Thursday, 15 September 2011




That’s the trouble with the study of history. It’s too rigid. You cannot play around - at least you oughtn’t to play around - with the evidence. Interpret the events as you will but you mustn’t invent or distort. Be true to the facts.

But fiction, that’s different. Create. Be imaginative. As the journalists say, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

So having had a lifetime’s interest in history and literature – or should I say Fact and Fiction? – I was faced with this difficulty when I came to write And Such Great Names as These.

Over the years I’d heard the odd tale from the Great War. One of these tales was that there were some unofficial and unrecorded military executions of deserters. I have no evidence for this assertion and so in the interests of historical truth such suggestions ought to be ignored. On the other hand, as the journalists say…

So an unofficial military execution is related in the book and the truth hidden so that even the parents never know what has happened to their son. They have simply been told of his death in action.

But just imagine, the parents who have lost their son in this way, come to see one of his former comrades.  Dolly’s brother Rob knows how Ernie Grayson died and his mother and father arrive unexpectedly at her house to find out more.

The Graysons, intent on every word made no movement, no sound.

'I met him one afternoon.  We were out of the line.  And he saw me.  We were in a village about twenty miles back.'

They were respectable, timid, narrow.  And they would never forget their son.  They loved him.  Always would.

'We had a drink, I remember.'

Mrs Grayson's mouth was pursed.

'Not too much, I hope.'

Even in death, Ernest was not to be allowed to have forgotten that he was from a respectable home.

'No,' Rob told them.  'Just a couple.  Special circumstances,' he added.  'We were under a bit of strain.  Ye know, fightin'.'

Mrs Grayson's severe look relaxed slightly as she acknowledged that perhaps in those special circumstances, Ernest might be allowed one drink.  But no more than that.  The restriction was etched in her face.

'He'd had a hard time, Mrs Grayson.'

It was true.  He had.  Every day since he had joined the army had been tough.  It was difficult to know who his worst enemies were.  Those in his own company or the Germans.  As they had sat in the bar ‑ and as Ernie had couple after couple after couple though there was no need for the Graysons to know that ‑ Ernie had told Rob what it was like for him.

'I'm frightened,' he had admitted without shame.  'I'm frightened I'm goin' to get killed or maimed.  Lose a limb.  Me face.  Me balls.'

And Rob had told him that was what they were all afraid of.

'You're not,' Little Ernie had told Rob.  'You've been decorated.  You proved you're not frightened.'

And Rob had told him how frightened he was every day on whatever side of the wire he found himself.

'And the lads.  They hate me,' Little Ernie had confided, ignoring Rob's admission.  'Ye know what they do?' And he had told Rob every instance of minor cruelty to which he had been subjected, to which he was subjected every day.  If it wasn't the Germans, it was the Geordies, his own people.

'We'll get out of it eventually,' Rob had reassured him.  He had wondered about Ernie.  He was harmless.  He was everybody's victim.  Both sides of the wire.

'I never will,' Little Ernie had wept into his wine.  'I'll never get away from here.'

They were almost the last words Rob heard for Little Ernie had sobbed himself to sleep at the table.

But where did the character of Ernie come from? Well, really, much of Ernie came from two people I knew. Tell you about them next time though it won’t be for a couple of weeks.

And Such Great Names as These by Allen Makepeace
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This book is also available on Amazon Kindle
75% of the book’s profits go to the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association

Sunday, 11 September 2011




Funny what you can remember and what you can’t.

Last week I walked back from town with a heavy bag of shopping. Once in the house I remembered that I’d left the car in the town-centre car park. And I could tell you countless other little occasions like this. Provided of course that I could remember them

So how is it that I can still recall my first day at infant school? And the smell of the leather in my dad’s first car, a little Morris 8? And the day in the back lane when Henry Coxon, after filling my mother’s milk jug with his ladle, let me ride in his cart and call out instructions to the horse; and another day when uncle Will went down his backyard to kill a chicken for us? These are such sharply etched images, smells and sounds and at times – after intervals of months or years even – they pop up unbidden.

And here’s an odd memory. I can remember the day I first heard the word ‘affable.’

‘Affable?’ I asked my mother. ‘What’s that?’

