Book Reviews – The Foundling and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

As my regular readers will already know I’m completing the popsugar reading challenge. I’m way behind on these reviews, but I decided to review these two books in one blog post, as they have some similarities in that they’re both set in 18th century London. I feel fully immersed in this time period having read both books back to back, and they’re both recommendations from me.

The Foundling by Stacey Halls

I read this book for the prompt ‘a book you think your best friend would like’. One of my best friends gave me this book for Christmas, so I know she likes it, and I have another friend who I know will enjoy this, as she likes historical fiction.

Bess Bright has a baby out of wedlock, and she can’t afford to keep it. Reluctantly, she takes her daughter, Clara, to the Foundling Hospital when she’s less than a day old. She makes a promise that she will return to reclaim her when she can.

Six years later, Beth takes her savings back to the hospital, only to find that someone has already taken Clara. Bess needs to find out who could have known about the whale bone keepsake she used as a token when she left Clara, and reclaim her daughter as her own.

The descriptions of the Foundling hospital are fascinating. I had to find out more. It was a originally founded by Thomas Coram, and supported by the painter William Hogarth and the composer George Ferderic Handel. In it’s 213 year history, it cared for and educated 25,000 children. That’s staggering.

This book drew me in, and I was invested in the characters, however, there were some coincidences that didn’t seem realistic, and I felt that there could be more emotion shown in the latter half of the book. I loved the focus on female voices in this book, and some of the suffering they had to go through in this time. As a Mum myself, I can’t imagine the horror of having to give up a child partly because I couldn’t afford to feed it, and partly due to a sense of shame.

I found the details of the era fascinating. Young boys were employed as ‘link boys’ and carried lamps to light the way for people being carried by litter at night. The sights and smells of Billingsgate fish market made the place come alive. Bess worked as a shrimp hawker, selling the crustaceans from her hat.

A large part of the book is set just within a private home, which, although interesting, was a bit of a shame, as you didn’t get to see much of the outside world, and to me, that was what brought the book to life. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed it and would recommend it. I would love to read her first book, The Familiars, as I like her writing style.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

This book is highly commended, having been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 and was a Sunday Times bestseller, as well as receiving many awards. I can see why. Although set in the same time period as The Foundling, the writing style is very different. The details are incredible, and the emotions and atmosphere draw you in, in a whole different way. I read this book for the prompt ‘the book on your TBR (to be read) list with the prettiest cover’. The sumptuous gold and blue design made me want to pick it up and devour it.

The story centres around Mr Hancock, a merchant who by chance finds himself owner of a dead mermaid. Through this, he encounters the indomitable Angelica Neal, who lives a life of glamour and seduction. He becomes infatuated, both with Angelica and the idea of a mermaid, with far reaching consequences.

Again, there are strong female characters in this book, which is welcomed, and I learned a lot about the ‘nunneries’ of young girls, run by old bawds. Of course, those places still exist now, but it was interesting to see inside one at that time. Mrs Fortescue, ‘mother’ to the nubile wenches in her care is a particularly horrid character. Having gone through the life of an upper class whore herself, she now subjects other young girls to the same, wanting power and influence, and preying on the week.

Interestingly, none of the characters are particularly likeable. They all have their flaws. Mr Hancock is impetuous and neglectful, Angelica is vain and self-obsessed . The fact that they are human means they are relatable. They make mistakes, feel embarrassed and are embarrassing. Both main characters ultimately want to be liked by others, and it is this need that motivates their behaviour.

I loved the melancholy of the mermaid, the filth of the streets and the descriptions of the party thrown to show the mermaid. The author has a gift, her writing is magnificent, and I wholeheartedly recommend reading this book.

Dawn

I’ve decided it’s time I shared some of my ‘actual’ writing with you. I’ve only written two poems as an adult, this is the second (I may share the first at some point). I’ve had lots of feedback from my wonderful writing group, and this is as close to finished as I can get it. I hope you enjoy. I’d love to hear what you think.

  Dawn
  
 Bird song announces the dawn.
 Blackbirds tell a story,
 a magpie clatters like a football rattle.
 Seagulls cry unseen in the blanket of soft grey.
  
 Morning is time for opening up
 of eyes,
 of body,
 of possibilities.
  
 Ideas, intentions, inspiration
 sneak up whilst showering 
 or making tea.
 Steam revealing potential.
  
