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Friday, 24 September 2021

Book news: new novel

My new novel, based on the true story of Florence Martha "Florrie" Cox, will be published before the year is out.


Ignorance is not bliss


Some events have been combined or imagined for dramatic and interpretive purposes. 

Of necessity, most of  the dialogue is imagined, but the author believes it is consistent 

with the personalities of the characters and events that took place in India and Australia.


CHAPTER 1

Melbourne, Australia, October 1914 

Florence Martha Cox, known to most of her family and friends as Florrie, sat on the swing made by her father 20 years before when she was a little girl. As she was still of slim build, she could fit in it comfortably, although her father had raised the seat to accommodate her long adult legs.

The swing was in a wooden frame erected in the shade of a towering eucalypt that was planted in the corner of the large back garden. The nondescript three-bedroom wooden house with its corrugated tin roof was constructed in the late 1880s in Balwyn, then a sparsely populated outer suburb of Melbourne.

As Florrie moved gently back and forth on the swing, she read a hand-written letter and stroked Tiddles, the pet black-and white cat sitting on her lap.

It was the second time she had read the letter since its arrival from India in that morning’s post. It was from the Revd Frank Paice, to whom she had become engaged on the eve of his departure by steamboat for Calcutta, then capital of India and the state of East Bengal, to take up his post as a missionary for the Baptist Church of Australia. Frank’s letters were of special importance as they were her only means of getting to know her intended husband a little better before their marriage.

There had been no intimacy of any sort before he had departed. It was an age when courting couples were rarely left alone during the pre-engagement period. Respectable families insisted on such couples being watched over by a chaperone to ensure that they never found themselves in a position where they could allow sexual desires to lead to heavy petting or, Heaven forbid, intercourse. Furthermore, the watchfulness of families left little opportunity for couples to engage in affectionate and revealing conversations.

There is abundant evidence that sexual intercourse often did take place outside marriage back then, despite the watchfulness of families and chaperones. This caused great upset if a pregnancy were to result, though the scandal could be tempered if the couple agreed to what was crudely called a “shotgun marriage”.

In Frank and Florrie’s case, opportunities to indulge in any form of sexual activity, no matter how restrained, were non-existent as both the Cox and Paice families were pillars of the Baptist Church and consequently deeply conservative Christians. Florrie’s mother, Amelia Cox, was particularly vigilant when it came to ensuring her three daughters reached the marriage altar sexually intact.

The letters that Frank and Florrie exchanged over their two-year engagement were mostly devoted to reporting day-to-day missionary and family events. They were rather formal and lacked expressions of passion. This was not surprising because the letters were often expected to be passed around for family and friends to read. Therefore, any expression of sexual desires, explicit or by innuendo, was carefully avoided. 

As Florrie perused Frank’s latest letter, she broke off from time to time to admire the engagement ring on her left hand. Though the diamond was quite small, but she accepted that it fairly reflected the modest funds available to Frank as he carried out his religious studies.

Much as Florrie looked forward to the wedding, she couldn’t sometimes wonder if she had been Frank’s second choice. Before he had turned his attention to Florrie, he had been attentive towards her cousin, Maude Irene Sutton. Maude, universally known by her nickname Rena, attended the same Baptist Church in the Melbourne suburb of Auburn, as did others in the Cox, Sutton and Paice families.

There were rumours that Frank had considered seeking Rena’s hand in marriage, but she was stricken down by tuberculosis and had died aged 22. Her autograph book was later found to include an entry by Frank. It was unusual for a single man to put an entry in a woman’s autograph book, unless they were related or very good friends.

Ironically, in view of what was to transpire in the coming years, Frank’s entry included this quote by the former British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli: Circumstances are beyond the control of man. But his conduct is in his own power.

