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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Sunset revisited

In the week that my new book is published I have been in the land of my first, going on an American road trip of my own, though nothing like as ambitious as the one undertaken by the ‘Bedpans and Bobby Socks’ nurses. We began in Los Angeles, where the five nurses lived for a few months, squeezing into a tiny apartment meant for two, made possible only because they worked different shifts – though they did sometimes resort to sleeping on the porch. LA is constantly changing; the spot on La Cienega where it meets Sunset Boulevard which is where their block once stood – see photo – is being redeveloped, and few of the nearby buildings look as if they have been around since the 50s, though the Farmers’ Market where they did their shopping still has some of its original features.

Gwenda, Pat, Molly, Maureen and Celia nursed film industry folk and stumbled across location shootings as they went about their business; we had to make do with walking past the queue for James Corden’s show at the CBS studios. But LA does have something special about it and we will be returning later in the trip, during which I am also going to catch up with the man who proposed to Gwenda almost 60 years ago and the daughter of Bob and Mary Ann, the couple they met in the Grand Teton National Park, who was a baby then.

It’s very hot here, even in Yosemite where we are now and were expecting it to be a little cooler it’s hitting 100 every day. Apparently it is only in the 60s in San Francisco, our next stop, so should feel more like home.

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Book news

Thanks to all my friends – as well as those I don’t know personally – who have continued to be great ambassadors for Bedpans & Bobby Socks and Is the Vicar in, Pet? There is no major news on these books at present, but it was great to hear Emma Gray (One Girl and Her Dogs) on Woman’s Hour a couple of weeks ago. Emma is such an engaging interviewee; it reminded me of the time Gwenda and Pat were interviewed on the same programme by Jane Garvey five years ago. Listen here, if you missed it before, for tales of tea at gunpoint, Gwenda’s lack of common sense, and a ‘dirty old man’ by the hot springs on the Alaska Highway. (I don’t think he was a dirty old man, apart from in the literal sense!) My main news, however, is that When the War is Over will be out in June and – as you can see here – finally has a cover!


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Happy birthday, Pat!

gwendapatuniform0001It’s hard to believe that Pat turns 85 today … and probably won’t thank me for broadcasting it. Well, she certainly doesn’t look it. One half of Newcastle General Hospital’s car-owning young pair of 1954 (she and Gwenda upset some of the sisters, who clearly didn’t think it right that student nurses should aspire to such a status), and one fifth of the road trip crew who took America by storm a few years later, I think it’s fair to say that she hasn’t shown much sign of slowing down. She still enjoys her travelling, both solo and with friends.

She had a big party for friends and family at a hotel on Loch Lomond a few weeks ago, but is celebrating more quietly with her close family this weekend. Here are a few of my favourite photos featuring Pat from then (mostly) and now.
floridahols0001filbertpickers0001Fort Langley CanadaJuly 58 Campsite in HelenaMount Rushmorescan0036fourinlakesClockwise from top left: on holiday in Miami; filbert picking in Oregon; rare photo of all 5 in Fort Langley, Canada; cowgirls in Colorado; the Lake District in October; Mount Rushmore; campsite home in Montana.

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The next chapter

Me, Dad, Wendy and Pat

Me, Dad, Wendy and Pat

It’s a long time since I’ve posted on either of my blogs, so time for an update! Though I’ve been working on my new book, ‘When the War Is Over’, which is about Gwenda’s evacuation to the house of the village schoolmaster in the Lake District village of Bampton during the Second World War, ‘Bedpans and Bobby Socks’ and ‘Is the Vicar In, Pet?’ haven’t been far from my mind, and articles earlier this year in Yours magazine and The Sunday Telegraph both helped to spread the word. Not sure if the very quick mention for BABS on Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show’s Top Tenuous slot would have achieved much, but it was very welcome all the same!

Look out next for Emma Gray, with whom I wrote ‘One Girl and Her Dogs’, on a programme called ‘Flock Stars’ which begins on ITV on Thursday July 30th. I think the title gives us a hint of what to expect as Emma puts her celebrity team through their paces as they try their hand at shepherding. Can’t wait to see it!

Writing my new book (hopefully the cover will be ready to share later this summer) has been a fascinating experience and I feel as if I’ve learnt a lot about those times. In May I went to stay with my parents and our friend Pat (of BABS fame) for a weekend just outside Bampton for some last-minute research. We even knocked on the door of the former schoolhouse (it’s now a private residence), Gwenda’s home for three years, but whoever lives there now must have seen us coming as no one answered. One person we caught up with was John Stacey, Gwenda’s fellow evacuee in the schoolhouse, who moved back to the village when he retired. It is incredible to think that it is now 75 years since they were living there together! Gwenda won’t thank me for it but I am sharing the photo of them we took (smile, Gwenda!). I think of them as Carrie and Albert Sandwich from ‘Carrie’s War’ by Nina Bawden, one of my favourite childhood books.

Next-door to the cottage where we were staying lives Wendy, who has her own red squirrel sanctuary attached to her house and owns a patch of woodland on the shores of Ullswater which is a haven for wildlife, while one of the participants of ITV’s ‘Seven Up!’ (the programme that follows a group from childhood at seven-year intervals) is a member of the local church (I wondered why I recognised him!). As in Gwenda’s day, there is a lot going on in these little places.

John and Gwenda, aka Albert Sandwich and Carrie

John and Gwenda, aka Albert Sandwich and Carrie

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