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Monday, 23 November 2015

The Lancashire Highwayman


Masked highwayman George Lyon held up the Liverpool mail coach by firing shots and forcing the driver to stop. Then, having robbed the passengers of their valuables, he retired to the pub at Upholland, where he had been drinking earlier. The distraught passengers arrived a little later, bringing with them their tale of robbery and their narrow escape from death, and Lyon must have been entertained by their version of events.

According to local legend, Lyon once tried to hold up a coach that was transporting wages to a coal mine. He was waiting by the side of the road, but it was pouring with rain and the gunpowder in his pistol got soaked. When the coach finally rounded the bend, his pistol failed to fire. The driver, seeing the highwayman, whipped the horses into a gallop and the coach sped by him, throwing up a wave of water,  leaving Lyon bedraggled and no richer.
Lyon's subsequent career involved more petty crime and burglary until he was eventually caught in 1815. His career ended after burgling Westwood Hall, at Ince near Wigan (below).

Westwood Hall
Unknown to Lyon, the landlord of the pub was an undercover constable acting as a 'fence', and the silver that  Lyon was trying to sell was easily traceable.

Lyon was hanged at Lancaster Castle, but was allowed to be taken back to his home village for burial. Usually it was the custom for executed criminals to be given to local surgeons to dissect, in the interests of medical advancement. Lyons' body was brought back in a thunderstorm, a suitably dramatic end for the Upholland Highwayman.

Lyon called himself a 'prince of thieves' and in time, because of this phrase, he came to be remembered as a Robin Hood type of figure - though there is no evidence at all that he gave anything back to the poor!
Lancashire beneath
Most of the information about the Upholland Highway man came from a great little book: Lancashire: Who Lies Beneath, by Elisabeth Ashworth, about the stories behind the gravestones  of Lancashire churchyards. The book is a treasure trove of fascinating characters and covers many Lancashire graveyards. Visit Elizabeth's website

And tonight, find out more about the history of Gentlemen of the Road, watch the BBC 4 programme,

Sunday, 1 November 2015

70th Anniversary of the film Brief Encounter

This year marks 70 years since Brief Encounter was made in 1945. It was one of my mother's favourite films, a real weepie, and one which seemed to touch the heart of a nation. Just why, is explored in this lovely documentary on Radio 4 which I listened to earlier in the week.

One of the reasons I am celebrating the anniversary of the release of the film is because I have published a book which features the filming of Brief Encounter in 1945.  The site of the wartime filming on Carnforth station is close to my home, and the Heritage Centre there has a wealth of information about the film and its stars. At the moment to celebrate the anniversary, the Heritage Centre has been featuring a free season of David Lean's films. Lean's many credits include quintessentially classic cinema experiences  - from Dr Zhivago to The Bridge over the River Kwai, from A Passage to India to Hobson's Choice. And of course Brief Encounter.
Brief Encounter
From Filmsite
Brief Encounter (1946) is director David Lean's brilliantly-crafted, classic British masterpiece. It is one of the greatest romantic tearjerkers/weepers of all time, with a very downbeat ending. Lean's film is a simple but realistically-honest, unsentimental, self-told social melodrama of the quiet desperation involved in an illicit, extra-marital love affair between two married, middle-class individuals over seven weekly meetings, mostly against the backdrop of a railway station. The romantic couple includes a wife/mother (stage actress Celia Johnson) looking for escape from her humdrum life and sterile marriage, and a dashing doctor (Trevor Howard in his third film). (Characteristics of film noir also abound within the film - unglamorous locations, rain-slicked streets, dimly-lit interiors and dark train passageways in a tale of doomed, unfulfilled and frustrated love.) 
The Guardian says attempts to parody Brief Encounter have failed:
Brief Encounter has survived such threats, because it is so well made, because Laura's voiceover narration is truly anguished and dreamy, because the music suckers all of us, and because Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are perfect.
The Radio 4 feature says that the timing of it, when so many men were returning from war, made the last few lines, 'Thank you for coming back to me,' particularly poignant. Do take a listen to the programme, it's only half an hour but very informative if you love the film.
In my novel Past Encounters, written under the pseudonym of Davina Blake, I explore and echo the same themes as in the film. In my book, my female character, Rhoda, has her own interior monologues. Peter, her fiance, is told with more distance as he fights for his survival in a German POW camp. Both endure emotional and physical hardships during their separation during the long years of WWII. Like the film I was looking for a certain restraint in the writing.
You can catch Brief Encounter at special screenings during this, its 70th year, and even go to a tea dance after seeing the film at various venues throughout the country.
And if you are interested in my novel, here it is. Past Encounters is the winner of a BRAG medallion for excellence in independent fiction.
About 'Past Encounters'
From the moment Rhoda Middleton opens one of her husband’s letters and finds it is from another woman, she is convinced he is having an affair. But when Rhoda tracks her down, she discovers the mysterious woman is not his lover after all, but the wife of his best friend, Archie Foster. There is only one problem - Rhoda has never even heard of Archie Foster.
Devastated by this betrayal of trust, Rhoda tries to find out how and why her husband, Peter, has kept this friendship hidden for so long. Her search leads her back to 1945, but as she gradually uncovers Peter’s wartime secrets she must wrestle with painful memories of her own. For if they are ever to understand each other, Rhoda too must escape the ghosts of the past.
Taking us on a journey from the atmospheric filming of Brief Encounter, to the extraordinary Great March of prisoners of war through snow-bound Germany, this is a novel of friendship, hope, and how in the end, it is the small things that enable love to survive.

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Betrothed Sister - an 11th century epic

I have read all of Carol McGrath's Hastings Trilogy, and have been entranced by this little-known period of English history. Her most recent novel features a woman about whom little is known, but McGrath's research into the politics, events and atmosphere of the time have filled in the gaps .
Betrothed Sister

Carol McGrath's beautifully detailed novel of the exiled Princess Thea is a treat for the senses. For much of the novel Thea is on a journey to find her Russian Prince Vladimir, and we are in her company as she braves the icy Northern waters in a Dragon boat, crosses the vast steppes and fights off pirates and brigands. We are taken with her to chilly monasteries, fortress castles, and the 'terem' the womens' quarters at the Rus Court.We watch her embroidering her 'rushnyk' - her ritual wedding cloth, and visiting the local cunning woman.
The characters in this novel provide the reader with plenty of tension - the jealous Olga, the faithful Gudrun, and the men battling for land, and lusting for power. The finale is a gripping and spectacular battle for a city besieged, and it makes a wonderful climax to what has been a great series.

If you like well-researched historical biography with a wealth of period detail, you will love this. Highly recommended.

Find out more about Carol and the other books in the trilogy on her website