Writing a novel where you’re setting it: My time at Cliveden


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I’ve been woefully quiet on this blog lately.

Part of that is because I’m using my writing time to write my first novel. First?! Ha! That implies there’ll be more.

It’s on the origin story of the BBC (podcast on that here), and a bit part in that is Nancy Astor. I’m more focused on her secretary, Hilda Matheson, who left Astor (begrudgingly – Astor had to pretty much sack her to make her go) to work for the fledgeling BBC, rising to become the Beeb’s first Director of Talks.

Matheson was the highest-ranking female boss of the company/corporation, and helped invent talk radio as we know it – the ‘Radio 4’ style of clever/interesting/diverse people informing/educating/entertaining. Before her, there were rather dry lectures, but she opened it to include debate and added a conversational style, plus her connections brought Britain’s celebrities of the day to the mic – George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf (Matheson’s own love rival, for the affections of poet Vita Sackville-West). Matheson also worked for MI5 in both World Wars, hired by Lawrence of Arabia during the first one.

I know, right?! What a character. You start writing about the BBC and you end up writing about gay affairs and spying. But then you research Matheson’s pre-BBC boss, Lady Astor… and boy oh boy, keep pulling on that thread.

Nancy Astor, MP, Viscountess, Lady Astor – collector of titles. I don’t know how I’d address her. I’d just curtsy.

Nancy Astor was the first MP to take her seat in the House of Commons, so that’s the chapter of the book I’ve chosen to introduce Matheson and Astor. Nancy was an American divorcee, and you may have seen her name in countless quotes, part of a decades-long mud-slinging roast battle with Winston Churchill. eg.

Astor: “Sir, if you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.”

Churchill: “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

After Nancy Astor’s triumphant maiden speech at the Commons (largely to boos, which was not the done thing for maiden speeches), Churchill was heard to say, “I feel as if a woman has just entered my bathroom and I had nothing to defend myself with, not even a sponge.” Astor apparently replied: “Mr Churchill, you are not handsome enough to have worries of that kind.”

Yet before her parliamentary career, Churchill was a friend to Nancy Astor, joining her lavish parties at her vast country home of Cliveden. After she became an MP – only because her husband rose to the House of Lords (he didn’t want to, and hoped Nancy would only babysit his seat while he got the law changed to return to the Commons) – many politicians snubbed her. Churchill was notoriously cruel with it. When he saw her in a Commons corridor, he’d talk loudly about venereal disease and the like, just to embarrass her.

So while the first Astor/Matheson scene in my novel has them at Westminster, I wanted their second chapter to be at Cliveden, the sprawling estate that Nancy loathed, that her husband inherited from his father William Astor.

I’m en route to a stand-up gig tonight, so pulled into a motorway services to do some writing on the novel. Then realised: I’m not that far from Cliveden…

“I think I’m outside Cliveden” is not what my T-shirt says.

…Cliveden is now a hotel, but the National Trust operate the estate. I sought a tour, and rounded the corner of the house to see a gaggle of tour guides all having their training. What’s the collective noun? A question of tour guides? A gift shop of tour guides? Anyway, there are no tours while the hotel finds its feet again post-lockdown. I left them to their training – early, given there aren’t any till 2022 – and explored the grounds.

It’s not the first time I’ve written part of a book in the place it’s set (although you’ll notice so far I’ve not done much sitting and writing; just some mooching around – still, all helps). When I wrote Hark! The Biography of Christmas, I wrote the chapter on Bracebridge Hall – fictitious English manor house, described by US writer Washington Irving in 1821 as the scene of lost old English Christmases, log fires, carriage rides, games etc – in the same manor house it was based on, Aston Hall near Birmingham. Irving visited Aston Hall as a guest of the Watt family (the lightbulb guy), and was so inspired by their Christmas celebrations that he exaggerated and fictionalised it in his book, which in turn inspired Dickens to write about old Christmas too.

Like Cliveden, Aston Hall is now a place to visit rather than a private property, so I worked on the chapter about its history while sitting in Aston Hall’s very modern cafe – but with a lovely view of the old house, and having just enjoyed an enlightening tour of it.

It really helps get under the skin of what you’re writing if you can visit your setting, let alone be writing about it while you’re there. I’ve read a handful of books and accounts of Cliveden and the Astors, but to visit it and see its scale was quite another thing.

The hotel was for guests only, but I popped my head around the door and glanced at the Cliveden’s entrance hall. It’s not changed much. This was it 100 years ago – the scene that would have greeted Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and various visiting US presidents:

I popped in here today. Looks exactly the same, only in colour – reds and dark browns. This was it 100 years ago.

The chapel was open for non-hotel guests like me. It used to be a tearoom in the 1800s, but the Astors turned it into a chapel, not for Sunday worship for somewhere to be buried. It’s quite something:

Chapel. Formerly a tearoom.

