Signs for Lost Children: Respectability is all in this an Untidy World… Mari Howard

Living room at my maternal grandparent’s first home…

**Last month my blog post for Authors Electric partly looked back at couple of interesting facts about my own family ancestry, including two studio photographs showing middle class women smartly dressed in the fashion of the time. In this post I want to talk about Sarah Moss’s follow-up novel, Signs for Lost Children, which continues the story of Alethea, (once ‘poor baby’), begun in Bodies of Light, the book which brought to mind for me the strange fact that the two families who would be later joined by my parents’ marriage both had connections to the Pre-Raphaelites.

One thing which has really struck me reading these novels, and was brought to the fore of all our minds in the past week or so, is that the position of male and female has not changed since Victorian times. What do I mean by this? Surely today’s woman is an independent person, capable of earning her own living in any field she chooses, spending her own money without necessary reference to any male relative?  Of course she has the vote, won by the hard campaigning of the suffragettes, and we hope should she be walking alone at night, she would not be taken for a prostitute, picked up by the police, and subjected to an ignominious,  degrading, painful (and ultimately meaningless) “virginity test”.  (The intrusive tests are considered a violation of human rights by the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations, which want to see them banned. e.g.https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-55078634)

I say we hope – this lawful abuse of women was a common occurrence at the time Signs for Lost Children is set. The streets were dangerous, made even more dangerous for a woman on her own, (for what decent woman would be out alone in the dark? it was argued). Obviously, only one who is a sex worker, seeking clients. Such was male thinking of the time, at least where the law and the police were concerned.  Does your memory resonate here with events of the past week? Is this not a hideous irony? 

In this sequel to Bodies of Light, Sarah Moss has written how her protagonist of that story, newly qualified as a medical doctor among  the very few women so qualified at the time, and also newly married, begins work in the Truro asylum. I will not spoil the story of Signs for Lost Children for you, but her conclusion, after six months working in the terrible conditions and reflecting on the treatment of the assumed mentally ill, is this: “It is not that some people’s minds are so fragile that they require the permanent protection of an institution but that some people’s homes are crazier than institutions for the mad.” * 

As anyone who has read Bodies of Light will know, Alethea – known as Ally – was raised by a kind and ineffectual father more concerned with his art than his children’s welfare, and a mother fanatically obsessed with the plight of the poor, especially of poor women. This wasn’t bad in itself, but it was carried out as an all-engaging duty, accompanied by contempt for all those who weren’t concerned. She also skimped on any comfort both for herself and for her family, denying warmth (physical and emotional), interesting  food, and more. Whether her motivation came from religion or not, her attitude towards her children and all other middle-class people amounted to hatred for soft and easy lives. Ally, already rejected as an infant due to her mother’s post-natal depression, suffered terribly from her mother’s cruelty. It is surely this which gave her adult self insight and compassion into how asylums were being used, and the (convenient?) medical assumption that all unconventional behaviour must be the result of madness. One example from the inmates whom she had to treat is of a teenage girl who constantly attempts to take her own life: clearly this poor girl had suffered rape, (possibly within her family?).  Totally traumatised, she had been committed to the asylum as mentally ill. After all, this tided life up, didn’t it?

As a professionally qualified woman herself, Ally, at a low point, thinks about public attitudes: she was, in their eyes, ‘An unnatural, undomesticated being, very probably subject to mental instability herself, , for what woman would declare herself unsatisfied by her own family life and seek to usurp the feminine role?’

It is not really the place here to continue with descriptions of the treatments –  to discuss whether the attitude comes from the practice of religion (no doubt we have often seen its misuse across the centuries and across the world). The salient point for us today is that we have been woken up to the continuing existence, hardly camouflaged by talk about equality, of institutionalised misogyny, and this is supported by some of those very women who have benefited from the chance to appear to compete and succeed in what continues to be a man’s world. Signs for Lost Children is certainly a significant book.

