Monday, 25 May 2015

The Joan Hessayon Award and Romantic Novelists' Association

Colour Clash!
Hopefully every day of one’s life has some special element about it but for me last Thursday was way up there.

By now there have been many posts, pictures and comments on the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Summer Party but I’d like to give you my take on it. The build up to this particular event has been long – and I’m not referring to all the hard work put in by the organisers. I won’t mention names here as I’m bound to leave someone out and I don’t want to upset anybody.

RNA parties are always great! Always! Well, the five I’ve been to anyway. The Royal Over-Seas League, London is a fantastic venue and the atmosphere ever electric. This time was different though. This time I was a contender for the coveted Joan Hessayon Award, so kindly sponsored every year by Dr David Hessayon in memory of his wife Joan.

Class of 2015
There were fourteen of what should have been fifteeen in the line-up this year (sadly Heather Rosser was absent due to ill health) and we’d all known for some time that we would be on the list. The competition is for members of the New Writers' Scheme who graduate with a novel that went through the scheme to publication. Having one’s first book published is monumental and I don’t imagine any writer would deny the magnitude of the thrill of knowing your work has been recognised. To stand in a large reception room with the other graduates in a space that was filled with our peers, some published, some yet to be, as well as agents and editors, all happy for our success, was an experience I will never forget.

The photo shoot (I believe that’s what it’s called) was an experience in itself as the contenders gathered before the event for individual and group pictures. Some of the authors I had met before, some I hadn’t, but the bonding that took place in that short time was tangible and it was a thrill to be in the company of such lovely people. The photographer, and I’ve seen her at previous parties, is amazing. A lovely personality and so good at her job.

With my agent, Lisa Eveleigh
of the Richford Becklow Literary Agency
We moved into the reception to mingle with the more than two hundred people attending. There are a few prerequisites to attending an RNA party. One needs to be able to hold a glass in one hand and a canapĂ© in the other; have a keen eye or the ability to ask people their name without embarrassment - even if you have met them several time before - if you are unable to read it on their badge. I know this will touch a chord with others as I am aware I’m not the only one who can’t put names to faces. Nobody is offended. It is also sometimes necessary to get close up and personal as it’s almost impossible to hear oneself speak, never mind the man or woman who is talking to you.

Little groups of friends often form themselves naturally but past attendees were on the lookout for name tags with a gold sticker attached. These indicated first timers and organiser Sally Quilford (okay, so I have mentioned a name after all) had thoughtfully asked us to be aware and make welcome anyone who might be on their own and a little bit anxious. What a thoughtful thing to do.

With my certificate
Proud or What!
In due course the contenders for the award were called to the front of the room and assembled before a large white board. Fourteen glammed up ladies in a row, everyone a winner just for being there, each stepping forward one pace as new Chair, Eileen Ramsey, read a short blurb about their book, the cover of which was flashed up onto the screen together with an image of the author. My own book, Safe Harbour,can be seen here in the right hand banner.

Brigid Coady
Winner - Joan Hessayon Award 2015

Then Eileen announced the overall winner, a delighted and emotional Brigid Coady, for No One Wants to be Miss Havisham – how fantastic a title is that. I wish her every luck and success in the future.

It’s very difficult to put into words – and me a writer – the pride I felt at being part of this wonderful annual event. It felt like an American-style graduation, standing up there with the rest. Hell, it was a graduation! If we’d been wearing mortar boards we would have flung them into the air. Well done everyone in the Class of 2015.

My thanks to the RNA, Elaine Everest and Vivien Hampshire who supplied images for me. I didn’t take a single one myself. 

Finally, were you there? I'd love you to share your own experience. You weren't? Then I hope to see you next year or perhaps at the Winter Party on 18th November. I can promise you a great time.

