Wandering Girls – the podcast!

The story of Gwenda and Pat – whose wanderings inspired Bedpans & Bobby Socks – is now a podcast!

In ‘Off the Page’, I am hoping to make a series of podcasts that bring to life some of the true-life stories from the books I’ve written. In the first of these, ‘Wandering Girls’ – the title comes from a newspaper headline about them – Gwenda and Pat recall their meeting as student nurses in Newcastle and the purchase of their first car, their arrival in Cleveland in 1957, and the 18-month-long US road trip they embarked on a year later.

There’s a nice jazzy soundtrack too!

With thanks to Arts Council England for a grant which enabled me to produce this.

Listen on iTunes here

Listen on Libsyn here


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How I came to write non-fiction

The following is an edited version of a blog post written for SPCK, the publisher of my newest book, Midwife of Borneo: The True Story of a Geordie Pioneer.

I probably wouldn’t have written Midwife of Borneo –  or any of my books if, ten years earlier, another former nurse hadn’t typed up the letters she wrote home from her own travels, albeit in a very different place. Readers of this blog know that in 1957, my mother, Gwenda, and her best friend, Pat, left their native Newcastle and flew to America to work at a large hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. On their arrival they bought an old banger, and when their year-long contract was up, set off in it with three new friends to see the rest of North America, taking jobs when they needed to. This led to all sorts of adventures – not all of which were recounted in the letters to parents!

Reading the letters triggered in me the realisation that – if the story was a good one – tales about ordinary people might be of sufficient interest to others to be turned into a book that might be published commercially. This didn’t prevent my proposal from being turned down because it wasn’t about anyone ‘famous’, but eventually my persistence paid off, and Bedpans & Bobby Socks was published in 2011.

Although I had worked in journalism – mainly as a sub-editor – my main love is fiction, and I suppose I had always thought that if I were ever to write a book, it would be a novel. So I was surprised to find this type of writing so satisfying. Despite my copious and entertaining source material, it still required creative skills, for – naturally – the letters had not been written with any thought of future publication. Furthermore, I was turning them into a conventional first-person narrative rather than using an epistolary format. I asked my mother and Pat for stories about their lives before America; I spoke to some of the friends they had kept in touch with, and managed to trace others myself – easier today, with the internet, though still requiring some painstaking detective work! I immersed myself in the 1950s, igniting a passion for this fascinating era!

By the time my editor asked me to help Northumberland shepherdess Emma Gray write about her life running a farm in a remote part of my home county, I had discovered I enjoyed putting myself in someone else’s shoes. One Girl and Her Dogs was the result. And so, it seemed, I had become a writer of memoirs!

What makes a good memoir? One answer would be that it is an unusual perspective on a situation that is itself often unusual. It is probably no coincidence that the protagonists of the aforementioned books and the ones that followed are all outsiders in some way. There is me, growing up in a vicarage in a north-east mining village, as recounted in Is the Vicar in, Pet? Gwenda again, this time as a child evacuee finding herself in a strict Methodist household in When the War Is Over. And – though Eve’s War is not a memoir but a diary – the strong-spirited wife of an Army officer, making a new life for herself at each of her husband’s wartime postings.

Wendy Grey Rogerson was an outsider too: a British nurse giving up a comfortable life to run a clinic in the remote interior of British North Borneo, 300 miles from the nearest town. And somehow, despite difficult living conditions, she kept a diary for every night of her three-year stay.

With the exception of only my first book, I had more source material than ever before. However, a diary is a piece of writing ‘in the now’ – and in her situation, Wendy had little time for reflection or explanation. To turn the diaries into a book, I needed to find themes; to see how incidents developed and craft them into stories; to decide which of the huge number of characters were most important.

I was grateful to be able to speak to Wendy (now aged 88) regularly by phone for help with some of these matters. I think it was quite a testing time for her – how many of us could answer detailed questions about our youthful years, whether they be 20 or 60 years ago!

People often tell Gwenda and Pat they must have been brave to travel to America, which bemuses them. But for Wendy – who left behind all that was familiar, who shared her home with rats and snakes, who performed operations rather than watch her patients die – it is surely a very fitting adjective.

Midwife of Borneo is published by SPCK on 15 November, priced £9.99.


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Leaving Cleveland (Pat’s photos part 2)

During their last visit to the ISG (International Students’ Group) before setting off on the road trip in April 1958, Gwenda and Pat were presented with a big box to open. Every box had a smaller one inside, and when they finally got to the bottom of the package they found the pair of glasses Herman had broken opening a bottle of champagne at their leaving party a few days earlier. A souvenir of happy times in Cleveland.  And the occasion was captured on camera, as I discovered recently in Pat’s photo album. (I hasten to add that they also received some very nice, and some very useful, gifts!)

In another photo, that’s Gwenda, I think, crashed out amongst the chaos on the last night in their apartment. Somehow they were up, packed and away by seven the next morning.

The last photo shows the pair with their great friend Enrique (beside Gwenda), a man whose kindness and generosity knew no bounds. I resurrected the friendship myself, 30 years later, when I was travelling in the USA, and he even came to my wedding. Sadly, he passed away many years before the book was published.


What could be in this great big box …


… A souvenir of the last party in the apartment


Last night’s sleep in the apartment


Gwenda and Pat with Enrique (left) and other ISG friends

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Pat’s pictures – part one

When I recently went to stay with Pat to see some shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, it was my first visit since the publication of ‘Bedpans & Bobby Socks’ in 2011, and a chance to finally look through her USA photo albums – an exciting experience for me! Once again I was transported back to Cleveland, Ohio, sixty years ago. That 1950s look – the cars, the fashion, the buildings – is so stylish! An era I’d love to return to in my writing one day.