 Dawn is a liminal place.
 Edge of the day,
 edge of the mind,
 edging into view.
  
 Winter mornings don’t break, they creep.
 Blurred colours; a painter’s palette,
 a water-wash of grey.
 Skeletons of trees, aerials, chimneys.
  
 Scarlet ink spills onto the horizon,
 bleeding upwards; blotting paper sky.
 A rosy blush kisses the clouds,
 like a sleeping infant’s cheek.
  
 A day draws its first breath, gilded with promise.
 We all sleep, 
 we all wake,
 we all dream of better days. 

Have things really changed?

The first book I finished for my popsugar 2021 reading challenge is ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Trussell. My friend lent me this book so I decided to start the year by reading this for the prompt ‘a book about a social justice issue’.

The book follows a band of painter and decorators in the made up town of Mugsborough (based on Hastings and St Leonard’s where Trussell lived). It highlights the working conditions and living conditions of a range of characters, from the very rich to the very poor. Trussell was a socialist, and he wrote this book to try and persuade readers to the socialist cause. Consequently, there were passages devoted entirely to politics, and explaining how socialism could end poverty.

Boy, was it a tough read. Books about an ideology don’t tend to be known for their plot, and this is no different. But, that’s not the point. The point was to tell the story of the unacceptable poverty in the early 20th century. To draw attention to the fact that capitalist rich people exploited the workers that provided them with an income. That people clamoured to vote for corrupt politicians who lied and hoodwinked their way to office. Is it me, or do these issues sound all too familiar to us now in 2021?

One of the most pertinent parallels I noticed, given our current position in the midst of a global pandemic, was that of employers expecting employees to work in unsafe conditions or risk redundancy. Trussell was referring to practices such as using ladders without someone bracing them, working in damp, cold conditions or working whilst unwell and without adequate food or drink. Workers were often injured or even killed and scared to complain due to the constant threat of them getting the boot. Without work, they starved. So, they worked under horrendous hardships just to earn enough money for rent and food. Sometimes there wasn’t enough for both.

I read an article whilst I was reading the book, about employers forcing employees to go into workplaces that were not COVID safe, and how people were worried that if they complained, they would be made redundant. It echoed Trussell’s story so completely, that it made me feel angry that so little had changed.

Trussell’s socialist ideology was well founded and parts of it have found their way into modern life. We now have a National Health Service, welfare system and a plethora of health and safety and employment legislation. No longer do ten year olds work down mines, and people have to be paid a basic minimum wage (whether this amounts to a ‘living wage’ is still a matter for debate). This doesn’t mean that the gap between the richest and poorest is any less. It just means that it’s more hidden. Newspapers still regularly publish stories about disabled people who have died as a result of benefits payments being stopped. Rates of modern day slavery and domestic abuse are growing. Is this the society Trussell dreamed of when he scratched out these words whilst consumed by illness and working as a sign writer? I doubt it.

Although it isn’t an easy read, it’s a book I would encourage you to pick up, whatever your political persuasion. It’s a rare glimpse into the lives of the working class in 1900s, and I certainly learnt a lot about this period. Whatever conclusions you draw, it can be said that this was an influential book when it was published, and continues to be so today for highlighting the inequalities prevalent in society then and now.

Slowly does it…

As I wrote in my last blog post, I’ve decided to try and complete the Popsugar reading challenge 2021. When I did this previously, I aimed to do the 40 regular prompts, and any from the 10 advanced prompts were an added bonus. This year, however, I liked the look of the advanced prompts, but didn’t want to leave the prompt for ‘longest book on your TBR (to be read) pile’ until near the end of the year.

I stumbled across the Serial Reader app on Goodreads and thought I would give it a go for The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. The app is loaded with hundreds of classic books, and sends you a snippet or issue of the book each day to read until you’ve finished the whole thing. In this way, I’ll have finished the book by August, and won’t even break a sweat. The longest section I’ve had to read so far is 16 minutes. It’s perfectly manageable to slot it into your day somewhere. It even makes it more enjoyable, as you don’t have to hold an enormous book, or feel like you’re not getting anywhere.

I’ve even decided to start reading a second book in this format. My choice for the prompt ‘a book about fresh starts or new beginnings’ is Anne of Green Gables. This isn’t anywhere near as long, so I should finish that next month.

