Is the Oxford Comma in Good Health?

Therese Coffey is the new Health Secretary in the UK Parliament. The NHS is in crisis (when isn’t it?), with GPs claiming exhaustion through overwork, doctor and nurse shortages, Accident and Emergency departments overflowing, hospitals crumbling, out-dated IT equipment malfunctioning, waiting lists growing, strikes threatened, the flu season almost upon us, and Covid not yet properly licked.

But the new health secretary has found time to send guidance to her civil servants on how she wants her reports written. One top priority is that she wants the Oxford Comma abolished from any documents they send her.

So, what is this offending item? The Oxford Comma, sometimes known as the serial comma, is the last comma in a sentence in which there is a list of things. For example: They all went for a walk; Mum, Dad, the kids, and the dog. (Did you notice I also included a sentence with an Oxford comma in my first paragraph?)

Both sentences would, in fact, make sense without the last comma, and some style guides and publishing houses advise against using a comma before the final and. They argue that the Oxford comma is an example of sloppy writing; it is either irrelevant as an aid to understanding or, if you feel you need one because the meaning of your sentence is confusing without it, the problem is a poorly constructed sentence, not a missing comma.

In a letter to the Times in response to Ms Coffey’s strictures, Sharon Footerman points out that the dedication at the front of her book: To My parents, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa, would be quite different from the understanding of her parentage if the dedication had read: To my parents, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa. Though, in fairness, those against the Oxford comma could say with some justification, that no one would be confused if she’d switched her sentence around and her dedication had read To Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa and my parents.

Yet others point out that the Oxford comma can add to, rather than alleviate, confusion. In another letter to the Times, a Dr Skinner believes that her statement I would like to thank my father, the Pope, and Dame Judi Dench gives quite the wrong impression of her paternal parentage, which the omission of the last comma would not.

In the end it is, as the more pragmatic style guides suggest, up to the writer to choose the grammar they feel best conveys what they mean to the reader. If an extra comma helps avoid confusion, and reads better than re-jigging the whole sentence to avoid it’s use, then put it in. If not – not. Ms Coffey should not object; she is reputed to be a pragmatist, after all.

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The Late Hilary Mantel on Love Letters

Hilary Mantel, author of the Wolf Hall trilogy and two times winner of the Booker Prize, died suddenly this week, from a stroke, aged 70. She had ill health most of her life, and was often in great pain which, she said, greatly reduced her career options, so she was only left with writing.

She wrote a lot more than historical novels; her oeuvre included other genres, non-fiction, essays, and plays. In her work and her lectures, she could be political, pointed and puckish, and was happy to comment on a wide range of topics, not least – of course – writing.

It is sad when any author dies when they still have so many more stories in them. She was, I understand, working on a play at the time of her death. Many people will have their favourite pieces of her writing – most of which will no doubt stand the test of time. I’m sure she’d like to be remembered, too, for some of her more light-hearted, if less well known, guidance for prospective writers. Such as her words of advice for anyone planning to pen a love letter (or two …)

First up, she warned against sending photocopies, even if you are adopting a somewhat scatter-gun approach to romance initially. Also, you should not enclose money (she didn’t give a reason why, but it should be obvious. Money off coupons however, were, in her view, acceptable).

 Perhaps surprisingly she was against sending a love letter in poetic form, describing it as “covert metrical bullying” to reach an end (think Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress). You might as well, she remarked, send a condom as it would deliver the same message – and be more useful.

Any gifts enclosed should be valuable, but not heavy, so your love interest doesn’t need help carrying the gift to the pawn shop if/when the relationship doesn’t work out.

Finally, she advised against drawing love hearts at the bottom of the letter. As she said, “Henry V111 used to do that, and look how his affairs ended up.”

The advice may not be a great deal of help to a prospective wooer in real life, but her lecture must have been great fun.

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Q? K? What’s in a Letter?

The moment the Queen died, her oldest son acceded to the throne: ‘The Queen is dead, long live the King!’

Other institutions were also immediately affected, not least the courts wherein prosecutions are henceforth brought in the name of the king, not the queen – with the first judgement in the king’s name having already been made, albeit in Australia not the UK.

