I have to say, firstly, that I never intended to write non-fiction. There was often the thought that crossed my mind of not being clever enough but also the sheer amount of work needed. Oh no, that wasn’t me! I was going to write short stories and novels galore, left alone in my own world and exercising my right to make everything up as I went along.
Ha, what a wally. I loved writing all sorts as soon as I learned to write at school; story-telling grabbed me as it was the joy of making words jump to my imagination, making them dance on the page until my story was told. A story that could span a page in a school exercise book, to longer yarns as I grew up. In primary school, I won a writing competition (I won a pencil rubber that said ‘eraser’ on it, just in case I forgot what it was for) and had a poem read in assembly (read out loud by a teacher from Yorkshire which was fine, but when you’re in a school in London, it didn’t quite sound right outside of my own head). But making things up as you go along has to be reined in along the way sometimes; that was cool, I could do that.
I first got an inkling of a passion for history – although I didn’t realise it back then – when I was about five or six years old and my family had a trip to Dunster Castle in Somerset, whilst on a camping holiday. I can remember being told to ‘close my mouth’ as I was walking around as it quite literally, took my breath away. I could feel and breathe the history there, especially when a tour guide introduced us to the secret passageway in the King Charles bedroom. I walked in there, panicked and grabbed my dad’s hand to run out again but still, that is what started it.
And then as I progressed through school, History was my ‘thing’. I got it, I understood it, I could do it; it drew me in like a magnet, all that had happened in the past was still there in the buildings we could touch, the ancient writings we could read. Unlike maths, which totally went over my head but give me words and history and I was happy as a pig in sh*t. In primary school, my idea of heaven was going home, sitting at the table, writing short stories, poems, designing crosswords and gawd knows what else; I thought this was what most kids my age done but ultimately, it dawned on me it wasn’t.
Then one day in senior school, came the school trip to Hatfield House (this made a change from Hell Fire Caves at West Wycombe where we had been taken to for about three years running). I was fourteen years old, in with the trendy kids and loving life. An excursion to Elizabeth I’s childhood home had me very, very excited. Unfortunately, it appeared I was alone in this, other than the kids we considered nerds (which still makes me have a guilt trip to this day). Dear god, I couldn’t be a nerd! So I kept my mouth closed and kept schtum. I went along with the history is borrrring mantra on the coach, the excitement of seeing boys from other schools instead of the ones in our class and the general good mood that comes on a day trip out of school, no matter what it was. I’ve often called myself shallow back then but we were hormonal kids, finding our way – no different to today really. We just didn’t have phones!
At Hatfield House, the one thing that stays in my mind to this day, was the glass cabinet containing Elizabeth I’s silk stockings and gloves (they were so tiny!). These passed others by but not me, I could have stood there for ages, dribbling at real history in front of me. But I couldn’t – my social standing and friends deemed this unthinkable; clearly, I reeked of self-importance. How ironic then that my history project for my ‘O Level’ (for anyone that done GCSE’s, ask your parents what O Levels were), was on Hatfield House. I still have it today and still love it – the fact I had managed to buy a Guide Book that halcyon day back in the 1980’s, helped immensely – of course, none of my school friends knew that …