Reading slowly in small chunks mean you savour the writing much more. I’m certainly guilty of skim reading to a certain extent, especially when I read classics. It’s lovely to slow down and savour what you are reading, turning it over in your mind after you’ve finished.

When you have finished your issue for the day, you get a little pop up giving you a virtual high five. Some of the pop ups make me laugh with their dry humour. It must be a challenge to think of hundreds of ways to say ‘well done’, but the developer has obviously had some fun with it.

The app syncs with Goodreads if you use it, as well as between devices if you need it to. I like the fact that it only updates your progress on Goodreads if you read more than 5% since your last update to avoid loads of annoying updates appearing.

The app is free on Android and iOS, and can be downloaded from the app store or Google play. You can choose to pay a small amount for a premium service, which means you can read ahead of each small issue you get sent, as well as notes features and different fonts. You certainly don’t need to pay for this additional service to enjoy the app.

If you’ve ever wanted to read War and Peace or Moby Dick, but are put off by the number of pages, why not try this app to read it in small chunks?

This review was written independently and I didn’t receive any payment or free products for writing it.

A reading challenge

I’ve been a bookworm since I learned to read. I’ve always got a book on the go, no matter what. I’ve read everything from classics to sci-fi, historical fiction to non-fiction. Books influence my view on the world, let me escape to other places and are a comfort when things get tough.

Although I read fairly widely anyway, I’ve decided to challenge myself in 2021, by trying to complete the Popsugar Reading Challenge. This challenge has been running since 2015, and includes a list of 40 prompts, plus an additional 10 prompts if you want an extra challenge.

Source: POPSUGAR Photography

I did the 2019 challenge and really enjoyed reading books I would never have come across on my own.

I know it might seem weird to some people to want to read 40 books in a year, but I just read normally from my bookshelves this year and managed to finish 43 books, so it’s achievable without rushing through them. As a writer, it’s vital to read to learn how authors build character, construct plot and structure their story or narrative. Of course, it’s always eye opening to read bad books too. It’s good to pick out what it was that you didn’t like – was it an annoying expression used over and over, cringe-worthy dialogue or a lack of speech marks.

Last time I did the challenge, I planned out all the books in advance, which was exciting, but then meant it was somewhat uninspiring when I got near the end. It was disappointing finishing with Frank Kafka’s The Trial, which was a trial in self to finish. This year, I’m going to try and use as many books as I can that I already own and are on my to read pile (which has grown quite a bit after Christmas and my recent birthday). I’ll just plan a few books in advance, to keep it interesting. I just need to make sure I try and end on a good one.

I’m going to write reviews of the books I read throughout the year, so any readers out there can feel inspired, or know which ones to avoid! There’s a few prompts that have already got me scratching my head: an Afrofuturist book, a book by an indigenous author and a book I have seen on someone’s bookshelf. To me though, that’s the fun and the challenge of it. I hadn’t even heard of the term Afrofuturist, let alone chosen to read a book in this genre.

Let me know if you’re thinking of doing the challenge, and what you will be reading. If you don’t read much, why not pick a few prompts to challenge yourself to read away from your usual genres.

When does a writer become a writer?

I’ve been writing for four years now. I’ve not had anything published, not won a competition, and no-one has ever heard of me. Recently, I have been wondering, what is the point at which someone becomes a writer?

When someone asks you to read their LinkedIn article and offer suggestions? When someone asks you to read and comment on a poem they’ve written for a funeral? When you are asked to write a blog for a project at work? All because they know you write and they think you know what you are doing?

It’s fair to say that I know more now than I did when I started. I’ve written a lot, read a lot about writing, got some good feedback, and changed the way I write as a consequence. It just feels weird to get acknowledgement from others, especially when they’ve never read any of my writing. It’s hard not to feel like an imposter, but with every request, it helps my confidence grow, because, I provide helpful feedback, write things that people praise and enjoy reading. I must be doing something right!

I mainly write fiction, which is very different from poetry, articles or blogs. Other people don’t see a distinction, and maybe, after all, there isn’t much of one really. In theory, a writer can turn their eye to anything. Each piece of writing is built of words, sentences and paragraphs. You still use punctuation and grammar. Is the difference between a fiction writer and a blogger imagination? I don’t think so. Writers write to be read, whether that’s a family member, newspaper audience, customer or anonymous people on the internet. You construct your pieces from a starting point that people need to be interested, carried through a beginning, middle and end and finish feeling satisfied. It doesn’t matter whether this is verse or prose, technical manuals or text books. If people don’t read it, there’s not much point writing it.