Senior barristers, who for seventy years have been appointed as Queen’s Counsel immediately became King’s Counsel, with some changing their Twitter handle or bio from QC to KC with an almost unseemly haste. This included a KC, who will be nameless, who was among the first to change his Twitter handle to KC, and used the opportunity to tweet against the monarchy. (The irony of his actions may have been lost on him, but not on others).

As in real life, so in fiction: writers of courtroom dramas and related genres will have to employ KCs not QCs in future. And there is, maybe, scope for a story lines centred round the abrupt change. One new KC has talked about how he found the sudden change from QC having a “surprisingly profound emotional and psychological impact.”

The last surviving KC, appointed by King George 1V in 1951, died in 2006. The last person to be made a QC was a political appointment. Edward Timpson was appointed QC in July 2022 when he became solicitor-general. He was sacked earlier this month and his successor, Michael Tomlinson, will be the first KC to be appointed by King Charles when he is officially sworn in as the SG in the new prime minister’s government.

As the current king has two male heirs, there is unlikely to be a sudden switch from KC any time soon. Unless, that is, this link between the judiciary and the monarchy is loosened, and eligible barristers are appointed as, say, ‘senior counsel’ instead. More modern maybe, but nothing like so glamorous sounding in a traditional court room drama.

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The Queen’s English

There has never been a good time for the Queen to die, for with her goes one solid certainty in the lives of most of the people living in the UK – and beyond. For everyone under 70 there has only ever been one monarch on the throne. And with her death, so too goes ‘The Queen’s English.’

Not that there is anything as prosaic as a book called The Queen’s English. There is, though, a book called The King’s English. In fact, there are two. The first was compiled by two brothers – Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler. It was published in 1908 and contained brief articles on vocabulary, syntax, and punctuation. For example, if you wanted to know when you should use ‘shall,’ or where ‘will’ was more appropriate, the Fowler brothers had the answer.

The Fowlers’ book is now considered outdated, but many of its entries still reflect current usage, and it remains in print. As does the other The King’s English by Kingsley Amis that was first published in 1997. By then the Queen had been on the throne for 45 years and was set to reign for another 35 (but for a renowned misogynist like Amis, those 45 years must have seemed a mere blip in the normal way of things). As a result, for the past 70 years we have been using the Queen’s English, and talking about it, without the aid of any eponymously named guide.

What has been commonly referred to as the Queen’s English is also known as BBC English, Received Pronunciation, or Standard English: i.e. grammatically correct sentences free of slang or regional idioms. At best it is the kind of English taught to and spoken by those who learn English to an advanced level as a foreign language. At worst it is the faux posh of a certain type of English person who says ‘rugger’ for rugby, and sprinkles sentences with words like ‘jolly’ and ‘crikey’ – speech patterns the former prime minister, Boris Johnson, was fond of applying, and the Queen carefully avoided.

No doubt references to the Queen’s English will decline sharply from now, and the King’s English will be invoked. In anticipation, I have dusted down an old copy of Kingsley Amis’s tome – it’s surprisingly good!

NB: One point that neither Fowler nor Amis address, is the malapropism spotted on social media recently. Following the death of the Queen, her son Charles has not ascended to the throne (like Christ ascending into Heaven). Rather he has acceded to the throne. Accede (from the Latin accedere) means to enter upon or attain any office, albeit in this instance, a rather grand one.

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Meet American Author Susan Lynn Solomon

A former entertainment attorney, Susan Lynn Solomon is the facilitator of the Writer’s Critique Group that is co-sponsored by the Buffalo Central Library and Just Buffalo Literary Center.

She is the author of award-winning short stories, including Abigail Bender (awarded an Honorable Mention in a Writers Journal short romance competition) and Sabbath (nominated for the 2013 Best of the Net). A collection of her short stories, Voices in My Head, has been released by Solstice Publishing.

Ms. Solomon is also the author of the Emlyn Goode Mysteries. A finalist in Chanticleer International Book Award’s Mystery & Mayhem Novel category, and a finalist for the 2016 Book Excellence Award. Her first Emlyn Goode novel, The Magic of Murder, has received rave reviews, as have the novelettes, Bella Vita, The Day the Music Died, A Shot in the Woods, and ’Twas the Season. The second Emlyn Goode novel, Dead Again, was a finalist for both the 2017 McGrath House Indie Book of the Year and the 2018 Book Excellence Award. Writing is Murder, the third Emlyn Goode novel was awarded a First Place in the 2019 Chanticleer International Book Award Mystery & Mayhem category.