* apologies for no page numbers, as reading on an old Kindle

**This piece was first published on Authors Electric March 2021

Writing that Inspires

(re-blogging my November piece for Authors Electric)

Writers need to keep reading – possibly a meme – but also, wise words. What better way to learn the art of good writing than to read much, and widely, from childhood onwards? Though whether that list on an Amazon page, ‘people who bought this also bought’, (or however it’s phrased) give much guidance that the books mentioned there will also please and entertain the reader of the main book featured is much guidance, I doubt. Because inspiration is a strange thing. In answer to a question (on Facebook, some years ago) ‘Waterstones Invite Readers To Share Books That Changed Their Lives’, I have a record that I responded, ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’.

A book which inspired me, a book whose title intrigued me as a child…

I had recently consumed A Thousand Splendid Suns hungrily, page after page. Hosseini grips his reader with a powerful range of questions, emotions, attitudes, not only with page-turning plot. He lets you see a person in a certain light: then turns on another, and your view is totally different. Both are ‘true’, even though both are ‘opposite’. And the end, in a satisfying way, is actually fairy-tale in its simplicity and happiness, a final feel-good factor after all the angst. That works: the reader is left on a high, rather than ‘and that was a sad book’ or ‘well he  couldn’t decide so left it open…’ Hosseini is a master. In his next novel, And the Mountains Echoed we are shown, sympathetically, a sensitive, thoughtful Afghan-born doctor’s reaction to a wounded child in a Kabul hospital. She had been horrifically wounded in body and emotions: not by war, but by her jealous uncle’s violent attack on her family. We agree with the guy’s feelings, thoughts, and actions… at the same time, we are turned off by his cousin the wideboy’s behaviour.

Hosseini then tells the story of when the two guys returned to their homes in California. And the situation and future of the child are skilfully revealed in, at the last, a couple of sentences, maybe a short paragraph and in very telling words.

As a reader, you find yourself carrying this ending around with you, until you realise, yes: that is being human. That is how people are. Action, however crass the actor is, gets things done…Here is a writer who has his finger on the pulse of who and what we are, all of us, rattling around this world. Trying or meaning to do good. Or the opposite. Or being indifferent. Unfaithful. Caught up in a life too busy.

A Thousand Splendid Suns didn’t only grab me because it’s feminist, and written by a guy,  although the way he manages this is pretty insightful. It isn’t solely because it informs me about a culture very different to my own. Which is, it seems, always in and out of the News, having a long history of being a football kicked around by the surrounding countries and cultures, and some very far away. It’s these and more: Hosseini never ever uses clichés: whether of thought, situation, metaphor or phrase.

Also, and incidentally, when I was a small kid, there was a book in the family bookcase which had grabbed my attention by its title: *Conflict Angora to Afghanistan. For a moment, imagine a six year old: I knew what angora was, because I had a cherished angora bolero (there’s two lovely, non-English words held together by description, and belonging to two very different cultures!).  I wore this proudly birthday parties. It was the softest woolly garment imaginable.  It was angora… but what was Afghanistan? And how did that title all fit together to make sense?  And to add another couple of long-ago lurking child thoughts, I’ve always felt a kind of a pull towards the exotic, since I’ve a small, Greek-island, heritage, and a love of Oriental carpets.

But to return to the grown-up world: reading A Thousand Splendid Suns changed my life because the experience underlined my determination that it is possible to write about parts of your own, possibly obscure, culture in a way that challenges readers with the universal, every-culture, questions. And appeals, because of that, to the universal reader. It gave me faith that I don’t have to write what’s in vogue if I want to be read. Hosseini writes powerfully, insightfully, and gets inside the problems of being a human being: I am challenged to do that too.

Inspired to explore my culture

Above all, his writing skill challenged me to aim the highest I can, in whatever I write. To scatter the big questions across the page within the context of a story. To talk to the people out there, reading, about their own humanity while entertaining them with the questions, anxieties, and events through the lives these particular weird characters. That’s what the best traditional stories do, what Hosseini does, and what I try to do.

* https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/capsule-review/1931-07-01/conflict-angora-afghanistan  https://www.buddenbrooks.com/pages/books/28214/rosita-forbes/conflict-angora-to-afghanistan

Described as ‘the… adventures of a well-known traveller’, Conflict Angora to Afghanistan by Rosita Forbes (note, a woman), is a book, published 1931, which traces and comments on events sadly similar to an area of the ‘Middle Eastern’ world which continues to be troubled by war and conflict. I’ve no clear idea why we had it but there could be several reasons for the interest.