But, what about diaries and journals? There’s a growing number of people who journal for wellbeing reasons on paper or electronically, and who never show anyone else their writing. It’s cathartic, unselfconscious and quite possibly fairly uninteresting to most other people. But there’s not many people who journal who don’t go back and read old entries, whether written days, months or even years previously. Surely your future self is a different creature to the one in the present doing the writing? I believe you still have an audience in mind when writing for yourself, as you’re recording things of importance that you feel one day will be beneficial.

I’m sure Anne Frank, Samuel Pepys and Pliny the Younger didn’t expect their private diaries to be published for all to see when they wrote them, yet millions of people every year do just that, and they reveal so much important historic and anthropological information. They leave lessons to be learned, how we all have the same hopes, fears, joy and pain, no matter where or when we are born.

Besides, writing a journal is a good way of practising what has always been a popular way of presenting fiction. I’m sure Sue Townsend, Helen Fielding and Jeff Kinney would have dabbled in journal writing themselves to give them the basis of the diaries of Adrian Mole, Bridget Jones and the Wimpy Kid.

So, when do you become a writer? In my view, it’s when you start purposefully writing because you enjoy it, become curious about how to improve and allow others to read it. You don’t need to have outside recognition (although it’s nice), but an inner voice that says “I am a writer”.

Putting it out there

Having a blog about writing is odd, because I’m not sure how much ‘writing’ I can actually share. I know what I am doing right now is writing, but I mean stories and pieces that one day I might want to do more with.

We live in a digital world, where posting content on your obscure blog can still mean it’s published, and therefore, technically you can’t then submit it to a competition or try to get it published in the traditional way. You can’t even submit your short story to a woman’s magazine if it’s been published elsewhere before. Obviously submission criteria are all different, but the fact remains that I’m bordering on paranoia with what I allow to be seen online.

A case in point is a recent poem I wrote. That makes it sound like I’m always penning verses, but this was my first attempt since school. I got some good feedback from friends and family, and was going to share it on this blog, but then I decided to be brave and enter it in a competition. As part of the submission criteria, it stated that the poem could not be previously published, including online.

When you submit to a publication or competition, there are always numerous specific (read pedantic) rules about what font size to use, what spacing to use, how to label documents, how to pay for entry and what letter your name can start with (just kidding on the last one). I wonder how many people never make it through to even being read because they haven’t used the right margins.

It reminds me of a teacher at my secondary school who, in the run up to exams, set a test where the first instruction was to read right the way through to end. There was one smug individual who followed the instructions, and discovered the last instruction was to not complete the test, but to put their pencil down and leave the hall. They sauntered out, whilst the rest of us witless fools scowled incredulously and doggedly got back to fiendish quadratic equations.

The point, to read the instructions before starting, could have been made without embarrassing the entire class; but then, what teacher is going to pass up the opportunity for a bit of peace and quiet and chance to say ‘I told you so’.

I digress. Once I battled through the submission criteria and made sure I had dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s, I then had to actually press the button and submit my precious piece of work. Each piece of writing is part of my soul laid bare. It takes a special kind of courage to be vulnerable and put your inner self out there. Either that, or have a very thick skin.

Submitting a piece feels like a cross between submitting my dissertation and entering a lottery. Relief and a frisson of excitement. I allowed myself a modicum of a daydream that I might win, that perhaps I’ll dazzle the judges with my similes. Then you do what I did, and look at past winners. The top three entries from the last competition were won by multi-prize winning poets with published work and one is an editor of a literary journal. My heart sank. How can my little poem stand up to these greats? But, I’m still clinging to that elusive ‘what if?’

Now I have to wait and see whether my literary baby passes muster. One competition I entered last November didn’t announce the winners until the following March. Women’s magazines routinely have a six to eight month turnaround to reply.. As an aside, a lot of magazine publications ask for actual paper-based manuscripts to be physically posted to them. In 2020.