Nancy Astor was a complex character – heralded as the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament, but better known for what she was anti than what she was pro. Anti-semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-communist – she backed Hitler through the 1930s, and the ‘Cliveden set’ was an upper-class group of appeasement, Nazi-sympathetic toffs who chose the wrong side of history. Nancy regretted her views in 1939, and spent the war trying to atone for her earlier views, helping children and families, just as she had set out to do in Parliament from 1919 onwards – only now she was turning cartwheels and turning her homes into hospitals.

(Some of the above Astor info is from the excellent podcast Gallus Girls and Wayward Women – a great listen.)

Anyway, enough blogging – back to the novel-writing, before I forget all that inspiration and start to write about Lady Astor and Matheson just having a chat in a shop or something. I hope to discover Lady Astor holidayed in Hawaii and had some key plot points happen there – I fancy a trip further afield to write where I’m setting my book…

Nancy Astor and Hilda Matheson are fascinating characters, and I can’t wait to get into them in the novel. If I ever finish it, I’ll let you know all about it here.

In the meantime, my podcast The British Broadcasting Century is telling the BBC origin story – and we’ll get to Hilda Matheson on there… in about 50 episodes time.

CATCHING UP… with Cathy Madavan


Another fab guest to do some CATCHING UP with… this time, author, speaker and general encourager Cathy Madavan.

We talk about the bits of lockdown we’d like to cling to (like not having to cling to people), how to write a Pause For Thought, and I confess my jealousy so she tells me how to put a cork in that.

Cathy’s website is here

Her books include Digging for Diamonds and her new one, Irrepressible: 12 Principles for a Courageous, Resilient and Fulfilling Life. It’s fab! Grab yours here.

You can find her on Twitter @cathymadavan

You can find me on Twitter @paulkerensa 

This podcast is currently occupied by CATCHING UP – longform chats, unedited, with various people, individuals and humans. Stay subscribed for more. It’s all a bit experimental, so take it in that guerrilla spirit.

For a more edited, honed and finely produced podcast, my other podcast The British Broadcasting Century is telling the origin story of the BBC, radio and life as we know it. Try it! Season 2 now underway.

As for this one, stay subscribed, stay well, stay safe, staycation, steak sandwich.

CATCHING UP… with Dai Woolridge


This time, Paul is CATCHING UP with Dai Woolridge: poet, spoken word artist(e), man of faith, and all-round decent chap.

We talk saucisson sec, the joys and sadness of lockdown music, creativity, green guilt, poetry, lament, community, Help Yourself boxes, the beautiful Welsh accent, and so much more.

Dai’s book God’s Brilliantly Big Creation Story is available here.

His website Spoken Truth is here.

You can find him on Twitter @daiwoolridge

You can find me on Twitter @paulkerensa 

This podcast is currently occupied by CATCHING UP – longform chats, unedited, with various people, individuals and humans. Stay subscribed for more. It’s all a bit experimental, so take it in that guerrilla spirit.

For a more edited, honed and finely produced podcast, my other podcast The British Broadcasting Century is telling the origin story of the BBC, radio and life as we know it. Try it!

As for this one, stay subscribed, stay well, stay safe, staycation, steak sandwich.

Gertrude Donisthorpe: Britain’s first DJ… and one of the world’s first female broadcasters


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Google Gertrude Donisthorpe. I hope you find something.

Because when I just tried it, this is what came up for Britain’s first DJ (in 1917), and one of the world’s first female broadcasters…

…Not a lot. A podcast about her that I’ve just uploaded. An article in the Catholic Herald about her presenting a robe. A TV listing from 1969, when she was interviewed about her work as a radio pioneer. Then it’s genealogy sites for someone completely different.

Yet Gertrude Donisthorpe, one of the first female broadcasters in the world, was arguably the first DJ in Britain, albeit, to begin with, with an audience of just one: her husband.

To redress the balance, here’s a little bit about her, that I discovered researching my podcast The British Broadcasting Century. You can hear much of this on this episode, all about Gertrude Donisthorpe: the Annie Nightingale of 1917.

Gertrude was married to Captain Horace Donisthorpe, and the duo were early radio pioneers. It seems to have been Horace’s enthusiasm, but he quickly swept up Gertrude in too.

In World War I, wireless telegraphy (essentially Morse code) was more common than its upstart younger sibling wireless telephony (ie. speech and, when technology allowed, music). Wireless operators needed training up before heading to the front, so that was Captain Donisthorpe’s job, based near Worcester. Valve radios at the time were very expensive but tricky to operate, so part of his challenge was teaching new recruits how to care for them without breaking them.

After hours, the Donisthorpes would cycle to a nearby field and set up either side of it – to experiment with what this new wireless radio telephony could do. She would speak into a transmitter; he would try and pick up her signals via a receiver across the field. When they couldn’t hear anything, they’d cycle to each other to say so – often missing each other (they really should have set a rule where only one person does the cycling and the other stays put).

