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Discovery of soldier’s Great War journal leads to novel idea

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An acclaimed Swansea author, known for her ‘spooky’ content, has been inspired from beyond the grave to write her new novel.

Rebecca F John, who saw her debut novel, The Haunting of Henry Twist, shortlisted for a Costa First Novel Award in 2017, has her great, great uncle to thank for providing the inspiration for The Empty Greatcoat.

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Set during the First World War the muse arrived in the form of a journal, written by her late forebear, Francis House, detailing his army service, including his participation in the bloody Gallipoli campaign.

Explaining how she came into possession of the unique writing, Rebecca said: “The journal was written at some point not long after the war, and I became aware of it as a teenager when my aunty found it amongst a load of tat in the attic.

“My family aren’t big readers, but I immediately wanted to pick it up and devour it. I read it and reread it.

“It’s a handwritten journal that amounts to around 10,000 words in total, which charts his time from joining the army at 15, in 1907, and follows through until the point he gets sent home, just before the end of the war, with pleurisy, meets a woman, gets married and has a son. That’s the end of his journey.”

Rebecca, who grew up in Pwll, near Llanelli, and is now based in Swansea, has remained faithful to the journal’s narrative with a few embellishments to make the novel’s plot flow smoothly.

She said: “For the most part, the novel is the story of what happened to him, it’s nigh on all true.

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“It’s almost entirely set on Anzac Cove and begins with Francis having followed his friend, Berto, to Gallipoli because he has done him wrong and wants to apologise to him. That’s the pretence of him moving from Malta, where he is doing his training – the army wanted Francis to remain in a training role, but he was insistent on going into an active role.

“From there it’s about the fighting and what’s going on with him internally. He’s trying to find his way into manhood. He’s very young, 23.”

The journal offers a fascinating insight into the dangers of life on the frontline.

The journal discovered by Rebecca

One extract describes his first night in the fox hole he took weeks to dig.

It took weeks to complete my dug-out. The first night I slept in it I awoke thinking someone had touched me. Having no matches and not getting a reply I went to sleep again. In the morning on getting up I found a Turk bullet by my side under the blanket. A search discovered it had penetrated my blanket and touched me.

Like so many soldiers, Francis shied away from writing about the true horrors of war.

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Rebecca said: “I had this story, which Francis had obviously written down, but as I saw with old neighbours of mine, who had fought in the Second World War, they would talk about it up to a point and then brush over what we would think of as the important parts.

“That’s what Francis does, he goes all the way up to this point where he talks about landing on the beach at Gallipoli, and coming through the shallows, and then he gives you a rushed page of everything that happens there, and then he’s on to the next thing.

“I know that he was really dosed with opium because of the pleurisy, which allowed me to bring in the speculative element. How confused would he be? How much would he be living within his own mind at that point?”

This provided the perfect opportunity for Rebecca to utilise her skills.

“I would describe my writing as historical and speculative, and spooky to an extent. I always find myself writing on the cusp of reality, that place where our real, external, physical life meets our imaginary life.”

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It is apparent that Francis wrote the journal for his son, and it was that thirst for an audience which reached out and struck a chord with his great, great niece, Rebecca.

She said: “There’s a point, about halfway through, where he casually writes, ‘I trust my reader to believe.’

“That made me want to tell his story, because that journal had been sitting without readers and he obviously wanted it to be read. I thought, ‘perhaps I can provide him with that.’ That was the moment I realised I had found the basis for my next novel.”

Rebecca’s Great, Great Uncle Francis – the inspiration for her novel

In keeping with the unexplained, Rebecca, despite her undoubted research skills, has been unable to find out anything about Francis and his son that isn’t mentioned in the journal.

She said: “I don’t know anything beyond the point at the end where he says, ‘I’m now the father of a fine son, Michael Francis, whom I hope, after hearing how his father tried, will say ‘I, too, will try’ and in doing so gain just reward in success and happiness.’

“That’s how he signs the journal off – and I couldn’t find any sign of his son or what happened to them afterwards.

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“I thought I would be able to trace them through censuses, but I couldn’t find anything at all, which in some ways is probably a good thing because I wasn’t forcing reality into the end of the novel.

“They were all so far away from me – Francis was born in the 1890s – so everyone is long gone. All I have is a couple of photographs and a couple of birth certificates, there’s nothing else for me to go on.

