Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Meet my Main Character"

Thanks to Debbie Brown and MM Bennetts for tagging me to take part in this!

It's one stage in a chain of posts by historical fiction authors in which we introduce the main character of our work in progress or soon to be published novel.  Actually I fall outside the precise remit, since this book is already out, but I am going to work on a sequel to it when I've completed my current W.I.P. (which is also a sequel to another novel).

1) What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

George Davenport's name belonged to my great-grandfather, who was a coachman--so in that sense, yes, he was real.  I know very little about him apart from name, date and location. I use his name and his profession of coachman, but I have transplanted him to places where I know he didn't work in real life.

2) When and where is the story set?

The story moves from Carlisle, Cumberland, to the centre of London\(although my great-grandfather actually lived in Cheshire).

I have timeshifted George and Lucy (the real name of my great-grandmother) from the later part of the 19th century, when they really lived, to the earlier part. In "Coachman" I have imagined George aged 22 in 1838.

I chose that year, not because it was the year of Victoria's coronation, which it was, but because it was when one of the major shifts occurred in English culture, when travelling by coach and four horses suddenly appeared old-fashioned, uncomfortable and slow compared to the new means of transport: the steam train.

Some excellent fiction has been written about the "arrival" of the railway age - for instance by Malcolm MacDonald in his "World from Rough Stones" books - but I'm not aware of any stories about the decline of the long-distance coaching trade and the effect it had on thousands of horsemen whose livelihood vanished over just a few years.

Most of the accounts of the era were written towards the end of the Victorian era.  Charles Harper says in  "Stage Coach and Mail in Days of Yore",

"Many coachmen were killed off the box in the exercise of their profession... A considerable number, secure in the affection of the wealthy amateurs, many of whom they had taught the art of driving, entered the service of those noblemen and gentlemen something in the long overlordship they had exercised over four horses, and a good deal more  perhaps in that hero-worship down the road, of which Washington Irving writes, had spoiled them. Their lives would not run sweetly in fresh grooves. They could not, or would not, take to new employments, and even, subsisting upon charity, were often absurdly haughty, insolent, and insufferable."

There was a cartoon by Cruikshank about the plight of coachmen in the railway boom: "Steamed Out, or the Starving Stage Coachman and Boys", in which "Steamed Out Stagecoach Drivers Starve in the Face of Competition from the Railway". Such hardship, however, can't have been the whole story for every single one of the drivers and their guards. Generalisations are just that - generalisations.

While the accounts from 50 years later are sympathetic to the cause of the out-of-work coachey, they also contain contradictory remarks like "they were never a long lived breed of men" contrasted with examples who lived into their 80s or even 90s.  So I thought I'd explore the possibilities. They made a much more striking story than Cruikshank's cartoon.

3) What should we know about him/her?

George is a horseman, born and raised. His parents are dead and he was brought up by his grandparents in the coaching trade. He has been driving four-in-hand teams since he was 14 and he enjoys working with horses very much, despite the rigours of bad weather and sometimes difficult passengers. Not only that, he's a good-looking lad and a classy driver who is admired for his skill in handling a fast coach and four horses--the Formula 1 driver of his day.

5) What is the personal goal of the character?

George is ambitious. He wants to drive horses and be based in London, which is the centre of the Mail coaching system. This brings him into the employment of William Chaplin, a very successful businessman in coaching. George likes music and the theatre and he earns plenty of money, which in turn attracts pretty girls. When we meet him he's fallen in love with Lucy, who works in her mother's inn/lodging-house in Carlisle. Lucy has had a much harder upbringing than George, as we learn towards the end of the book.

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

George moves to London with his wife Lucy, and at first he thoroughly enjoys working for Chaplin. He thinks he's got it made! However, Chaplin's daughter Sarah has a fierce crush on him and she makes his life very uncomfortable, since he's got to be polite to the boss's family! But, because the Royal Mail is about to move a huge amount of its traffic onto the railways, it's Chaplin himself who drops the real bombshell. Foreseeing a rapid decline of his business, he sells all his coaches, making his drivers redundant, along with the ostlers and all the workforce needed to manage horses. George finds himself under a new master, Edward Sherman. Sarah's continued pursuit of George causes him to lose this job too. And as you can imagine, Lucy (who's expecting their first child by now) is not too pleased about that! George ends up having to move back North in order to find driving work; it's the only way he can keep himself, Lucy and his imminent family. There's no way this young man is going to be seen begging like the "Steamed-Out" coacheys in Cruikshank's cartoon. One of the sources of his pride has to go: it's a struggle to give up any idea of regaining his "top of the trees" work in London, but he's able to get a position driving in the North, where the railways have yet to arrive. So his pride in his work can be maintained - if a little tarnished - and he will be able to keep Lucy and their child in a reasonably comfortable household.

6) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

The title is "Coachman". You can read the first section HERE.

7) When can we expect the book to be published?

It's out already. I hope to work on a sequel to "Coachman", but I'm currently working on a sequel to "Against the Odds" which is modern (see

Thanks for visiting this post. I have tagged four authors to follow me; they will post about their main characters on 15th April or thereabouts.

1)         Deborah Swift

2)         Jonathan Hopkins

3)         Mark Patton

4)         Elizabeth Ashworth


Let me know what you think of George!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ruby being must be Spring!

Ruby's not done much because I've been busy, so she has probably had too much opportunity to graze spring grass. She's lost a lot of her winter coat and has come up nice and glossy despite a heavy coating of mud...

We went out for a drive just after lunch and immediately met one of the big timber-wagons that are coming past us for the felling of the wood in Bretherdale. I now know that the Bennington is shorter overall than the Quayside gigs because it went round on a sixpence in our "narrows" between the stone walls of the garden and the field opposite. Ruby stood in the yard while the monster went by, and we started the drive over again.

It all went OK, including having our photos taken at the railway bridge, until we reached Selsmire where the event horses were all out at grass in their heavy rugs. Ruby knows that the first 4 in the field on the left are not really interested in her any more, though they look up and stare; but once again, when we reached the next field she spotted "that grey horse" and ground to a halt. She considered trying the spin-and-run that she caught me with a couple of months ago, but I talked her out of that and she just stood there, assessing. This is most unlike her because she is normally such a bold mare! She has even met this grey horse a couple of times, out on the road. So why the sight of a grey in a rug is so scary, I can't really work out, unless she can only see the legs and head and not the rug in between. Talking to her, twitching the rein and outright smacking her with the whip all produced only one or two steps forward so as I'd got her to the side of the road enabling cars to get by (if necessary) I was prepared to sit it out. Eventually after about 5 minutes a van came from the opposite direction and at that point she appeared to come out of her "trance" and walked on! I think I need to get her a supplement with magnesium in it, to counteract the grass.

I took her another mile or so, then turned and came back. She behaved fine coming past the horses this time (the grey was further away and behind a couple of other horses). We met the timber wagon, again but I had spotted him coming from over a mile away as I came down the hill, and I found a gate open into a little garth, where we stood out of his way and exchanged waves with the driver before continuing on our merry way.

Ruby was hardly damp at all when we got in - combination of shedding winter woollies, and a quite cold wind.

Poor Micky Wippitt was furiously jealous that I had done things with Ruby without taking him into the game - biting the wire of his kennel run and yelping - but I can't let him run free just at the moment because it's lambing time and he is far too keen on chasing after leaping lambies! And if I were to lead him and Ruby, his extending lead would get wound round her legs AND his. Neither of them bother about this, but I'd need more hands than I currently have, to untangle them.

Saturday, March 1, 2014


My backyard view
grew one, then two
grey partridge.
Pick and peck
some grainy speck,
some tasty smidge.
Three, and four,
five, six or more
plump, slate ridge-
patterned, seethed
around the floor
like woodlice when
you lift a stone.
Eight, nine or ten?
I lost count. One
saw the dog. Two
ran. All flew. Gone.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Cueing up

David W Robinson remarked on his Facebook page yesterday that the BBC's subtitles "aren’t perfect, but every time the commentator mentioned Gabriel Agbonlahor, the subs translated it as "Gabriel upon the whore"."