She had a test phrase that she’d say, over and over: “A wonderful bird is the pelican, its beak can hold more than its belly can.” One of the first factoids, there you go Steve Wright.

Gertrude would do most of the speaking, and even introduce and play a few gramophone records. So in my mind, that makes her Britain’s first DJ – to an audience of one, across a field, who she’d then cycle to. It was like a meet-and-greet, or an early badly-attended version of the Radio 1 Roadshow.

On Leslie Baily’s Scrapbook for 1917 radio programme in 1967, Gertrude said: “My first broadcast was from a bell tent in a field near Worcester. My part in this experiment was strictly unofficial. I sat on a sugar-box in front of a transmitter, which would now be considered a museum piece. It had a bath of oil for cooling the one and only valve. At first we simply had conversations between two stations, about a mile apart.”

“If I heard nothing, I would take my pushbike and pedal to the other station, where I would often find that my husband had gone on his bike to my base, by a different route! Still, we did quite often make contact over the wireless, and I suppose my husband got quite a lot of technical knowledge from these experiments. Later we broadcast gramophone records, and recitations to amuse the troops at training centres, at Malvern and Droitwich. This was also strictly unofficial!”

As the experiments continued, the Donisthorpes played a few wireless concerts, three evenings a week, for the local military camps. So the audience increased. It’s unknown who spoke for those concerts, but my best guess would be that Gertrude still did much of the talking, as Horace’s interest was in how it sounded: her the presenter, him the producer. Their musical transmissions could be heard in Droitwich, Malvern and Norton. Throughout, they were experimenting, tweaking and trying to perfect the art and engineering behind this early broadcasting – ‘broadcasting’ as a word was yet to come in, for another five years.

Radio at this point was intended to be point-to-point communication, a way of sending and receiving a message between two people. The Marconi Company saw their future in charging for these messages. It was only the technology’s Achilles’ heel – that the transmissions were ‘leaky’, that others could ‘listen in’ – that meant that broadcasting was accidentally invented. Christmas Eve 1906 was the first radio entertainment broadcast for wider listeners, given by Reginald Fessenden (hear more about it on the first episode of our podcast) to ships near Brant Rock, Massachusetts.

A few years after the Donisthorpes, radio amateurs were entranced by experimental transmissions from Marconi’s Chelmsford workshop. To begin with they were recitations of railway timetables, till the ‘listeners-in’ asked for more entertaining tests to take place. Perhaps a newspaper, then maybe a song or two. That would require more nuanced microphones and ultimately more powerful transmitters – but Marconi engineers like Captain H.J. Round and William Ditcham were eager to try.

After a few false starts – including an opera broadcast from Dame Nellie Melba that was so successful that the British government banned radio broadcasts for fear of interfering with military communications – 1922 saw Britain’s first regular broadcast service, when Marconi’s was granted a licence to keep the moaning radio hams quiet. Captain Peter Eckersley was in charge, and when he seized the mic one day and was effortlessly entertaining, radio caught on in a big way. Hear more of his early broadcasts here. Eckersley’s genius and the ambition of his radio rival Arthur Burrows led to the establishment of the BBC; Eckersley became Chief Engineer, Burrows became Director of Programmes.

As for the Donisthorpes, Horace dabbled with the idea of broadcasting the closing night of a West End musical, just as the BBC was forming in the summer of 1922. It was to be based on the popular trend of listening to live performances via home telephone (the Electrophone), that had been popular since 1895. Alas Donisthorpe’s negotiations came to nothing. The BBC formed without him and he joined Marconi’s. He gave the occasional guest talk on the BBC in the late 1920s, on ‘wireless and the sea’ and the effects of an eclipse on radio transmission.

Gertrude was a guest on In Town To-night, a popular radio talkshow (the Graham Norton Show of 1934). In 1953 she contributed to Those Radio Times for the Light Programme, alongside Beryl Reid and Max Bygraves. (Bygraves incidentally is the performer who’s nearest the same age as the BBC – he was born just a few weeks before the first BBC broadcast.)

She gave one TV interview that I know of, for a 1969 BBC2 programme on the wireless entertainments that pre-dated broadcasting, called Yesterday’s Witness: Breaking the Silence. It’s not on iPlayer or Youtube… yet.

As for other early female broadcasters, 1910 saw radio hams such as Mrs M.J. Glass of San Jose and Olive Heartburg of New York. Perhaps the world’s first female DJ was Sybil Herrold in San Jose, who introduced records from 1912 on her husband Charles Herrold’s experimental radio station. The brilliantly named Nancy Clancy was a 16-year-old announcer on WAHG in New York in 1924. On this side of the Atlantic, the early BBC included Cecil Dixon as our first radio ‘Auntie’, broadcasting for children, while Helena Millais was arguably Britain’s first broadcast comedian (here’s a video in which I introduce a recording of her act). Pioneers such as Elise Sprott and Hilda Matheson are BBC names I can’t wait to tell people about on the podcast.

