Writing for Survival

I fancied being a poet when I was eight, but unfortunately my uncle came home to my grandmother’s house, from prisoner of war camp. He didn’t know anything about children, but thought he did about poetry. So he drummed into me rhyme and rhythm and metre and blank verse and I quickly realised that if this was how you had to write poetry, I wasn’t poet material.

He was also the unfeeling brute who, when he found me streaming with tears over one of my grandmother’s Victorian children’s books about a child dying of starvation in the East End, called ‘Froggie’s Little Brother’,  said, “well, don’t read it”. (‘Froggie’s Little Brother’ is a hilarious classic for anyone who wants to study minor Victorian horror stories.) But I digress, as they say in Victorian prose!

My writing life didn’t actually begin until I was fourteen, and was obliged to enter a writing competition at school, part of the annual arts festival. I also went into for clay modelling and made a bust of my father, which looked so like Field Marshal Montgomery that I entered it as Monty. But obviously the judges didn’t think so, for Monty was unplaced.

My short story was a different matter. I had an idea, but was terrified people would laugh at me, so I made a bargain with God that if I wrote the story which was about a fictional incident in His Son’s childhood, He must guarantee that I win. God obviously agreed, and kept his side of the bargain, and success was very sweet.

My writing career then went into a period of latency, ‘ my wilderness years’ I suppose you could call them, and it wasn’t until I was 24 and a young captain at the War Office that my talents flourished again! I was part of a team of six lecturers sent out to talk to schools about the army, and we roamed far and wide across the British Isles with a driver who was also a film projectionist.

After each talk we had to write an account of what the head master was like, what the school was like, how receptive the audience and so on, as a guide for the next lecturer in a couple of years. I found my predecessor’s notes so scrappy as to be useless, so conscientiously wrote a full, honest and un- expurgated account of every school and their sometimes objectionable head-masters or bossy head mistresses for my successor.

Shortly before leaving the army to get married, one Friday afternoon as I left a school outside Gloucester, I found to my dismay my colonel from the War Office waiting by my car. I couldn’t get my uniform hat on because I’d had my hair done in a huge bouffant style in order to go to a hunt ball that night, so I was carrying it. I expected trouble: a, because I wasn’t wearing my hat and therefore was improperly dressed, and b, because he was there!

It turned out that he wanted my reports. I immediately went into collapse, and wondered why – I thought I was up to date – what was the problem that he’d come all this way from London to collect them. “Oh,” he said nonchalantly, “they go all round the office – they’re damn funny – the general always reads ‘em, worth a guinea a minute he says, and he wants some more!” I thankfully handed over another batch, completely mystified as to why my serious reports should be so entertaining. He didn’t even notice I wasn’t wearing my hat!

Shortly after this I embarked on a life of penury and drudgery, and discovered quite soon that I was going to have to make some money in order to feed the two children who had arrived so promptly. Realising that I’d better get organised before I was really destitute, I scanned the local South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s main English newspaper. The only things they didn’t have on the women’s pages were recipes, so I cheekily offered them a cookery column. I knew nothing about food, but I liked eating, and they didn’t ask for my credentials.

Writing a cookery column seemed the height of literary achievement to me. Six weeks later, the next literary peak I scaled was to become a temporary feature writer. I became a permanent one, and then eventually Woman’s Editor. But I had never learned to write, and apart from discovering that you had to start with an arresting first paragraph in order to grab your readers, I knew nothing about journalism or writing.

I just had to bluff, and from reading the good women’s pages in the English newspapers, I learned that there was a style of writing for feature pages which was different to writing on news pages. I found it quite hard to write a straight news story because my “voice” or writing style would break through the boring facts, so I always ended up being a columnist and features writer. But none of this taught me anything about writing. I had to work that out for myself.