After considering the possibilities of "Jose Olazabal"--"Josie Holes the Ball" being the cleanest I could come up with--I remembered the utter filth perpetrated for weeks on end by the BBC's snooker commentators. A few years ago I cobbled together (pun intended) this little effort: First published by Lighten up Online, December 2010

Cueing Up

he's going for a colour
got a bit of a kick
after that double kiss
it's a touching ball

waggles lead to
a good wrist cock
and follow through
oh that was a snatch

it's very tight
on the bottom cushion
he's trying one leg on the bed
should play a deep screw

he can't quite keep that foot on the floor
he'll need the extension
and after all that
he'll have to go for a long rest

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas Gateau Recipe

Ok - having been asked, here is -ta-da- my family's Christmas Chestnut Gateau recipe. My mum first made it for my grandparents' Golden Wedding in (I think) 1957 - and she got it off a BBC TV cookery programme. We've made it every year since. 

No, it's got nothing to do with Mary Berry or the Hairy Bikers. I *think* it's Austrian. No baking required!

1 tin of plain chestnut puree, about 1lb / 450grams (not the sweetened kind)
8oz butter / 250g
4oz icing sugar / 120g
(The original recipe suggested equal quantities of all three, but I find that too sweet. It also had a raw egg yolk in it, which I don't use.)
2 packs of "boudoir" sponge finger biscuits (ie, 40-50 of them; buy more rather than less because you can always use them up!)
10fl. oz strong black coffee / 0.5 pint, 250g (ish)
1 tablespoon of plain cocoa
1 tablespoon of brandy

1/2 pint of Double cream / 250g (ish)
Warm and whip the butter, beating in the icing sugar, chestnut puree, brandy and cocoa, and a tablespoon of the strong coffee. You should have a stiffish but spreadable mixture.

Line an 8 inch diameter loose based / spring case baking tin with cling-flim, enough to cover the base, come up the sides and lap over to the opposite side.

Pour black coffee into a 6 inch diameter or so shallow dish or plate. Dip the sponge fingers individually, quickly in and out, wetting both sides, and lay them closely side by side
, in the tin, all pointing in the same direction. Set the sugary side upward. If you start with the first ones pointing at the join in the tin you'll have a reference point for the direction of the next layer. When the layer is complete, use 1/3 of the chestnut mix to make a filled layer, level it and turn the tin through 90 degrees so the next layer of sponge fingers runs across the first rather than the same way.

Repeat till you have 3 layers of filling and 4 of sponge fingers, putting the last layer of sponge fingers sugary side down.

Complete wrapping the gateau, using the cling film that's been hanging outside the tin. Put a shallow plate on top and press down gently to consolidate the cake.

At this point you can freeze and store the cake for a month or more; but you can use it after a few hours in the fridge.

To finish:  about 1/2 pint of Double cream, and a little of the icing sugar, strong coffee, and cocoa

Unwrap the top of the cake, set a serving plate on top, upside down, then invert both so the cake ends up on the plate, then remove the cling film entirely. 

Whip the double cream with a spoonful of the coffee and a teaspoonful of icing sugar to soft peaks (not stiff, because the sponge layers will absorb some of the moisture). Coat the cake with it. If you've got sponge fingers left over, halve them and press them against the outer edge of the cake so they stand upright like a fence (they help with measuring serving portions!) Dust the top lightly with sifted cocoa.

Servings -  approx 12 2-finger segments or fewer if you're greedy like us!

*** NOTE 1 - the original recipe used a pound of chestnuts rather than a tin of puree - you boil the chestnuts, peel and skin them, then blitz them and push them through a sieve. The texture is fluffier, dryer and not so solid as the tinned puree.

***NOTE 2 - Boudoir sponge fingers are also, I think, known as ladyfingers. However, I've made this recipe successfully with a couple of home-made fatless sponge cakes, split into half inch thick layers, and with commercial "flan" cases.


Sue's historical/humorous/horsey novels and other books are available on 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Bumble Bees

A queen mistook the dimness of our house,
but rescued with a glass and cardboard
she nested in the kitchen steps
where we passed by a dozen times a day,
and her furry children zigzagged out
to the bean rows in the garden,
the peas and plums and brambles,
the wild strawberry cascading down the wall.
Black sisters, fumbling white clovers in the pasture
or the purple heather on the moor,
they droned home bulked with pollen,
unloaded, flew another mission,
though the cat lay in wait to bat them,
and the swallows swooped on them,
and our grandchild tried to stroke them
when we barged through their busy airways.
They never stung. At the summer’s end
they just fell, all spent, leaving
one queen to autumn, winter, spring.
Yes, we might still have had a harvest
without their peaceful help; but only of a sort.