I am sharing some of the photos here, with more to come soon. Today’s are from Pat and Gwenda’s first months in Cleveland, when the idea of setting off on a road trip the following year probably hadn’t yet been voiced.


Pat, car-shopping for Flatus, soon after their arrival in Cleveland


Pat and Gwenda outside their apartment on E 100th St, Cleveland


Gwenda’s birthday party, with Pat and Molly and the two Joans – fellow Brits – also in the photo. I wonder where the other people are today …


Pat outside the Capitol on their April 1957 visit to Washington DC. Their morning tour, which included the White House, was followed by Pat’s new favourite lunch of fried shrimps and an afternoon trip on the Potomac.


Pat writes to her parents: ‘We had an address for the good old YWCA, right in the centre of New York, and were lucky to get in when we arrived at midnight. We got a double room for 4 dollars, which is fantastically cheap – we had to pay more to park the car!’

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Sixty years later …

When I realised that it was exactly 60 years since Gwenda and Pat set forth for the USA, I thought it was a good time for another article, to mark the anniversary. Luckily the Newcastle Chronicle group agreed, and reporter Katie Dickinson interviewed Gwenda and wrote a great piece  which appeared in north-east paper the Sunday Sun.

Gwenda relived the whole time, from their initial culture shock on their arrival in Cleveland, Ohio – when even a doctor saying, ‘Hi, honey!, was something to be commented on – to the many adventures of their road trip.

It feels as if it’s been 60 since I last wrote a blog post, too … Part of the reason is that I’ve been busy editing a new book, ‘Eve’s War’, the Second World War diaries of an amazing woman who was married to a British officer and travelled with her husband to his various postings round the UK during the conflict. I’ll be writing more about that soon on my Facebook page.

But I wasn’t neglecting ‘Bedpans & Bobby Socks’ entirely. The book was the main focus of a local writers’ talk that Gwenda and I took part in last November in Morpeth, Northumberland, along with novelist Sheila Quigley, who has been voted one of W H Smith’s most popular crime writers. The very enjoyable evening – which also included one of Sheila’s trademark quizzes – took place in The Chantry, a reminder of Morpeth’s medieval past, which today sells local crafts as well as being a tourist information centre and bagpipe museum.

A month or so later an article about some of the very different Christmases Gwenda has spent appeared in the Express. From a wartime Christmas as an evacuee in the Lake District, where all she wanted was a Chicks’ Own annual and a baby doll (she got neither) to that non-stop one in Cleveland, where she and Pat cooked for all their friends who like them had nowhere else to go (all 33 of them), to equally hectic Christmases as a vicar’s wife in Ashington and Newcastle.

Thanks to Doug Phillips, who took most of the photos (from our evening at The Chantry) below.


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Meeting Cleo

I couldn’t come all this way on holiday without making a point of seeing Cleo, the girls’ old friend from their summer working at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, CO, with whom I’ve been corresponding for the past three or four years. Readers of ‘Bedpans and Bobby Socks’ might remember that, tragically, he lost his parents, sister Roberta and young nephew in a tornado back in his hometown in Kansas that same summer (1958), which shocked the girls and brought them all closer. On his return to the hotel after a short time off he even asked Gwenda to marry him.

And so we drove from Flagstaff to Mesa, which is part of the huge Phoenix metropolitan area. It was a dramatic day, which began with an early-morning phone call in which Cleo told me that he wouldn’t be able to see us after all as he had just written off his car in an accident on the freeway. He had decided to set off early to surprise us and been blinded by the sun, colliding with another car. He came off the worst but luckily no one was badly hurt. I dread to think what might have happened …

Luckily things worked out and he turned up at our hotel in a hire car a few hours later. Cleo is a lovely man and looks a lot younger in person than his 87 years. I feel sad that he didn’t marry and have children of his own, though he is close to some of his nieces and nephews. I’ve told Gwenda, Pat and Molly that they ought to return on a 60th-anniversary road trip next year and then perhaps they will all be able to get together again.


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Escape to Alcatraz

Time is flying by. San Francisco was amazing – and the Northumberland-beach weather made us all feel at home. A highlight was our trip to Alcatraz, which seemed to fascinate all members of our party. When the road trippers caught sight of the island from the steep city streets back in 1958 it was still a functioning prison with one of its most famous inmates, Robert Stroud, aka the Birdman, still living there, though as a fan of the film I was disappointed to learn that he wasn’t actually allowed to keep his beloved birds on Alcatraz. I think that’s known as artistic licence – not that I would know anything about that.

Our next main stop was Flagstaff, Arizona, our base for the Grand Canyon, where we made the most of its great selection of eating places (and fantastic margaritas) – though I couldn’t help feeling I’d have fitted in better if I’d been 30 years younger and had a few tattoos. Gwenda and her gang camped at the canyon and she and Celia hiked to its base but I think we’d have been mad to contemplate that at this time of year, and it did give me the odd funny turn looking down at the trail from the rim. We actually took a tourist train there which was very relaxing after so many hours spent in the car on this trip, and being held up by cowboys on the way back was a bonus!

Now in Mesa, part of the vast Phoenix conurbation, and meeting Cleo tomorrow. More on that later.

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