Signing at Rutherford's, Morpeth of No Greater Love (with 'grumpy man' anti-suffragist behind!) Photo by Jan Rowley

Signing at Rutherford’s, Morpeth of No Greater Love (with ‘grumpy man’ anti-suffragist behind!) Photo by Jan Rowley

Imagine being a suffragette? Then write your feelings and win a national writing competition! Take a look at this Emily Inspires competition:

Just one of the exciting events in the 2013 centenary celebrations of suffragette heroine, Emily Wilding Davison.

My own novel, No Greater Love, was inspired by Northumbrian Davison, and follows the turbulent life of Tynesider, Maggie Beaton in her fight for the vote and personal freedom.

It was recently launched at Rutherford’s department store in Morpeth – the town where Emily’s family used to live – on International Women’s Day.

Husband Graeme got into role as the grumpy man in the bowler hat who argues with Maggie over a suffragette newspaper – but she gets the last laugh!

Jessica of Morpeth was the most stylish of hat-wearers on International Women's Day!

Jessica of Morpeth was the most stylish of hat-wearers on International Women’s Day!

So go on – have a go at the competition – and good luck!

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY – suffragettes out in force in Morpeth!


   Morpeth was buzzing today with the first events of the year to mark the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s martyrdom in the cause of women’s emancipation.

Werca's Folk singing The Women's March by Emily's grave

Werca’s Folk singing The Women’s March by Emily’s grave

A hundred years ago, her protest at the Epsom races for Votes for Women led to her being trampled by the King’s horse. She died a few days later.  Her body was brought back to be buried in the family plot in Morpeth, Northumberland – and huge crowds lined the road to pay tribute to “the wild lass”.


Today, there was a packed church at St Mary’s for a very moving service of tributes and songs, and a procession to the graveside.

Descendants at Emily's graveside

Descendants at Emily’s graveside

Lauren Caisley, descendant of Emily's who spoke at the service - Emily would have been proud!

Lauren Caisley, descendant of Emily’s who spoke at the service – Emily would have been proud!

Later in the day, I was doing a signing at Rutherford’s department store in the town (close to where Emily used to make passionate speeches and throw sweets to local children). A special edition of my suffragette novel, NO GREATER LOVE, with a new ending, has been launch today to mark Emily’s centenary.Signing at Rutherford's, 8 March 2013

The profits from books sold at Rutherford’s will go towards International Women’s Day Oxfam appeal.


rockers at the Cap! - CopyThis time last year, husband Graeme and I spent some time living in Antibes in the south of France. The last time I had been along the Riviera was 36 years previously on a bus to India – it was raining so hard that we hardly stopped and just kept on driving through! I wondered then what all the fuss was about – why did writers (from Victor Hugo to Scott Fitzgerald) find it such a conducive place to write?

Hotel du Cap where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stayed  (and the inspiration for Tender is the Night) - but in January c'est ferme!

Hotel du Cap where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stayed (and the inspiration for Tender is the Night) – but in January it is closed.

Victor stopped in Antibes for lunch - a good recommendation!

Victor Hugo stopped in Antibes for lunch – a good recommendation!

But having spent time there in the middle of winter, I understand. Its a tonic of blue skies, empty(ish) beaches, snow-capped Alps as backdrop, a place where the locals still live outdoors on cold days playing boules, reading on park benches or strolling the promenades wrapped up in fur coats and stylish hats.

Villa Eilenroc where Jules Verne lived for 3 years and wrote 20,000 Leagues under the Sea

Villa Eilenroc where Jules Verne lived for 3 years and wrote 20,000 Leagues under the Sea

The house of Nikos Kazantzaki, 8 Rue Bas Castellet in Antibes, where he wrote Zorba the Greek.

The house of Nikos Kazantzaki, 8 Rue Bas Castellet in Antibes, where he wrote Zorba the Greek.

I hope other writers got more work done than I did! But it was a great place to re-charge the writing batteries – and give inspiration for future storytelling ….

More pictures at:

Retro look at the world – photos from India: 1920s Himalayas to 1970s overland travel!

In 1923 my granny left Edinburgh and went out to India to marry my grandfather in Lahore (now in Pakistan). They spent the 20s and 30s living and working in the Punjab and foothills of the Himalayas – Bob Gorrie was a forester.