Florrie’s father, Arthur Cox Senior, had sounded a cautionary note about the engagement, wondering whether Frank’s unspoken motive might be an anxiety that he might not find a suitable wife among the missionaries in Bengal. His reservations were swept aside by Amelia who was ecstatically proud to have a daughter marrying a clergyman, a Man of the Cloth, as they were often referred to. A social plus for Amelia was the fact that Frank’s elder brother, George, had also just been ordained as a Baptist clergyman and posted to Traralgon in Gippsland, Victoria.

Despite having turned 27, Florrie had not had any serious male friends before. Until Frank Paice came along, her mother had taken the view that the potential suitors who stepped forward were unsuitable and they were effectively sent on their way before any emotional attachment could take place. Consequently, Florrie was not entirely sure what it felt like to be in love. All she knew was that she admired and liked Frank.

Much of the Cox’s back garden – or back yard, as most Australians referred to this patch of land – was taken over by vegetable plots and fruit trees, proudly cultivated by Florrie’s neatly-bearded father when he was not at work driving one of Melbourne’s cable car trams. Today was a day off for Arthur, so he was busy erecting frames for his climbing tomatoes and hoeing weeds around the neat rows of newly-sprouting beans and lettuces he had planted in the Spring. He was a man of action and few words, letting his wife Amelia do most of the talking.

As Arthur busied himself, Amelia appeared at the back door and called to Florrie in a strong Australian accent. “C’mon, or we’ll be late for the doctor,” she shouted. “Coming, Mother,” replied Florrie in a softer accent.

Florrie stepped down from the swing and gently placed Tiddles on the ground. “I’m going to miss you,” she murmured. As she crossed the garden into the house, she exchanged a wave and a smile with her father. She was quite tall – taller by about five centimetres than anyone else in the family – with dark hair and deep brown eyes inherited from the paternal side of the family. As was usual, she was wearing a plain cotton dress, ankle-length and high-necked with long sleeves, typical of conservative women at that time.

“Are you sure that I need to do this, Mother?” Florrie asked with a frown. “Yes, of course,” replied Amelia, “so let’s just get it over with.”

w

Florrie and Amelia left the house and walked briskly down the tree-lined street with its concrete pavement and recently-laid bituminised road. Despite it being sunny with an early summer temperature, both mother and daughter wore a hat, coat and gloves. Amelia regarded a visit to a doctor as just one small social step down from attending a church service, and she always dressed accordingly.

As mother and daughter strode along the empty street, Florrie took Frank’s letter from her pocket and began re-reading it. She became so engrossed that she tripped on an unstable paving stone and nearly fell. “Careful, girl,” ordered her mother with a frown. Florrie returned the letter to her pocket.

“Well, what does Mr Paice have to say?” Amelia demanded. “Oh, he says everything is progressing well,” she replied, “even though there are fears about the war and predictions that it might not be over as quickly as some people expect.”

Amelia put her hand out in a gesture that made it clear she wished to see the letter. Florrie shook her head. “It’s private, Mother.”

Amelia was annoyed. “Is there something the reverend doesn’t want me to see?”

“No, of course not,” replied Florrie, “but it’s personal and I don’t see why I always have to show all his letters to you. I’m not a little girl anymore.”

Amelia grunted her displeasure and they continued along the street in sullen silence until arriving outside a large single-storey brick house with a polished copper sign fixed to the iron front gate: Balwyn Surgery – Dr R. Brownlow & Dr T. Jones. They went inside and took seats in the gloomy waiting room with its collection of medical posters and notices attached to the walls.

They each chose a magazine from an ageing and tattered assortment on a low wooden table and flicked through them without any genuine interest in the contents. Eventually, Dr Jones emerged from his consulting room. He was tall and in his mid-thirties and greeted them with a soft Welsh accent. “Well, hello ladies! Please come through.”

They followed him into his room furnished with bright striped wallpaper, several straight-backed chairs, a large oak desk and cushioned seat, a shelf stocked with medical books and a metal-framed examination bench covered with a thin mattress encased in oil cloth.

