Memories of a childhood in Kent

Apple blossom in Kent: photo courtesy of Bruce Williamson on Unsplash

Until the age of nine I lived with my family in Gravesend, Kent. I was happy there and did not want to leave, but life took me in other directions and it was about sixty years before I went back. I found many changes, but still felt an attachment to the town and the surrounding countryside, and had intended to return this summer from my present home in New Zealand. That trip is no longer possible because of coronavirus travel restrictions. Instead I joined several Facebook groups devoted to the area, and seeing all the old photos posted there has triggered a few memories of my own.

Our address was 22 The Overcliff, a Victorian house which is now a children’s day care centre. I believe there had been an orchard on that site, and the back garden contained many fruit trees, mainly apples and pears. The Bramley apples, individually wrapped, were stored in the basement over the winter. The front bedroom looked out over the Thames, with the port of Tilbury on the other side, always busy with ships sailing in and out. Between the street and the river was a disused chalk quarry where I used to play, for children were left to their own devices in those days. It was a short walk down to the river itself, and it was there that I learned to swim; no doubt the waters were polluted but I came to no harm.

I attended Milton Road Primary School but remember very little about that, and it’s not there any more. My best friend was called Jennifer Clements; we lost touch years ago.

Much clearer memories relate to outings with my grandfather, Ernest Guy. He was head of the Technical School in the 1940s till the early 50s. He had a great love and knowledge of the English countryside and, especially after he retired, took every opportunity to drive his old black car (an Austin 7?) to different parts of Kent. Summer holidays were spent camping in the Isle of Sheppey, or visiting resorts on the south coast.

Short local visits involved identifying wild flowers and birds, exploring local churches, collecting nuts or blackberries or mushrooms to cook for tea. I remember the orchards and hop fields and oast houses, and walks near Meopham, Shorne, Cobham Woods, Holly Hill … and wonder how many of the old footpaths and woodlands have now been built over, and how many “areas of natural beauty” developed into tourist sites. With no prospect of international travel in the near future perhaps it is best to remember these places as they used to be.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel You Yet Shall Die, a family mystery set on the North Kent marshes, is available from Amazon.com.

Letters from the past

Over four years have passed since my mother died. The financial side of her estate has finally been settled, following prolonged correspondence with accountants and lawyers. A personal aspect, namely the letters in two of the box files I discovered in the spare bedroom when clearing her house, remains unresolved. I hope this is the last weekend of the Covid-19 lockdown, which would seem an ideal opportunity to deal with these boxes before my life gets busy again. But I still can’t decide what to do with them.

One box contains a series of letters written to my mother during my childhood in the 1950s and 60s, regarding a situation of which I was only dimly aware. I don’t know whether she intended me to find them after her death, but as she was a very “private person” I suspect not. I did read them, while feeling somewhat guilty about doing so. I think it likely that she intended to destroy them one day, but having become weak and unwell in the last months of her life, either lacked the energy to do so or forgot they were there. I haven’t shown the letters to my husband, but he knows something about their content, and suggests that it could make a good basis for my next novel. This may be true, but writing such a book would seem disloyal however heavily I disguised the plot. I have several options. I could destroy all the letters now. I could go through them again and copy selected extracts into a file on my computer for future reference, then destroy the rest. I could leave them in the box, with a note asking whoever finds them after my death to destroy them unread.

The other box contains the letters I sent home to my mother and grandparents in Yorkshire when I was a medical student in Oxford in the late 1960s. I have only reread some of these, having found the style embarrassingly naive, but some contain descriptions of the course which might perhaps be of interest to a medical historian. I was shocked to find that I remember nothing about most of the people and events described. What a contrast to my husband Brian Barraclough and my friend Jean Hendy-Harris, who can both recall their past lives in great detail and have published memoirs about them. I wonder which of us is the more unusual.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest one You Yet Shall Die, a novel about family secrets and a long-ago crime set in southern England, is available from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukSmashwords.com and other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries.

