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the waggon

to be published
march 2020
by scott martin productions

Scott Martin Productions director and author, Lesley Atherton, has now completed her second full length novel, 'The Waggon', under the author name of Meredith Schumann.

Publication date: March 2020.

The book is the result of many years of research, mind changes and plot convolutions, of map studying and route-planning.

Like 'Past Present Tense' (a story of lost family and hoarding) 'The Waggon' is also a tale of relationships, of grief and of obligation, duty and conflict.

Charlott Rogan's 'The Lifeboat'

And how it ties into 'The Waggon'

​​Reviews of ‘The Lifeboat’ have indicated that it offers personal insights and rich characterisation, and that it is ‘unputdownable’. I hoped this was true.

I desperately wanted to love this book as the setting was potentially fascinating (the majority of the book is set in a lifeboat following the disastrous failing of a ship on its way to New York.  The lifeboat drifts, at first one of many, then later, apparently alone.

In Retrospect

 

​The vast majority of the book is written retrospectively by the main character, Grace. Following her rescue, Grace and another two lifeboat survivors (both women) are put into prison awaiting trial for their role in the murder of Mr Hardie, an experienced seaman. Initially he’d kept the 30-strong lifeboat going, but his instability predicated his eventual downfall. Not enough was made of his drifting into the realms of the unreliably insane – and the rebellion of his fellow lifeboaters came too quickly and as somewhat of a shock.

 

​Worse, in terms of the story itself, Grace relates events in a retrospective journal and does so solely for the purposes of justifying her actions. Inevitably, the reader then experiences nothing beyond the ‘facts’.

Detail

 

​I’d been excited to read ‘the Lifeboat’ but Grace’s journal seemed to just plod along relating largely pointless details of lifeboat life, but never once getting properly inside the survivors’ heads. The journal was as cold as a court transcript, and as dry as a ship’s log. Perhaps intentionally.

The book enlivened a little only after the scantily described rescue had taken place and when three women were incarcerated awaiting trial - all accused of being responsible for the death of Mr Hardie, a ship’s employee. Such trials did take please in the nineteenth century, yet this fictional account seems unbelievable. Contrived, even. As did manipulative Grace’s final resolution.

Success or Failure

 

​Had this book been less about the day to day and more about the mental grief, it would have succeeded. But, for me, it failed as the characters weren’t up to the challenge.

Claustrophobic Situations

 

​​The writing of complex and strong characters has always been a priority in my own writing. Take my novel, ‘The Waggon’ (due October 1st 2019). Conceptually, the book began as a travelogue using real places and taking the reader on a day by day journey. But as I wrote further, and as I came face to face with the reality of life in a confined space, I knew that the most important element of the book was this:

To focus on the relationships between the two strong characters who were forced to travel together within a gypsy waggon, to learn more about them and to draw the reader in to their lives.

Had ‘The Lifeboat’ done this, I would have been unable to put it down. Sadly, it sunk.

 

#lesleyfridayreads

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"This fictional account seems unbelievable. Contrived, even. As did manipulative Grace’s final resolution."

A Chinwag and a Brew

A Research Based Chat with Roger Tyrer About His Life on the Road

A few years back, when Scott Martin Productions was a mere concept in the recesses of my mind, I was nevertheless determined to write, and I suddenly came up with one BIG IDEA – the one behind ‘The Waggon’.

Like all conscientious writers, I always try to do my research, and this led me to arrange a meeting with my (then) work colleague, Roger Tyrer. I was already aware of Roger’s history of travels in a gypsy caravan, and was keen to get his take on my ideas for the story, and was also keen to hear how he’d cared for his horse, and get some anecdotes from along the way.

We met up at Rivington Village’s Tea Room, just behind Rivington Unitarian Chapel, for a fascinating conversation that lasted a couple of hours, and which utilized more than a couple of brews and snacks. I thank Roger heartily for his insights and assistance and am delighted that he has given his permission for me to share parts of his interview on here.

 

Cheers Roger – your assistance was invaluable.

Listen to Roger - absolutely fascinating and illuminating.

 

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'Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind' - Rudyard Kipling

A Potted Writer's Life

Brief Author Biography

Lesley Atherton has written for most of her life and was first published in the 1990s when she co-managed a publishing company. In late 2018 she established Scott Martin Productions, a small press publisher, and has produced 28 titles, including ‘Past Present Tense’, her stunning novel about families and hoarding.