Dr Jones pulled a blue cotton screen around the bench. “Right, Florrie, remove your outer things and pop up on the bench while I check your file. Your mother can take that seat over in the corner.” Amelia sat down, still wearing her hat, coat and gloves.

The doctor took Florrie’s folder from a wooden tray and flicked through its contents while she went behind the screen, removed her gloves, coat, hat, dress and petticoat, and put them neatly on a chair. She sat shyly on the edge of the examination bench, wearing just her sleeveless bodice and bloomers.

Dr Jones pulled back part of the screen at the end of the bench and went behind it, a stethoscope hanging from his neck. “Well, Florrie, I see from your file that it is some time since you have had to call on the services of Dr Brownlow or myself.”

“Yes, doctor. I keep in good health, I’m pleased to say,” she replied with a confident smile.

Though the screen obscured her view, Amelia could hear the conversation. “I can confirm that, Dr Jones,” she called from her seat. 

“In that case,” Dr Jones responded, “this shouldn’t take long. As you know, the Mission Society just needs to have a doctor’s confirmation of good health before their people go onto the field.”

“Yes, I understand,” replied Florrie.

“Right, young lady, let’s begin by checking your chest.” Dr Jones slid his stethoscope under Florrie’s bodice. “Breathe in … breathe out … breathe in … breathe out.” Florrie did as she was instructed. The doctor was satisfied by what he could hear. He then repeated the exercise with the stethoscope checking her back. Again, he was satisfied.

“Now let me have a look at your throat.” Florrie opened her mouth wide and was told to say “Aaaah”. He saw nothing to concern him. He instructed her to swing her arms around in a circle, then reach down to her toes, which she managed. “Good,” he said, “no muscular problems.” He next picked up a small rubber hammer which he tapped on her knees. Her lower leg jumped forward as each knee was tapped. Florrie gave a little nervous laugh. “Your reflexes are also fine,” announced Dr Jones cheerfully.

“So, um, is everything in order ‘downstairs’,” he asked, nodding towards Florrie’s crotch.

Florrie was unsure how to react, but before she could, her mother again interjected: “Yes, no problems there, doctor,” she announced.

“So, your ‘monthlies’ are regular, are they?” he asked Florrie.

Florrie was baffled and again her mother hastily interjected: “Dr Jones, we just need to know that my daughter is well enough to go to India.”

Dr Jones detected that he had touched on a sensitive area. “Of course, Mrs Cox, but it might be worth me having a little check.” He opened a cupboard and took out a white cotton sheet, which he handed to Florrie. “Lie down a moment, put the sheet over you, and slip off your bloomers.”

Florrie was acutely embarrassed but did as she was instructed. Amelia, increasingly uncomfortable, leant forward in her chair and could see Dr Jones lift the sheet and gently ease Florrie knees apart, giving him a view of her genitalia. He adopted a reassuring voice. “Right, Florrie, try to relax. It won’t take a minute.”

Amelia squirmed as she heard Florrie’s catch her breath behind the screen. “It’s all right, Florrie,” Dr Jones said, “you can get dressed now.”

Dr Jones pulled the screen back across the end of the bench and went to a sink to wash his hands.

Florrie got dressed, immensely glad the examination was over. Dr Jones hesitantly made notes in Florrie’s file. Then, as she emerged from behind the screen, he pointed her to a spare seat and addressed both her and her mother. “Well now, Florrie does seem to be in good health, so I see no serious reason why she isn’t well enough to go to India. You’re due to leave quite soon, I believe?”

“Yes,” replied Florrie, “I’m booked on a steamship leaving for Calcutta in two weeks.”

“Oh good,” said Dr Jones, “I’m sure you’re looking forward to seeing Reverend Paice after such a long time apart. It must be disappointing that you’ve not had a chance to really get to know each other during your engagement.”

“Yes, I suppose,” admitted Florrie, “but the church doesn’t like unmarried couples being on the field.”

“So, when did you get engaged?”

“Just as he was about to leave for India. A few days before.”

