Inherited Health: The Patterns in Families

A young woman working at the CEAG Factory in Barnsley, 1938

“...she kept her eyes on the rack in front of her, filled with spikes and live filaments on which she tested each bulb. The good ones she put in their individual hole in the tray on her left, the duds in a basket by her right knee. It was clean work, the factory was quiet enough to hear the wireless, and it paid better than the Tin Can Works.

The opening scene in my novel The Peacemaker is based on this still from a short film which I found in the Yorkshire Film Archive. It is a glass factory – the CEAG Factory in Barnsley, South Yorkshire – famous for making miners’ lamps and light bulbs. My book is fiction, but based on fact. The main character, Violet Lowther, is based on my mother aged 18. She never worked at CEAG, but she worked in other factories and I grew up knowing people who worked there.

Our lives are made up of stories, and they blend fact and fiction. Just before I was 18, things changed for me in a way which has affected the whole of my life – I had my first experience of depression. One summer day I walked to school as usual, but I felt very sad. I sat in the sixth form common room feeling as if I were in some kind of bubble, set apart from everybody else. And then somebody spoke to me. I couldn’t answer; I burst into tears and ran off to hide in the cloakroom.

In the month that I needed to recover enough to go back to school, my mother cared for me in a state of bewilderment – at a loss to understand why I had gone from being a happy teenager to a distraught young woman. She seemed puzzled but she never criticized me or tried to get me to shake off my mood. She took me seriously, got me treated by a doctor and with her help I came through that episode.

Most people who know me think of me as positive, an extrovert. I laugh a lot and generally come across as a jolly type. But I have been treated for depression about twelve times in my life, always with medication, occasionally with counselling. The story I present to the world is a happy one, but I sometimes mask a deep sadness inside.

I have seen this pattern occur in my family, and in researching deceased relatives as background to The Peacemaker, I could see that many of us have shared an experience of mental ill health which we have managed in different ways, sometimes by medicating ourselves, often with alcohol.

What is difficult to see is cause and effect. Is our experience of mental health an inherited trait? Or are we responding to events in our lives which destabilize us? Perhaps both. The concurrence of trauma and economic or social distress with mental ill health is very strong, but not everybody who experiences physical pain, poverty or discrimination reacts the same way. Sometimes my depression has coincided with difficult life events – the death of my parents, the post-natal depression after the birth of one of my children – but at other times it has seemed to come from nowhere. Sometimes I have dealt with difficulty by facing it head on and pushing through, at other times by needing to retreat for a while. There is no right or wrong. I might catch a cold or I might not, I might have a heart attack or I might not. There are a lot of variables, physical and environmental.

We continue to ask: see mental health like physical health – it is all health. We can help ourselves to be healthy, but sometimes we will become ill, no matter what we do, whoever we are. If we live happy, prosperous peaceful lives, our health will be generally better. As I saw from the generations of my own family who experienced poverty and war decade upon decade, from one century to another, their health suffered both in body and mind.

We know we inherit predispositions to physical ill health, and we may to mental ill health. We also know how important our environmental, economic and social circumstances are in keeping us healthy. In Mental Health Awareness Week, on World Mental Health Day, let’s all watch out for each other.

100 Years of Social Housing: Contemporary Issues Reflected in Historical Fiction

‘She was close now. The estate of miners’ cottages sat in a clearing in the woods. Chestnut Avenue, Beechwood Road, Elm Avenue, Oakwood Close. Paths twisted through dark tree canopies where she and her sister had played as children. It felt like Thorndale, and so different. When they came here to Barnsfield they had a new house with two big bedrooms and a small room for Frank. The toilet had a bath in it (you must call it the bathroom, Violet). There was a parlour room at the front, clean and quiet where Ma could rest, away from the smell of cooking, and the fuss of Pop having a wash after work: he had never lost the habit of washing at the sink.’

This passage from The Peacemaker is a fictionalised rendering of my memories of my grandparents house in Basil Avenue, Armthorpe near Doncaster which they were allocated when my grandfather got at job at Markham Main pit in 1927. I visited the house until 1963 when my grandfather died, and it is reused as a setting in my new work-in-progress ‘How Could I Dance?’ a sequel with a very different flavour. The picture below is a similar type of house from that period.

This year marks 100 years since the Addison Act which led to the building of social housing between the wars, and which, together with workers’ housing provided by the National Coal Board and other large employers, helped people find work and raise their families. For subsequent generations though, successive governments have failed to invest in sufficient social housing to meet needs and our obsession with owning property has distorted the housing market. I worked in housing all my career from 1979 to 2018, and even now can’t let go of trying to address how important it is as a social issue, even in my fiction.