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'Freedom is nothing else but a chance to be better' - Albert Camus

True Stories of the Scottish Travellers

Review of 'Moving Minds: Gypsy/Travellers in Scotland'

I picked up 'Moving Minds: Gypsy/Travellers in Scotland' (edited by Michelle Lloyd and Peter E Ross) at the Auchindrain township – a still-standing village dating from before the Highland Clearances. One of the staff members at this popular tourist place had created a gypsy tent in the Auchindrain village’s grounds, which we noticed from the main road. I was in the early stages of researching my book, ‘The Waggon’ and my original intention had been that my character Reuben be a Scot from this part of the world. So, the township was of great interest, as was this book which combines details of both the geographical area and the traveller/gypsy lifestyle.

 

'Moving Minds' is a ‘struggle for humanity’ within ‘Scotland’s Gypsy and Traveller population and captures particular moments in time that clearly matter’. These moments aren't condensed or paraphrased - they come directly from the mouths of a cross section of travellers, and there are some wonderful insights into everyday life:

“In those days it was gate tents, the square ones. We lay on a straw bed. So we put straw in the back and the boys lay on the back bed, in the middle the lassies and then your mum and da lay in the front bed. Then there was a barricade at the front with the fire and the kettle. When you went to bed at night our father just lay and told you stories.”

 

The book covers many positives - the travellers’ love of Crown Derby china, the sense of community and belonging, family treasures, summer travel, photos, jewellery, respect for the elderly, ambition, large families, war contribution, communications, peg baskets and gypsy pinnies (aprons).

 

But the book also focuses a lot on the less positive issues – the struggles to find and keep work when your address is a ‘pitch’ rather than a house, multiple attacks, mental health issues, permanent camps, jail, abusive language, the suffocation of living in a house, disability and health issues, depression, money problems, and the need for education.

 

Within all this there are some lovely and personal moments. For example, the following is from a poem by Lizzie Johnstone about living in a house: “The downside is / Not showing my true feelings. / Not traveling the roads / With my friends and family / Or just staying outside / Below the stars at night. / It’s a shame I need to lie / And cover up who I am / Just so I can get / A peaceful life, equal rights / Like the country people around me.” This is just one example of the tales that are told – they are less about the old life of finding food, generating income, and hawking, and instead have a very contemporary Scottish feel incorporating an ingrained respect for tradition: “This is my mammy’s frying pan, it’s forty-two-years-old, forty-two years and frying the bacon still… All the money in the lottery couldn’t buy it” – Isa.

 

This is not a book of in depth analysis. It is neither a political statement nor a sociological study. It is, instead, a matter of fact, prosaic reflection of how many in the travelling community feel, their recollections, and their recall of what matters to them, including their art. Shamus McPhee says: “When I do my art, no-one can control me. They can’t alter it in any way… I’m beyond political control, that’s where I’m taking back power”, and this is one of the many things I took from the book. I’m not sure I’ll use much of it within my own writing, but what I have done is gained a better understanding and insight of the Scottish travelling community, and for that I am grateful.

'There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots; the other, wings' - Hodding Carter

Tales from Firesides Generations Past

Review of Duncan Williamson's 'Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children'

'Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children' is a wonderful book.

This book’s author, Duncan Williamson, was the seventh of sixteen children born to traveller parents. The family travelled in the summer holidays but remained still in the winter months to ensure the children were schooled. Every winter they’d built a barrikit (a twelve-foot-high structure crafted from saplings bent and covered with canvas and grounded with rocks) in the oak wood of the Duke of Argyll’s estate. Many years later, Duncan and his second wife recorded and transcribed these stories from his childhood.

The pre-story parts of the book – the preface and introduction – tell of how children from the author’s generation lived. Each would have work to do from the age of five, perhaps thinning turnips or hawking (“if you didn’t hawk, you didn’t eat”) or even collecting dry grass for the tent floor. Boys would also be taught poaching, basket making and tin-smithing. But, even with all this work, there was still plenty of time left for storytelling. The stories in ‘Fireside Tales’ reflect the life Duncan’s family might have led till after the Second World War and the introduction of modern caravans.

Clearly in the traveller culture, storytelling has always been of great importance. It’s all about love, belonging and learning about the world. You’d learn about the glory of independence, you’d learn about how people ticked, and little ones would even be told animal stories to help them sleep. Hearing the storytelling of elders would increase respect and bonding and would set the children up for passing the stories on to their own children, extending the glorious oral tradition. In such a way, stories would last a lifetime. I found it particularly touching that Daddy would tell stories to each child at night, beginning with the youngest who would then be put to bed at the furthest end of the barrikit.