I’m grateful to Dr Elizabeth Bruton, curator of Technology and Engineering at the Science Museum, for furnishing me with the Donisthorpes’ full names (Horace’s is a beaut: Captain Horace St John de Alva Donisthorpe. There aren’t many of those nowadays).

I’m glad she’s helped set the record straight on Gertrude Anne Andrews, who was born 1895 and died 1980, just as Gertrude set records straight, then played them, 105 years ago. I hope the next time I google her, the name of Britain’s first DJ will be broadcast a little more widely.

The British Broadcasting Century Podcast is available from all good podcast outlets.

CATCHING UP… with Paul Savage


A 2nd instalment of CATCHING UP – an occasional longform interview podcast. This time it’s with comedian, comic book creator and boat owner Paul Savage. He talks about creativity in lockdown, pandemic childcare, comic book creation, the changing world of stand-up, plus a gig tale about aiding and abetting an escaped inmate.

Paul’s new comic book – ‘But Doctor, I AM a Collection of Comic Strips by Paul Savage’ – is available at https://www.savagecomic.com

You can find him on Twitter @comedysavage

You can find me on Twitter @paulkerensa 

This podcast is currently occupied by CATCHING UP – longform chats, unedited, with various people, individuals and humans. Stay subscribed for more. It’s all a bit experimental, so take it in that guerrilla spirit.

For a more edited, honed and finely produced podcast, my other podcast The British Broadcasting Century is telling the origin story of the BBC, radio and life as we know it. Try it!

As for this one, stay subscribed, stay well, stay safe, staycation, steak sandwich.


CATCHING UP… with Dan Willis


Hello stranger! It’s been a while. It was at least one pandemic ago since we lost spoke. Or spoke here, at least.

So welcome to a new thing. A new irregular thing.

Appearing now and then, but specifically now: a random series of long-form unedited chats. Just catching up really.

This is recorded mid-lockdown, and with comedians unable to perform, one or two have got in touch and said: Let’s catch up! I said: Sure! But I’m going to record it.

So Dan and I haven’t chatted for about a decade. No reason. We just didn’t gig together. You only chat to comedians if you gig together, or they have a podcast.

Dan moved to Australia, which at time of recording is largely freed up out of lockdown (though at time of editing, is back in lockdown again). So when we spoke, Dan was in quarantine having landed in Perth for their Fringe Festival. A few days into self-isolation, he was desperate to speak to someone. Hence this podcast.

We chat about the old days of the London stand-up circuit in the noughties, the time we both spent a week living in the Big Brother House, and I unearth my gig list tallying up every time Dan and I gigged together.

More soon. Or not soon. More some time, with someone else, inc Tony Vino and Paul Savage.

So stay subscribed, if you like.

And hey, this is an experimental longform podcast. If you don’t like it, that’s ok. It’s free-wheeling, free-flowing, (contains some adult language) and TBH, by not editing it, I can focus on other projects, including:

– My other podcast The British Broadcasting Century

– My weekly Facebook Live show

– Things I put on Patreon. Sign up here for exclusive advance writings, videos etc.

– Writing, online live shows (hire me!) and other things I put on my mailing list – sign up here.

Stay subscribed, stay well, stay safe, staycation.

Gate-crechers: A Christmas poem


Here’s a Christmas poem I originally wrote for Radio 4’s Christmas Meditation, and now that’s offline forevermore, I’ve re-recorded it with my own crib scene. The video of that is here:

And the words, should you want them, are here:

Twas the night after Christmas, & all through Bethlehem,

Many creatures were stirring, in fact ‘twas mayhem.

A census had senselessly filled David’s City

Leaving no birthing-suite at the inn, more’s the pity.

So Mary and Joseph found all they were able:

A crib for their baby, in a condition now stable.

Carpenter Joseph tried to focus on Jesus,

Amid quite a few visitors – a pretty tight squeeze, ‘twas

Not midwives or grannies – just shepherds stood bowed,

One whispering to Joseph, “You must be so proud.”

These shepherds had earned their place in this picture,

Their presence recorded for good in the Scripture.

But while shepherds’ lambs bleated harmonic ‘baa’s

And while angelic choirs sang Hallelujahs,

This ox and an ass trotted over the straw.

Till Joseph said, “Sorry, did you want next door?

“You look great in this scene – but let’s be orthodox:

The Gospels don’t mention an ass or an ox.

The ox said, “Go on, it’s the birth of the Lord!

We’re sorry we strike an unbiblical chord.”