Over 50 years later, I followed in their footsteps by going out east on an overland bus …

Retronaut – 1970’s Overlanders

Anyone interested in the pictorial history of these times, should take a look at an interesting site called Retronaut, which provides time-capsules of ordinary people’s experiences through old photos and film.

My two capsules are on there, and there are dozens more – a treasure trove for the writer or researcher!

Retronaut – 1920’s India

Tea Rooms – The Alternative To Gin Palaces?

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Glasgow’s Willow Tea Rooms. These were designed in the early years of the 20th century by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Catherine Cranston – usually referred to as Kate Cranston, or more formally, Miss Cranston. She continued to use this despite being married to wealthy businessman, John Cochrane in 1892.

In many ways, Miss Cranston was one of the central influences for Clarissa Belhaven in The Tea Planter’s Daughter.

In the year Catherine Cranston was born (1849), her father, George Cranston had  become the proprietor of a hotel in Glasgow’s city centre. As you can see in this advertisement from 1852, he was proud of the range and quality of the service he offered:

Eventually Charles would run a small chain of hotels in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London. Importantly, these were to become temperance hotels, offering high-class, alcohol-free accommodation.

Perhaps it was the combined influence of her upbringing in Cranston’s Hotels, and her brother’s expertise in the tea business (he was a tea dealer) that led Miss Cranston to open her own unique style of tea shops. These were not the sombre, utilitarian outlets that had become commonplace over the last fifty years or so – they were veritable palaces in the most fashionable of styles.

Her first shop (opened in 1878, in partnership with her brother) in Argyll Street was decorated in the contemporary Baronial style. But in addition to the furnishings, and standards of service & hygiene, Miss Cranston had recognised the need to include a social element. In many ways she was creating an alternative to public houses, taking care to offer more than just food and drink.

There were rooms for gentlemen only and ladies only, as well as luncheon rooms, billiard rooms, and smoking rooms. The atmosphere was welcome to all, and Miss Cranston’s Tea Rooms became social centres for business men and apprentices; ladies and maids alike. The ladies only rooms were a particular success, allowing women to meet each other and retain their respectability without male company.

By 1888, Kate’s business was independent of her brother’s, and she commissioned George Walton & Co, Ecclesiastical and House Decorators to design a new smoking room for one of her tea shops in the Arts and Crafts style. It was in 1898 when she again commissioned George Walton to design a new interior for her expanded shop in Argyll Street that she first met Charles Rennie Mackintosh. At the time, he was working with Walton, and designed some of the furniture, which included his trademark high-backed chairs.

When the Ingram Street shop was re-designed in 1900, Mackintosh was given a whole room to work on. With his new wife, Margaret MacDonald, he designed the White Dining Room and hallway to the street. Margaret was a gifted designer and artist in her own right, and was responsible for many of the flowing, sinuous designs in the murals.

Such was the success of this, that in 1903 Miss Cranston awarded the Mackintoshes the commission for the whole of her new tea rooms in Sauchiehall Street. This was to become the Willow Tea Rooms, and  is seen as the acme of the Scottish Art Nouveau movement – at least on a par with Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art.

It is not surprising that Catherine Cranston’s vision of “art tearooms” was a commercial success. She ran the business until the death of her husband in 1917, when it was sold. The Willow Tea Rooms were subsequently incorporated into the adjacent Daly’s department store, and after 1954, only the first floor’s Room De Luxe remained in use.

But in 1983, the building was again sold, and over the next fifteen years it was refurbished back to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s original design. Once again, the business is doing well, and in 1997, opened a second branch in Buchanan Street – right next door to Miss Cranston’s original shop:

Tea And The Opium Wars

My research for The Tea Planter’s Daughter into the Victorian / Edwardian tea trade eventually took me back to the murky world of early British capitalism. This was the time of the British East India Company prising land off rulers in the North of India to grow opium crops.

These were used in the Opium Wars: with the loss of its trade monopoly, the East India Company needed to gain access to China’s lucrative, protected markets, and one of the main products they wanted to buy on an open market was tea. The trade in opium through intermediaries and Chinese smugglers weakened the Chinese economy by simultaneously draining it of silver while creating increasing numbers of addicts.