A psychiatrist remembers

Many friends and former colleagues of my husband Brian are already reading A Partly Anglicised Kiwi: a psychiatrist remembers, the newly published memoir about the first 32 years of his life. The main focus is on Brian’s experience of the psychiatric training programme at London’s Maudsley Hospital in the 1960s. There are shorter sections on miscellaneous topics such as being a patient in a TB ward, and tramping in the southern alps of New Zealand.

To quote from Brian’s Introduction:

“In 1962, aged 28, I left my home in New Zealand and sailed to England as a ship’s surgeon. I was on my way to apply for the world’s foremost training programme in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital in London. 

“Part I of my memoir describes growing up in Auckland, studying at Otago University Medical School, and practising as a doctor in New Zealand. Part II is about my three years at the Maudsley, where I worked in general psychiatry and some subspecialties. Given my modest beginnings, the intellectual and cultural life of London came as a revelation. I received a liberal education from my peers, took holidays in Europe, had a psychoanalysis, and a bad trip with LSD.”

The book was mainly compiled from the essays Brian has written over the years, originally for his own satisfaction rather than intended for publication. My role as editor was to arrange them in a logical order, check for consistency of style and grammar, and discuss with Brian how much material needed to be removed as potentially offensive or libellous. In my experience, writing or editing books is easier done alone than in collaboration with others, and we didn’t always agree. However we are both happy with the finished product, and hope readers will enjoy it.

A Partly Anglicised Kiwi (ISBN 9798623114792) can be purchased from Amazon websites including Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.au. Shipping restrictions at the time of writing may prevent readers in some countries from buying the paperback version, but the Kindle ebook is available worldwide.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest one You Yet Shall Die, a novel about family secrets and a long-ago crime set in southern England, is available from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukSmashwords.com and other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries.

Writing in lockdown

For the sake of all the people round the world who are suffering real hardship linked directly or indirectly to Covid-19, I do hope the epidemic will soon be over and the lockdowns can be eased. For myself the restrictions have caused nothing worse than frustration, and as far as writing goes they have had their positive side. No longer able to have coffee with friends, go to the cinema, sing with my choir, do my own shopping or volunteer at the SPCA, I am largely confined to house and garden. Domestic work is only satisfying to some extent, and Netflix only enjoyable for limited periods. The highlight of the day is the afternoon walk with Ireland, my dog-share Labrador, but there is plenty of free time.

Ireland ready to go home after his walk

Having this time has motivated me to resume two writing projects that had been flagging lately. On a friend’s recommendation I downloaded the Scrivener programme and am very glad I did so. To learn to use the system I needed some documents to work on, so was stimulated to make a start on the new novel for which vague ideas had been floating round in my mind for some time. I am not the sort of writer who can summarise the whole structure of a book in advance, and work through the chapters in sequence from beginning to end. For a novel I tend to start with a general sense of the theme, setting and characters, writing fragments as they occur to me, before putting them together to form an outline of the plot, which will probably change when I fill it out in more detail. Scrivener, using templates for both fiction and non-fiction, is ideally suited for this way of writing because it enables everything – draft chapters with notes and summaries, character sketches, links to relevant websites and images – to be seen at a glance and arranged in any sequence.

My other project has been the editing of my husband’s memoir about the early years of his life, 1933-65, mainly focused on his psychiatric training at the Maudsley Hospital in London. Collaborating with each other on this book has been a long process, sometimes fraught. However we both agreed on the final version, which will be published shortly – details in my next blog post. The book may appeal to those with an interest in medical history, and to anyone who knows Brian or used to work with him.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel  You Yet Shall Die is available from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukSmashwords.comand other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries. A selection of comments from readers:

A wonderful book which I learnt a lot from as well enjoying immensely.

Both intriguing and unusual. I could hardly wait for the story to unfold as family secrets, crime and murder came to light – the ending was totally unexpected. An absorbing read.

I couldn’t put it down. I was wondering about the twists and turns all the way through. I’m not a cat person and thought I was going to be put off by all the cats, but no …

The way the story was told from all the characters’ personal viewpoints made the story deeper and more exciting. The twist at the end was great.

Well done, it was superb. Great twist that you didn’t really guess.

A revelatory read.