(Note: I believe he’s now gone back to practicing medicine, since he feels he has no more to say to say through fiction: now there’s something to consider. If we are ‘stuck’ or have no further burning ideas – then is it maybe time to stop, rather than to force oneself onwards, and write lesser books?)

Who’s left holding the Baby? – Class & Contraception in the 1920s

By Fiona Veitch Smith, author of The Art Fiasco and other books, (see bottom of this page for more details)

In The Art Fiasco, the fifth in my 1920s murder mysteries, Poppy Denby encounters a number of women who have varying experiences of motherhood, sexual exploitation and sexual freedom. If readers look beyond the fun, fashion and mystery they will find an exploration of how access to contraception and dealing with the consequences of conception outside (and inside) marriage, impacted upon career opportunities for working and middle class women in the early 20th Century.

For thousands of years women have inserted fruit acids, jellies, pastes and various mixtures into their vagina in an attempt to prevent conception. Environments that are either sharply acidic or alkaline are hostile to sperm and therefore these methods may have had some effect.

In 1885 the first commercial vaginal suppository using cocoa butter and quinine sulphate was developed by Walter Rendell, an English pharmacist. This was later replaced by hydroquinine, a more potent spermicide, and sponges soaked in quinine sulphate. In 1906 Friedrich Merz developed the first known commercially produced spermicidal jelly, called Patentex. Female barrier methods became from the 1880s with the diaphragm and later the Dutch cap coming onto the market, and later in the early 1900s, female condoms became available. The male condom, in its various forms, had been around for millenia, but for the first time contraceptive choice was given to the female partner, leading, in no small way, to the increased emancipation of women by allowing them to control their own fertility.

So, who were the women using contraception in the 1910s and 20s, and where did they obtain it? Well, as they could only be purchased from certain pharmacies or prescribed at private clinics, they were primarily available to the middle and upper class. Free sexual health services were still a thing of the future. In The Cairo Brief,Poppy notes that her sexually free friend Delilah Marconi might very well have ended up at the home for unwed mothers that they visit in the course of their investigation, if it hadn’t have been for her contraceptive know-how and wealth. Of course, the barrier method still sometimes failed, but even then women with more wealth were able to make arrangements to travel away out of public view to disguise their pregnancy. Assuming they did not have an abortion. That was an option, with varying degrees of safety, illegally available to both middle-class and working-class women. But the more an abortionist could be paid, the better the chance of survival.

Issues of childcare were also class dependent. In the 1920s, career opportunities were opening for women, but many of them – even if they were educated well enough to qualify – were unable to pursue these paths due to childcare constraints. Who was going to look after the baby? Wealthier women could afford nannies. In The Cairo Brief we see a miner’s wife worrying how she is going to look after yet another baby. And then we see Yasmin Reece-Lansdale, a wealthy barrister (now married to Poppy’s editor Rollo), blithely managing to have twins and return to work.

The law, too, was also a barrier to career advancement with The Marriage Bar in place in certain professions, such as teaching, that legally required women to resign if they were to get married.

Societal convention, religious belief, social and domestic conservatism, unequal educational opportunities, male opposition and political legislation all had a role to play in limiting women’s career advancement, but access to contraception was pivotally important. The 1920s saw a rise in demands for better access to birth control and the first free clinics were opened by Marie Stopes. Stopes is more usually remembered as a provider of safe abortion (and her eugenicist views) but her main thrust at the beginning of her career was the provision of contraception to married women. In the next book in the series, as Poppy is contemplating the possibility of marriage and what it might mean to her career, these issues become vitally important. But that’s another story…

Fiona Veitch Smith is the author of the Poppy Denby Investigates novels, Golden Age-style murder mysteries set in the 1920s (Lion Fiction). The first book, The Jazz Files, was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger, while subsequent books have been shortlisted for the Foreword Review Mystery Novel of the Year and the People’s Book Prize. Book 5, The Art Fiasco, is out now. www.poppydenby.com