The one thing I did learn about writing back then, was that it was no good calling on a “muse”. Newspapers aren’t interested in the dramas and vagaries of “muses”. They just want working journalists who can stick to a deadline and just do it. It was wonderful training. I had to write, rain or shine, in sickness and in health, through chronic fatigue syndrome and divorce, children’s chickenpox and school holidays. And so to this day, thanks to this training, I have never had “writers block”.  More’s the pity some might say!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

There was a piece of fresh salmon in the fridge left over from the previous night. It was too big for one, but not enough for two. So I made one of my favourite recipes, quick, simple, and good enough to serve to friends. This time it was just us.                                     Simply melt a generous knob of butter in a pan – I use a frying pan, and add to it a good cupful of cream, and half a cup of finely grated Parmesan cheese. Stir till the cheese is melted. Then just add the chopped up salmon pieces, lots of chopped parsley, salt and freshly ground black pepper, and serve on some pasta, with more Parmesan if wanted. I used tagliatelle .

Food for Thought

Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.                        By Don Miguel Ruiz. The First Agreement from his book ‘The Four Agreements’.

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74 Comments

Filed under army, cookery/recipes, food, great days, humour, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life

74 responses to “Writing for Survival

  1. I just love the story of your colonel wanting more of your stories (and you worrying that you would get in trouble for not wearing your hat!).

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  2. Oh I am totally enjoying this post, sipping some Chilean Cabernet with my husband. How wonderful to know that writer’s block can be stymied with deadlines! Thank you for the salmon recipe, I will most definitely try it! Sounds delish and superb!

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  3. I loved this post. You enter a realm that we all struggle with: self doubt. “Can I do this? Am I good enough? Will anybody want to read my writing?”
    Hurray for the military for showing you how good your writing is.

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    • Thank you so much for your comments, which made me giggle – we’re all sisters under the skin…Yes, re the army, but I don’t think it was literary skills they were concerned with – just keeping the general happy!!!.

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  4. I love your posts. They leave me feeling as though I know you personally and have chatted with you over coffee and cake. Keep them up, because you would be seriously missed if they were not there anymore. 🙂

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    • Sandie, that was a simply beautiful comment, I felt very honoured, and I’m so glad you feel that we’ve just had a chat…Amazing that you say I’d be missed – but then, we all have our niches, and your posts too have their devotees. I’m so glad we’ll be reading each other…

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  5. I love reading your blog. I’m always happy to be ‘notified’ that you have another one. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could retrieve those reports that the Army enjoyed so much? Wouldn’t it be fun to read them, now? 🙂

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  6. Dear Sharechair ( I wish I knew your name! ) what a lovely message from you, thank you so much, I’m so glad your heart doesn’t sink when you get a notification!. Yes, those reports, I never had the slightest idea what they were about after i’d sent them in, and have sometimes wondered what I Did say!

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  7. It is so enlightening to read your posts…with each one, a little something new is learned:>) Thanks for the salmon idea; never know what to do with any that is leftover.

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    • Hello Sharla, I love seeing your butterflies hovering over my posts!
      So glad you enjoy them…You can also use smoked salmon, which I how I think you get it in restaurants, but after using up the fresh salmon I decided that I preferred it.

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  8. Amy

    You had been a newspaper journalist! I feel lucky and honored to be able to read your post at my laptop and chat with you. The salmon pasta sound really, really good.

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  9. What a lovely comment Amy… yes, in my day Journalism had high standards that I was grateful to be able to absorb…Lap-tops and the feeling of immediacy are amazing, aren’t they….. and yes, the pasta is lovely with a nice glass of wine!

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  10. Your military reports about the schools must have been the hi-lite of the colonel’s day all because you followed your own rule…” speak with integrity and say only what you mean.” And you continue that in all your posts which are full of wit and wisdom. Like the others, I feel like I’m listening in on a good chat with the girls. 🙂

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    • Lynne, thank you for your beautiful comments. I so appreciate your generous words. And I do believe that we only see in others what is in ourselves, or we wouldn’t recognise it, so I know how important those values are to you too.
      So glad you feel you’re having a chat… that’s how it feels for me, these wonderful inter-actions across the world.

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  11. Valerie,

    Another interesting post as always. How fortunate for you to end up at a newspaper – and to get the job by finding something lacking that people would want to read. I think that’s great! I wish that worked today.

    Yes, it would indeed be very interesting to read some of the older things you wrote that were so entertaining.

    Sunni

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  12. You are a story teller – the kind that connects memories of the past with the concrete world of the present in order to bring relevance to our continuing journeys. You confirm that documenting our lives in written form is a gift to our world – we must honour who we are, where we have been and how we have found meaning in our daily existence. With every post, and every comment you make, you embrace life with compassion, generosity, and overflowing optimism.

