Back in Time For a Cup of Coffee at The Criterion

Francesca talks about the inspiration behind her 3-part serial, The Criterion, which begins in The People’s Friend this coming week. 

The Criterion in the 1970s, having gone through a name change

I know I’ve mentioned before on this blog how some of my writing has been inspired by my family history. The very first novel I wrote, a Young Adult called Sea Angel, came about because of my own experience working in the family cafe as a teenager. My short story Far From Home,  published in the anthology 7 Food Stories from Rome began as my attempt to imagine what it might be like to move to England from Italy as a young widow with a twelve-year-old son, as my grandmother did. The idea for the historical novel I’m currently working on came from a World War One document I found on Ancestry.co.uk detailing the discharge of a Welsh great-grandfather on medical grounds.

The Criterion today, now a hair salon

The first of those is a contemporary, while the latter two both take place in 1915. My serial for The People’s Friend, The Criterion shifts to a different time entirely: 1955. It’s the era of the Ten Pound Poms, and the story begins with my main female character, Gwen Hughes, talking to her disgruntled grandmother about her impending departure to Australia. Renzo Crolla, the male protagonist, owns a cafe in Worthing, The Criterion of the title.

Some of the characters in the serial are based on real people, some are an amalgam, while others are completely fictitious. The story is based only very loosely on that of my family (I might tell you the real story one day). The Criterion in Worthing, however, was a real cafe, owned by my grandmother and father, a kind of character in itself. My grandmother, a war widow, emigrated to England in 1927 with my father. Much of her family were already over here. In 1930 she bought

My mum behind the counter c1958

The Criterion from her brother. I was born in the cafe twenty-eight years later and lived there until I was nearly four-years-old. My father rented the cafe out for a further seven years. Finally he sold it in 1968. It went on being a cafe for a number of years afterwards, known as the Californian, but today it’s a hairdressing salon.

The building itself is Georgian, so what it was originally I have no idea, presumably not a cafe. Perhaps my next project will be to find out something of its history. If I gather enough material I might be able to use it for another story!

Evening trade, c1958

 

The Criterion, a 3-part serial, starts in The People’s Friend in the issue dated 27th May.

7 Food Stories from Rome is available here.

In the story, Renzo was interned on the Isle of Man during World War 2, as was my father. The piece I wrote for The Guardian about it can be viewed here

 

Me outside the cafe, 1959, with Worthing promenade in the background

Mum and Dad in 1955

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

@FCapaldiBurgess

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Setting Out on a Journey

Francesca takes a journey around the settings she’s used so far

At the moment I’m working on a number of projects, and it got me thinking about the different settings I’m using. On the whole I’ve used known settings in my short stories, novels and novellas, though I’m likely to rename them and take liberties. Some of the locations are from my childhood, like Littlehampton, Worthing and Brighton (renamed Costerham, Ording and Telmstone respectively).

Brighton, taken from the Wheel.

Brighton, taken from the Wheel.

Worthing Pier.

Worthing Pier. Something I’m working on currently is set in Worthing, as Worthing, and I hope to have news of that soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then there are the settings I’ve discovered through family research like the former mining town of Abertysswg (where my mother was born) and Castle Pill, near Milford Haven, where one of my great-great grandfathers was born. These settings gave me the idea for three short stories, one about someone researching her family (like me!) and two historicals set in 1908 and 1915.

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Some of my ancestors lived in Castle Pill, somewhere around this field, as far as I can tell.

Abertysswg, all evidence of the coal mines invisible these days. My mother was born in a house in the middle terrace on the hill.

Abertysswg, all evidence of the coal mines invisible these days. My mother was born in a house in the middle terrace on the hill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A novella set in ‘Telmstone’ also has a section set in Rome. I’ve visited there three times and had longed to use it in my writing. And what could be a more passionate setting for a romance?

Newcastle: two of my characters stood on Gateshead Millennium Bridge.

Newcastle: two of my characters stood on Gateshead Millennium Bridge.

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Piazza della Rotunda in Rome, with the Pantheon in the background. A bustling setting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My stories have taken me on excursions to many other places, including Skye, Margate, Brixham, Newcastle and the coast of Ceridigion. Of all the settings I’ve used, the only one I haven’t known or visited, as far as I’m aware, is Brisbane, where I relied on Google and Google Earth for information. Having had a good look at it, I’d love to visit there some time in the future.

Brixham Miracles 2008

Brixham: my daughter and brother-in-law are on the dinghy. This inspired two stories

While I’m writing stories in different locations, I often feel I’m actually there. It’s a great way of visiting anywhere you like as you sit at your desk. Or is that just me?

Happy travels.

Do you use settings you’ve visited, or do you write outside of your experience?

@FCapaldiBurgess

 

Francesca Capaldi Burgess: It’s All Going in the Book…

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.

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Outside the cafe in Worthing

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.

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How I wish I could grow my hair this long again.

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.

Me and Mum

Me and Mum

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.

Cafe in Littlehampton c1968. Great Gran is the little lady.

Cafe in Littlehampton c1968. Great Gran is the little lady.

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.

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Maxis the first time round.

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.

Young love at the disco.

Young love at the disco.

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!

Was I ever this thin?

Was I ever this thin?

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!).

When the children were young.

Before my children had their own children

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.

Littlehampton today

Littlehampton today

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.

Aged 16

Aged 16

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.

@FCapaldiBurgess

 

Two of my stories based on incidents from my life or that of a family member can be found in these anthologies:

Diamonds and Pearls: A Sparkling Collection of Short Story Gems

7 Food Stories from Rome

Other true stories from my life published in The Guardian:

Dad’s lucky escape in the war

Dining room dancing with mum

A song for my daughter, Carmela