Three kings arrived riding camels quite surly

“You’re most welcome!” said Joseph. “Though… a year or two early.

And kings? We thought ‘wise men’. And three? That’s news too.

Three gifts, is what’s written, just not three of you.”

“Well I’m Caspar, that’s Melchior, that’s Balthazar.”

Joseph shrugged. “Maybe. All we know is that star,

Your visit to Herod, gold, myrrh, frankincense,

The rest isn’t written, or it’s been added since.

“And that Little Donkey, I’m not saying it’s libel,

It’s just that its eeyores aren’t there in the Bible.

But, welcome!” said Joseph, then looked out the window.

“Oh Mary,” he said. “Look – it’s starting to snow.”

“In Bethlehem?!” Mary exclaimed in surprise,

As a shepherd boy’s snowball hit the ox ‘tween the eyes.

“It’d look good on a card, but climactically, no…”

When from up on the roof, they heard: “Ho ho ho!”

“Oh come on,” Joseph said, “This is getting ridiculous.”

As the chimney revealed the feet of St Nicholas.

St Nick picked up the gold, put the myrrh in his sack,

Then gift-wrapped the lot, before putting them back.

“Look, Mary!” said Joseph. “I saw three ships… and

I know what you’ll say, Bethlehem is inland.”

They both started wondering when all would be leaving,

But in came King Wenceslas: a deep man, crisp and… even.

The walls grew with mistletoe, holly and ivy,

Some locals outside sang some carols, quite lively.

They danced and wassailed, and they drank in a haze

And insisted on celebrating for 12 complete days.

They ushered in poultry, from guinea to goose,

Seven swans, three French hens, a partridge in pear juice.

Joseph looked to the night sky, Dark Ages now murky,

Then ducked as one last bird flew at him – a turkey.

St Nick offered Caspar mince pies by the crib,

As a cramped donkey nudged Balthazar in the rib.

So many guests had by now joined the stable,

That carpenter Joseph extended the table.

Dickens arrived, with mulled wine for the poor,

Ollie Cromwell yelled “Humbug!” as he stormed out the door.

They pulled a few crackers, they played a few games

“Your best days are behind you!” cried a pantomime dame.

Candles and baubles and Christmas trees, tinsel,

Cards, Advent calendars, pies by the minceful.

But Joe let them all in, and he let in the choir

Bethlehem was packed, so they squished by the fire.

The turkey and donkey, both fought with the goose 

Till football was played, in a moment of truce.

In a barrage of languages, they all sang Silent Night,

As the crib was adorned with electrical light.

Jesus, the Light of the World, lay asleep,

As St Nick jingled bells at him, patting a sheep.

Warm Christmas pudding filled everyone’s stomach,

A glass ‘ting’-ed, all hushed, for a speech from the monarch.

Bing Crosby arrived, though was nearly snowed off,

Till he hitched with a reindeer by name of Rudolph.

They brought in a telly, put the aerial up: It’s

A Wonderful Life, soon followed by Muppets,

More came and Wise men, Only Fools and Horses,

Carols from Kings and Eastenders divorces 

Slade sang “It’s Chriiistmas”, Cliff Richard stood humming,

A lorry arrived saying holidays were a-coming.

Joseph asked if Chris Rea would soon drive them all home,

Or if they’d walk in the air, flown by Aled Jones.

But the Pogues brought some booze, and NYPD choir.

Some sherry was raised to the sleeping Messiah.

Joseph toasted with eggnog, just finished his dram,

When the barn door flew open, then closed with a Wham!

There was an elf on a shelf, and round robin letters,

Department store adverts and naff Christmas sweaters.

No room on the floor, for one last Christmas fairy

So to top of the tree, flew Mariah Carey.

Mary looked at the crowd, Judy Garland to Wenceslas.

“It figures,” she thought, “They’re all here for the census; ‘Tis

In-keeping: We were told, there’s no room at the inn…

There’s no room at the stable now everyone’s in.”

She told Joseph, “It’s right, we invite all indoors:

From Bible to Buble, sprouts to Santa Claus.

And just suppose history, in all this activity,

All along has been telling its own holy nativity.

Shepherds like good old St Nick with his crook,

Wise men like Dickens wisely writing his book.

Angelic choirs, Crosby, Carey, Cliff Richard, 

Cromwell plays Herod, trying to quash Christmas.

No room at the inn? Well there’s room in our hearts.

It’s one big school nativity, where all play their parts.

Strip away all these characters, and still centre-stage is

God come to Earth: a tale told down the ages.”

Joe extended the table again, made more chairs.

A high-chair, a bar-stool, that bench by the stairs.

With cold turkey sandwiches, stuffed full of crackling,

A floor full of wrapping, now set for recycling,

Joseph smiled over to infant and wife:

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good life!”

So as Tiny Tim said: God bless us, each one.