Natalie Kleinman

Monday, 18 May 2015

Kate Thompson - following a thread

My guest today is Kate Thompson who tells us the fascinating story of a woman with whom she shares her name. I was gripped when I read it, as I am sure you will be. Kate’s first novel, Secrets of the Singer Girls, is a nostalgic wartime saga set in an East End garment factory and was published in March by Pan Macmillan.

For fifteen years, Kate worked as a journalist for national newspapers and magazines like the Daily Express and IPC’s true-life weekly Pick Me Up, before going freelance four years ago. She now combines freelance journalism with writing and is currently working on a prequel to Secrets of the Singer Girls, provisionally entitled, Secrets of the Sewing Bee.

Kate lives in Twickenham, Greater London, with her husband, two boisterous, energetic young boys and an escape-artist miniature Jack Russell called Twinkle. When she’s not chasing after her sons or Twinkle, she is to be found locked in the office at the end of the garden trying to write, on research trips in London’s East End, or slumped on the settee with a glass of red wine.

Here is a piece Kate has written about the inspiration behind Secrets of the Singer Girls.

The chilling moment I discovered I was a victim of a wartime tragedy!

Staring down the stairway that leads into London’s Bethnal Green Tube Station, I found myself about to be taken on a journey back in time.

On a spring day with streams of commuters descending the stairs, nothing could look more ordinary, but seventy-two years ago, tragedy unfolded on those steps. Little is known of the biggest civilian disaster of the Second World War, but in less than 30 seconds, 173 people, were crushed to death on the stairway that led down to what was then an underground shelter.

Not a single German bomb was dropped but, in the time it took for the air raid siren to sound, the narrow corridor was converted into a charnel house as a horrifying crush of people piled helplessly one on top of another. After the searchlights went on, an anti-aircraft battery in nearby Victoria Park launched a salvo of new rockets and, fearing a bomb, the crowd surged forward. A mother carrying a baby tripped on the stairs and, like a pack of cards, the shelterers fell, one by one. The scenes were unimaginable on that bleak March night in 1943.

My reason for wanting to visit the sight where so many people died wasn’t born out of morbid curiosity, however. I was there to research it as I had already decided to feature the Tube disaster in the novel I was writing. Set in the East End of London, Secrets of the Singer Girls attempts to unravel the mysteries that bind four machinists who work sewing Navy and Army uniforms for the troops. The research I had already conducted revealed a world of poverty, grim survival, immense bravery and human tragedy in wartime Bethnal Green. But it was discovering that I shared a name with a victim who died in the disaster which leant a deep poignancy to my research. Just who was the other Kate Thompson, and what led her to flee to the so-called sanctuary of the underground that fateful day?

Cursory research did not bode well. Kate was at the Black Horse pub in her favourite fur-collared coat when the sirens went off. She was a 63-year-old mother of nine, living in one of Bethnal Green’s roughest areas, when she perished. It would be easy to dismiss Kate as a victim battling for survival but to do so would be foolish. A closer examination into her life revealed some surprising results.

Kate Hammersley was born in September 1880 in Poplar, East London. At the age of 18, she married William Thompson, and moved to Bethnal Green, where she bore him seven sons and two daughters. They resided at Quinn Square in Russia Lane. Pre-war, Bethnal Green housed some of the worst slums in London and, of them, one of the most notorious was Quinn Square, a place where locals say you never went after dark and policemen only dared visit in pairs. Some of the flats contained illegal gambling dens and when the police were about, quick-witted residents would whistle off the balconies.

None of the flats had their own water taps or toilets, and tenants shared facilities on the landing between four families. Washhouse facilities were housed on the roof, and the women of the Square had to drag their laundry up six flights. According to one local resident, the stench from the toilets was unholy. Perhaps that’s why Russia Lane had its own bathing centre, known as a Personal Cleansing Station. So far, so depressing.

By August 1938, Kate Thompson and many others lived in a squalid, dilapidated hellhole. Residents reported broken steps, lavatory doors with no locks and broken facilities in the washhouse. Not only that, but the landlords were having a merry time at their expense, charging exorbitant rents for such miserly facilities. How did the feisty women of Quinn Square put up with this? The answer is, they didn’t.