I loved it! I really liked the characters and the sense of buried secrets gradually coming to light. And the twists were excellent, very clever!

Loved your book.  Enjoyed it right to end (including ending).

Biographical writing

I am editing my husband’s memoir, to be published shortly, covering the years from 1933 to 1964. It is compiled from various essays that Brian, with his vivid memory and fluent style, has written over the years. Focused mainly on his medical career, the book contains first-hand information about the history of psychiatry in New Zealand and the UK. It also includes sections about topics of general interest such as being a patient in a TB ward, having a bad trip on LSD, and tramping in the Mt Cook region (photo by Florian Schulte on Unsplash).

Working on Brian’s book has made me think about biographical writing in general. I doubt that I will ever write my own autobiography, although I have often drawn on personal experience for my novels. I have forgotten a lot about my earlier life; many of the things I do remember would reflect badly on myself or others if they were published. And as I haven’t achieved anything remarkable, or had anything remarkable happen to me, I don’t think the content would be of interest to anyone else.

One reason for autobiographical writing is of course the wish to understand and come to terms with one’s past, a sort of do-it-yourself psychoanalysis. To quote from the finale of the musical Candide: “And let us try, before we die, to make some sense of life.” However the lyrics of the same song, Make our garden grow (which I enjoyed singing in a New Zealand Opera workshop last year), go on to imply that longterm satisfaction is best sought from simple domestic activities – easier than writing autobiography.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel  You Yet Shall Die is available from Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukSmashwords.comand other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries. A selection of comments from readers:

A wonderful book which I learnt a lot from as well enjoying immensely.

Both intriguing and unusual. I could hardly wait for the story to unfold as family secrets, crime and murder came to light – the ending was totally unexpected. An absorbing read.

I couldn’t put it down. I was wondering about the twists and turns all the way through. I’m not a cat person and thought I was going to be put off by all the cats, but no …

The way the story was told from all the characters’ personal viewpoints made the story deeper and more exciting. The twist at the end was great.

Well done, it was superb. Great twist that you didn’t really guess.

A revelatory read.

I loved it! I really liked the characters and the sense of buried secrets gradually coming to light. And the twists were excellent, very clever!

Loved your book.  Enjoyed it right to end (including ending).

Cat poems

Watching the movie version of Cats prompted me to look out the few pieces of doggerel (catterel?)  that I’ve written to various feline companions over the years – not up to TS Eliot’s standard, but cat-lovers may enjoy them.

THE GINGER TOM

This is dedicated to Orange Roughey (O.R.) who was rescued as an aggressive stray living wild on the mountain behind our house, and after a long and tumultuous period of rehabilitation turned into a cuddly domestic pet.

The ginger tom is curled up on the bed
He dreams of catching bird and mouse and rat
He purrs when loving owners stroke his head
A life of bliss for the domestic cat

Orange Roughey cropped

FOR FELIX

This is a sentimental poem written after Felix, a much loved black and white cat, died from an undiagnosed illness.

We loved one another for fourteen years
Remembering you now brings back my tears
You came as a fragile rescue kitten
As soon as we met my heart was smitten
Although you and I were perfectly matched
Other admirers would often get scratched
I was the mother that you never had
Nursed you with care when your health became bad
Although the vets were so clever and kind
They could not help as your vigour declined
Why you were so sick nobody could say
Sadly I watched as your life ebbed away
One night when I lay awake on the bed
A cold breeze told me your spirit had fled
I laid you to rest in a garden tomb
Where irises and sweet violets bloom
Passage of time will perhaps dim the pain
Till on the Rainbow Bridge we meet again

Felix on flowerbed

TRIOLET TO RESCUE KITTEN MAGIC

Magic, also black and white, was abandoned under a hedge as a young kitten and came to us in a fragile state. A triolet is a short poem of eight lines, containing two rhymes repeated in specific places.

Your fur is black with specks of gold
Your eyes like spheres of jade
Once left to die out in the cold
Your fur is black with specks of gold
Now you live safe within our fold
No need to be afraid
Your fur is black with specks of gold
Your eyes like spheres of jade

Magic in box

HAIKUS FOR THREE CATS

Daisy is no longer with us, but Magic and Leo are alive and well. The three-line haiku format originated in Japan.