Sue Millard's poetry collection, Ash Tree, is available from Prole Books and her novels can be found via her web site, Jackdaw E Books.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

On the first day of Advent my true love gave to me

He's been working towards this for the last three weeks.

It started with comments over the small ads in the local paper.

"That big CRT TV's still for sale."

"What make was the one we put in the holiday cottage?"

"He's dropped the price."

"Looks like he hasn't had any offers."

Well, maybe it was four weeks.

Anyway, when I came back from choir rehearsal yesterday the paper was folded inside out to the small ads for TV and Radio, and this morning he pootled off in the car and came back looking rather chuffed.

I know that face.

I started wiping down the cabinet on which our present small flat-screen TV stands.

"You needn't rush," he said. "I'll ask Chris to give me a lift with it when he comes to look the sheep tomorrow." (note: housekeeping is not one of my skills. I just have a nose for jobs that are better done around electronics which I can move by myself, than around those that need two fit men).

OK. Replaced small TV and cables. Returning to kitchen with damp cloth, walked past mother in law's display cabinet. Thought it ooked a bit dusty. Wiped all shelves and objets d' - well, not quite Art, but you know, too shiny to give away to the charity shop. Some tiny toys and coloured pebbles that belonged to Naomi, some vases with nice lines, a couple of ceramic birds, a set of Concordabilia including a model of the plane.

Opened the centre cupboard, just out of curiosity. Who knows what might be inside your mother in law's drawers--no, don't answer that. We inherited the cabinet when she moved to the care home. The centre bit is a booze cupboard, glass shelves, mirror back. Empty. I turned the damp cloth around and gave it a consolatory wipe, just so it didn't feel left out. And I thought: that's a useful space. And more convenient than the sideboard.

G actually keeps his wine in the larder, which is a nice steady temperature, but there are odd bottles of spirits lurking in the sideboard. I thought: I'll shift them to the cabinet--thus perhaps removing the need to lock the sideboard against small grandson's curiosity.

So I found the keys of the sideboard and did some exploring.

Well, I recognised G's trio of unopened Christmas-present malt whiskies, but who knew there were so many bottles of gin in there?  A brand, moreover, that isn't sold locally? Or sherry, that I only buy for the elderly? Or brandy, that G doesn't drink on account of sickening himself with it when he developed a tooth abscess on a Friday and the dentist couldn't see him till Monday?

Like I said, who knows what's in your mother in law's--whatnot. To be fair, his brother and brother's partner were big gin drinkers.

I moved the spirits to the display cabinet. There still seemed to be a lot of room to spare, including a glass shelf.

I attacked the sideboard again and clinked out all the glasses. A majority of MiL's collection have gone already to charity shops and there are possibly a few out in the shed, their future role as yet unassigned, but in the sideboard there was one heavy glass decanter I'd never seen before and another beautifully engraved with the west front of Westminster Abbey.  And then--who ever drank anything from glasses two inches tall that you can't get your nose into? Apart from medicine? I found five of those, smoky brown thimbles, very 1970s. And two titchy Cristal d'Arques pots that I'm sure were designed for hairgrips and stuff on your dressing table rather than for drinking out of.

I should add that I reached a count of eight before I found a pair among anything that belonged to us. I discarded the cheap, the unmatched and the impractical (the smoky brown thimbles). I was going to chuck the solo brandy balloon too but when I flicked it with a fingernail it sang such a beautiful note that I instantly re-adopted it. Thereafter I also got rid of the glasses that didn't try to sing.

Hot water with vinegar, and a glass-cloth, reduced the remainder to roughly the same variety of clean.

Among other things (as above) I've kept: half-pint highballs,
six vine-etched glasses, 
five tumbler things, 
four Jennings mugs,
three crystals,
two pint pots,
and a shot-glass for Famous Grouse.

The display cabinet is clean. The sideboard, sort of (it's still locked--not all the malt whisky boxes fitted in the cabinet.)

The TV is still outside. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?


Sue Millard's books wander around humour, history and horses. They can be found on her web site,

Her poetry pamphlet "Ash Tree" was published in August 2013 by Prole Books.