

Annie struck out in anger with the umbrella, churning up the water, but missing Joey by a yard. He turned and swam away from Annie.

‘Give over and go home,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘You’re not needed here.’

A few stiff-shouldered strokes later Joey was travelling smoothly along the silent highway again. This time the silence was undisturbed by Annie’s voice and Joey guessed she’d given up and gone home. Now he was alone it felt like the old days, when only the swimming mattered. He understood the water and felt at home in it: better to stay there, out of reach.

Joey was powering home in some bygone hundred yard dash when he felt the push of water as a heavy object fell into the pond. He didn’t need to hear the splash, although it had been a loud one, because his body was trained to feel the surge of a rival swimmer. Joey felt small waves lap against his face. Whatever had fallen in was alive and struggling, sending the waves out, but they became feebler so Joey swam towards the far end of the pond where the disturbance came from. He couldn’t see the cause, because this was the deepest corner of the lodge and the water was too murky to see to the bottom, so Joey held a deep breath and dived down, reaching out with his hands. He felt nothing at first but groped around until his fingers touched something soft. It was the thick wool of Annie’s coat.

Joey lit a fire in the small grate in Annie’s bedroom that night. She was chilled and shocked, the doctor said, but nothing worse. Once she was settled in bed with a glass of warm milk and medicinal brandy, Joey left Annie to rest and went downstairs to reassure his grandson. An hour later he crept back upstairs to look in on Annie one last time before bed. She was half-asleep, her greying hair spread out across the pillows and a white linen nightdress buttoned up primly round her neck. Joey glanced down to the milk glass and smiled. Every last drop was gone.

‘You pulled me out.’

Annie’s voice was weak, but in the firelight, Joey could see some colour in her cheeks.

‘Of course I pulled you out you daft bugger. What else would I do?’

‘I don’t know; leave me there for the lodge keeper to find? It was an accident you know, I fell in.’

‘I guessed that. You wouldn’t choose to jump in: never were much interested in swimming.’

Joey couldn’t think of anything more to say so he just stood there awkwardly, waiting for Annie to speak.

‘I fell in because I was angry with you,’ Annie said. ‘I was trying to catch up with you so I could tell you some home truths, and I slipped.’

‘You should be careful round that pond; it’s easy to slip on them banks. What home truths did you want to tell me about?’

Annie looked away.

‘I pawned your cup. Ted’s postal order was late and we needed the money for food.’

‘I thought as much,’ said Joey. ‘Did you get a good price?’

‘Fifteen shillings.’

‘Bloody hell, the price of fame. So what were you angry about?’

‘It was what you said about Ted and the postal orders. Thirty shillings isn’t much, but it’s like the widow’s mite to him.’

‘So why be angry with me?’

Annie looked back at Joey, her hard stare piercing him.

‘So how much do you reckon you made from swimming years back?’

‘I dunno, a fair bit.’

‘And how much of it did you send home to mum when I was little? How much of the prize money that came with that bloody cup did we see?’

Joey mumbled in reply.

‘I sent back…’

‘…Oh, go to bed dad. It’s too late for this. Just go to bed.’

As Joey lay in bed that night he thought about his cup. At least he knew where it was and maybe, when Ted’s next postal order arrived, he could fetch it back from the pawnbroker’s. Just before he slept doubt briefly washed over him: was the Silent Highway the road he should have taken? But he knew the answer even before he’d asked the question.

Small Worlds, Old Worlds

This Friday it’s short story time again but, even though it’s not relevant to the story, I couldn’t resist posting this photograph. Earlier this week I was out walking the dog round the local pond and spotted this forest of lichen growing on a bridge parapet. I didn’t have a ‘proper’ camera with me, so I took a quick photograph with my phone. Close up it looks like a place where great adventures could take place. It goes to show that sometimes it pays to look closely at the small things in life, rather than searching for an epic.


Miniforest on a bridge parapet. It’s amazing what you see when you look around.







This week’s story, The Silent Highway, is based round a real person, the lost world of professional prize swimming and a Fernley family story.

Joey Garlick, the central character in the story, is based on a professional swimmer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Joseph Nuttall. He was known as the Stalybridge Merman and, at his prime, he was the professional world champion at every distance from 100 yards to two miles. Nuttall swam against the world’s best swimmers, at home and abroad, and was unbeaten for most of his career.

Nuttall thrived at the time when there was a conflict between professional and amateur sport. Nuttall swam for large prize purses of hundreds of pounds, and there was vigorous betting on his races. Unfortunately this meant that he was ineligible to swim in the 1904 Olympics, where he would undoubtedly have been a multi-medal winner.

I would never have discovered Joey Nuttall and his story if it hadn’t been for a piece of family history. One of my great grandfathers was called Joesph Nuttall and, when he was an old man, he would often swim in the local mill pond and my exasperated grandmother would spend hours trying to fish him out of there. He died in the early 1940’s, so both my parents could recall this happening. It’s been an accepted fact that my great grandfather was Nuttall the world champion swimmer: unfortunately the research I’ve done so far suggests otherwise. There’s still an outside chance that he is a distant relative, and it’s one of the things I want to find out when I write our family history.

This story currently exists in two versions, the short story I’ve published here, and a TV film script I wrote for a creative writing course. I don’t think I’m done with Joey yet though: I keep toying with the idea of the Silent Highway as a novel, so it might resurface (forgive the swimming pun) at a later date.

I hope you enjoy it.





The Azure Window

This week I was going to post a selection of my favourite photographs from 2016.  But at the last minute I changed my mind and decided to publish only two photographs: of the Azure Window on the Maltese Island of Gozo.

The window is a magnificent limestone arch at Dewrja, on Gozo’s coast. The rock sparkles in the sunlight and the sea around the bay is the most incredible azure blue. Liz and I visited the window in October last year. When you first arrive at Dwerja, it’s quite easy to wonder why you’ve gone there. Much of the coast is like a moonscape, arid and dusty, and the bus drops you off at an overcrowded and slightly tacky array of tourist shops.

A short walk from there takes you down to a bay with a quay and a line of small boats. For a few Euro’s you can take a fifteen minute boat tour through caves to the Azure Window. It’s a great antidote to the barren landscape on shore.

If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you’ll recognise the Azure Window as the scene for Dothraki wedding from the first episode.

The window is an awe-inspiring sight and one of the highlights of our holiday in Malta…

Landward View of the Azure Window

The Azure Window viewed from the shore. If you follow ‘Game of Thrones’, you’ll recognise this view.

Azure Window

A view of the Azure Window at Dwerja on the Maltese Island of Gozo. The window is limestone and it’s multicolours shimmered in the sunlight. The sea around the window was an unbelievably vivid blue.

…except it isn’t there any more.

The Azure Window has been in a fragile state for many years, due to erosion. The Maltese government has taken steps to protect the arch, including banning people from walking across it. Sadly the window collapsed on Wednesday in a storm.

I’m glad we had the opportunity to visit Dwerja and the window last year. I have to admit it wasn’t on my all time list of places to visit, but it was well worth it. It’s a shame for future generations that they’ll only get to experience the window through photographs.

There are many other landmarks at risk. I suppose the moral of the story is to get out and visit them before it’s too late!