In that competition , when the winners were announced, the lingering ember of hope was extinguished as I read the winning pieces. I grudgingly forced myself to acknowledge their superiority, learned from the experience and moved on. This arduous process is repeated every time you submit for a slight chance of gaining recognition from experienced writers.

I don’t know why they should be the people who decide whether your writing is ‘worthy’? Surely readers will do that, but winning a competition is one of the best way to get readers. The judges are the gatekeepers to this particular castle in the sky. I’m trying to put this particular competition out of my mind for now, and look to the next one. It’s a good way of honing my technique, and if I do get feedback, a good way of listening to critique. One day, just maybe, I might get placed. You’ve got to be in it to win it, right?

Too many ideas, not enough time

I’ve got a very busy mind to put it mildly. I constantly zip from one thing to another. Sometimes it spills out to what I say. Most people who know me have been baffled by seemingly random mid-conversation direction changes. It makes perfect sense to me, but most people don’t make an immediate connection between say, a ball of wool and a witchdoctor.

When it comes to writing, I have no shortage of ideas. I have notes written to myself about dreams I’ve had, podcasts I’ve heard and people I’ve seen. Sometimes ideas just pop into my head seemingly from nowhere.

Stories usually start off with a picture in my head. I can vividly see an entire scene, and from that I describe the setting and people. That only gets me so far. It’s the making it into a story that people want to read bit I find more difficult.

Luckily, I’ve never really had writer’s block. I have many, many ideas. Even during NaNoWriMo, when I wrote 1666 words a day for 30 days, I still managed to keep going, only occasionally struggling for the next event to occur. I did it without planning too. It’s not a very good piece of writing, but it has great nuggets of ideas.

So, if you want to write something, and don’t know where to start, here are a few ways to generate ideas:

Look at newspapers, including the small stories at the end or obscure news outlets. Eric Carle wrote ’10 Little Rubber Ducks’ after seeing a newspaper article about rubber bath toys falling overboard from a container ship and washing up in Alaska

Make notes on your phone as and when ideas come to you – on my phone currently I have ‘acorn in pocket gets put away in child’s jacket. Later sprouted and grew through roof of house’. I transfer these ideas into my notebook or into a word document I have imaginatively called ‘ideas’.

Listen to snippets of conversation that float past as you walk along. My writing group friend loves hearing snippets from cyclists who ride past her house in the summer. I walked past a guy once in Winchester who said “You need to give him £30 on payday or you’re going to have to take a bang”. So intriguing.

Spot interesting people. I wrote a short story based on a man I saw walking along on a cloudy Autumn day wearing a suit, old fashioned black trench coat and sunglasses

Ask ‘what if?’ What if Miss Marple was a serial killer? What if everyone died in the car accident except one person? What if someone could suddenly understand the noises dogs make?

Flick through a magazine and choose a photo as a prompt. My writing group have written pieces on ‘red shoes’ and about a photo of a girl sat at the end of a jetty into a lake.

Open a book at random and stab your finger at the page and write something from the first sentence you see. Poetry books work well for this. I wrote a story based on this line from a book of poetry about birds “And all mankind that haunted nigh, Had sought their household fires”

Having ideas, however, is only half the battle. You need to actually make them into a meaningful story with realistic characters the reader can relate to, rich dialogue and a satisfying ending. No mean feat. Most of the pieces I have written are not finished, because I have a better idea, or go off on a tangent or think the idea is fully formed enough.

I don’t know whether it’s better to not have enough ideas or too many. My aim is to try and just make a note of any new ideas that come up and try and finish some of my pieces in progress. Who knows, there may be an idea in there that can win a competition or get published, neither of which is going to happen unless I stay with it, get it finished and submit it. Hopefully by writing this blog post, it’ll prompt (shame) me into actually doing it.

I’ve started so I’ll finish…

I’m a starter-finisher. I read one book until I finish, then I start the next. I knit one thing until I’m finished and then I start the next. I even get twitchy when I visit people’s houses and see multiple opened shower gels and shampoos in their bathrooms.

But then, I started writing. At first, it wasn’t so bad. I wrote short, themed pieces with a fixed word count for the first Saturday of the month when I met my writing group. Then I started branching out. I did NaNoWriMo in 2018 with no preparation and churned out 50,000 words compromising of two stories with the same theme and different characters. I stopped one and started another 18,000 words in as it wasn’t going anywhere, and I HAD to finish the challenge. Unfortunately, this behemoth of a first draft, whilst having great parts, was so messy, rushed and incoherent, that it would need drastic re-writing in order to get it to a semblance of a novel. It was also about 50,000 words too short. I battled with it for months. Adding scenes, fleshing things out, making huge to do lists and writing character profiles.