We’d just been to see my headmaster – it must have been during the Easter holiday of 1940 and I have no idea of why we had gone to see him – and on the way back home my mother had come out with the word.

‘Mr Lucas was very affable today,’ she said. I’d never heard the word before.

She explained.

I’d never thought of the distant figure of Mr Lucas in that light. To me, seeing him ghost along corridors, passing him when he seemed to be whispering State secrets to other teachers, he was a mysterious, all-powerful figure. I’d never been in his presence before that morning. At least, never close up to him. The only times I really heard his voice was in assembly when, on a direct line to God, like some Old Testament preacher he sermonised, warned of the most awful outcomes for disobedience and generally scared the living daylights out of us before telling us, in the same terrifying way, of the first eleven cricket results, the splendid success of some senior boy and the forthcoming gas-mask inspection.

Affable? I’d not seen that characteristic. That vulpine smile he’d given us as we left his study hadn’t reassured me. I’d heard stories about his caning boys.

Such memories are precious now as a source of amusement, pleasure, wonderment even, and they’re particularly useful for writers. Schooldays are a goldmine and I’ve no doubt that the following scene from And Such Great Names as These owes something to my time in school. And, by the way, as I later learnt, Mr Lucas was a decent, straightforward, kindly man, highly effective in his profession.

So here is ten-year old Joshua in his junior school listening to Mr Pybus’ history lesson when into the room comes Mr McKie.

A kind of involuntary spasmodic shudder went round the room.  It was Mr McKie.  He rarely came unless somebody was in trouble.  Then it was six of the best.  Or at least that is what all of the children seemed to believe.  They used to say that if you put a horse hair across your hand, it would split the cane.  They had often talked about that but who ever had a horse hair on him at the right time?  And anyway, Joshua had often told himself, if the cane split, it might nip your hand as well as all the other damage it did.  These thoughts ‑ about canes and horse hairs ‑ always passed through Joshua's mind when Mr McKie came in.

And his worst fears, almost the stuff of nightmares, were realised because today Mr McKie had come for him. 

As Mr McKie bent confidentially towards Mr Pybus, Joshua heard his name mentioned, saw Mr McKie turn away briefly from Mr Pybus and look for him down the rows of desks.  After more whispering between the two men, Mr Pybus stood up straight.

'Joshua Slater.  Go along with Mr McKie.'

'In my office,' Mr McKie added.

Joshua's knee jumped involuntarily, his legs felt limp and rubbery as he made his way past Michael and Jackie who stood in the narrow gangway between the rows of desks.  Sixty pairs of eyes on him.  Why him?  Why me?

Mr Pybus said nothing until Joshua was near the door, on the point of opening it.
'Right now ... The White Man's Burden ... everybody ... now, pay attention ... don't take any notice of him ... right, now ... The White Man's Burden ...'

And Joshua closed the door on Mr Pybus, his Empire and his Burden.

The walk to Mr McKie's office was no more than thirty yards.  It seemed to take a lifetime.  Why was he being called?  He'd done nothing wrong; he was convinced of that.  Was there anything in the last two or three days?  Not that he could think of.

Mr McKie had reached his office before Joshua had closed the door of the classroom.  Reaching the green door, the boy was unsure whether he should knock.  After all, Mr McKie must know he was there.  So had he shut the door because he was not ready for him?  Was he getting out the cane?  Did he have to move furniture before caning?  Or was he busy with other important things?  Should he knock?  He had never been in there before.  He scarcely knew Mr McKie.  He didn't usually speak to any of the children until they were in the top class.  Next year, of course, Mr McKie would teach him.  He was not looking forward to that.  He knocked at the door.

'Come in.'

Joshua opened the door and Mr McKie was sitting behind his desk.  Strange how, anxious as he was, Joshua had time to take in the brown painted walls, the two or three pictures, a book case full of books, a pile of copy books on the desk, a brass ashtray containing Mr McKie's pipe. He looked around for the crook-handled cane.  He had heard so much about Mr McKie's cane.  Horse hair, he thought.

'Sit down, Joshua.'

I imagine that you’ve had similar experiences and I’ve no doubt from time to time they’ve figured in your writing..

Hope you found this interesting. If you did, please pass it on.

Back next week.