At it’s peak, it is estimated that ninety percent of all chinese males under forty in the coastal regions were addicted to opium.

Almost by chance, the opium growers discovered that something else grew naturally on the hot, humid slopes and rich soils of Assam – the evergreen camallia. The tea bush was growing wild, right under their noses!

So they switched to tea growing, sending out eager young men (often Scots) to chance their luck as tea planters. Judging from the cemetery records, many died young of malaria, fever and dysentery. Their isolation and misery was more than matched by the dire conditions of their bonded workforce. Lured by the chance of work from the drought-stricken areas of India, they were heded like cattle onto ferries up the Brahmaputra River, and often died of cholera or smallpox before even reaching the tea gardens.

What these early pioneers succeeded in doing though was to change the palette of the British. They were weaned off the delicate, smoky China teas, and onto the stronger, earthier varieties grown in India and Ceylon.

I found a colonial report into the industry that sums it up nicely:

It is a remarkable fact, in the British Empire that though British tea-drinking proclivities were nourished on China teas, the taste has gradually changed until Indian and Ceylon teas are now predominant. A great part of the credit for this development is due to the blenders for careful blinding in the early days of the industry, the public having been led on by gentle steps to appreciate a good ‘body’ in its tea.

The British people, wherever domiciled, are the world’s greatest drinkers of tea, and their preference is for afine, full-flavoured tea with stimulating properties… China teas are not popular in any part of the Empire, and while it may be too much to say that China tea-drinking in this country is merely a fashionable fad, that expression does approach somewhere near the truth.

By the end of the 19th century, the tea industry in India was big business. the gardens were run like factory farms and the processing – the withering, rolling, fermenting and drying of the leaves – was all highly mechanised. And those machines? They bore names like Britannia and Victoria, and were made in the industrial heartlands of the the Empire’s mother country.

Like so many products of the age, they were built to last, and some are still in use today:

Where Did This Tea Fixation Come From?

For me it started in 2006 – I was struggling with the bones of a story about itinerant travellers in late Victorian times. It was to be set in the North East, or maybe the borders, but I just couldn’t get to grips with it. For some reason I just couldn’t find the story to tell.

Then one evening I had a life-changing experience when I went to speak to the Mens’ Fellowship at the Methodist Chapel in Stakeford. My husband, Graeme got chatting to the grandfather of one of our son’s friends. It turned out that he’d started his working life as a driver for Ringtons tea company. Not just any driver though – he drove the company’s last horse and cart van around Blyth.

Tea, I thought. I like tea. I buy it in boxes from supermarket shelves now. But where did it come from a hundred years ago? Was it the same as we drink now, or different? What about the supply chain and logistics – both things that we take for granted now, but surely at the turn of the 19th century things were a little different? I had fuzzy images of tea clippers and refined tea rooms, and the feeling that there was a story to be told.

I needed to look into this tea business! So as usual, I started my research deep in the bowels of Newcastle’s Lit & Phil. Society Library to see what the archives could tell me.

I discovered a world of Victorian tea rooms such as Miss Cranston’s of Glasgow (as in, the famous Art Nouveau Willow Tea Rooms): glamorous places of potted palms and aspidistras, starched linen and waitress service that offered an alternative to the pub and dazzling gin palace. Certainly, Catherine Cranston herself was a firm supporter of the Temperance movement.

Then there were the tea merchants: the Star Tea Company, the London and Newcastle, Andrew Melrose of Leith (whose original salesforce all boarded together). In London there was Mincing Lane, where huge amounts of tea were auctioned. It was a world of brokers and bonded warehouses, of agents and lead-sealed chests, of tea tasters and spittoons. I poured over Edwardian government reports into the tea industry, and was astonished at its scale – 4,264 plantations producing over 345 million lbs  weight in exports a year. And I found myself pouring increasing numbers of cups of tea to aid my digestion of this huge storehouse of information.

Britain, it appeared, had gone bonkers for tea in the late 1800s and early 1900s. We simply couldn’t drink enough of it.

Whereas it had once been the preserve of the upper classes, who drank China tea that was so expensive they kept it under lock and key, now tea was being bought and drunk by everyone.