Then, I stopped writing. It was too much, I wasn’t passionate enough about the subject matter and I missed having the challenge of writing short pieces.

So, I shelved it, and embarked on a series of short stories. Some were re-edited old pieces, some new creations. But, I never actually finished any of them. I even submitted a couple to short story competitions. I got feedback on both, which meant that they were still not finished. I got to a point where I just got bored of each piece.

How do you know when a piece of writing is finished? It’s easy when you’re knitting or reading a book or even using shampoo, but writing? You could carry on working on each piece forever. Tweaking it, getting feedback and changing it, getting more feedback and switching it back. If you re-read it a few months later, you start messing with it again. Sometimes you forget what you were actually trying to say in the first place.

It’s a starter-finisher’s nightmare.

So, I decided to go back to novels. I started writing one, planned out another and decided a short story would actually be better suited as a novel, so started writing that. All of these are abandoned collecting digital dust on my hard drive.

I decided what I really needed to do, was start a blog. Full of enthusiasm, I published my first blog post. Then I started another. But… it’s more of an essay, and I wasn’t sure how to structure it, so emailed a friend to ask for advice. I tinkered around with it, doubting whether it said what I wanted it to say. I waited for my friend to email back. Used that as an excuse to not finish it. Time drifted on and I realised I needed to post something, anything. So here it is. A finished piece of writing. My first in a long time.

I know it’s a chronic lack of confidence that’s to blame. Crippling self-doubt seems to be a writer’s cross to bear. The weekly emails I get from the wonderful Writers HQ continually remind me that I’m not alone. I’m working on increasing my confidence in small ways, unseen from the outside. I’m challenging my anxious self to do things out of my comfort zone. I phoned and booked a table at a pub, I emailed back immediately to a colleague, I spoke up in a meeting. None of these actions are particularly extraordinary, but for me, they are micro steps in the right direction. Now I need to start work on my writing.

I’ve decided I need to try and focus on one thing, get it finished and send it off. That’s it. I’ve got a couple of pieces with great feedback that are on the brink of being finished and ‘enough’. Now I’ve got this blog, I’ve put it ‘out there’. I’m going to be accountable, and finish what I’ve started. One word at a time.

A Meditation on Suffering

I recently went on holiday to Dorset, and whilst I was there, I read ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain. Isn’t it funny how sometimes, the place where you read a book makes the themes and characters come to life more than usual?

It’s personal story of sorrow intertwined with my visit, and got me thinking about how much we, as humans, can possibly endure. Are there lessons we can learn from those terrible years of war? This particular war story was written in 1933. Brittain wasn’t to know at the time what was looming on the horizon. How did people cope with living through two World Wars? Were they made of ‘stronger stuff’?

As I walked along Weymouth beach, the sand smooth and golden, I thought about how much freedom we have, and that, this beach probably hasn’t changed much since the Great War. The waves still wash lazily up the shallow beach, the sand still sticks to toes and the tide still pulls and pushes the water relentlessly.

Despite having read other poignant war novels, the fact that this is true makes it harder to stomach somehow. Brittain describes her blossoming relationship with her fiancé Roland, and quotes letters they wrote to each other back and forth from the front. Imagine the man you love being so close in modern day terms, but the only contact being through letters, some received weeks after they were written? Newspapers were the only source of news about the conflict, and those stories often muted the facts or amplified the victories, with little in common with the reality of living in the trenches.

Living with that amount of uncertainty must have been almost overwhelming for those at home. Brittain, along with countless other young women enlisted as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) and threw herself into nursing. She did so in an effort to feel closer to the discomfort that she imagined her lover and the other men at the front would be faced with. The physical hard work was the only thing that kept her going through bleak times that are unimaginable today.

The conditions she lived and worked in made that suffering all the more acute. She and the other nurses had to walk from their basic lodgings in all weathers, and worked 7am – 8pm, before having the long cold, wet walk home. The accommodation didn’t have adequate heating or bathroom facilities, and no privacy. There was no psychological support or counselling and no work legislation around leave or breaks. I know that medical professionals sometimes work under similar conditions, but was the hardship worse then than now?