Stepping aside from mysteries, Ms. Solomon’s novel, Abigail’s Window, has been awarded a gold medal as a finalist in the Readers Favorite novel competition, and the Chanticleer International Book Award gave it the Grand Prize as the best paranormal romance of 2019.

And, as if all that isn’t enough, she has just published another book >>>>

Welcome to my blog, Susan, what is the title of your latest book?

Shooting Parr – it’s the first new Emlyn Goode Mystery in more than a year.

What is it about? Intrepid author Emlyn Goode needs a story for her next book. The next thing she knows, a child is pulled from the Niagara River! The corpse of that little girl is soon joined by the dismembered body Emlyn discovers on the Hyde Park Golf Course. What else can she do but climb into the middle of Roger Frey’s investigations and drag her best friend Rebecca Nurse along with her? While they search for the killer, two women disappear, and Emlyn is convinced that all these cases are the work of one person.

But her curiosity carries risk. Will she be able to unravel this puzzle before she, too, disappears?

What drove you to write it? Since the first Emlyn Goode Mystery was published in 2015, readers have enjoyed the main characters, Emlyn Goode, and Niagara Falls detective, Roger Frey, and especially their developing relationship. Over the past year so many readers have asked when these characters would at last get married, that I decided to return to the Emlyn Goode series and lead Emlyn and Roger to their marriage… although not too quickly. Shooting Parr ends with Emlyn and Roger ready to get married. In the next book…

What are you working on at the moment? The next Emlyn Goode Mystery is about half-written. This one will be titled Honeymoon Murder. As the title suggests, I won’t let Emlyn and Roger have a relaxing honeymoon. With all the trouble I keep getting Emlyn and her friends into, I’m surprised that they continue to talk to me.

What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of being a writer? For me the most challenging aspects arise once a first draft of a new book is finished. This is when the real work begins. I will go through the story at least two more times, tightening scenes and sentence structure, adding a few clues and red herrings before I show the first chapters to my novel writers’ group. Incredibly talented writers, they see things in the story line I’d missed. Based on their comments, I go back to the beginning and do another draft. As a result, I will have worked on eight or nine drafts before the novel is submitted to Solstice Publishing.

The book is then sent to Tony Kohler, my editor. Prodded by Tony there will be another three drafts before the book is released.

And the most rewarding? I have experienced so many rewarding moments since my first stories were published. Certainly, one is when I see a review written by someone who enjoyed my book. A second is at a fair when someone who has read my books stops at my tent. We talk about writing and then that person buys other books. Meeting new people in person and on social media sites is always a thrill. Perhaps, though, the most rewarding moment came when a young author I had worked with at the Buffalo Writers Critique Group had his first novel published.

What is your top tip for an aspiring writer? First, keep writing, don’t let negative comments or rejections deter you. I have a shoebox filled with rejections I received before my first stories were accepted by literary journals.

Second, join a writers group and consider each comment that the other writers make—both about your work and the work of others. Twenty years ago, when I began to write seriously I was introduced to the Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Writers Group. When I attended my first meeting of that group I thought I was, as my grandmother would’ve said, a whole goddamit. I soon learned otherwise. Because my back didn’t go up when I was told a sentence I wrote was clumsy or the structure of a chapter seemed out of place, or my protagonist was far from lovable, I worked with each comment, rewrote and rewrote the sentences and story sections. Within three years my first short stories were published, and then my first novel.

Where can readers find you? All of my books can be found on Amazon at:

I write an almost daily post on Facebook at:

Or you can come and see me in person! On September 10 I’ll be selling and signing my books at the St. Peter’s UCC Craft & Vendor Fair (that’s at 1475 Orchard Park Rd., West Seneca)

Excerpt from Shooting Parr

In a parade of three cars, we drove down the Niagara Scenic Parkway, got off at the traffic circle and then, by-passing the entrance to Goat Island, turned onto Main Street. Nearing the Niagara Falls library, one car behind the other we pulled to the curb at the triangle corner of Main Street and Portage Road. Now I knew the place Seth and April Frey had chosen for my birthday brunch. Not a fancy restaurant—fancy isn’t the Frey style. Here we would not be faced with an overloaded breakfast buffet like at the Ponderosa—overstuffing their stomachs also isn’t in the Frey playbook. Today I would be treated to my birthday morning meal at the Why. No question mark after the name of this luncheonette, it had apparently been named for the way the streets it straddled formed a Y.

