Family Histories: Multi-generational Inspiration with Judith Barrow

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

Today we get a glimpse into JUDITH BARROW‘S inspiration for writing her family trilogy:

Thank you for hosting me here, Adrienne. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to talk about how places and occasions in my life affected the way I wrote my trilogy and then the prequel.

Pattern of Shadows

I think that a strong setting in a novel; one that sets the atmosphere and tone of the narrative, is imperative in creating a convincing story. Ultimately the goal is to persuade the reader to become immersed in the setting to the point of complete familiarity.

The background setting I use in my trilogy, beginning with Pattern of Shadows, is a German Prisoner of War camp during the Second World War.

I was researching for another novel when I came across records of a disused cotton mill, Glen Mill, in Oldham, a town in Lancashire in the North of England, and its history of being one of the first German POW camps in the country. This brought back a personal memory of my childhood and I was side-tracked.

My mother was a winder in a cotton mill (working on a machine that transferred the cotton off large cones onto small reels (bobbins), for the weavers). Well before the days of Health and Safety I would go to wait for her to finish work on my way home from school. I remember the muffled boom of noise as I walked across the yard and the sudden clatter of so many different machines as I stepped through a small door cut into great wooden gates. I remember the rumble of the wheels as I watched men pushing great skips filled with cones alongside the winding frames, or manoeuvring trolleys carrying rolls of material. I remember the women singing and shouting above the noise, of them whistling for more bobbins: the colours of the cotton and cloth – so bright and intricate. But above all I remember the smell: of oil, grease – and in the storage area – the lovely smell of the new material stored in bales and the feel of the cloth against my legs when I sat on them, reading until the siren sounded, announcing the end of the shift.

When I thought of Glen Mill as a German POW camp I wondered what kind of signal would have been used to separate parts of the day for all those men imprisoned there. I realised how different their days must have been from my memories of a mill. There would be no machinery as such, only vehicles coming and going; the sounds would be of men, only men, with a language and dialect so different from the mixture of voices I remembered. I imagined the subdued anger and resignation. The whole situation would be so different, no riot of colour, just an overall drabness. And I realised how different the smells would be – no tang of oil, grease, cotton fibres; all gone – replaced by the reek of ‘living’ smells.

And I knew I wanted to write about that. But I also wanted there to be hope somewhere. I wanted to imagine that something good could have come out of the situation the men were in.

And so the background of the trilogy was set against the camp, the fictional Lancashire town of Ashford, and a small village in Wales, Llamroth.

Living in the Shadows

I was never really part of the Sixties scene but I remember how much everything appeared to be changing during that decade. The old world sat alongside the new emerging world. A supermarket, the first in Lancashire to open was called Payless and was near the well-established Woolworths, with its uneven wooden floors, glass divided counters of anything and everything that was needed for the home, pick and mix sweets and stationery. And always, that certain dusty smell.

Hairstyles went from great backcombed and lacquered bouffants to simpler Mary Quant bobs. Much to my mother’s dismay (and to mine when I wasn’t allowed to play out for a week afterwards) I cut off my plaits in a fit of temper when I wasn’t allowed a fringe.
Music was for teenagers; the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Cliff… and my all-time ‘to swoon over’ Elvis Presley; even though the records (the new 45s) belonged to my sister.
Clothes changed as well. The older girls no longer wore those voluminous layers of nets of underskirts that puffed out the dresses (I remember my sister dipping her underskirts in sugared water and drying them over an open umbrella to retain that shape– I never did find out what happened to them when she went out in the rain but I can guess!) Drainpipe trousers and suits for the boys disappeared and were replaced by flares and flowered shirts; the proper ‘gear’ for open-air concerts. Needless to say, I never went to even one of these. But one of my young characters did …

When Victoria jumped off the platform of the bus she could already hear the music. A group was playing A Groovy Kind of Love and she hummed along with it, studying the long queue at the entrance. Looking around she saw a gap in the fence further along the road and sauntered towards it. She stood, waiting for a couple to pass her, then quickly ducked through.
‘Got you.’ A strong hand held her shoulder. She looked up at whoever had caught her. He didn’t look official; he had a flowered full-sleeved shirt on and feathers stuck in a cotton band around his head.