And Such Great Names as These by Allen Makepeace
Sample or purchase this e-book on
This book is also available on Amazon Kindle
75% of the book’s profits go to the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association

Monday, 5 September 2011




I admit it. I have from time to time laid my head in ladies’ laps, run my hand through their hair, gurgled incomprehensible love tones in their ears, kissed them sloppily on the cheek. I’m talking of course of my infant years. Though come to think of it…

I still vaguely remember those days, my speech still barely formed, and the feel of their hats as I ran my hand across spiky straw or softest velour, as I played with the wobbling clusters of wax fruit or miniature bluebirds or caressed the smooth length of pheasant feathers. Such tulle-laden adornments women then carried on their heads. Nor did they ever seem to remove these vast uncomfortable objects, leaving them there to be admired throughout the afternoon-tea visit or the occasional brief call to exchange some idle gossip that today would be exchanged in seconds on Twitter or Facebook. But these two arrivistes do not require one to dress up, to put on an appropriate dress and coat; they don’t demand a special brooch or necklace; nor do they provide an opportunity for an outing for the latest hat. All gone now, such opportunities.

Dressing-down is today’s obligation just as dressing-up was in earlier times. I recall the poorest women in our town with their shawls over their heads, women in the drabbest clothes, with workmen’s worn-out boots on their feet. But, for very many other women, it was important to dress as well as they could. Dolly Weston, the heroine in the book, is aware of that. When she first meets young Joshua she explains to him how important it is to dress as well as possible.  

'Just because we come from round here doesn't mean we can't do our best for ourselves.  And I'll tell ye

this,' she said, peering closely into Joshua's face as if to emphasise what she was saying, 'they

wouldn't've been quite so helpful today, that old devil Forsyth and the folks in the hospital, if I'd gone in

wearin' a shawl round me shoulders and me old work skirt.  They'd've been difficult, I'll tell ye.  They

couldn't have stopped ye comin' out but they'd've been awkward.  And there'd've been more fuss gettin' in
to see your mam.'

Mrs Weston folded her arms across her chest and nodded her head as if she was confirming the truth of

what she had said.

'I keep me eyes open, ye know.  If somebody I'm workin' for is throwin' clothes out, things they don't want

any more, I offer to buy them, if I think I can do them up nice.  I mean that.  I do pay.  Not much, mind,

and I do get some bargains.'  Mrs Weston looked triumphant, happy.  'It doesn't take all that much to

make things nice.  I've got this coat and a jacket and some skirts and a couple of blouses that way.'  She

nudged him.  'As I say, it's no good bein' poor and lookin' poor.'

At that time – I’m talking about eighty or ninety years ago - most of the menfolk, high and low, wore three-piece suits – jacket, trousers, waistcoat. You see them on the earliest news films. As for the hats, you would imagine that they had been designed as a daily reminder of the class system and the higher up the ladder a man might be so the height of his headwear proclaimed his place in society.

For instance, you’d find the financiers, the captains of industry, the politicians, all of them in top hats except when they were on the grouse moors. The only one in our family to wear a top hat was my uncle Bob who wore his when, as an undertaker, he led a procession of mourners to the cemetery.  

Then there were the clerks and shopkeepers out and about, but on their heads a bowler hat. Aspiring men, indicating that they were a little rung or two up the social ladder. Just that little bit …is the word ‘classier’?

And then there were the football crowds, mostly working class men, pretty well every one of them in suits and most of them wearing flat caps.

In the book there is a reminder of the social significance of men’s hats, and the bowler and the cap in particular, when Dolly’s brother puts on a suit belonging to her husband..

'This is nicer,' she had said, offering him a shirt with a blue stripe, 'with that suit.'  Then he had to

struggle a second time with the celluloid collar.

Now Rob would try the bowler.  'Might as well look a toff,' he said.  He looked at himself in the mirror,

testing it at various angles.

'No,' he said at last.  'A dutt's not right on me.  I don't look right in a gaffer's hat.'

He placed the bowler on the chair beside the table.

'That's better,' he said when Dolly offered him the cloth cap.

But today, it matters less. The man in t-shirt and jeans: is he a boilermaker or a banker? The girl in the frilly top and black tights: what is she, where does she stand in terms of social status? You just can’t tell.

