Wednesday 18 November 2015

Why did there seem to be so many more 'characters' in our world in years gone by?

Me, aged about 5 ...!

Why did there seem to be so many more 'characters' in our world in years gone by? While writing ALL THE DARK SECRETS and THE MINER'S DAUGHTER I was reminded of so many of the people who lived near us when I was growing up. Although that was of course at least fifty years after the era in which my sagas are set, I was able to remember these folk and draw on them for the supporting cast of my books.

Next door to us on one side lived the local miner's agent, who actually owned a motor car! Although we lived on a main road cars were so rare in the 1940s that I used to collect the numbers of the ones that passed our house and write them in a little notebook. Sitting on the front steps, I was always excited when I heard an engine chugging up the hill, and waited, pencil poised. All too often it was our neighbour - a number which of course I already had. His wife was very deaf and even in our kitchen we could hear every word he was forced to yell to make her hear what he was saying. Incidentally, one of his sons actually worked at Buckingham Palace - I borrowed him as inspiration for Marcus in THE MINER'S DAUGHTER, although of course everything I wrote in the story about that character came entirely from my imagination.

On the other side lived a couple who were great friends with my Gran and she and the lady played cards every week without fail, generally whist or Sevens. I loved it when I was allowed to play with them, sitting at the cane card table which had an elaborately painted glass top and lived in my grandparents' room. (There was also a matching glass fire screen which covered the fireplace in summer). This couple's house was owned by their daughter and one day, after a falling out between them, she ordered them to leave. Although I couldn't have been more than four years old I clearly remember the drama, and being quite frightened by it all. The lady had been known to set out in her dressing gown in the middle of the night for a local pond with the supposed intention of 'doing away with herself' and we were worried that she might do it again - and succeed! Actually with hindsight I think it was more of a cry for help, as if she had really intended to end it all she could have done in the the mill pond only a few hundred yards from where we lived rather than undertaking the five or six mile trek to Emborough! However,faced with the awful prospect of them having nowhere to go, my Gran took them in, although there were already seven of us living in the house, and my sister and I had to move into our parents' bedroom. I'm not sure how long they stayed before things were sorted out, but I do know there were times when the atmosphere, unsurprisingly, became a bit fraught! But at least she didn't set out to walk to Emborough while living with us - at least I never heard that she did ... In spite of all this, she and my Gran never called one another by their Christian names. It was always 'Mrs Mundy (my Gran) and Mrs ...... (I won't name the other lady)

A few doors down lived an elderly lady who we, rather unkindly, thought of as being a bit simple. She had a canary who was always escaping and she would wander up and down the road swinging the open cage and calling the bird's name. And just a couple of doors away in the other direction lived four sisters who had been left as maiden ladies presumably as a result of the carnage of the Great War. There was nothing whatever odd about them except that to us as children it seemed strange for four elderly ladies to be living together - we were too young to appreciate the tragedy of it.

Not far away lived a lovely old man who had once been a sailor, and in the evenings he could always be seen leaning on his gate and gazing at the sky as if he was still on the deck of a ship. And a tall, gangly man who passed our gate on his bicycle twice daily at exactly the same time, always eating an apple as he rode. I never did know his name, but we called him 'The Apple Man'. And a couple who made good use of newspaper, using it at their windows instead of curtains, and stuffing it in their shoes instead of having them repaired. You would think they didn't have two halfpennies to rub together, but when the wife died unexpectedly the widower suddenly became very smart - new polished shoes, new clothes (and presumably curtains!) and before long there was an equally smart much younger woman on his arm .... And the jeweller who had a stall in the market ... his wife, generally talked about very sniffily and with knowing looks, had scarlet lips and nails and wore fur coats, and a live-in 'maid' who by contrast wore ragged plimsols.

Then there was an old former miner who lived in a cottage at the top end of our garden. One evening their chimney caught fire. The fire brigade attended, directing their hoses down the chimney; through the open front door we could see the room inside, sooty, smoky, and awash with black water. Outside the old man stood watching implacably. "Tis all very interesting!' was all he kept saying. I've actually used that line in my latest book in the series The Families of Fairley Terrace.

Oh, I could go on and on .... these are just a few of the characters who peopled my childhood world. As I write I can see them so clearly, yet nowadays the eccentrics seem to be few and far between. Is it because of the way life has changed? We no longer have doors left unlocked all day, or extended families where several generations lived under the same roof, and the eclectic mix in a neighbourhood is no more. In a strange way, it seems to me, the soaps such as Coronation Street are much more like life among neighbours was in those long-gone days although the story lines reflect modern problems. The mix of eccentric characters is there, the squabbles, even the way they are taken in to one another's houses when they find themselves without a roof over their heads for one reason or another, just as my Gran took in our next door neighbours. They even still have rollers and hair driers in Audrey's salon .... but that's another story entirely.

For now I am just grateful that I have such clear and wonderful memories to draw on when writing my stories!