One of Brittain’s chief reasons for writing her story was that she wanted to document what it meant to be a young person living through war. As an outspoken pacifist in her later years, she wanted to show how she and her generation lost the experiences of youth that were expected in those times, and indeed still are today. Being able to go to University, court potential suitors, socialise and attend parties and events. But, those young people had to grow up too quickly, and their youthful endeavours made way for sorrow and loss.

I wonder what young people today would think of this, and whether they feel the same during the current pandemic. Do they feel that their best years have been hijacked by something bigger than them? Will they rise to the occasion, as the young people of the Great War did, sacrificing their comforts for the greater good? Will they be industrious and creative? A rise in applications to nursing degrees, and the plethora of art and music that erupted during lockdown show that this may be true to a certain degree. It’s hard not to feel empathy for young people in the midst of a pandemic. Cut off from their peers in that important time when the group and relationships are all. When personalities are being formed, and introspection is painful.

What of the very real threat of death and injury that existed during wartime, at home and abroad? I visited Lulworth Castle on my week away. There’s a MOD artillery range nearby, and they were on exercise while we were there. The dack -a-dack of a machine gun and boom of distant explosions echoed round the outside space. The noise was impossible to ignore, but the sheep round the castle grounds nonchalantly munched the grass. It made me realise how incredible the noise must have been from constant bombardment from shells in the trenches. The noise from the artillery before the battle of the Somme and other fierce offensives was heard on the south coast of England. Just that fact made me think so much about what the soldiers stuck in muddy trenches were thinking about whilst that bombardment was going on, knowing when it stopped they would have to go over the top and into no-mans-land. Young men, just like our friends, children, partners or grandchildren. Petrified, traumatised and there due to a belief that heroism is exalted. But the reality was dying ignominiously in agony in a muddy field in France.

For me, as I know is the case for us all, this pandemic causes suffering because of the amount of uncertainty it causes, the lack of an end point, the realisation that nothing is going to be the same as before and the feeling of impotence. This silent killer who could pass you by unscathed, or could cause a loved one to die alone. To live in discomfort is hard to sustain. Although we may not have the hardships Brittain and her contemporaries suffered, ours is no less valid.

Loneliness was already contributing towards a whole host of physical and mental health complaints that lead to an earlier death. You could say that there was already a pandemic in loneliness in the UK, with the Government taking it seriously enough to appoint a Minister for Loneliness in January 2018. Social distancing and lockdowns have exacerbated the feeling of disassociation. Although anyone can feel lonely, as a young or old person, this feeling is magnified.

For some people, there have been positives. I’ve got to know about my neighbours more due to a street WhatsApp thread, but there will be people living on the street who aren’t part of that, and live alone or are not au fait with technology. How are they suffering? Worklessness, disconnection, lack of human touch, missing out on important milestones such as new babies, weddings, even leaving drinks when you get a new job. It has an impact.

I don’t want to belittle the suffering of those who sacrificed so much during both World Wars, and those who are currently living in conflict zones, but I feel that suffering is touching all of us in a way most of us haven’t experienced collectively before.

Do we rally together? Is there a ‘Dunkirk spirit’ that our politicians are so keen for us to emulate. Is clapping on our doorsteps enough to get us through this? How can we become comfortable with this discomfort? Do we throw ourselves into personal projects? Start new careers? Volunteer to be part of medical trials?

Or do we all take up our mantles and wear our face coverings, wash our hands and stay away from other people.

As a family member said recently, during lockdown, we were very good at rising to the occasion, as were people during the initial stages of the Great War. With no end in sight, as time goes on, however, we run out of energy to continue. Fatigue sets in, disillusion and suffering increases. We’re told we won’t have a normal Christmas, we can’t plan holidays or have things to look forward to. A lot of the country can’t even visit friends or family. When everything is taken away from us, how can we survive? How did Brittain and her contemporaries survive? They each found their own inner strength. It’ll be different for all of us. It sounds impossible, but people just like us have managed to move through acute suffering, and survived and life has continued. We may not be able to imagine a life after Covid, but there will be one. And if we are lucky, we’ll come out of it stronger, more resilient and with perfect sourdough.