There’s weirdness as well as wonder – like when Hedgehurst peels off his skin to turn into a handsome young man - but it’s all good and adds to the pleasure of the stories. We see the good person beneath the rough exterior, and also gather hints of how the traveller is imprisoned in various ways (the latter is a regular theme embedded within many of these tales).

There are other pervasive themes too: the mingling of social groups, the making of deals, the helping of people, and respect for a tinker’s skills with tin and leather. Contrasts abound too: between the rich and the poor mainly; and there’s much mention of poverty, hunger and making use of things other people don’t want. Both young and old are painted in a positive light, as strong, independent, resourceful and respectful. Even Death is treated with respect. When he smells an old woodcutter’s soup, he asks: “Is there enough for two?” and is offered fresh soup with bread to accompany.

The book’s wonderfully poetic prose describes everyday life intricately and engagingly.  Its complex and convoluted stories are conversation-rich, and the book even comes complete with a short glossary of “Traveller Cant and Scots Words” - many of the words reminded me of my Aberdonian mum, adding to the affection I feel for ‘Fireside Tales’.

I loved ‘Fireside Tales’. My book, ‘The Waggon’ will, I hope, do justice to this long and strong storytelling tradition.

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'The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them' - Mark Twain

Why I Wrote 'The Waggon'

The Story of an Overly Idealistic Life

My route to the creation of 'The Waggon' has been almost as convoluted as the journey my two main characters are forced to take. It is also a story that draws on many of my own life experiences.

This is something that 'The Waggon' shares with a great many other novels (especially debuts). When we write what we know, it is inevitable that personal events and recollections will influence the text. 'The Waggon' is no exception. Though it doesn’t tell a story directly taken from my own experience, many elements of my own life have been used. Old diaries and exercise books of notes have provided valuable and timely research material.

The protagonists of this book are Ellen and Blue, a mother and daughter who find themselves travelling in a gypsy caravan. Ellen’s husband and Blue’s dad was Reuben who has recently died from cancer, but his long illness allowed him the opportunity to prepare his family for his departure. His will requests that his two loved ones take time off school and work to travel in the ‘waggon’ he painstakingly restored, to locations which meant something to him. He also requests that they sprinkle his ashes at various locations along the route, and that they follow the instructions he provided them for him via a hand-drawn map and a detailed location and action plan.

Having lived somewhat of an alternative lifestyle, I loved writing some of the scenes in which I recollected my own life and experiences in camps and around campfires. Struggling to cook edible food using minimal cooking utensils, an irregular heat source and scraped-together ingredients, was a strong element of my personal experience. I have also drawn on my own experiences when I wrote about the desperation to return to a normal house with a normal, warm bed.

I remember these experiences vividly and hope I’ve managed to relate them well within 'The Waggon', just as I related my late-adolescent starvation on peace camps and within the protest community in my first full-length novel, Past Present Tense.

'The Waggon'’s plot development also owed much to a shorter story I wrote about a woman and her child on holiday in a gypsy waggon who were attacked by a strange goblin-like creature. They then travelled to a friend’s house where they recovered, and the young family soon found themselves in an underworld situated beneath the roots of a large tree. I believed that the mother and child relationship worked well, as did the waggon, but decided to work on developing them in another direction from the magic realism format I had originally conceived. The mother and child relationship remain the same, as do the character names, but Ellen’s attacker is no longer a goblin, but a gang of young thugs they encounter on a remote lane.

Blue is a 14-year-old girl who is forced to undertake the waggon journey, and who initially rebels. She is also unexpectedly and newly pregnant with the baby of a very unpleasant boyfriend. The fact that I am a parent of a 14-year-old daughter, who is very similar in feistiness to Blue, does help when it comes to research, as I do get a strong feeling of the conflict that can arise, for example, through very well-meaning parental comments.

Once I had planned the story’s arc, it was time for extensive research. I read many titles about gypsy lore, Scottish and Lancashire travelers, and the natural folk remedies that gypsies might have picked up from the roadsides in the old days. However, I soon realised that I did not want to write the story of travelers who had been born to it (though I loved Rumer Godden’s 'The Diddakoi 'as a child) or about people who were simply making a journey from A to B. I didn’t even want to write about ex-travelers reliving their previous lifestyle. I wanted my characters to be dragged, protesting and resentful, into the whole experience, and to suffer conflict, difficulty and hardship along the way.