Tis still that night after Christmas, cos we wait for the Son.

And when dawn comes, perhaps God asks: “D’you like the present, in the crib, napping?”

We’ll notice what we’ve done, is just play with the wrapping.

Christmas Cancelled? Not Like in the 1640s…

There has been a lot of talk of 2020’s Christmas being cancelled. How Christmas must be saved. 

Of course Christmas will always go ahead as sure as Monday will be followed by Tuesday, or next Spring will appear again (not soon enough). Although with limited pantos, carol services or office parties, Christmas 2020 certainly looks unusual. 

But nearly four centuries ago, Christmas was indeed cancelled. It stayed illegal for a decade and a half. As now, drastic new laws banned certain gatherings. Back then though, this came from very different motives.

The Puritans were in power, and they took against a few particular aspects of the church. They shunned Catholicism, including its Mass, so a festival named after ‘Christ’s Mass’ was bound to be in the firing line. They took against the adoration of Mary, so the Nativity story was downplayed. They detested saints, including St Nicholas, who wasn’t quite associated with Christmas yet, but delivered the odd present in early December. Humbug indeed.

Christmas had become a rather drunken affair anyway. It wasn’t the homely cosy season it would become. Besides, why commemorate the birth of Christ at all? The only birthdays in the Bible were those of Pharaoh and Herod, who both celebrated with executions. Not a ringing endorsement for a birthday do.

Scotland outlawed Christmas in 1640, and it wasn’t officially reintroduced there till 1958. They didn’t miss Christmas; they had Hogmanay. Similarly Thanksgiving snuck in in America, when Christmas failed to land there. The Pilgrim Fathers forgot to pack it onboard.

A notice in Boston, Massachusetts, banning Christmas.

In 1643, the English Puritan government needed Scottish military aid, so in return they promised to reform the Church of England a little more.

So that Christmas, word spread that good Puritan shopkeepers should open as usual on December 25th, and that Puritan churches should remain closed. Everyday folk had to pick a side: to celebrate Christmas or not? Satirist John Taylor mourned its loss: “Thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster.” The Lord of Misrule had been a festive favourite – a mock king of the season bringing the party atmosphere… till now. 

A year later, Christmas Day 1644 fell on a Wednesday, a traditional fasting day. So that meant a different test: feast or fast? Eating a Christmas dinner oddly became a political protest. Non-conformist minister Hezekiah Woodward labelled Christmas Day: “The old Heathens’ Feasting Day… the Profane Man’s Ranting Day… the Superstitious Man’s Idol Day… the True Christian Man’s Fasting Day…” (None of these new names caught on.)

Christmas 1645 went one step further: it simply didn’t exist. Some celebrated, but it was no longer an official celebration. Parliament sat, though some MPs were seen yawning, kept up all night by rebellious carol-singers outside their windows.

1646 saw Christmas riots, on both sides. Pro-Christmas protestors confronted shopkeepers who dared open their shops on December 25th. The poor especially missed their festival, enjoying an annual break from the norm. Christmas also symbolised the noble ideals Cromwell and his cronies were trying to quash.

In 1647, a law was passed banning anything to do with Christmas. It was no longer enough to ignore it; it would no longer be tolerated. Daring defenders of the festive season covertly decorated public places, draping evergreens under the cover of darkness. The Lord Mayor of London rode around the city the next day, setting fire to any decorations he saw. 

Attending church became risky business. Armed guards confronted those taking Christmas communion, aiming muskets at those taking the bread and wine, before arresting them.

For years after, riots broke out this time of year, especially in the east of England. In Ipswich, one protester known only as ‘Christmas’ was killed by a soldier. In Canterbury, Christmas supporters seized control of the city for weeks, in a last stand to protect the festival.

Cover of The Vindication of Christmas by John Taylor, 1652

Old Father Christmas himself became the face of political propaganda: a symbol of nostalgic old England in this time of Christmaslessness. Pamphlets illustrated this bearded winter guest as happy, if not yet jolly (wait a couple of centuries for that), contrasted with miserable Puritans. 

A much-loved dish was banned too: the Christmas pie. It was huge and crib-shaped (or coffin-shaped, representing two sides of Jesus’ life), so therefore idolatrous, especially when decorated with a pastry model of the infant Jesus. England’s food fans were an enterprising bunch though. They changed the pie’s shape and shrank it to something more bite-sized, more easily hidden in case caught out (stuff into mouth; mumble, “Who me?” while spraying crumbs at the officer in question). The name had to change too, so the new improved smaller pies were named after the mincemeat that was sometimes inside. The mince pie was born. 

Christmas pie consumption on December 25th is still officially illegal in England. The government hasn’t bothered overturning it, because no one’s really eating Christmas pies any more. Plus they’ve got other brand new Christmas laws to uphold, from three households-a-meeting to the Rule of Six geese-a-laying to five gold tiers (Scotland only, and yes they’ve finally reinstated Christmas).

