Wednesday, 27 August 2014


Doesn't time pass quickly? I mean, it was 10 years ago when we were staying in Suffolk and watching the BBC's Restoration programme. This was an unusual format show in which British heritage buildings, some of which had been granted listed status, but all of which were in danger of being lost and needing help, were presented to the public for them to vote for. The series' winner would receive a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to enable remedial and restorative work to be carried out to stop it falling into further disrepair.

One of the entrants was the World War 2 Radar transmitter station at Bawdsey, close to the Suffolk coast. This was the site of the world's first operational radar station, essentially enabling the detection of enemy aircraft approaching from far away, as well as their height, which was very important. It also meant they were able to identify friendly aircraft. So we went round there to see what there was in the way of visitor attractions.

Well, this was the beginning of the campaign so it wasn't surprising that there was nothing for us to see. Instead we travelled on to Bawdsey Quay, passing A4 notices in windows urging people to cast their vote on the TV show, and we settled down amongst families playing on the shallow beach, and watched the boats bobbing in the water in the afternoon sun, with the ghostly silhouette of Old Felixstowe seemingly hovering in the haze on the far side of the estuary. I distinctly remember there was a strange, yet welcoming, timelessness; maybe an echo of times past. Beautiful.

Unlike many of the other entrants—buildings with classical facades, towers, houses, theatres and so on—Bawdsey Radar wasn't pretty to look at; basically, it was a concrete building with crumbling corners, sections slipping away exposing its rusting steel reinforcements. It was a utilitarian box. And, despite the importance of its function in those days of the war, the integral role it played in winning the Battle of Britain, and becoming a model for a chain of radar stations around the British coast and so helping to achieve victory ... it didn't win. Instead it came 4th, thus denying it any of the funding so desperately needed for its survival.

Exactly 10 years later, we were back in Suffolk, with the very same people in our group, and learnt that Bawdsey had organised just 11 open days during 2014. Having recently received help from the Heritage Lottery Fund (about 9 years after first being on TV), the Bawdsey Radar Transmitter Room was on display, furnished with information boards supplied by the British Museum, exhibits of some of the equipment, a mock-up scene of operators, a fantastic model of a transmitter tower made by a schoolboy, and more.

In one room was a 17-minute video of Gwen Arnold, one of Bawdsey's radar girls, with her precise and vivid recollections from those days. She began working at Bawdsey in 1943 and was featured in the 2010 series of BBC's Coast. Her book Radar Days was published in 2000. 

The building was a mass of visitors, each with an appreciation for what this little place did when the nation was under attack, sharing a sense of indignation that such an artefact could be discarded, unappreciated, unloved. Outside the rain was pouring down, yet the centre's volunteers were out directing the parking cars, or showing where the old transmitter towers once stood, telling the stories to those who would listen—and there were plenty of us.

These people were superb, friendly, knowledgeable, and quite happily (who wouldn't be?) wearing branded clothing with the very appropriate "First in the Field" embroidered logo. The low-key shop wasn't filled with a few relevant items and bulked-out with (what the retail trade terms as) market-stall swag; oh no, the merchandise here was specific and relevant. The lady running the "shop" (it was really a single table, but with the stock expertly arranged) was proud to tell us that the Bawdsey tea towel was made locally. We're going to frame ours, by the way. When we left, the sopping wet volunteer in the car park thanked us personally and we moved on to take advantage of the special offer tea and coffee that had been organised with a local cafe at Bawdsey Quay. One example of caring not only about the exhibits but also about the visitors. (I'm a bit of an expert on scones, by the way, and the jam that was being served in the cafe was home-made, which made the day that extra bit special.)

And here's my point: the concrete building that was once the working transmitter block ... granted it's hardly the subject for a picture postcard and is certainly a non-contender for a chocolate box lid, but is so much more than it appears; it is where people worked during those uncertain times, where they did a highly-specialised job, where their training and expertise meant the difference between life and death, where the briefest loss of concentration could mean devastation. Like any good literature, it's all about people, and that's what Bawdsey has in abundance—those from the past who helped Britain and its allies achieve victory, and those in the present who, thanks to their hard work that has resulted in much-needed funding, can now ensure that the fascinating story of radar cannot be forgotten.

Here's a link to the site:


Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Whitby—a source of inspiration

It was 1989 when I first went to Whitby. When at school loads of the other kids used to boast about going there on holiday, but for some reason my parents drove straight past on the way to Scotland. So when, as an adult, with a young family of my own, we found ourselves house-sitting for my in-laws who lived further down the coast, we decided to pay it a visit.

Recovering (as were we all) from the 80s' recession, there were surprisingly few empty shops, I remember, compared with similar towns in West Yorkshire, whose high streets were punctuated with To Let signs and Closing Down Sale notices.