 As I slid from the passenger seat of Roger’s Trail-blazer, I glanced around.

“What’re you looking for?” he asked.

“It’s Sunday, isn’t it?” I said.


Jonathan had parked in front of us. He and April left Jon’s blue car and went inside the restaurant so quickly, I figured they wanted to ensure that everything had been arranged as they’d specified. Seth walked up to where I stood next to Roger.

Again, I looked around. “Where is everyone?”

A breakfast crowd that flowed into a lunch crowd often filled the Why, and on weekends it always did. This meant that finding spots for three cars to park near the restaurant would be impossible. Today the block was almost clear of cars.

Roger shrugged and looked a question at his brother.

Giving us his signature dimple-cheek smile, Seth said, “We gonna eat or stand out here people watching?” He hooked his arm around mine and led me up the street.

As we neared the corner a man and a woman emerged from the restaurant. Just outside the door he stopped, grabbed the woman by the hood of her yellow sweatshirt and pushed her against the windowed wall.

“Why the hell didn’t you call first?” he shouted. “You couldn’t find out there’s a private thing goin’ on in there, ’steada makin’ me come all the way here and we can’t get in?”

Sounding like she spoke through tears, the woman said, “But Mike, how could I know about that? The Why never closes for a party.”

I recognized the woman. About the same height as my five-foot-seven and a little stout with long black hair tied in a ponytail, this was Irene Temple who had started to work at the Bella Vita Hair Salon about two months before.

 The man leaned close to her with the fingers of one hand spread on the window. His lips tight and his body tense, it looked as though he might smack her.

I pulled free of Seth and quick-stepped toward the couple. Roger and his brother moved just behind me.

“Irene, I didn’t know you come here,” I said.

Roger, his face stern, took his badge from his pocket and held it out.

The man backed away. “Don’t want no trouble,” he said. His dirty blond hair was almost completely covered by a stained blue baseball cap with the charging buffalo logo of our professional football team. He wore a red and black plaid flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I looked down at his clenched hands, then up at his tight jaw—the weakest jaw I had ever seen.

“I…” Irene hesitated, and turned her head to look at the man she’d called Mike. Strange, I didn’t see any fear in her eyes.


NB: Links to Margaret’s books and social media

You can find all my books and short stories on Amazon books, At least one story always free. ALL BOOKS FREE ON KINDLE UNLIMITED

Twitter: @meegrot

Chautauqua – and the assault on free speech.

At 10.45am on 13th August 2022, Salmon Rushdie stepped onto to the stage at the Chautauqua Institute in New York state, free from the heavy security he had been forced to live with for many years following the Fatwa imposed on him by Iran in 1989 for writing The Satanic Verses. By 10.47 he was on the floor, fighting for his life following multiple stab wounds inflicted by a man intent on stopping the author exercise his right to say what he wanted and remain alive. Thankfully, though Rushdie has suffered life changing injuries, he is now on the road to recovery – and has been re-booked by the institute to return when he is well enough.

The Chautauqua Movement was founded on the shores of lake Chautauqua at the end of the nineteenth century to educate and support Sunday School teachers. This quickly expanded into a wider range of inspirational and educational lectures and other cultural events, with the aim of bringing differing religious and other groups together to share knowledge and find common ground between themselves. The ensuing eponymous institute has become a bastion of high minded and free–flowing exchange of thought; the word Chautauqua, likewise, became synonymous with the ideas of tolerance and sharing ideas.

Where did the word – Chautauqua – come from. It sounds Native American and is in fact an Iroquois word that came to mean, alternatively, a bag tied in the middle, or two moccasins with their laces tied together. Both meanings are supposedly references to the shape of the lake – the Chautauqua – beside which the Institute was built. It is the latter meaning that was picked up on by the Chautauqua Movement, basing their ideas on the benefits of people talking ‘toe to toe;’ meeting formally and informally, gathering to share ideas, ‘talking shop.’