Oh, Christmas did return by the way, when the monarchy came back in 1660. All these unusual periods come to an end.

Christmas may have changed over the years, but unexpected events can provoke change and innovation – whether thanks to Puritans or pandemic. Without the 1640s’ ban on Christmas, we wouldn’t have mince pies to guzzle. Arguably too they helped shift Christmas away from being a drunken street party, instead ushering the festivity into the home, to become something more domesticated and family-based.

Whatever you’re doing this Christmas (or allowed to do), learn from our 17th-century ancestors…

Don’t have a riot.

Have a mince pie.

Adapted by Paul Kerensa from his book ‘Hark! The Biography of Christmas’ (£7.99), available in all open bookshops or from Paul direct on paul@paulkerensa.com

My new Writing Course – now on Zoom


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Now available on Eventbrite, my Writing Course, for the first time widely available to all. Join us from home, writing for any genre. Here’s the blurb:

Paul’s writing workshop is used by BBC Writers Room. Now for the first time, it’s gone public.

Are you a writer looking to improve? Or want to be a writer, but don’t know where to start beyond your name at the top?

Whatever your level/genre/medium, from total newbie to established author or screenwriter, Paul’s online 6-week writing course will encourage and equip you. 

– Wednesday mornings, 10-11am (plus 15mins after for questions, clarifications and over-running)

– Sept 23rd to Nov 4th 2020, with a week off on Oct 21.

– 6 x 1hr sessions – with a bonus 7th session at the end if needed/wanted/remembered (details below). 

£75 early bird till Sept 14th

£89 late bird from Sept 14th

£19 per session if you don’t want the full works.

Paul’s writing seminars have been used by BBC Writers Room, London Screenwriters Festival and various arts festivals. Now it’s being made public and expanded for the first time.

His background includes sitcom (BBC’s Miranda, Not Going Out), scripting entertainment shows (Top Gear, TFI Friday, BBC Music Awards, Royal Variety Show), radio (The Now Show, The News Quiz, Pause For Thought), books (Amazon Top 100 bestseller Hark! The Biography of Christmas, + children’s books), articles, tweets and blurbs like this one. 

The course especially focuses on long-form narrative writing – which is a fancy of saying anything with a story: novels, screenplays, stageplays… You don’t have to have written any of these yet – just want to. 

(We won’t be as focused on shorter-form writing – sketches, stand-up, Post-It Note reminders etc… but what we talk about will certainly help short-form. Equally we’ll dwell more on fiction than factual, though elements will be of use to those writing non-fiction.)

Our focus is on Character and Story. That’s the meat of it (or plant-based substitute). Everything else is salad dressing.

We’ll look at sitcom, but from a character/story perspective. We’ll have a session on comedy, but won’t exclusively deal with that. So if you’re writing drama, the comedy session will be just as much about using comedy (as well as other genre conventions) in your dramatic writing.

The sessions will be interactive, to make sure you get the best out of the course. If there is any ‘homework’ set, it won’t be to be handed in/shared – they are purely exercises for your own benefit.

The sessions will be as follows:

SESSION 1 (Sept 23): Overview – Character/Story/Genre

SESSION 2 (Sept 30): Character/Relationships

SESSION 3 (Oct 7): Story structure 1: The Big Outline

SESSION 4 (Oct 14): Story structure 2: Scenes/Chapters

WEEK OFF (Oct 21): Writing time!

SESSION 5 (Oct 28): Comedy/Genre

SESSION 6 (Nov 4): Industry/Pitching

(Bonus SESSION 7 (Nov 11): Free Bonus Week If Wanted: Q&A, Networking, Repeat Any Bits)

You’ll also get a one-page PDF per session, summarising what we’ve spoken about – freeing you up from taking too many notes, and giving the chance to look over it again. Come back with queries next week. 

The sessions will be held on Zoom. They won’t be recorded. They will be ‘selectively interactive’. What does that mean? It means Paul will do most of the talking, but with times for questions and thoughts during each session. It’s an open forum, content guided by you to stay relevant. One person’s question can be another’s nagging thought, and one person’s answer can be another’s penny-drop moment. 

You’re encouraged to come to all the sessions, as they may refer to each other across the course, but individual sessions can be purchased on their own, and will stand alone where possible.

Please note: because this is a new format for the course, there’s a reduction on price. The course will be run again in the New Year but possibly not at this price level, or in this exact format.

(If you’re interested but can’t make these times, email Paul, as there may be scope for alternate timings if there’s enough interest. Or January 2021’s course may be at different times/days.)

Further queries? Email paul@paulkerensa.com

Want to book? Go for it. Places are limited.

Have friends who write and might fancy it? Share this page with them.

Book soon. Because we start soon!