Another part of my research came about via a long conversation with Roger Tyrer, an ex-work colleague. He had spent a very long period of his life (thirteen years) living in a horse-drawn gypsy caravan, much like the one I envisaged in my book’s early stages. I picked up a great deal from this interview, particularly regarding the frustrating details of everyday life, the interior of the caravan and the horse-care routine. In the completed script I have glossed over much of the detail that Roger provided, but it’s there in the background, I hope, giving the story more unseen depth.

As the work progressed and developed, Blue and Ellen remained much the same as I’d first intended, but the character of Reuben underwent enormous changes. Initially, he was intended to be a vindictive man who sent his wife and daughter on an unwanted trip as a method of beyond-the-grave narcissistic control. Reuben had planned that shocks would be revealed gradually, including him being massively in debt and having many other sordid secrets that would arrive with Ellen through his confession letters. This would mean that Ellen would end the journey as an emotional wreck knowing that her marriage had been a sham.

 

My finished work does not portray Reuben as the ‘bad guy’ in this way. He was no saint but was a good man who cared about his family, just as Ellen is an ordinary woman who is full of ups and downs. The Reuben I wrote is a decent man who intends his wife and child to grown and learn through their own grief and believes that her recovery will be assisted by the change of scene and a different set of everyday challenges.

However, he also doesn’t want her to feel too lost and disconnected from their old life. To accomplish this, he has left letters and gifts in various locations along the route. From the very first day of the waggon travels, when Ellen picks up a letter and chocolate confirming Reuben’s love for the pair of them, the reader is offered glimpses into the life and the good marriage they once had.

'Today I felt pass over me, A breath of wind from the wings of madness' - Charles Baudelaire

My Favourite Childhood Book

Rumer Godden's 'The Diddakoi'

​Rumer Godden's 'The Diddakoi' was made into a children's TV series when I was a little girl, and I couldn't tear myself away. Part of me is desperate to see it again, and I know that if the BBC were to bring it out on DVD, I'd purchase it. But there's also a huge part of me that's apprehensive. Nothing can ever be as romantic and influential as it was the first time round.  I hope I can be excused from quoting a section of the book in detail, as it was this section that made me fall in love with the idea of the painted gypsy caravan, and that led me to write 'The Waggon'.

 

This section comes from near the end of the book where Kizzy, the little Diddakoi girl, discovers her astonishing surprise. This is a must-read book for anyone, young or old, who has even the tiniest amount of idealism in their hearts. Please read it. :-)

Over the fire was a kittle iron, not big and heavy like Gran's, but "small enough for me,' and from it hung a stout doll-size kettle from which a plume of steam was coming out; when she saw the steam Kizzy's knees went weak with wonder. The shelter had become half-size, with a half-size bench, a smaller box, and, drawn up to the fire, was a wagon, a true real wagon, exactly like Gran's, "only hers was so shabby". This was new and painted blue and green wit ha carved and gilded front, its wheels hooped with iron; its bottom half-door was shut, the top hald open, a flight of steps led up to it, all the right size for Kizzy, a child's wagon; no grown up could come into it...

There were crisp muslin curtains at the windows and window boxes with earth in them. "They are planted with bulbs - miniature bulbs," said Miss  Brooke... A line of washing was stretched between two apple trees, "like ours used to do," hung with Kizzy's jeans and socks and a small apron held by doll clothes pegs...

 

Inside the wagon a light was burning and, going up the steps, Kizzy could see a lamp with a pink shade just like Gran's, only the lamp was six inches high.... There were china ornaments and a doll vase of the plastic flowers Kizzy thought so beautiful. A twig broom stood in the corner. "We didn't need a dustpan"...

The waggon in the firelight threw its shadow on the grass - a child-size shadow; the lamplight shone through the windows in the dusk. Kizzy gave a long sigh, a sigh of happiness. "It's mine."

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'Have the courage to live. Anyone can die' - Robert Cody

What the Book's About

The Cover Blurb

How would you cope if your husband died, leaving you as the single parent of an unruly and pregnant teenager? You could give up and lose yourself in drink - or could choose to follow your loved-one’s instructions to sprinkle his ashes during an extended gypsy waggon trip.

Ellen makes the latter choice, so she and daughter, Blue, travel to preplanned locations, dealing with conflict, confusion, difficulty and danger along the route.