“And how long had you been courting?

“About a year, I suppose, but we’ve known each other as worshippers at our church.”

“And I suppose in the time you were courting you were always chaperoned?”

“Well, of course.”

“Of course she was chaperoned,” said Amelia with a frown. “Why these questions?”

“No particular reason,” he replied with a shrug. “I was just interested.”

“Well, Dr Jones, I hope you weren’t suggesting that we failed in our parental responsibility to be present during all stages of the courtship. I know only too well what can happen when some young couples are left to themselves before a marriage commitment is made with an engagement.”

“That’s true,” admitted the doctor.

“Take the case of that dreadful Jenkins girl at our church. She had relations with some boy she’d known for just a few weeks. Look where that took her. I blame her parents for not keeping a better watch over her.”

“Oh well,” Dr Jones replied, “these things can happen in the best of families.”

“Not in our family, it doesn’t,” she declared with irritation as she and Florrie prepared to leave.

There was one other thing that troubled Amelia: “What did you mean by ‘no serious reason’ why Florrie shouldn’t go to India?”

Dr Jones realised he had returned to a sensitive area and attempted to make light of his comments. “Oh no, nothing to worry about, Mrs Cox, just my careless choice of words. Nothing to worry about at all. I wish Florrie and the Revd Paice a happy and rewarding marriage spreading the word of the Lord.”

“Thank you, Dr Jones,” said Amelia, reassured.

“Yes, thank you,” added Florrie with a relieved smile as she and her mother gathered their things and left the room.

Dr Jones went to his bookshelf, took down a copy of Gray’s Anatomy and flicked through to the section on female internal organs.

As the two women emerged into the street from the surgery, Florrie had a question for her mother: “What was that all about?”

“What was what about?”

“You know, Mother, monthlies, or whatever they’re called.”

“Just be glad you don’t have them. It’s not something discussed in polite circles.”

“Why not?”

“It just isn’t,” Amelia asserted. “It just isn’t.”

It was clear the conversation was going nowhere. “You’re very annoying sometimes, Mother,” said Florrie with a growing sense of frustration.

w

Florrie and Amelia walked home in irritated silence as Dr Jones went into an adjoining room occupied by his grey-haired senior partner, Dr Brownlow.

“Do you have a moment, sir?” enquired Dr Jones of his colleague who was busy sorting files at his desk.

“Certainly, Timothy,” replied Dr Brownlow, pointing to a plain wooden chair beside his desk.

“I’ve just seen the Cox girl, Florrie, and her mother,” Dr Jones explained.

“Oh yes, I was at Florence’s birth, but haven’t seen her for ages.”

“I’ve just given her a medical examination before she sets out for Bengal to marry that missionary chap Paice.”

“Was there a problem?”

“I’m not entirely sure. She was okay with the usual things – you know, lungs, heart etc – but it doesn’t look as though she has ever menstruated.”

“Never?”

“Never! I think it would be impossible,” declared Dr Jones.  “She didn’t seem to know what I was talking about, and her mother became agitated when I gently raised the subject.”

“There can be all sorts of reasons why women don’t have periods,” replied Dr Brownlow with a shrug. “Maybe putting her on a tonic could fix it.”

Dr Jones hesitated before continuing. “Um, there’s more. She doesn’t have any pubic or under arm hair, and apart from her smallish breasts, she looks like a pre-pubescent girl.  I couldn’t give her a full internal examination, of course, but I did discover that she had a blockage across the opening to her vagina, not like a normal hymen.”

Dr Brownlow frowned: “Did you really need to go that far, Timothy? It’s a bit intrusive. I’m not sure I approve.”

“Well, I was curious why any woman could get to her age without body hair and without knowing about menstruation. It was also interesting that her mother became so agitated. Gray’s Anatomy doesn’t tell me anything useful, but I think we should recommend that Florrie sees a gynaecologist before she leaves for India.”