Being authentic, Writing about Christmas …

It’s snowing … when it snows here in the UK, we all get very excited … all morning, couples, groups, and families passed our front windows, hurrying towards the nearest green space (it’s fairly near), big smiles on their faces, and pom-pom hats on their heads … It’s kind of sweet and funny … All too soon the snow will melt into a brown slush, the slush will freeze to treacherous ice … but until then, it’s winter wonderland, all set for Christmas.P1060646.JPG

In my novel, The Labyrinth Year, I wrote two Christmas scenes: a magical carol service, and an up-beat celebration in a church, where the Vicar wore reindeer antlers … At the end of the service, as they leave,  Max, (the Dad) remarks how the congregation’s emotions were played on by the music … Although Mum Jenny accuses him of cynicism, he has a point …Christmas, St Margaret's

Christmas is a difficult time …A couple of weeks back, a Facebook friend and fellow writer posted that she ‘loathes’ Christmas … and she’s right, though loathing is a pretty strong word, it’s good to make us face up to this: Christmas is an utterly problematic time. I mean, it’s silly: in the middle of a dark, cold, depressing, season, everyone is required to shop till they drop, give and attend parties, perform plays, sing carols, travel across country (maybe continents) to be with family members, to send cards, give presents, be happy, and generally expend extra energy. And catch each other’s seasonal illnesses. Street decorations vie with one another for splendiferousness, and multiple decorated trees appear in the stores and on the pavements. Those vast tins of mixed biscuits appear in the supermarkets …IMG_2354

I want to cover my ears and my eyes: I want to escape …

Do you love it all? Or do you feel it makes a mockery of the (various) religious, and even secular, bases for this, by being a time of spend spend spend when people can run up debts, and when the really desperately poor and the homeless are thoughtlessly given the message that they are left out of all this ‘by circumstances’. It’s really (possibly unintentionally?) hammered home. Even if there is a tad more shelter, and with a Christmas lunch at Crisis, it’s not … well … it’s just not.

We are planning a very plain Christmas with moderate ‘feasting’, trying to be happy and friendly without the BIG stuff which obscures the bottom line reason why Christmas is there. Why indeed is it? In a secular society, the reasoning behind the gift-giving has lost its edge, the causes for celebration obscured. Not that we shouldn’t give and celebrate – but, let’s be honest, it’s come adrift from the story in those carols, hasn’t it?Crib scene knitted

Did you know that the ‘old fashioned Christmas’ was not a big festival as it is today? In Samuel Pepys’ day, 25 December wasn’t a public holiday. And even not so long ago, people (for example my grandfather) worked up to the end of Christmas Eve, or even worked a half day on Christmas Day itself. Families didn’t necessarily give big presents and a Tree wasn’t assumed to be bought every year.  A mid-winter festival is a chance for fun, but I truly believe this is not necessarily a time for every school to produce a play, and a carol concert, or for evangelising the population, or  to entice people into church with carols, candles, and mince pies… or for getting into debtP1120758

I remain a believer in the Christ who taught compassion, healing, wholeness, inclusiveness, justice for the poor, etc. – and if he was really born into poverty and greeted by angels and shepherds, that is wonderful. But, I feel a lot of empathy with everyone who ‘loathes’ what Christmas has become, and with those who look around and take offence at its public face … This is not a ‘Christian country’ (could such a country ever exist?  Faith isn’t about political boundaries – and if it’s about family, and friends, it’s about caring and sharing.xmas choc cake

Whether or not you attend the Carols by Candlelight, the Panto, the parties, the Midnight Mass, and watch the Queen’s Speech … whether or not you eat turkey and drink Prosecco, wearing a funny hat … whether or not it snows…

To read about Christmas, New Year, and a whole 1996-7 family experience, go to our website to find more about The Labyrinth Year … and the prequel, Baby, BabyBB & TLY covers photo

 

T is for Triggered

Poem, by my friend Vivienne, who rather than ranting, paints a delicate picture of the future …

Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking

Triggered

I’d expected the land to be silent,

For willows to weep and doves to mourn.

Yet larks sang, rising over acres

Of emerald green winter wheat

And bare fields sown with a million flints

Shattered by behemoth harrow and plough.

I’d expected rain, at the very least;

Tempestuous clouds letting rip

With a deluge to drown us all.

Yet the sky is merely grey and dull,

The usual March dampness to the air,

And the temperature hovering at mild.