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    • Rebecca, I feel really humbled by your beautiful interpretation of my writing. It’s interesting how writing is a two way thing, I can write, but you understand and explain and see things in it and give it context.,
      I feel so grateful . And I’m also a great admirer of your articulate, thoughtful writing and interpretive skills.
      What a gift these inter-actions across the world are..LIfe would be missing a very important dimension if the internet ever failed!!!
      It is lovely to be in touch with you.Valerie

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      • My morning starts are with a prayer of thanksgiving before I put on my glasses and turn on my computer to connect with the world through the internet. Whenever I drop by I think of George Eliot who said: “Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human soul on another.” I look forward to everyone of your posts…

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      • That is such a wonderful statement ( I love George Eliot – I’ve never understood why she isn’t a hero for feminists when you look at her life, smashing all the conventions which hemmed us in even when I was young )
        It’s so validating to know that our own efforts in our own ways can make a difference!.
        I too look forward to yours, and love to see you and your wonderful hat popping up – with love to one true, loving human soul

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  13. Valerie, I love the colonel and the bouffant hairstyle….I’m just picturing what it would have looked like had you tried to sit your hat atop that hair. Great post and how blessed to never have writers block. Leanne

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  14. Loved this little history – what an interesting life you have led and continue to lead! I too work for a newspaper but have not achieved your acclaim, but I love being a columnist, though I do straight news too — it is certainly not as much fun

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  15. Lovely to hear from you… yes, I had gathered that you wrote a column – it gives you a bit more creative scope than writing news, doesn’t it! Rebecca West once said something about a society needs newspapers as a blind man needs eyes – wish I could find it to quote it accurately – which rather ennobles the mundane business of reporting news… although she also said in one of her more biting quotes that journalism is the ability to meet the challenge of filling the space! Oh well……!

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  16. I have only just begun to read your articles and I am pleasantly surprised. They really are extremely interesting and hold my attention, which is not the easiest thing to do! And I love the little recipes – a unique touch. I’m going to try this one out. It sounds gorgeous. Thank you for a lovely start to my day. Blessings.

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    • How lovely that you’ve visited, and that you are finding the blog interesting… I started Threadbare Gourmets just for fun, as I’ve had so much experience of living on a shoe-string! And I’ve been amazed at how much readers comment on them! Hope you enjoy the salmon, and thank you for your message. Blessings to you too, Valerie

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  17. I love your reminiscences. It’s such a shame you are so far away, because I would very much enjoy a long, long chat over a civilized lunch 🙂

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  18. I couldn’t have read this post at a better time! I need to get into the habit of writing every day, rain or shine. Thank you for sharing your stories, they are so charming to read.

    The food for thought in this post really hit home as well. Thank you again 🙂

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  19. More amazing reveals about yourself! Being a newspaper journalist is quite an achievement and you did it all with such “guts”! I love the story, thank you once again! love, Linda

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    • LInda, I was really having a bit of fun – when one is young one has one’s head in the clouds, while the realists are running the world around us!!!
      Thank you for being here, love Valerie

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  20. What a fascinating life you have had. I loved this walk through your writing history 🙂

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    • Thank you DJ, I’;m so very touched that you should find the time to read it when you are rising to the terrifying challenges you’ve had to face.
      If it took your mind off things for a few minutes, then I’m glad, thinking of you, Valerie.

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  21. You love to write and it shows. Such wonderful synoptic into your life of written word!

    Love it,

    George.

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    • George, how lovely that you’ve taken the time to comment, Thank you so much, your appreciation means a lot – and yes, I do love writing, but I think that’s what Bloggerland is all about isn’t it – filled with people who
      enjoy writing!

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  22. I hope you are planning on making these wonderful life stories into a book. I love your writing through your history so much and I’m sure many other would (do) also!

    Linda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com
    http://deltacountyhistoricalsociety.wordpress.com

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  23. Thank you LInda, you are very generous… I’ll keep you posted when I do !!

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  24. There was always someone to discourage my writing/poetry and for decades, it remained buried. Why bother, it was not like I had any training in that area and what could I possibly have to say. So much has changed and to paraphrase a well known quote, I write ergo I am. I really enjoyed this glimpse of your path.