And by the end of the journey two different souls will have emerged: having discovered much about themselves, and hopefully being on the way to healing their grief.

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'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation' - Henry David Thoreau

Teasing Taster

The Prologue from 'The Waggon'

‘Survival and wonderment,’ Reuben said. ‘They’re what really count.’

I nodded, blankly, shifting away from him a little on the sofa, but only because I was trying to read The Radio Times again. I purchased it only once a year for the Christmas and New Year programming, and was always determined to get my money’s worth. I sighed. It was only the 29th December - surely they shouldn’t have run out of good telly just yet?

 

I reached for another coconut Quality Street and washed its cloying sweetness down with hot coffee.

Reuben shook my shoulder and gestured towards our daughter.

 

‘That’s why Daddy’s got Blue a present!’ he said.

 

‘Another present!’

 

Blue, who was on the floor, forward-rolling and attempting experimental dance positions, shrieked like the giddy eleven-year-old she was, her floppy fringe covering in her eyes. She looked like a begging, panting Afghan Hound puppy: though admittedly a puppy whose Christmas so far had alternated between clumsy indoor gymnastics and playing on her new ukulele. She picked the uke up and span around with it. Expressive gymnastic dance with ukulele – it could be a new creative genre.

 

‘Where’s the present?’ she demanded.

 

‘Patience, Blue. Mummy’s got a present too, haven’t you, Ellen?’

 

I looked up blankly from the magazine. Reuben grinned inanely and wiped his hands on his old Levis, then struggled up from his warm position on the sofa, grumbling as he went.

 

His hair, blonde and floppy like Blue’s.

 

His Christmas t-shirt: a unicorn with Santa on its back.

 

His gait, slow and stilted.

 

For a man not yet in his fifties, generally physically fit and totally gorgeous, he seemed sluggish.

 

‘You’re not looking yourself today,’ I said. ‘You OK?’

 

‘Christmas bug. Crippling me, but I’ll brave it.’

 

‘My dad’s walking like an old woman,’ Blue shrieked again as Reuben dug around behind the furniture, proudly removing a large carrier bag.

 

He sat down again with a huge sigh and dramatically laid the carrier on his knee.

 

‘Come on then… Come and see,’ he said.

 

He pulled out a scruffily wrapped gift from the carrier bag and handed it to her, with a grimace.

 

Blue put it back down on her dad’s knee, changed the television channel and went back to strumming her metallic blue ukulele. The familiar strains of Coronation Street wafted from the television’s speakers. I looked back at Reuben and shrugged.

 

‘You never know what treasures may lie within,’ he said, nudging me and handing me a gift that had obviously been professionally gift-wrapped.

 

I humoured him and opened the small but heavy parcel, as I always did, with oohs and aahs.

 

‘Specially for mummy,’ he said, and smiled at me. It was a tin cup, covered in enamel and more colourfully painted in primary colours than I could ever have imagined. Flowers – especially bluebells and sunflowers and snowdrops. I hadn’t the heart to tell him they would never be seen blooming at the same time.

 

‘Reuben, I don’t understand.’

 

‘You’ll see,’ he said.

 

Blue was upside down again. Her hair trailed on the floor and, as she counted to ten before returning her feet to the carpet, Reuben cleared his throat and encouraged our daughter to open her own parcel. The design on Blue’s gift was different, but the gift was the same. An enamel mug.

 

Both of us looked quizzically at him.

 

‘They’re for the gypsy caravan.’

 

‘What gypsy caravan?’ Blue asked.

 

‘What gypsy caravan?’ I asked.

 

‘The one we’ll have some day.’

 

I shook my head at the prospect, then watched as my normally indestructible husband fell to the floor, clutching his abdomen, banging his head on the coffee table. 

 

‘Reuben, Reuben!’ I yelled dashing over to pick him up.

 

His face was crumpled with pain: yellow traced with trickles of blood. Like a scoop of raspberry ripple. 

 

‘Bring me the phone, Blue,’ I shouted as my little girl righted herself from a headstand and stared at her dad. ‘We need to ring for an ambulance.’

 

Mugs forgotten.

 

Survival and wonderment, they’re what really count.

 

That’s what Reuben had said three years ago.

 

He fought so hard.

 

But I’m not sure I’ll ever feel the wonderment.

 

And Reuben definitely hadn’t counted on not surviving.

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'Between grief and nothing I will take grief' - William Faulknener

writers with gypsy/traveller roots