I’d expected signs and portents

Speaking of grim days to come,

Harbingers of doom,warning us.

But only a confused owl hooted in a copse,

Awoken by smaller birds, squabbling,

Fighting for territory and for mates.

I’d expected the little river to be

Cloudy with mud and debris

From passing storms upstream,

Yet it flowed clear and fresh,

And I found myself expecting the kingfisher,

Sticklebacks and the elusive dipper.

When…

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The Post-Truth Era

After my twopence worth on living in dark times, here’s further take on the ‘post-truth’ era by my Facebook friend and ALLI fellow-member, Dr Carol Cooper …

Pills & Pillow-Talk

Everyone’s saying it, so it must be true. We live in a post-truth era, in which unsubstantiated statements are swallowed whole. The less palatable they are, the more easily they slip down.

Post-truth was made word of the year – the Oxford Dictionaries’ International Word of the Year, no less. Post-truth is of course instead of truth, not after it as in, say, post mortem or post-Apocalyptic.

As you see, even the term post-truth is lying through its teeth. But what does it matter?

old-books1Post-truth got some massive boosts this year with Brexit and the US Presidential Election. While Michael Gove didn’t actually start it, he did famously say that people in this country had “had enough of experts”.

Experts are now superfluous and fact-checkers obsolete. These days momentous decisions are made without anyone bothering with evidence.

That doesn’t just make me worried. It makes me deeply suspicious not just…

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What I Learned About Television Broadcasting from My Interview on That’s Oxfordshire TV

leo 2 days old   With thanks to Debbie, whose lovely blogpost says it all! The excuse: we’ve just become grandparents to the gorgeous Leo and our time is being stolen … hopefully not for too long though, I have a book to write … Includes video of our interview …

Debbie Young's Writing Life

Photo of Mari Howard reading before an audience My author friend Mari Howard reading her poetry at the first Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival last year
Picture by Clint Randall http://www.pixelprphotography.co.uk

A post about my recent appearance on That’s Oxfordshire TV

Just before I went away for my summer holidays, I had the pleasure of taking part in a television chat show for a local cable TV station That’s Oxfordshire, thanks to the kind invitation of my author friend Clare Weiner, who writes as Mari Howard.

I’ve known Clare/Mari for several years, we read and enjoy each other’s books, and she’s been a staunch supporter of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, where she’s spoken on panels and read from her novels and her poetry. We were therefore able to talk on the same wavelength (if you’ll excuse the broadcasting pun) when interviewed by presenter Eve Ahmed.

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I Swear I Didn’t Mean It… (with a Free New Short Story!)

Another blog post from my ALLi friend Debbie – I couldn’t put it better myself, so here’s  her thoughtful post on swearing in the fiction we write … which was a hot topic discussed at the Scargill writers’ weekend in June …

Debbie Young's Writing Life

A quick post to share the article I’ve just written for the ALLi Author Advice Centre on the use of bad language in fiction

Photo of Debbie reading in the Quaker Meeting House Already committed… (Thanks to fellow author Jacci Gooding for the photo)

Do you give a damn whether there is swearing in the stories you read?

Personally, I’m not keen on hearing the same bad language over and over again supposedly for the sake of realism, whether on television, in films or in books, and I don’t use it much either.

In fact, I’d always thought the language in my own fiction was pretty blameless. That is, until I started reading a new story, as yet unpublished, in the Quaker Meeting House as part of the Evesham Festival of Words last month. Eager to give a brand new, unpublished story, Drunk in Charge, an airing and get some feedback, I hadn’t really thought through the implications…

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Crime and Punishment in Life and Lit: as featured in The Archers

Happy Families: who sees?
Happy Families: who sees?

Excuse me, if you don’t live in the UK, for talking about a British soap opera, one which probably won’t appear, like Downton, on your TV screens.
I’ve always used The Archers as nice quiet lunch break entertainment.

But for the past 2 years it’s become instead a nail biting tension-raiser.  I’m not about to rant about that. I’m thinking about how we writers draw in our readers.

If you read crime novels, why do you love them? 