Yes, Whitby, with its harbour crowded with trawlers and other fishing boats, and its trademark smell of fish mingled with the sea air, was a town where I felt I could be at home, and many times during the winter Saturdays we would set off on the one hundred mile trip and spend the day wandering along the streets, walking along the cliff top to look down on the harbour and the famous piers in the shape of pincers. (Petrol was much cheaper back then.)

A few weeks ago I found a 23-year-old video that my wife took of me running two-at-a-time up the 199 steps. I had no idea she had done that, so imagine my surprise at finding it after all that time.

We also spent many hours in the Whitby Bookshop on Church Street, in the old part of the town. That's where, 20 years ago, we took our children to meet the author Robin Jarvis, who was amazing to talk to, and we'll never forget it.

And late afternoon we would drive down to Robin Hood's Bay, where the shops would still be open, and especially the second-hand bookshops, of which, in those days, there were many. Yes, the narrow streets and passageways, with light spilling out from the cottages and shop windows. Atmospheric or what? It's no wonder these appear as the streets of my fictional village Wyke Bay.

And, of course, we have ties with the books written by Leo Walmsley, who lived there. The republished Walmsley books actually begin their new leases of life in this very room.

So thinking about the connections we have with Whitby and surrounding district, I suppose it's not surprising that I set one of my books in the area.

As mentioned in a previous post, we were there in late February to get some more footage for the Flither Lass video trailer. By that time, all of the research was completed, but it was still useful for gathering sources of extra information regarding things in the story, to include on the website, such as the ganseys—the woollen pullovers, each with its distinctive pattern that would identify the village that a fisherman came from. We found the source of further practical information in a wool and crafts' emporium called Bobbins, on Chapel Street, just along from Whitby Bookshop.

The day before returning home, having walked the 8 miles to Whitby along the old cinder track, we thought we had earned these freshly-baked scones at Marie Antoinette's—and guess where that is? Correct, Church Street!

A Drunken Druid's View: Review of Graham Higson's "Flither Lass"

A Drunken Druid's View: Review of Graham Higson's "Flither Lass": "Flither Lass" by Graham Higson is a fast paced story set during World War 1. This is the tale of Amy Trott who after losing her ...

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

One Pair of Feet

No, it's not the book by Monica Dickens, but my way of describing what happened when we returned to Robin Hood's Bay in February. Okay, this is not so much what happened as what we needed.

We'd been there in early December to film a book trailer for Flither Lass. We got savage waves, seaweed, cliff edges, caves and narrow, winding streets. But, as is often the case (especially when the storyboarding has gaps), we didn't get everything; in particular a pair of young woman's bare feet and lower legs. Such feet, running across the beach and rocks and splashing in the pools, would add that extra something to the film, which, incidentally, would last no longer than 90 seconds.

We didn't know anyone with such ... er, attributes, and the thought of simply asking some sundry person who might be enjoying themselves in Robin Hood's Bay sort of filled me with dread. I mean, you can't simply go up to someone and ask them if you can film their feet, can you? And especially if they are bare...? Of course you can't, especially in this country where offences are so easily perpetrated these days, even in all innocence.

So what would we do? Could we persuade some young woman – and one with hard-looking feet (and without painted nails because that didn't happen in 1915), attached to sturdy legs with strong calf muscles – to get them out for the promise of immortality in a YouTube video? I remember the days when that sort of thing had currency value, but times have changed.

So there we were. We wanted cold, dark clouds, frigid conditions. We got blue sky and sun-glistened bladderwrack on the rocks. At least that could be edited out in post-production. But where could we get the feet and legs? There were plenty of people about, some walking dogs, others walking children, pushing prams, walking with each other. The tide was coming in, and odd little groups were finding themselves trapped by streams cutting into the sand, swirling and getting deeper by the second.

I was one of the marooned, along with two young women. The rest of the team was on the other side. I was trapped only because I'd wandered off, thinking about the next book. The two women looked into the deepening water. This was similar, but nowhere near as treacherous, as the situation that the book's heroine, Amy, finds herself in. There was no way they would get across to the other side without taking off their shoes – which is exactly what they did.

I told them why I was there – to film legs and feet. One of them rolled up her trousers and did a sailor's hornpipe dance. "You can use me, if you like," she laughed.
I couldn't believe it. There was just one condition, though: she wanted us to use a clapperboard; it was a childhood dream of hers. Luckily, we had one with us, even if it was on the other side of what was fast becoming a widening lagoon.

But we did it! We got the feet and the legs. And, after all that trouble (my feet got wet too), the shot won't last ten seconds...

Flither Lass is due in March 2014.