Now it was Dr Brownlow’s turn to become agitated: “For Heaven’s sake! What purpose would that serve? All hell would break lose if something were found to cause the wedding to be postponed or abandoned.”

“Well, I was just thinking about…”

“Forget it, Timothy. Forget it. If she can’t have babies, so be it. Lots of women can’t have babies. They adopt a child, or just go without.”

“Well, I still think…”

“Forget it, Timothy,” Dr Brownlow insisted as he went back to sorting his files, the discussion at an end.


If you would like to be notified when the book is published, send an email to: 
books@preddonlee.com

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Do you die or pass on?

Over my decades as a journalist, then as a writer of books and screenplays, I became fascinated by the use of euphemisms - particularly by people who cannot bring themselves to use the word “died”.

A death is upsetting for the overwhelming majority of a deceased person’s close family and friends, but I can't understand what is at all offensive about "died". We will all die at some time. We might wish to be immortal, but using euphemisms such as "pass", "passed", "passed on", "gone to be with our Lord", "gone to their reward", "present with the Lord", "promoted to glory" or even "gone to a better place" can't disguise the truth.

I recently came across news of a distant relative that had me scratching my head: “Born into an eternal life” and giving a date. It took me minutes to realise that I was being informed that this person had died.

Many of those who prefer the euphemisms are members of various religions, but Christianity's King James Bible is certainly not averse to using "died". Indeed, a quick scan shows that it is used 189 times. It even states that Jesus Christ died.

There is nothing inconsistent in using "died" and believing that there is an afterlife. Death is a medical event that must come before a soul or spirit - if such a thing exists - goes on to Heaven or Hell or some other agreeable place, or rejoins previously-deceased family members.

My mother was an enthusiastic Christian who rarely missed church on a Sunday, and although she made careful plans for her funeral and thanksgiving service, she never once to my knowledge used a euphemism to describe what would happen at the end of her life. I also don’t recall her ever suggesting that she was going to rejoin my churchgoing father who had died decades before her.

An aunt who was an equally committed Christian was adamant that she would "die". She would have been very upset had she known that the funeral director changed her newspaper death notices from "died" to "passed on".

Out of curiosity I began looking at death notices in the British newspapers, the  Times of London and the Guardian, to see how many used “died” or a euphemism or avoided both. In the snapshot of about a week, a small majority used “died”, rather than a euphemism. But there were also a significant number that avoided both, leaving it obvious what had happened because the notices were in the Deaths column.

It is not just religious believers who prefer to skirt around our departure from this existence. The administrator of a Facebook group to which I belong insists on using "passed on" because it seems to him to be a kinder word than "died". I disagree. There are a great many non-believers who find this not just wrong but bordering on the offensive.

I know that at some time - not too soon, I hope - I will die. As a happy atheist, my death will be beginning of what some might euphemistically term "eternal sleep", but it would be an illogical conceit on my part to believe that I have a soul that will continue in another form. If anything is passed on, it will, perhaps, be through my writing over the years and memories held by my close friends and my descendants. There is, of course, no guarantee that all of this will be flattering.

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

How some of us got driving licences in the old days

From time to time I hear from relatives and friends in my birthplace, Australia, about the expense and involved process for their children to get a driving licence. There are P (for Provisional) plates, 120 hours of supervised driving over months, driving logbooks, a very tough theory test, and substantial test fees. And that's just a most basic summary.

How different from when I got my driving licence in rural Victoria in the late1950s...

Our first family car was a second-hand Vauxhall sedan, bought by my mother, Rena, after the death of my father, John S. Richardson. I have no idea how she got a licence, but she would never have won any driving prizes. As for my licence, I think it was awarded by Snr. Const. Pat Nally, father of my old schoolmate, Ian Nally. 

There was an old registration number plate nailed to a tree in the local police station driveway. Before setting out on the driving test, the hopefuls had to prove their eyesight by reading the number plate from the entrance to the driveway. Those who were unsure about their eyesight would turn up early, sneak up to the licence plate and memorise it. 