“My great grandmother Lily, who was Francis’s sister, was English and she moved to Swansea. The fact that the journal must have been in her possession before it ended up in my possession makes me suspect that there was no one left of Francis’s side of the family.”

There was a certain amount of pressure and responsibility to get the telling of such a personal story correct, as Rebecca admits.

“I really made a mess of writing this novel a few times – I tried to write it different ways. Initially I set it over decades and tried to bring all the family into it but that didn’t work. I tried various things, but I don’t usually write that way. I usually have my structure set.

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“That was the pressure – wanting to do a good job for the sake of somebody who actually lived it. I say in a note at the end of the novel that I hope that I have done it justice. I hope he would be happy with it.”

When it came to publishing, the Swansea University MA Creative Writing graduate could have relied upon her growing literary reputation – stories from her debut collection of short stories, Clown’s Shoes, won the Pen International New Voices Award and were shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award – to find a major publisher but she chose a different route for this particular novel and published it through her own newly-set-up independent publishing house, Aderyn Press.

The 35-year-old said: “I could have tried to sell it, but as it’s really personal, I felt it was a good one to publish through my own publishing house.

“There are a huge number of talented writers and great books out there that just don’t fit the mould of big publishing. To me, they needed somewhere to go. That’s why I set up Aderyn.

“I’ve got four books lined up already without even opening submissions. I haven’t been able to because there have been so many manuscripts to read just from people who I have been in contact with over the years through writing events, festivals, and social media. And they are all absolutely brilliant. I’m honoured that they are willing to bring their stories to me.”

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The Empty Greatcoat (Published by Aderyn Press) is out now.

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Books & Literature

Author uncovers the lost tale of Swansea fairground legend

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From Swansea Bliz survivor to fairground strongman – an author discovers his grandfather’s fascinating story as The Welsh Hercules.

In the early half of the 20th Century, Jack Lemm was a household name in Wales. As the Strongman star of fairgrounds and Music Hall, he was famed for his feats of strength, wrestling and his dangerous headlining act, The Whirl of Death.

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Times and entertainment trends change, however, and now the once-famous showman is almost forgotten.

For one man, however, the story of the strongman had special meaning. Glaswegian Steven Blockley had always thought that his Great Grandfather deserved to be better known.

“I never actually met Jack,” he says. “I grew up listening to my uncles and aunts telling fascinating stories about all his incredible achievements around the Swansea area and I always knew I wanted to write a book to bring them to a wider audience. As I dug further into his past, however, even I was surprised by what I found.”

Looking into the background of Jack, Steven and co-author David J Thacker uncovered a rich life story and the perfect antidote to our troubled times.

Steven continues, “Jack lived through some harsh years – he was on HMS Lion at the Battle of Jutland in World War 1 and was a survivor of the Swansea Blitz in the Second World War – but his focus was always to put family first and to provide for everyone at home, even if doing so took him away from them.”

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David takes up the story. “Jack came from a Greek family and his given surname was actually Lamnea, but his exploits on stage and at fairs all over the UK, including at Neath, were not always popular, especially with his authoritarian father.

“A lot of the tension in our book comes from that relationship, of a son trying to live up to the ideals of his father.”

The resulting book, The Welsh Hercules, took over a year to research and write but in doing it Steven found a kind of resolution.

“While we were writing the book, I turned 60. At that age, Jack was still doing 40 shows a day at the fairgrounds and even after he retired, he was helping roadworkers outside his house to fix the roads!

“Age really was just a number for him and I think that’s a great attitude to have.”

The Welsh Hercules tells the story of Jack, from his humble beginnings on Swansea Docks through to becoming a renowned boxing coach and fairground star. It takes him through two World Wars, as a survivor of the Battle of Jutland and the Swansea Blitz, and introduces a whole new world of showmen, acrobats and colourful characters.

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But at its heart, Jack’s story is one of family – of the challenges met, the hearts won and the enduring romance of a Showman and his wife.

The Welsh Hercules is available in paperback on Amazon priced at £11.99

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Books & Literature

New video aims to help parents’ bedtime storytelling stage fright

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Whether it’s ‘ROARING’ like a bear, acting out sword battles with pirates to performing an alien impression, night after night parents transform into their inner thespian to become the ultimate storyteller.

However, despite delivering performances that will last a lifetime in children’s minds, a new survey has revealed the underlying anxieties and bedtime stage fright many parents face before and during each nightly performance.