Most people seem to enjoy crime fiction for what offers in terms of ‘who (and how) dunnit?’ The crafty patterning. The pleasure of trying to beat the author in uncovering the answers to the detective’s questions. The skill in writing crime is similar to the skill of composing/solving a crossword puzzle. A classic crime story usually doesn’t spend time on deeply developing the characters, since the pleasure of reading, and the essence of page-turning, isn’t primarily rooted in, well, rooting for them. Though of course it can, if there is an element of  adventure, or if rather than focusing on the solving the crime the story involves ‘woman’ (or child, or even man) ‘in jeopardy’.

So what’s interesting and why?

 Here we have a quiet, jogging-along sort of serial story. The Archers suddenly builds up and pursues a storyline where there is a vile villain, a woman jeopardy, and a very real social situation.  Contrast readers’/hearers’ emotional involvement with typical crime stories and this tale’s use of already-developed, well-known characters.

Maybe you (follower or casual reader of the blog) don’t listen to The Archers. Or maybe you do. Maybe you liked Helen, Henry, and Helen’s parents and other relatives already. Or maybe you found Helen boring and slightly neurotic, and Henry a sickeningly drippy kid: the received wisdom has tended towards ‘the awful Henry’. Whichever, we who listen have been taken through the stages of domestic abuse over time with these characters, and far from standing back and studying the patterning of the storyline, we’ve been sucked right in. I found myself caring about Helen as if she was a friend. Willing her to wake up and smell the coffee – or rather, taste the the deception, savour the distastefulness, and perceive the whole false flattery and fantasy that horrible Rob has been throwing over her from the very start of his wooing.

The reader/listener as helpless friend

Why the hell, we think, didn’t she realise what marital rape was? Face up to that sex on the sofa which wasn’t romance, it was a deliberate attack. To ‘get her pregnant’. How can she not hate and long to be rid of the foetus she realises was planted by that act of rape? What makes her willingly/unwillingly submissive? Can she be feeling anything but fear of this man in her life, her house, her bed?

Evidently, yes. She does. Why else did she swear her brother and her friend to secrecy: and so land herself with no witnesses to the true awfulness of her life?

And why do we care – she’s only a voice on the radio, an actress in a studio, expertly using a script.

Writing and acting to a high standard – even though it’s a soap

But, we do care. Or we can. I have. Could feel my  heart beating, my blood pressure rising, as I listened this past few weeks. When Rob derided her. When he lured Henry increasingly into his foul net of lies and promises and deceits. When he separated Helen from her family and brought in his mother as replacement. And finally, when he mocked and derided her and bawled at Henry, after handing Helen a weapon to do the deed (did he hope she would wound him, and thus prove herself psychotic?). What were his plans for poor Henry, long term?

Helen, predictably, protectively, snapped and hit back when he began to abuse her child, and now she’s been arrested. I am caught. I care as if she were real. I am also horrified that a woman so abused and traumatised is being put through arrest and interrogation by the police. Does she deserve punishment? Doesn’t he?

Because I know this is being written as true to life as possible?

Not only that. 

Because I know what they don’t know: the  background to everything. I was there. They were not. I was a fly on the wall throughout.

A practical lesson in writing

 The characters have been carefully built up so we care. Each scene of Helen’s torture by Rob has been carefully crafted. Each declaration of his ‘love and caring’ with expensive presents. Each odd occurrence, for example that secret wedding replacing Helen’s plans. The time frame has been real, and the situations well researched.

The impact of  characterisation well done grips the listener/reader. As I wrote before, writing a series involves getting to really know your characters … and their developing over time…

May Love You to the Moon (the work in progress) grip like this!

It is also a warning

This is the face of ‘non-violent’ domestic abuse. The stuff of taunting, and control. It is also (to my mind) the reason why the whole idea of women’s being expected to be ‘submissive’ in a relationship is, and has always been, so wrong. The reason why ‘obey’ is now so rightly out of the Church of England marriage service, and hopefully all marriage ceremonies. In my opinion, anyway. Control has no place in intimate relationships.

P1120634
Happy Families: who sees?

AUTHOR EVENT:

Celebrate books and reading:

It will soon be time for the second  Hawkesbury LitFest … Saturday 23rd April, all dayat Hawkesbury Upton … author readings,talks, poetry, children’s activities … in a Cotswold Village setting