How was this possible, and where was all this tea coming from?

Initial Skirmishes Of The Falkands War

21st April 1982 marked the beginning of the actual conflict to retake the Falklands. On this day, the SAS made an aborted attempt to land on South Georgia.

HMS Conqueror (the hunter-killer submarine which would later sink the ARA General Belgrano) was just off the coast when a Wessex helicopter from HMS Antrim landed a small party from the SBS near the Fortuna Glacier. Their aim was to attack the small Argentine force at Grytviken (some 25-30 miles away) from an unexpected direction.

However, it was not to be – the South Atlantic autumn was setting in, and the party were caught in heavy snow. When they were rescued on 22nd April, two helicopters were lost when they crashed in the thick fog.

A few days later though, a force of around 75 men from M Company, 42 Commando returned along with SAS and SBS, and after a demonstration bombardment from the supporting ships, re-took the island when the Argentine garrison surrendered.

The event was marked by two of the most memorable quotes from the war. Firstly, British Landing Forces’ commander Major Guy Sheridan RM’s message after the surrender at Grytviken:

Be pleased to inform Her Majesty that the White Ensign flies alongside the Union Jack in South Georgia. God save the Queen.

When this was announced back in Britain, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s response was:

Just rejoice at that news and congratulate our forces and the Marines.

This initial skirmish in the war wasn’t quite completed without a shot being fired (the Argentine submarine Santa Fe was attacked when trying to leave just before the final assault). But it was still seen at the time as a sign of how the main Falkland Islands might be re-taken with minimal bloodshed.

The main task force was still almost 2,000 miles from the Falklands, and I know that like many of us, my fictional character Jo Elliot would have been listening to every news bulletin, reading every headline and watching the TV news every night. Her older brother Colin was an army bandsman aboard the requisitioned QE2, and close friend Mark Duggan was aboard the (also fictional) HMS Gateshead – a Type 21 Frigate just like ill-fated HMS Antelope and HMS Ardent.

2,000 miles was just over a week’s sailing time – you can read how Jo coped with the events in the South Atlantic in my book, For Love and Glory – currently just £1.91 on Amazon.


John wearing his Falklands medal by the River Tyne

30 years ago, Geordie matlot John Mew was heading south on HMS Coventry as part of the British Task Force. He didn’t know then that his ship would be bombed and he plucked from the South Atlantic during the Falklands War. We knew him from his involvement with Ponteland Rugby Club in Northumberland where my husband Graeme played in the 1980s and 90s. When he was home on leave John would lead them in vigorous training and fitness sessions – with exacting Royal Navy standards!

After the Falklands conflict, John was generous in talking about his experiences and knowledge of the Navy when I was researching my novel, FOR LOVE & GLORY.

Amy, myself and John by the River Tyne

It is set in Wallsend on the River Tyne from where my husband’s family come. I have them to thank for much of the background information on this vibrant community where many of the world’s greatest ships were built. The Falklands material was inspired by veterans I’d read about – ordinary people who’d shown extraordinary courage – long after the short war was over and out of the news. But in particular, I’m indebted to our brave friend, John.

We met up recently to launch a new version of the novel. It’s now available as ebook for the first time. My daughter Amy is the model for the new cover!

These days it is John’s sons who are playing rugby for Ponteland – but I’m sure he can still teach them a thing or two about fitness!


The Falklands War of 1982

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the start of the Falklands war, which is being commemorated at the National Memorial Arboretum with the lighting of a single flame. This will burn for the length of the conflict – 74 days:

Several of the hundred ships that sailed for the South Atlantic less than a week after the invasion were built on the Tyne – HMS Bristol, HMS Glasgow, HMS Exeter, HMS Glamorgan, HMS Argonaut, HMS Penelope, HMS Cordella, RFA Omleda, RFA Stromness, SS Atlantic Conveyor and SS Atlantic Causeway.

It was through discussion with my husband’s family who lived in Wallsend, and a meeting with John Mew who served on HMS Coventry that I came to write For Love and Glory.

Over the next ten weeks, I (along with the rest of the British media!), will be covering the events in the Falklands from thirty years ago. Later THIS month, a new edition of For Love and Glory will be published – initially for Kindle, but the paperback version will be ready soon after.