It is therefore deeply ironic that this word, Chautauqua, which embraces the notions of free speech and inspirational learning, now has a new and unhappy association with a crazed attempt to supress both.

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Consider the Optics

Newspaper articles increasingly use the word optics rather than look. More often than not it is used to convey a negative opinion. As in: ‘The Tory leadership candidates touring the country tearing each other to shreds, isn’t good optics for the party.’ Or: ‘the optics aren’t auspicious for Prince Andrew’s desire to return to public life.’ Or: ‘Surely it is poor optics to ban a group of lesbians from a Pride march?’

Consider the optics – no not these ones!

In all these sentences, some people have argued, it should be about the look of the thing, not the optics. Optics, after all, is that branch of science concerned with vision, sight, and light. (Alternatively, an optic is a device you attach to those big upside-down bottles of spirits you see behind the bar in pubs). It’s nothing to do with the public perception of a thing. In regard to halting the growing use of optics, though, to use another phrase increasingly popular in the Press these days, ‘that ship has sailed.’

You might not find optics as a synonym for look in the hardback dictionary gathering dust on your bookshelf, but it is different online. Collins online dictionary, for example, explains that ‘the optics of an action or event are the way it looks to people … the superficial appearance of an action or event.

Why has optics become so popular recently? Rose Wild, in The Times, attributes this to the TV drama Succession, first shown in 2018. The Roy family or their associates obsessively speculate, in regard to one scheme or other, about what the optics will be. I’ve never watched an episode of Succession, so have not been directly influenced by the series, but I can read about optics in the papers without experiencing any shock to the system, may even use the word myself one day.

So, will the new use for this word become established? At a guess, I would say the optics are looking good.

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Less is More (Or Something Like That)

Those of us of a certain age, were brought up believing that fewer must be used for things you can count the number of, and less applies to an amount of stuff that you can’t count, as in: ‘In this current heatwave, there is less water in the reservoirs, and fewer bottles of water in the shops.’ 

Many of us have taken a pedantic, not to say smug, pleasure in pointing out the sloppy thinking behind those signs in supermarkets above the quick service lanes for those with ‘ten items or less.’ (It’s FEWER, you morons – don’t schools teach kids anything, these days?!!)

But it is the pedants who are wrong. The interchangeability of less and fewer goes back over a thousand years, and there are several examples in the Oxford English Dictionary to prove it. Apparently the less/fewer rule was an invention of a grammarian at the end of the eighteenth century who clearly had nothing better to do. After all we use more as the opposite of both less and fewer – less water : more water. Fewer bottles : more bottles.

Similar arguments about declining standards are put forward in regard to amount and number in articles. There have been letters to the papers recently about the inappropriate use of amount‘the record amount of people attending the recent football match between the Lionesses and Germany.’ Surely, these indignant letter writers opine, anyone with any education knows it should be number, as the crowd is countable. (It is the amount of new enthusiasm for the women’s game that is not). That is, number, like fewer, relates to countable items; amount, like less, to the non-countable.

Again, the OED does not support the critics. People have been using amount and number interchangeably in many situations for centuries. There is no actual rule to say you shouldn’t. It is a matter of personal preference, and what sounds right to you – I will still write about collecting a number of apples from my neighbour’s tree, and tut-tut about the amount of rotting fruit they leave on their lawn. But such disapproval is uncharitable. Likewise it is best to keep to myself any opinion of anyone who chooses to gather an amount of apples in similar circumstances.

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9th August 1849, The Last Public Hanging in Coventry UK

It is a quirk of the English language that pictures are hung (in a gallery) while people are hanged (from the gallows). Mary Ball was the last person to be hanged in Coventry UK. She denied poisoning her husband, but the jury found her guilty. However, having heard evidence of her ill treatment by her father and her violent husband, they asked the judge to imprison her rather than send her to the gallows.

The judge was having none of it, re-directed the jury to find her guilty of wilful murder, and sentenced her to death. Aged just 31, she was hanged before a huge crowd in an era when public hangings were a form of entertainment. However, many reported that they regretted attending, and public hanging in England was soon outlawed.

A vigil for her was planned outside the old prison in Coventry for the 9th August This is not now going ahead, but in lieu some people might like to read the story a friend of mine, Margaret Mather, wrote about her tragic life. This was published in an anthology in, Coventry Tales, in 2011, and is still available on Amazon books:

Margaret has kindly given me permission to reproduce her story here.