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The survey of 1,000 parents, commissioned by Aldi’s baby and toddler brand Mamia, has found two thirds of parents confess to feeling embarrassed, or lacking in confidence when reading to their children.

Indeed, almost one in four (23%) say they were jealous of other parents who don’t get embarrassed, while over a third (38%) skip parts of the story or rushed through sections just to get to the end.

The underlying reasons for feeling embarrassed stems from tiredness (35%), challenges doing different voices (34%) and not making a story dramatic enough (27%).

Frustrated parents up and down the country also pinpoint their reading ability as a barrier to reading to their kids, with 15% to their reading level not being great.

The new study has been released to coincide with Children’s Book Week (2-8 May), alongside a storytelling masterclass to help parents to conquer shyness, add some flair to their reading and even tackle voices.

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Aldi’s free Storytelling Masterclass features professional actor Sandy Grierson, a father of two and star of numerous Royal Shakespeare Company productions.

Sandy’s top five suggestions for overcoming bedtime storytelling stage fright

  • Conquering shyness: Remember you are delivering a story to your kids, not theatre critics. Simply, take a deep breath, slow down and immerse yourself in the book! 
  • Struggling with accents: If no matter how hard you try you still can’t pull off a region or robot accent, why not try to change your tone instead, using high or low voices.
  • Dynamic & engaging storytelling: Let the book be your guide. For instance, if you see a full stop, then pause to build a dramatic effect. If you see a word written in all caps or big font, then give it some welly and bellow it out. Maybe if you see a sound effect, such as a pirate’s ‘Arr Matey’, then give it your best shot!
  • Let the page guide you: It’s not about the quality of your reading, it’s about the quality time you are spending with your kids. In this scenario, I suggest let the image on the page be your guide. If the bear is roaring, let out a big roar like a bear. The book isn’t here to trick you.
  • Bored of reading the same book: If you want to mix-up your storytelling why not use a real-life story or blend relatives into the book you’re reading. So, whether it’s the time Grandad became a pirate, when Mummy joined the circus to a sibling morphed into an animal, it’s just a fun game. Also, you never know, you might just have a bestseller on your hands!


To read or not to read to children has never been in question, with the average parent reading four times a week for 20 minutes each time.

In fact, over half (58%) believe that reading bedtime stories to children is important for their development and more than a fifth (22%) are making a conscious effort not to finish work late so they can enjoy a story with their child.

Despite these challenges, a heart-warming 96% aim to read to children every night, with a third (34%) saying it’s the highlight of their day and three quarters feeling they’ve missed out on valuable time spent with their little ones if they’re not able to squeeze in a bedtime story.

Of the respondents, almost two thirds (62%) said that they’d be interested in getting tips via a storytelling masterclass to help them read better bedtime stories, which is why Aldi’s Mamia has teamed up Sandy to help parents finesse their storytelling.

Sandy Grierson, Actor, said: “I’m a father of two and stage actor so often I’m at work when it’s story time. Then, when I’m not it can sometimes feel a bit like a busman’s holiday.

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“So believe me when I say, at bedtime, you’re probably better off not being a professional actor. Nonetheless for those parents who suffer from bedtime story stage fright, be it struggles with accents, dramatic delivery to reading capabilities, I hope this Aldi Mamia masterclass is a helpful tool to make bedtime stories with children a moment to savour, not stress over.”

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Books & Literature

Drag Queen Story Hour comes to Swansea

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Three libraries across Swansea have announced a Drag Queen Story Hour on Saturday 19 March.

The fun and interactive kids event will take place at Swansea Central Library, Oystermouth Library and Morriston Library.

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The sessions, run by a group called Drag Queen Story Hour UK , say they provide fun and interactive kids shows with amazing and talented drag performers.

On their website the group say: “Drag Queen Story Hour UK wants to show the world that being different is not a bad thing, and by providing imaginative role models for children to look up to, we can change the world book by book!

​”We bring you 5-star performers who have performed all across the UK in schools, festivals, museums, nurseries, private events and more! Drag Queen Story Hour UK has been honoured to have performers who have been received so positively all across the country.”

Aida H Dee, founder of Drag Queen Story Hour (Image: Drag Queen Story Hour UK)

Swansea Libraries say pre-booking is essential if you’d like to attend.

(Lead image: Drag Queen Story Hour UK)

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