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    • valeriedavies

      Yes, people are very discouraging when they haven’t much talent themselves.
      I suppose it’s in the struggle and decision to have a go anyway, that maybe our talents grow – refined in the fires of discouragement!.
      I was really working my way up to making the point that writing is about doing it, and not falling back on a romantic idea of a muse – very prosaic I know!

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  25. What a lovely post! I so enjoy your writing style!

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  26. Alice

    I once had a professor who told me all lines of a poem must begin with a capital letter. Huh?

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  27. I try and live by “Say what you mean and mean what you say”. Not always easy but always successful. Thanks for sharing the yummy salmon.

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    • valeriedavies

      Hello Marsellaj, good to hear from you, and thanks for your comment – true what you say about living one’s truth. Hope you enjoy the salmon!

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  28. Desperately trying not to digress from another simply glorious piece of work but if we happen to be in the same town when I am in NZ (december) and you happen to be IN town, do you think it would be dreadfully cheeky of me to ask if I could take you out to lunch one day. I mean if you are in the south island this may not work but .. well you know.. you are just so bloody clever.. I would love to meet you and have a good old yarn.. c

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    • I would just LOVE to meet and have a good old yarn! I’m at Leigh near Warkworth, which is an hour out of Auckland. I would crawl across broken glass to spend time with you! And I also am very mobile, so could arrange a rendezvous. I’m off to Hawkes Bay for a Glamping trip the weekend of 7 December, but apart from that am free to fit in with you, ( Glamping means tramping a few miles a day and getting back to wine, dinner and fresh clean sheets on the bed – not quite the Milford Track!)… Anyway… where will you be? ….V

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  29. Enjoyed this post, as I remember my first journalist job…writing to deadlines kept my muse moving along. Your story sounds like the making of a memoir.

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  30. You should try get those reports and post them in a book!!!

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    • apologies for my tardy reply, I’ve been getting into a blogging muddle!
      I expect those reports have been binned when they changed the War Office to the MInistry of Defence. They were probably defamatory as well!

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  31. This is wonderful and made me smile! Some of the best journeys start with spunk and it seems you’ve been lucky to have some spunk! What a great way to begin your writing career. 🙂

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    • Thank you so much for your comment, – apologies for this tardy reply, I’ve been in a bloggers muddle… well, I don’t know about spunk – necessity is a great inspiration! But I’m so glad you enjoyed the story – it’s so encouraging, thank you…

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  32. let me know when you get tired of me reporting how much I love your stories. That recipe finally sounds good to me again. I had a “salmon incident” while pregnant with my first girl and I couldn’t even hear the word for years!

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  33. Richard

    Love your stories about the British Army. As an innocent young man (1965) I travelled by boat to the UK to join the British Army.. Made it to Mons Officer Cadet School and commissioned into a Scottish regiment where I had some problems, initially, what the soldiers were saying. Had a wonderful 14 years.
    One memory was in Belfast in the 70’s when an english Brigadier came to visit. He was taken up to an an observation post where a jock- soldier, was on duty.
    The Brigadier said. “are you comfy (comfortable) here?
    Jock replies, looking shocked ” no Seer I comfee Dundee”
    Let’s have more Army memories.

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    • valeriedavies

      Richard, Great to hear from you, and I was very intrigued by your tales of army life ! and had a giggle at your jock’s reply. I still find it hard to understand a really thick Glaswegian accent and was so embarassed the last time I was in England and ringing for train times, and I couldn’t understand a word this poor man was saying…. I didn’t realise that Mons was still going strong in 1965… we preferred the cadets from Mons, they were older and more interesting than the Sandhurst cadets!
      Well, with all this encouragement I can feel another army post coming on!!!

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  34. Reading your post made me realize that my own deadlines should be just as strict as the deadlines of the military.. new goal 🙂

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  35. Great to hear from you, but I don’t think we should make blogging a military exercise!
    Newspapers are far more inflexible – their deadlines wait for no man!
    I think blogging should be fun, so take no notice of whatever I said that made you feel you had to come to attention!
    Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment, – greatly appreciated

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  36. This post is wonderful, as are the comments. I love the way you answer each person that writes to you. I want to invite you to join me in the Ligo Circle of Appreciation. This is not supposed to be an award, but it works in much the same way. For 22 days in October we appreciate two posts a day. You are mine choice for today. You can read about yourself at http://wp.me/p2jC53-IB. Have a great day.

