Francesca finds fiction fodder in her own life
I can’t say my life has been remarkable, but many elements of it have served as starting points for my short stories and novels, even if the stories themselves have taken a different path.
So, what of my life? I was born above a café in Worthing in nineteen hundred and frozen to death (otherwise known as 1957), to an Italian father and Welsh mother. One of my first memories is standing on the tiny bedroom balcony, looking out to sea. When I was three we moved to Littlehampton, where my dad had a café facing the river. We lived in a house a mile away.
My childhood was complicated as my mother, haunted by several demons in her life, descended into alcoholism. She regularly left me outside pubs for hours. To occupy myself, I used to make up stories. I guess it was the start of my writing life. For all her problems my mum, like many from the Celtic races, was a brilliant story teller, weaving tales that she sometimes taped for me on an old tape recorder.
When I was twelve, she got Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a kind of long term alcohol poisoning caused by the lack of vitamin B1. Ironically it saved her – and me, I think. She died at fifty of a heart attack when I was twenty-six. My father followed six weeks later, broken hearted.
Some of my happiest memories were spent in my Welsh great gran’s house. She was a no nonsense type of lady, but kind. I was twenty-nine when she died at the age of 97, so she filled much of my young adult life. I still miss her.
Having an Italian name left me open to a fair amount of bullying at school, thanks to Mussolini’s antics twenty years earlier. It wasn’t only the pupils who were guilty. Despite that, I made good friends and did well at school. As a teen, I worked the summer holidays in the café. In winter, I’d get up at some godforsaken hour, catch the minibus in the damp pre-dawn and spend the morning in windowless sheds picking mushrooms. I left school at eighteen to attend Froebel College in Roehampton, where I did a degree in history and education, followed by a PGCE.
I met Andrew while we were still at uni. Froebel was 90% women, Imperial College, where he went, 90% men. It was a no-brainer that we should frequent each other’s discos. Quite a few of our friends married too. When we graduated, I became a primary school teacher in London. I did consider doing archive studies, but teaching won out. After we moved to Kent we started a family. Our four children are now 31, 29, 25 and 23, which I find totally shocking to think about!
While I was bringing them up, I found plenty of voluntary work to do. I was the supplies officer for the local nursery school. I joined the National Childbirth Trust and was a post natal support coordinator and chairman of the local branch. I also ran their toddler group in the village for several years. At the parish church, I was the magazine editor (and wrote many of the articles!), helped run the buggy service and was a junior church leader for ten years. In the local school I did an afternoon a week teaching library skills.
My interests, apart from writing, are Italian and family research. I attended an Italian class for over twenty years, gaining an A level and good friends. I’ve investigated much of my mother’s family. Despite being humble mining/farming folk, their lives, intrigues and tragedies make fascinating reading. I was amazed at how many shot gun weddings there were! Delving into my father’s Italian family is more difficult, though I’m lucky to have a lot of first hand information. My father’s story is begging to be adapted into a novel. One day I will learn Welsh (maybe!).
I decided to take my writing further in 2006, thanks to an Adult Education creative writing class run by Elaine Everest. Soon after, I also accepted a part time job as a lead exam invigilator at a nearby secondary school. If I wrote down those tales, nobody would believe them! I gave that up three years ago, the same time, coincidentally, as I became a ‘nonna’. I now have three gorgeous grandchildren and a blog about them I update occasionally called Nonna Blog.
I have never got used to living inland and would love to reside by the sea again. Having lived on the south coast, I find the Kentish north coast weird – the sun rises and sets in the wrong places! I dream of opening my curtains of a morning and spying the beach, much as I would have done as a toddler. It would be like coming full circle.
If I could time shift back to 1974 to talk to my teenage self, what would I say? Firstof all I’d tell her she’s tired all the time because she has an underactive thyroid and to get the doctor post haste!
I’d also tell her that it is possible to get published and not to put it on the back boiler for another thirty-two years.
Two of my stories based on incidents from my life or that of a family member can be found in these anthologies:
Other true stories from my life published in The Guardian: