Thursday, August 31, 2006

Yep, that just about sums up this blog at the moment! More soon...

Sunday, August 27, 2006

There's a particularly interesting 'life of the day' from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography today:

Smith, (Lillias Irma) Valerie Arkell- [née Lillias Irma Valerie Barker] (1895-1960), sexual impostor and perjurer, was born on 27 August 1895 in St Clements, Jersey, the daughter of Thomas William Barker (1857-1918), gentleman farmer and architect, and his wife, Lillias Adelaide Hill (1868-1923). Her parents moved to Surrey in 1899, where her brother Tom Leslie was born. Valerie was educated at Huxley's School for Young Ladies at Prior's Corner, Surrey, and then at Upavon, Wiltshire, finishing her education at a convent school at Graty near Brussels.

In 1914 Barker took up war work as a VAD attached to St Hilda's Hospital, Haslemere. From 1915 she worked as a horse trainer for the Canadian army at Rodborough Common and then at the Bristol remount depot. She remained working with horses, moving on to a hunting stable near Shrewsbury and then to a stables in Meopham, Kent. While in Kent, Barker met her first husband, Lieutenant Harold Arkell-Smith (b. 1882/3) of the Australian 20th battalion. They married on 27 April 1918 but the marriage lasted only six weeks, although they never divorced, and she subsequently returned to her parents' house. On 26 August 1918 she enrolled as a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.

After the war Arkell-Smith worked in a tea-shop in Warminster, where she met her next partner, the Australian soldier Ernest Walter Pearce Crouch (1876-1923), who was married but separated. They lived together in Shepperton, and then from July 1919 in France, where he worked in the Paris office of The Times. Their son Tony was born on 27 February 1920 in Paris. Nine months later Pearce Crouch lost his job and they returned to England. On 15 June 1921 their daughter Betty was born. They managed to find work as tenant farmers at Bailiffs Court, an estate in Climping in Sussex. However, their relationship was unsatisfactory and Arkell-Smith spent her time with Elfrida Emma Haward (b. 1895/6), whom she had met in 1922 in Littlehampton. She left Pearce Crouch in 1923 and began a life as a man under the assumed identity of Victor Barker.

Arkell-Smith checked into the Grand Hotel in Brighton as Sir Victor Barker. The transition was easy for she had already gained a reputation for 'affecting masculine attire, and particularly for wearing men's heavy boots' (Daily Mail, 3 March 1929). As Colonel Victor Barker she married Elfrida Haward at St Peter's parish church in Brighton on 14 November 1923. The marriage was conducted by the Revd Laurence Hard, who was apparently unaware of the groom's real identity. 'I told Miss Haward that I was not what she thought I was; I told her that I was a man who had been injured in the war' (Sunday Dispatch, 10 March 1929). Elfrida always maintained that she believed her.

As the 'Colonel', Arkell-Smith followed a variety of careers, including that of an actor with the stage name of Ivor Gauntlett, boxing club manager, owner of a secondhand furniture business, dog kennel manager, dairy farm manager, cafe owner, and orchard worker. Owing to this instability Elfrida left the 'Colonel' in autumn 1928 and returned to her father's house. Arkell-Smith became politically involved with the National Fascisti, a militant breakaway group of Britain's fascist movement, in 1927, running a boxing programme for its members.

In 1929, after Arkell-Smith had changed both her name and rank to Captain Leslie Ivor Victor Gauntlett Bligh Barker, she found work as a desk clerk in the Regent Palace Hotel in London, posing as a retired officer. There she was arrested on a bankruptcy charge and was sent to trial at the Old Bailey in London. Put on remand at Brixton prison, she was found to be a woman. The charges against Arkell-Smith were in consequence increased to include perjury as a result of her marriage to Elfrida Haward.

The trial was sensationalized in the press. The prosecutor, Sir Ernest Wild, revealed that not only had Arkell-Smith married Miss Haward posing as an officer, but she had also been tried as a man two years previously in July 1927 in the Old Bailey for possessing a forged firearm certificate, although found not guilty. With the revelation of the new charges, she was found guilty of perjury and was sentenced to nine months in Holloway prison. Despite her marriage to Elfrida, Arkell-Smith was not charged under the amendments to the 1920 Sexual Offences Act.

When Arkell-Smith left Holloway she reverted to the identity of Victor Barker. After a variety of short-term jobs, calling herself John Hill, by 1937 she was attracting enormous crowds to her show, entitled On a Strange Honeymoon, in Blackpool, where she portrayed Colonel Barker.

Under another male identity, that of Jeffrey Norton, Arkell-Smith lived as the husband of Eva Norton. In the early part of the Second World War she worked as a switchboard operator in a hospital outside London, and also joined the Home Guard. After the war the couple moved to Kessingland, Suffolk, where Arkell-Smith called herself Geoffrey and became a shop assistant. She died of Parkinson's disease on 18 February 1960 at 3 Wrights Cottages, London Road, Kessingland, Suffolk, and was buried in the grounds of St Edmund's Church, Kessingland, on 23 February. On her death certificate her name was given as Geoffrey Norton, otherwise Lilias Irma Valerie Arkell-Smith.

Emma Milliken

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Well, this is all very disappointing. With only two weeks to go to the great allotment show, my hopes of becoming the Nigella of the Giant Pumpkin world are being cruelly dashed. Even I will admit that my entry to the Heaviest Pumpkin category is looking slightly weedy:

especially compared with those of the past (I've tried making this photo smaller to make them look less impressive but it still doesn't work! These are BEASTS!):

Never mind, at least my marrow is still in with a chance:

And most of all the allotment is an amazing place to go and write, or to just be. Feast your eyes on this (not mine, but we can dream):

Friday, August 25, 2006

To mark their 100th edition, The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (a must-have companion for every writer, aspiring or established) has launched a brand new website. As well as details of their 100-year history, the site also includes a guide to getting published and a directory of literary agents. Visit the site here.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

So what makes one piece of literature 'better' than others? The number of prizes it gets might be some answer - after all, one win might be 'lucky' but surely not a shower of them. Interesting then to see this list of awards here, and to look at the short story Mefisto in Onyx by Harlan Ellison, which has won FOUR awards. Puts paid to the idea that you need a short punchy first sentence anyway!
News of an interesting sounding British Academy lecture:

The lectures begin at 5.30pm and take place in the British Academy, 10 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AH. Lectures are free and are open to all and will be followed by a reception at 6.30pm.

Tuesday 19 September 2006
A.E. Housman's Rejected Addresses
Dr Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Magdalen College, Oxford

Ask me no more, for fear I should reply;
Others have held their tongues, and so can I…

A. E. Housman (1859-1936) has often provoked disagreement among his readers, but there is one aspect of his life and work that almost everyone agrees on: he was a reserved, even a repressed figure – ‘self-absorbed, self-contained’ (Katherine E. Symons), ‘reticent and stiff’ (Lawrence Housman), ‘a strange union of deep passion with severe restraint’ (John Sparrow). This lecture will explore how far commonly accepted ideas of repression are helpful in explaining the distinctive qualities of Housman’s voice, and where else the hiding-places of his imagination are to be found. Above all, I aim to show that Housman is a far more unsettled and unsettling poet than many of his admirers like to think. ‘You always know where you are with Housman’, John Bayley once argued; but although A Shropshire Lad led to Housman being rooted in the popular mind as one of English literature’s finest writers of imaginative topography, remoulding the landscape to fit the more obliging contours of memory and desire, it might be better to think of him as one of the great poets of displacement and disorientation. You never know where you are with Housman.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

There's a powerful story by Maxwell Jay, The Y Incision, up on Pulp's site at the moment. Worth reading.
Spotted this book vending machine at Heathrow Airport over the weekend.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people. - Arthur Schopenhauer

And my writing prompt for today is going to be the missing bits!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Bluechrome, the excellent publisher of the excellent Messages, has started Random Review, a new campaign linked with the Bookcrossing initiative. Here are details:
Introducing The Random Review - Get a Free Book from bluechrome
For those of you that haven't come across it is well worth a visit, not least because it spreads the word about good (and bad) books and promotes literature using old fashioned collaboration. To date nearly half a million people have joined and 'Released' some of their favourite books into the wild, by leaving them in coffee shops, at bus stops and anywhere else people might find them, pick them up and give them a read. We thought it a great idea and wanted to join in, and to do this we'd like your help. The idea of the Random Review is that we will send a handful of each of our new titles to a random selection of those that let us know that they would like to join in, and promises to:

1. Read the book
2. Write a Review, good or bad, and add it to the Book Crossing Web Site
3. Give the book to somebody else or leave it somewhere for somebody to find.

So how do you register your interest? Well all you have to do is send us your name and postal address by e-mail to and we may well send you a book in the very near future. Oh, and mention whether you prefer fiction or poetry books.

Friday, August 18, 2006

My writing prompt for today is this kid's thoughts when he's all grown up...
One true cliche (actually aren't all cliches true?) is how the best books continue to creep up on you long after you've read them. I'm normally a peaceful sleeper, but last night I woke up in a rage, thinking I just had to hit someone. After I'd happily battered to a pulp several of the people currently on my hate-list against a wall at the end of a dead end I'd chased them down (it was a long and enjoyable process but hey, I've never said I was 'nice'), I started to work my way back to why I was feeling like that.

The answer: Alison Lurie's new novel, Truth and Consequences. Unlike most critics it seems, I LOVE books about writers - after all, you can have the confidence that the author is writing from a position of knowledge, rather than, say, with a vampire story. Delia is the writer in Truth and Consequences and she definitely isn't nice. She hates teaching - all those students wanting things from her, she 'forgot' to tell her second husband she hadn't divorced her first, she manipulates everybody into becoming her slave, and when she's caught red-handed by her lover's wife, her reaction is to burst out laughing. But in one thing she is inspiring. She's completely single-minded about her writing. And oh so disciplined.

And I've just realised that's why I woke up angry - because I haven't been like that for a long time. In fact, the opposite. I spent some time last night getting cross with everybody I could think of who has stopped me writing, but came to the conclusion that the main culprit was, of course, myself. There's a balance - I wouldn't want to run away and leave the kids (well, only sometimes) but I'm going to stop sabotaging my writing by always putting it last.

And here endeth the lesson. Well, nearly. Delia's not all bad. One of her lines made me laugh out loud, and still gets me smiling. It's when she tells Alan she's going to move to Key West, and he replies:
'According to what I read, Key West is overrun with homeless chickens and feral six-toed cats, and drugs, and drunken writers and crazy motorcyclists, and the local government is completely corrupt,' he said.
'Yes, doesn't it sound wonderful?' Delia laughed. 'I'm going to be so happy there. Even happier than Henry and Jane.'

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Cosmopolitan magazine after a few gin and tonics?

That's one of the review quotes for Scarlet, the UK's only erotic magazine for women. I went to an all-women talk on erotic writing recently, and really liked what Scarlet's founder, Emily, had to say there about how and why she started the magazine. Actually, it wasn't just what she had to say but how she said it. She made it fun, normal and exciting, and hurrah for that AND her magazine. I'm really pleased WH Smiths are stocking it, and was delighted - if poetically gobsmacked - at Heathrow recently to see so many copies on display.

One of the best quotes I heard all night at the erotic writing talk was on the way out, when my friend and I were joined by another woman who'd been at the meeting. 'Of course we might talk about it, but most of us probably still lie back and think of England', this woman said. 'Not in my house we don't,' said my friend, who's married to a Scotsman.

The meeting was held in the staffroom on the top floor of Foyles, where, appropriately, in pride of place on the wall was a black and white photograph of the shop in the 1960's with a sign saying something like 'Lady Chatterley's Lover Sold Out, More Coming', at the time of the famous court case.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Aldeburgh in Suffolk is a magical place - obviously it doesn't snow there all the time, but one thing it does have more than its fair share of is poets. Its poetry festival is justly famous, and I've been drooling over this year's programme already!
Health, Happiness and Social Status

A British Academy discussion between Richard Layard, FBA,
London School of Economics and Political Science,
and Michael Marmot, University College London

Convened by Shula Marks, FBA,
University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies
and supported by the Academy of Medical Sciences
Chair: Onora O'Neill, President of the British Academy

Wednesday, 4th October 2006
6.00pm - 7.30pm
£10 (£5 concessions) to include a drinks reception

The British Academy, 10 Carlton House Terrace,
London, SW1Y 5AH

An evening dialogue between the epidemiologist Sir Michael Marmot and the economist Lord Richard Layard, FBA, both of whom have recently written fascinating books at the interface of medicine/ well-being and the social sciences.

Michael Marmot’s Status Syndrome: How your social standing directly affects your health, derives from his internationally renowned study of hierarchy and health in the civil service which shows how health is closely related to the degree of control we have over our lives; Richard Layard’s Happiness. Lessons from a New Science brings together recent research in the neurosciences and economics to explore `the causes of happiness and the means we have to affect it'. The books are both remarkable and complementary; lucid and extraordinarily accessible. If confirmed, the findings they integrate have profound implications for the political agenda of Western countries.

Please circulate this email to interested colleagues and students.

Visit our website for further details and to to book on-line:
Telephone enquiries: 020 7969 5238 / Email:
Be a scribe! Your body will be sleek, your hand will be soft . . . You
are one who sits grandly in your house; your servants answer speedily;
beer is poured copiously; all who see you rejoice in good cheer. Happy
is the heart of him who writes; he is young each day.
--Ptahotep, 4500 BC

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Everybody needs a daily annoyance, one that will mildly stimulate but not tip you over the edge. Mine comes from my page-a-day Zen calender - today's entry:
Yun-yen was sweeping the grounds.
“You are very busy,” Tao-wu commented.
“You should know that there is someone who isn’t busy.”
“Oh really?” Tao-wu said. “You mean there’s a second moon?”
Yun-yen held up his broom and said, “Which moon is this?”

Monday, August 14, 2006

Back to the rain, and the rain, and the rain ....

Two things that cheered me up today are both lists - firstly a pick of rainy songs from a New Orleans based blogger called Adrastos I've been reading, and secondly the top comedy lines from the BBC. Peter Kay wins with his '"Garlic bread, it's the future, I've tasted it" line, but I must admit still laughing every time I hear Caroline Aherne's question to Debbie McGee as to why she married magician Paul Daniels: "So, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?"