According to the electoral register, Kate was registered to vote from as early as 1923. Perhaps it was this interest in politics that lead Kate to insist on her right to a decent standard of living. Far from being a dormant victim, Kate and the other residents promptly formed a Tenants Association and flatly refused to pay their rents until the rapacious landlords reduced them to more reasonable levels.

One landlord responded by attempting to evict a tenant. When the agent arrived on eviction day, the tenants, wielding placards and chanting, ‘Less Rent, More Repairs’, barred their way and the landlord was forced to beat a hasty retreat. The biggest rent strike ever seen in the East End sent the press wild.

Buoyed by their success, the tenants of Quinn Square paraded around Bethnal Green with their placards and picketed the estate office. Apparently, every time the landlord went into the Square – on one occasion even accompanied by a group of Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascists, who attempted to break up the tenants meeting by organised hooliganism – a huge crowd of women followed them and booed them out of Russia Lane, pelting them with hot potatoes. And so it was that Kate and her neighbours scored a resounding victory for the working-class underdogs of Quinn Square.  It would take more than an unscrupulous landlord and some bullyboy fascists to scare them into submission. The landlords acceded to their demands to lower the rent and carry out repairs, and the test case for arrears of rent made history, paving the way for success for other Tenants Associations. A year later, war broke out, and Kate began the second great fight of her life.

Quinn Square was demolished in the 1960s, but I believe Kate’s legacy remains today. It proves that you should never underestimate the fighting power of a woman when her home and her family are under threat – 1938 or 2015, it matters not, a mother will fight tooth and nail to protect the roof over her children’s heads.

The other Kate wasn’t afraid to stand up to corrupt landlords and fascists marching on her street. My 1940s namesake was a far stronger, finer lady than I. Indeed, it would appear that a love of a fur collar is about all we have in common. I wish I had one ounce of her courage and pluck.

Secrets of the Singer Girls is out now, published by Pan Macmillan

Thank you for featuring me on your blog, Natalie.

I’m so glad you could join me, Kate. What a fascinating tale. I can’t wait now to read the book

Twitter:           @katethompson380 or

Monday, 4 May 2015

Life is a Beach - well, sometimes anyway

I make no apology for posting the same image here as I did last week. I do love Whitstable. It has character, personality and a house to let which enabled four of us to lose ourselves in our writing. There were times when I was almost unware of the others, so involved was I in my own story. It was obviously the same for them too. A pin could have been heard to drop if anyone had been moving around to do so but we weren’t. While the intensity of our endeavours was beyond question, it also was obvious that at some time we would need to take a break. Not just an hour or two but a whole day. Would this be counter-productive? Not a bit of it. With renewed enthusiasm we returned from our day out to attack our work again. Where did we go?

We went to Margate. It’s many years since I visited this seaside town and with all the talk of regeneration I had expected to find a run-down place that was just a shadow of its former self. Not a bit of it. We followed the wall which curved around the edge of a honey-coloured sandy beach to where we stopped for elevenses and from where this picture was taken. The architecture is varied and some of it very beautiful. I wish I could say the same for the Turner Gallery. Talk about blot on the landscape. No way did it fit in with its surroundings – but then we went inside. Firstly it was bigger than I’d expected. There was much of interest but not too much. We spent some considerable time there and left, if not wanting more then well satisfied with what we had seen.

Lunch turned out to be a late affair after which, passing some beautifully inscribed standing stones, we returned to Margate Station and thence to Whitstable. Though we arrived at our ‘holiday’ home by 6.30pm, we were so full that the most I could manage was half a cup of tea. I don’t think anyone ate anything for the rest of the evening.

Work continued apace until it was time to return home to reality. We had eaten out (several times) in the comfort you find with companionable friends with whom don’t need to make conversation. Goals were achieved. New plans made. Would I do it again? You bet!