PS: This is not a course that says ‘YOU MUST WRITE LIKE THIS’ (some do). No ‘on page 11 there must be this moment’. Just what works for me, the tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years, with an open mind, as we learn, discuss and improve.

Hope to see you then then. Book here, by all means, and do share with any writers (or writers-in-waiting) that you know.

Father’s Day: What links JFK + Pirate Radio?


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Caroline dancing

Here’s a charming photo I’d never seen before this week: JFK claps along as his children dance in the Oval Office.

I found it while researching for my new radio history podcast: The British Broadcasting Century. (Your ears on it would be most welcome, whether on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or other.)

But what could link this family moment in America’s highest office with old British radio?

The answer is well-known to true radio fans (‘anoraks’ – nicknamed after the anorak-wearing fans who’d visit the pirate radio ships. Pirate DJ Andy Archer came up with the name, and I might just be getting him on the podcast soon…).

The first British pirate radio station was set up by Ronan O’Rahilly in 1964, in frustration at a limited radio industry. The only audible stations at the time were the monopolistic BBC, or Radio Luxembourg with their pay-to-play model (record companies sponsored shows to get their artists airplay). 7 million would regularly listen to O’Rahilly’s station. But first it needed a name – both his offshore radio station, and the boat that hosted it off the Suffolk coast.

The above picture gave him the answer.

Two years earlier, O’Rahilly had seen this photo in Life Magazine: A young Caroline Kennedy dancing in her president dad’s office. The playful disruption of government, he called it.

That was just what his new pirate station sought to do. So he named his boat and his station after the girl. Years later in tribute, Radio Jackie would take their name similarly, but after Caroline’s mum, Jackie Kennedy.

We’ll tell some of this story on the 5th episode of the podcast, ‘Arthur Burrows: 1920’s All-Request Pirate’. There’s also an exclusive guest in another pirate radio legend, Emperor Rosko, who also appeared on Radio 1’s first line-up.

Researching, presenting and producing the British Broadcasting Century podcast in lockdown has been a challenge while home-schooling two children. We’ve had some hard days (both wife and wifi went downhill at similar times; both are gladly improving).

Looking at that picture of JFK and his dancing children reminded me that when you work from home – as he did, as I do, as many of us do now – you need to expect frequent visits from the youngsters, and be glad of them.

Caroline (and JFK Jr, also in the pic) playfully disrupted authority, as Radio Caroline then did. There was a time for business, but a time for dancing.

On Father’s Day, I’ll be glad that my children crash the office as much as they do, interrupting the workload with play, dance or wifi queries. I’m no president nor any great authority, but I can have a tendency to think my work matters more than it probably does – especially when it’s this podcast, which barely qualifies as work.

I don’t know how long lockdown will last. I don’t know how long my podcast will last. I do know it takes a lot longer to research, record and edit while school is happening across the room. But bring on the dancing…

If the President could find time to clap along, so will I.

‘The British Broadcasting Century with Paul Kerensa’ is free from all good podcast providers, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify + Podbean. Listen and subscribe now.

History of Broadcasting Paul Kerensa talk - pic

Screen Shot 2020-06-20 at 23.01.56

Happy 100th Birthday, Broadcast Radio!

I’ll keep this brief.

a) I hope you’re well.

b) It’s the centenary of professional public British broadcasting this coming Monday, June 15th 2020. Yet NO ONE’S TALKING ABOUT IT. It’s like a lockdown birthday party where no one’s turning up. So I’m giving an online talk that night you can ALL come to, cos you can stay home. 8pm-9pm, followed by Q&A. Via Facebook Live, on the FB page of Guildford Fringe Theatre Company. £Pay What You Want. Come! Details here.

c) The British Broadcasting Century podcast continues, online in your browser here or wherever you get podcasts. If you can rate/review/share, that’d be GORGEOUS of you. Many have, and it’s been lovely to see the pod’s been going down well. Someone today said he learned more in 20mins than in an entire Media Studies course – and it was fun along the way. So that’s nice. Inform, educate, entertain – those Reithian values apply to this podcast too…

d) Closing down now. The National Anthem follows…

History of Broadcasting Paul Kerensa talk - pic-1

My new podcast: The British Broadcasting Century… Subscribe now!


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Been a while, podpals!

This is a blatant plea to come and join my new podcast, The British Broadcasting Century. I’ll be geeking out about the origins of the BBC, radio and life as we know it, for a dozen or so episodes (in series 1; then who knows how many thereafter).

This is an extended trailer, with a few bonus clips just for being loyal podcastees here on A Paul Kerensa Podcast/The Heptagon Club.

But to catch the new one, you’ll need to subscribe to it, over at https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-british-broadcasting-century-with-paul-kerensa/id1516471271

and find us on Facebook.com/BBCentury

Stay safe & keep listening…