Magic soft as silk
Black and white ballerina
Light as a feather

Magic on cyclamen bed

Leo chunky boy
Loving his cuddles and play
Mackerel tabby

Leo on flowerbed

Tortoiseshell Daisy
Sleepy purring dowager
In her sixteenth year

Daisy with flowers

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I think my novels are better than my poetry and the latest one You Yet Shall Die (available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Smashwords.com and other online retailers), a story of family secrets and a long-ago crime, features several cats.

The fascination of crime fiction

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Foxglove: one of the poisonous plants featured in Agatha Christie’s novels. Photo by Clint McKoy on Unsplash

Crime and mystery novels rank among the most popular of fiction genres today. The many subdivisions – for example the traditional, police procedural, psychological thriller, cosy mystery, historical crime – almost always have murder as central to the plot. Why do so many people, most of them of them pleasant and law-abiding in real life, enjoy writing or reading about this gruesome topic? Whereas cruelty towards animals in books and films is widely considered unacceptable, and rightly so, cruelty towards humans is seen as fair fodder for entertainment.

An obvious reason, though perhaps not the most important one, for the appeal of crime fiction is the intellectual challenge of solving a puzzle. This is clearly so for the old-style “whodunnit” which often involves the discovery of a dead body in a closed setting, such as a country house hotel, where each of the people present is found to have a motive for murdering the victim. One or more other deaths may follow. A detective, amateur or professional, eventually nails the culprit – usually the most unlikely suspect – with the aid of clues which have been scattered through the text, along with a few “red herrings”. The solution must not be too obvious but, in theory, a clever reader should have been able to work it out. The story will have a neat resolution, with the truth being revealed and justice restored.

Variations on this basic formula are still used by some modern crime writers but the trend is for longer books with more subtly and complexity . In psychological thrillers, the interest lies not so much in solving a mystery as in exploring the criminal’s character and motivation. Sometimes the murderer’s identity is obvious from the start, though there will usually be a surprise twist at the end.

Crime fiction appeals on the emotional level well as the intellectual one. Perhaps it offers an acceptable channel for expressing feelings that in civilised society are usually suppressed – for example jealousy, greed, hatred, desire for revenge, obsession with evil and death. PD James said that all the motives for murder are covered by four Ls: Love, Lust, Lucre and Loathing. Whereas in real life the majority of crimes are committed by men, it is notable that many writers and readers of crime fiction are female, including some highly respectable mature women. Maybe crime fiction offers them a “safe space” to express the shadow side of their personalities.

Is crime fiction just harmless entertainment, or does it influence readers’ attitudes towards murder, whether acting as a deterrent or even encouraging the occasional person to commit one themselves? Novels at the lighter end of the spectrum, by presenting a sanitised picture of unnatural death and treating its investigation like a game, tend to trivialise the topic. More serious ones, which provide graphic forensic detail and authentic descriptions of police and court procedures, might help anyone who is planning a crime to select a method and escape detection. Similar concerns apply to crime movies and TV shows, which reach a wider and less discriminating audience than most novels do. But leaving such concerns aside, I continue to enjoy reading, writing and watching stories about crime.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel  You Yet Shall Die is available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Smashwords.com and other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries. A selection of comments from readers:

A wonderful book which I learnt a lot from as well enjoying immensely.

Both intriguing and unusual. I could hardly wait for the story to unfold as family secrets, crime and murder came to light – the ending was totally unexpected. An absorbing read.

I couldn’t put it down. I was wondering about the twists and turns all the way through. I’m not a cat person and thought I was going to be put off by all the cats, but no …

The way the story was told from all the characters’ personal viewpoints made the story deeper and more exciting. The twist at the end was great.

Well done, it was superb. Great twist that you didn’t really guess.

A revelatory read.

I loved it! I really liked the characters and the sense of buried secrets gradually coming to light. And the twists were excellent, very clever!

Loved your book.  Enjoyed it right to end (including ending).