Saturday, 23 November 2013


                              Eros, Piccadilly Circus, seen through a Bubble:
                              Photographer: Ken Fraser

Despite it being a rainy Wednesday in November, London was heaving when I arrived after a comfortable journey, via Virgin trains. It was good to get away, having checked over the proofs of IT’S NOW OR NEVER and done a talk for the Old Roan, Town Women’s Guild earlier in the week. I was in the capital for the RNA Winter Party, where I planned to see not only my agent and editors but some writer friends, such as Linda Sole, whom I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. As well as that I had arranged to meet Ken Fraser, who had contacted me through Ancestry after discovering we both might be descended from James Percival, a smith from Manchester, who after marrying Elizabeth Walker in the parish cathedral church in 1849, moved to Liverpool. (More of the Percivals and Walkers in next blog).

I was early for the party and the meeting with Ken, so I visited the Australian art exhibition at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly. I was there for over two hours and learnt more than I had reckoned on. Not only about Australian and British artists and history but I never realised that German, Swiss and French artists also visited Australasia as far back as the early 1800s.

I got chatting with two ladies, one thought I might be Australian but I told her, no, a Liverpudlian. She told me in a lovely Scottish accent that she had been to Liverpool and had lived in Australia for a while. She had moved back to Glasgow several years ago and was of the opinion I should visit Australia one day. I didn’t like saying that the thought of being in a plane that long filled me with dread. Four hours of flying to the Greek island of Rhodes was enough for me.

The other younger woman lived in Wiltshire but knew Liverpool because she had spent time with her partner living on the Wirral, his having been commission to do a work of artistic merit in Birkenhead across the Mersey.

Mention of the Mersey made me think of the thousands of emigrants who had departed for Australian shores from Liverpool. I was reminded of Captain Cook, a replica of whose ship Endeavour can be seen in Whitby, and also of my sailor grandfather John Jones Milburn whom Mam told us had been deported from Australia for getting involved in a knife fight over a girl when he was 19. My cousin, George Milburn, had never heard the tale, so was there any truth in the story? But Mam had also told me that a Milburn relative had worked for the Australian post office company way back.

I had discovered from Ancestry that after leaving Liverpool, at the age of nine, Granddad was living in Bromley, St Leonards, in the Poplar borough, here the extremely successful SEND FOR THE MIDWIFE was to be set years later. And according to the 1901 census, he was working in an ironworks in West Ham at the age of 29. Interestingly I can’t find Granddad on the 1991 census, so possibly there is a germ of truth in Mam’s story. I’m just glad that he returned to Liverpool and married my grandmother Flora Brookes in 1902 or I wouldn’t be writing this. It had come as something of a surprise to me that his mother had given birth to another six children after the move to London. Several of their descendents have been in touch with me since and I’ve heard some family tales that are just as fascinating as the one Mam told me.

                                   Ken Fraser and I in the Royal Academy Restaurant
Anyway, back to the present and that meeting with my Percival related cousin, Ken Fraser. Despite this being my first meeting with Ken, we had exchanged emails and I knew that he had moved south, after having completed his National Service, he had gone to RADA where he met Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave and lived the actor’s life for a while. Later he be came a book seller but was now retired. We had discovered we had mutual acquaintances in the world of publishing and he was accompanied by editor and erstwhile publisher, Sue Curran. We sojourned to the Royal Academy restaurant for a cream tea and cuppa in my case and Sue’s, while Ken had a latte. He had brought along some photos of the Percival girls. The one I liked in particular is shown below and is of his mother and her six sisters and we had a good natter about the family tree and publishing.

Back row from left: Ann, the eldest, whose naval husband was killed in WW2 but whose son survived the war, next Alice, then Ivy, who was a Sister at Salford Royal Hospital and received the MBE for services to nursing. Front row: Sitting, holding book, Ken's mother, Olive, then Eva, who married and had 3 boys, next Edith married and one boy and finally Beattie, married and one boy and one girl. Most likely the picture was taken in the late 1920s and the Percival sisters were my grandmother, Flora Milburn, nee Brookes, cousins. Their father, Edward, being Flora's mother, Jane's younger brother.

Later at the winter party I met up with my agent, editors, and good friends old and newish, including writer Freda Lightfoot and her husband, who had flown over from Spain for the event, and Novelista members, Trisha Ashley and Anne Bennett. . When you get so many people together, mainly women, the noise level is terrific and you can hardly hear yourself speak, never mind anyone else. Still, it was enjoyable getting away from the house and the computer. Then it was back to Liverpool with my mind buzzing with the conversations I’d enjoyed and all that I had seen.

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