She took a chance. ‘Get off me.’ Twisting away from him.

‘Whoa.’ He held up his hands in a gesture of submission. ‘I surrender myself to the hip Welsh chick in the red dress.’

Victoria couldn’t help giggling. ‘You’re not a steward or whatever, are you? You’re not anybody in charge.’

‘Only of myself.’ He grinned. He gestured towards the hedge. ‘Actually that’s the way we got in.’


‘Some friends and me.’ He looked around in a vague manner. ‘They’re here somewhere. Some of them wanted to see Hermann’s Hermits. Not my thing but one of them insisted. You like that group?’

Without wavering, Victoria said, ‘Oh no.’ She thought quickly. ‘Joan Baez is more my thing.’

He beamed. ‘And mine too. I knew we were fated to meet.’ He held out his hand, wiggled his fingers. ‘Want to look for my friends with me?’

Victoria took hold of his hand. This was going to be even more exciting than she thought.

A Hundred Tiny Threads

My grandfather was gassed in WW1. I only remember him vaguely as I was a small child when he died but my mother says I always made him laugh however ill he was. I only have one tiny photo of him; he’s standing in the back yard of the terraced house he and my grandmother lived in all their married life, in Lancashire.

I had a strange experience last year at a craft and book fair where, for some reason, there was also a medium. As I passed her she called me over and told me someone was trying to get in touch with me. She said not to tell her anything only to answer yes or no to what she revealed. I’m not a gullible person but I do believe there is more to this life than we know. What followed was an extraordinary ten minutes; she told me things only my mother had mentioned to me about my grandad; things I’d never discussed with anyone. Some details were especially private and important; some were mere trivialities; gestures and habits of his that I’d learned from family chats. At the end of the session (she wouldn’t take any money) she told me she had a feeling of great relief coming from him as though he’d been trying for years to ‘come through’ to me for years and this had been his chance to say how proud he was of me.

At the time of that event I’d been going through a bad patch; my mother, who had Alzheimer’s, had been on end of life care for some months. She lived over two hundred miles away and we’d been travelling to see her every weekend. The session with the medium took place the day before we were due to go to see her again. The last thing the medium told me was that she was getting a strong scent of daffodils even though it was not the season for them. Daffodils were my mother’s favourite flower. When I went home after the fair I was told my mother had passed.

I wrote this poem some years ago.

My Grandad
I look at the photograph.
He smiles and silently
he tells me
his story…

In my backyard I stand,
Hands wrapped around a mug of tea.
Shirt sleeves, rolled back,
Reveal tattoos – slack muscles.

I grin.
All teeth.
Who cares that they’re more black
Than white.
That’s my life;
That’s the grin I learned
When burned
By poison
Like wild garlic.
That’s the grin I wear
When I look
But don’t see
The dark oil glistening,
Blistering, inside me.
When I hear, but don’t listen
To my lungs closing.

I posture,
Braces fastened for the photo,
Chest puffed out.
Nothing touches me –
Later I cough my guts up –
Chuck up.

I trod on corpses: dead horses,
Blown up in a field
Where grass had yielded
To strong yellow nashers.
And in the pastures
I shat myself.
But smelled no worse
Than my mate, Henry, next to me
Whose head grinned down from the parapet –

Ten yards away.

He has perfect, white teeth.
Much good they’ve done him,
Except for that last night at home
When the girl smiled back.

© Judith Barrow

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6 responses to “Family Histories: Multi-generational Inspiration with Judith Barrow”

    • I read the first book of Judith’s series and really enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to reading them all.

      I’m almost done with the final book o my own series. The book that’s just come out is the saddest and most romantic — so i love it and hope others will too.hugs back, Teagan,


  1. Judith, from such a small tidbit of history, a mill used as a prisoner of war camp, you’ve built a tapestry of family stories. They sound wonderfully character rich. Really loved the story about your mom working at the mill, you waiting for her at the end of her shift. All that detail would be lost if you hadn’t written about it, as no one makes cloth that way anymore, at least not in the U.S. The poem about your grandfather touched me. So sensual, so poignant.

    Liked by 1 person

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