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    • Thank you so much for thinking of me, and giving such a kind recommendation in your post, I was very touched and very honoured that you should have done so – thank you so much.
      I have already been invited to join this interesting circle, and after much thought I felt I had to say I would rather not…. Several reasons, chief amongst them being my technological incompetence on the computer. I have a stash of lovely awards I don’t know how to handle and am going to have to pay someone to come and help me. .
      The other reason is that I’d find it really hard to choose different blogs to name since I read them all for different reasons, and would not want to hurt anyone’s feelings because they hadn’t made the cut!
      So thank you again for thinking of me, I’m most grateful, Valerie

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  37. Thanks for sharing your writer’s story, Valerie. I can see you there writing against the clock with all sorts of mayhem going on in the background. I would be interested to know what brought you to blogging.

    Many of us may have aspired to make a living from writing and failed, and therefore blogging became a wonderful platform, “free at the point of need”, just like the NHS in the UK, for us to share our voice. But you have actually made a living from writing, you got your voice out there and someone paid you!! How did you come to blogging then, what drew you to it?

    Warm regards
    Corinne

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    • Hello Corinne – lots of points to cover in your lovely comments.
      First of all, I wrote the story as an indirect answer to the many blogs I’d been reading about writers block, and it often seemed to me that it was a bit like navel-gazing, and that sometimes people felt that writers block was a sign of a writer and a badge of honour or an excuse for not writing…!

      What brought me to blogging?. Many journalists when they retire start blogging, simply because they can’t stop writing – a life-time’s habit, and there are many political blogs and commentaries out there written by retired journalists – some of whom I know.
      I began blogging when I self published my last book and put it on the internet, and my helpful printer said I must blog to get an internet profile! I don’t know whether that’s worked, and I’ve never checked ( because I don;t know how) how many people buy my books, but that’s become incidental, because I love blogging for its own sake…
      Hope that’s answered your questions satisfactorily, but if you want to ask some more… I love replying!!! warm wishes, Valerie

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      • Hi Valerie

        Thanks for this reply. It does shed light on what drew you to and what keeps you blogging. It is lovely isn’t it to be part of this blogging community. That was both totally unexpected and totally wonderful. I can see scrolling through your comments that this is a fantastic meeting place for a whole variety of people, some of whom I have already met, so I know I am in good company.

        I can’t go without mentioning that I actually come from the birthplace of George Eliot. Although I have lived in Wales for nearly 40 years, I was born and spent the first 18 years of my life in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, and one of the few claims to fame that Nuneaton has is that it was where the wonderful Mary Anne Evans, aka George Eliot came from. There is a wonderful statue of her in the town centre and my wedding night was actually spent in what was the George Eliot Hotel, I think her original home.

        What always amazed me was that such a pioneer, such a remarkable woman, so much ahead of her time should have come out of such an ordinary environment. Although I am sure I do it a dis-service, Nuneaton was a place I was eager to leave and have always been reluctant to return to. But there she was, Mary Anne, blazing a trail for the rest of us.

        Have a lovely weekend
        Corinne

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  38. Corinne, lovely to get your reply – George Eliot is one of my favourite writers, and I put Middlemarch in my top three I’d take to a desert island… I’ve never really understood why she wasn’t a feminist hero the way they made Virginia Woolf one of their heroes… Gerge Eliot broke so many taboos of her time and ours,
    George Eliot was such a great loving soul, and one of my favourite bloggers, Clanmother, reminded me of one of her loveliest quotes:’ Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human on another’, I’ve never checked it out, but I suspect that it comes from Middlemarch and refers to Dorothea…Am now about to re-read it for the umpteenth time!!!!
    So you live in Wales …I wonder where…. how lovely, I got to know it a bit when I lived at Chepstow, and then later used to visit schools there.
    Isn;t it amazing how this blogging world spins thread of friendship all around the world – love it!
    Hope you too have a good weekend, Valerie

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  39. This was well said, and interesting evolution.
    “Bluffing it…” I know that one. And this writing thing — It’s an addiction.

    Like

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