Times have changed.

Hope you found this interesting. If you did, please pass it on.

Back next week.

And Such Great Names as These by Allen Makepeace
Sample or purchase this e-book on
This book is also available on Amazon Kindle
75% of the book’s profits go to the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association

Thursday, 1 September 2011




Gloves? Don’t talk to me about gloves.

When I was in my teens, my mother, hoping to advance me up the social ladder, always used to insist that I carry gloves to church on a Sunday evening. Not that she or my father ever went to church but she knew what was socially demanded of me as their earthly representative. And your mam’s your mam and there’s no refusing her. She didn’t know that I used to put the dratted things in my jacket pocket as soon as I was out of sight. Well, what boy would have done anything different? Especially in north-east England.

Ladies, of course – real ladies, I mean, and that included most women - always wore gloves in those days. And they never went out without a hat. (Note to self: must fit in something about hats sometime).

In my novel, And Such Great Names as These, a very smartly dressed lady learns that young Joshua’s mother has been taken to hospital and that he has been sent to the workhouse. She brings him out with a real show of authority after only one night. Dolly is a total stranger to the boy and he is rather overwhelmed by her.

They are travelling to her house on the tram. And then, in the course of the journey, the conductor comes to collect the fares…

She took off her gloves to rummage in her purse and for the first time Joshua noticed her hands.  It was because she looked so grand, so well dressed, that he had not been prepared to see such workworn hands, the nails torn, the flesh almost raw and ingrained with the grime of hard work.  His mother's hands were like that; he was used to seeing them like that.  But this woman, with her very good clothes, and her very confident manner, like a real lady, ought not to have hands like that.  Mrs Weston saw him staring at them as she pulled her gloves on again.

'Oh, Joshua,' she said, shaking her head and smiling.  'I'm not a toff if that's what ye think.  I work hard for me livin'.  Cleanin'.  Cleanin' folk's houses.  Like your mam.  And it's dirty work.  Doesn't do your hands any good.'

But if Dolly Weston is quite unmoved when Joshua sees her hands she is less confident when it comes to dealing with the army officer with whom she has fallen in love. Here he comes, the love of her life…

Hector waved, came walking towards her.  You'd have taken him for a soldier just by the way he carried himself; the straight back; the crisp sure‑footedness; the eyes steadfastly ahead as though he were led by distant trumpets.  His light overcoat, his homburg, could not hide what he was, a real soldier.  As he came closer he waved again and Dolly could tell even at that distance how he looked, the cheerful boyish expression, the kindliness of his eyes.

The first time, she thought, as he walked towards her ... the first time ... the day he'd come to Mrs Waterstone's ... she had answered the door and let him in.

And what a mess she'd been, her hands covered in black lead.  She'd never expected a caller and there she was on her knees rubbing away at the oven door, when the bell rang.

'I've come to see my sister,' he had said.  'I'm Mrs Waterstone's brother,' he had added unnecessarily.

And Dolly had been conscious of her dirty hands and her bare arms.  I'm a skivvy, she thought, but I wish I didn't look like one.

'Oh, right, sir,' she'd said, standing aside, feeling she wanted to wipe her hands on her apron and knowing that would make things worse.  She stood aside at the open door, her hands flapping uselessly at her side and wondering if her face was smudged.  She had stammered out how Mrs Allen, the full‑time daily, had been called away on family business and that she, Dolly, had been asked in just for the day.

I was looking for a heroine who would not be beaten down by circumstances and this is how I hope Dolly appears most of the time. In another scene she is quite clearly ashamed of her work, of her hands and of herself and I think that Hector, middle-class through and through, is very understanding.

'I'm sorry,' he said gently.  'You should be proud of those hands.  They're like your campaign medals…people have all got their value.  You mustn't think signs of work are anything to be ashamed of.’

Good old Hector. So many people thought differently in those days. They even celebrated the notion in their hymns. Remember the lines?

The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
He made them, high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

It was an idea that suffused the period and that made love affairs of the kind I have described very problematical.

Hope you found this interesting. If you did, please pass it on.

Back next week.

And Such Great Names as These by Allen Makepeace
Sample or purchase this e-book on
This book is also available on Amazon Kindle
75% of the book’s profits go to the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association