As for proving that you could drive, that was easy. In my case, Snr. Const. Nally sat in the back seat of our Vauxhall and instructed me to drive to what was known as the "low bridge" over the local river, the Avoca. At the bridge's lowest point, I was instructed to turn off the engine, put on the handbrake, turn the engine back on, and do what was called a "handbrake start" up the other steep side of the bridge, without stalling and rolling back down the bridge. We then returned to the police station where I was issued with a free driver's licence without further examination or restriction. I don't recall having to do a theory test; it was simply assumed that I understood the rules of the road, such as they were. The most important thing when seeking a driving licence was to avoid terrifying the policeman whose job it was to conduct the test.

With the passage of time I have forgotten who taught me to drive. It certainly wasn't a professional driving instructor because there were none in the town, nor in many towns and cities in Australia. I think I was given basic instruction by a couple of visiting uncles. All motor vehicles back then were manual, and I remember the most difficult part of driving was learning the skill of double-declutching when having to return the engine from second to first gear. 

Driving on Australian roads at that time could be quite dangerous, even though speeds were not particularly high. There were no seat belts, no speed cameras, and no breathalysers. Drinking and driving was very common, and drivers had to be in a considerable state of intoxication and driving in a spectacularly erratic manner before finding themselves before the courts. If drivers did get booked for speeding, it was because the local copper didn't have much to do and decided to follow someone considered to be driving too fast and book them on the basis of the speedo on the policeman's own car.

I've not enjoyed driving in Australia on my many trips back there. This is chiefly because Aussie drivers can be dangerously aggressive. There is none of the politeness seen on most roads in the UK. I don't know why this is so, but I suspect that a prime reason is that the speed restrictions are often all over the place and immensely frustrating. Anyone travelling along many a main road in Melbourne, for example, will encounter ever-changing speed limits, some of them changing according to the  time of day. Most Australian drivers accept speeding fines as an significant part of their life on the roads. 

One thing I do agree with, though, is the random breath testing, which has brought about a dramatic drop in drink driving in Australia. I have been breath tested just twice in my life -- both times in Australia. On one occasion I was in a city and had just enjoyed a dinner with some friends at a pub. Fortunately, I'd had just one glass of very low alcohol beer, so I was okay. The other occasion was on a very quiet bush road at 10am. When I asked the copper why they were carrying out random tests at that time of the day on a little-used road he replied "You'd be surprised, Sir, how many drivers are over the limit at this time of the day and don't think they will be caught."

================

I did wonder if getting my driving licence was not as easy as I remembered, so I went onto the website for the town where I grew up and asked if anyone had similar experiences. There were lot of responses recounting similar stories. Here are a few:

My driving test was the same but when we got back to the station, the Sergeant gave me a Car, Motorcycle, Tractor and a small truck license......Why??? Because he’d seen me driving them all and thought I should have them. I had heard of others that got the same..... We didn’t have to do the vision test but a group of us young blokes got dragged down to the wreckers to see a bad accident with blood and bits all over the car. It made us slow down a bit. I can still remember the sight, not very nice but it worked.

I drove around for no more than 20 minutes, did a handbrake start on the sloping road up to the station, reversed out of an angle park outside State Savings Bank and read the number of the house opposite the Police Station. 1967.

The policeman was slightly intoxicated, only had civvies on, he put his police hat up the back window of the car, for good looks, a quick drive around the block, back to the police station, no questions asked and I got handed my licence. That certainly wouldn't happen today.

The day I turned 18 in 1983, Dad took me down to the cop shop in Mum’s yellow Ford Laser. After driving around the town for 5 minutes with the cop more interested in the Fleetwood Mac cassette we were playing, I had my licence. 

Remember my friend who I will not name she went for her license in an automatic car. And yes she had to do a hand break start at the low water bridge which she near reversed off the bridge. The copper at the time said you need a little more practise at that but she got her license.