Finding Our Way to Peaceful Co-existence

Commemorating D-Day reminds us what former generations went through to fight hatred and oppression. We need to find our way to peaceful co-existence so that we can care for one another and our beautiful planet. War has a devastating effect on those that fight and those that wait for them to come home, if they do. I wrote The Peacemaker to show how ordinary people’s tragedies play out in a global context.

Writing About Contemporary Issues in Historical Fiction: Mental Health

When I started writing The Peacemaker I thought of it as the story of a mother and daughter whose lives would take a parallel course as the Second World War followed the First. I based the characters on my mother and grandmother but created a fictional story to deal with contemporary issues, primarily sexual assault and victim blaming. I expected the character based on my grandfather to play the role of a miserable, drunken and abusive man at war with his daughter.

However, as I researched the life of my grandfather, including the circumstances of his birth and his First World War record, I found events which led me to believe that his drinking and his temper, his surly character and low mood might be attributable to mental health problems, including what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

As a young child (my grandfather died when I was just seven), I used to visit him with my mother and I would sit on his lap or play at his feet with a tin of three medals – a star, and what looked to me like a gold and silver coins – all dangling from rainbow ribbons. If he had talked about the war, I would have been too young to remember, but my mother never mentioned it, so I assume that he didn’t speak much about it to her. Anything he had said would certainly have been passed on, good or bad, as there was little my mother left unspoken.

When I researched his history as background for my character Ellis Lowther, I found that my grandfather had survived most of the major battles of the Great War, and had been back and forth between France and the North York Moors for almost the whole four years. I cannot imagine that he would not, like most returning soldiers, have been completely traumatized by his experience. It is possible that he had PTSD. Certainly I feel now that his drinking was exacerbated by his trauma and, like other members of my family after him, he probably used alcohol to deal with difficulties in his life including mental health problems. Drugs and alcohol are severe risks for people with poor mental health, and in turn can lead to psychoses and long term mental health conditions.

But deeper research into my grandfather’s life led me to consider how his birth and childhood has contributed to his experience of mental anguish and trauma. I discovered that his father, Frederick Lythe, had died as a result of a mining accident when Enos was just a year old, leaving a widow and six children. Most of my family come from very poor backgrounds, but there must have been terrible poverty experienced by Fred’s widow Jane with so many mouths to feed. I don’t know how she coped, but in my book I imagine her struggling around the turn of the 20th century when the Victorian workhouses still offered the only safety net for the desperately poor. I know that previous generations of my grandfather’s family had been in the workhouse, and although I have no evidence that Enos experienced such a place for himself, he certainly transmitted his fear of the workhouse to his daughters.

I have had experience of depression since I was a teenager, and although I have managed it reasonably well with medication, I know how difficult it is to acknowledge publicly. For men from a working class background I think it is particularly hard, and in recognizing that my grandfather probably drank as a way of dealing with his own problems, I came to understand him more, to care about him, and hopefully in writing sympathetically about him, to restore his reputation.

There are several great organisations supporting people with mental health problems, the one I know best is Mind.

Does Nothing Ever Change For Women?

March is Women in History Month, and today, the 8th of March, is International Women’s Day.

In my novel The Peacemaker, I explore the experiences of two women whose lives take a similar course between the First and Second World Wars. The Peacemaker is historical fiction reflecting contemporary themes, and when I was writing the book, my daughter was volunteering at a rape and sexual abuse service in Liverpool. At the time, the media was full of stories of women being raped and then victimised for being drunk or provocatively dressed. I used this theme to mirror the experiences of Peggy and Violet Lowther, a mother and daughter used by men they barely knew, when they were at their most vulnerable. I drew on my own experiences as a young woman, taught well by my mother to keep myself safe from unwanted sexual pressure on a night out in town. I passed all I knew on to my daughter.

As mothers we hand on our experiences to our daughters, but why does nothing ever change for women? In the Guardian this week, a report on the falling rate of prosecutions for rape was depressing. Hitting a five year low, the rate of prosecutions last year fell to 37% from 62% five years previously. The Home Office is sufficiently concerned to conduct a review, and there are suggestions that part of the problem is the anticipation and fear of false accusation. The consequences for young men falsely accused of rape are of serious concern, but the continuing impact on many more women left unheard and abandoned by the justice system is dire. We must get this balance right.

In The Peacemaker I try to tell a human story about how women are affected by the consequences of rape. I do not paint all men badly, in fact, I show how men can provide the social and economic support that women certainly needed in the past, and may still need today. But what women need most of all from all men is respect as human beings. International Women’s Day and Women in History Month are intended as celebrations of women’s achievements, but they also highlight the continuing need for women and men to demand a fairer society where we support and care for one another rather than perpetrate abuse.

The Peacemaker is published on the 29th March by Top Hat Books and is available to pre-order now.