“Mary Ball, you have been found guilty of wilful murder. You poisoned your husband, Thomas Ball, by administering arsenic to him. You will be taken to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead. This will take place tomorrow, the ninth day of August 1849 at 10 o’clock in Pepper lane, Coventry. Do you have anything to say?”

“No sir,” Mary whispered.

“Take the prisoner down. The judge stood up, took the black cloth from his head and placed it on the table. Without a backward glance he left the room.

Mary was half dragged, sobbing, to the cells. Two burly prison guards opened the door and unceremoniously threw her in. She heard the ominous grating of a key turn in the rusty lock and the gleeful voices of the prison guards as they stumbled up the dimly lit corridor.

“It should be a right good hanging. Twenty thousand people I’ve heard tell are coming to see her drop.”

“Many are coming from her home town, Nuneaton. People from Bedworth have already started walking. There’s nothing they like better than a good hanging.”

“They say it’s to be the last ever female public hanging in Coventry.”

“Aye, John, everyone will want to be a part of that.”

“I’m taking the wife and kids. What about you, Will?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Food’s already packed.”

Their voices drifted away until all that could be heard were faint murmurings.

The room smelt of rotting cabbage; it was filthy and the stub of a candle stood in the middle of a wooden table. Straw covered the stone floor. Mary didn’t take much notice of her surroundings. Her head felt as if it would burst as she tried to take in the enormity of the position she found herself in.

How had it come to this? At the age of 31, here she was in prison, condemned for a crime she did not commit. Who would look after her daughter? What was to become of her? She was only 4 years old. The only thing left for her now would be the workhouse, and Mary cursed the day she had caught the eye of the girl’s father.

She lay down on the cold stone floor and tried to get some sleep. She must have drifted off, and woke with a start to find a man dressed in black shaking her roughly by the shoulders.

“Wake up you stupid girl, wake up,” he shouted in her ear.

Mary rubbed the sleep from her eyes and, as she became more aware, noticed that the candle was alight and two chairs were placed at the table. The candle threw long shadows into the corners of the small cell. A shiver ran through her and she began to shake uncontrollably.

“Mary Ball, I am the prison chaplain and I’ve come to ask you to put your mark on this confession.”

Mary was startled. “Why do you want a signed confession, I have already been found guilty.”

“You have professed your innocence all through your trial. I need a proper confession, one that will show how right we were to hang you. Now make your mark upon this paper, girl, and be quick about it.” The chaplain handed her a quill.

“I can’t do that, sir, I did not poison my husband.”

“Well now, that’s a great pity because I need a confession and I can guarantee that before sun rises I shall have it.”

Mary wasn’t sure how he would do that, but she had heard some gruesome stories about the torture that went on in these places. The tone of his voice terrified her and she knew that whatever he had in mind wouldn’t be pleasant.

“Come over here, girl; sit on that chair.”

Mary did as he ordered.

He sat opposite her. His dark eyes seemed to probe into her soul. She could smell ale on his breath, and gave an involuntary shiver.

“Now give me your hand.”

She did as asked. His grip was as hard as iron. Reaching for the candle, he pulled it close and at the same time lifted her hand in the air. Mary could tell by the speed of his hand that he had done this many times before. The candle was placed directly under her arm. She could feel the heat and tried to pull away, but he tightened his grip. Her flesh started to bubble and a smell akin to burnt pork reached her nostrils as a searing pain ran through her body.

She screamed. He carried on burning her flesh over the naked flame, oblivious to her cries of pain.

“Please let go of my arm, I beg you sir,” she pleaded.

He grinned at her. “Confess and I’ll stop. You have nothing left to lose.”

She knew he was right,

“Please stop, and after you have listened to my sorry tale, I will make my mark.”

“Carry on, I have all night,” he sneered, releasing his grip on her arm.

Mary quickly pulled her arm back. Blisters had started to form and they were hellishly painful. She was not going to let it show and in a quiet, dignified voice, she began to tell him about the events that led up to this horrific moment.

“I was the daughter of Isaac Wright and Alice Ward. My father was the innkeeper of the White Hart Inn, Market Square, Nuneaton. My mother died in childbirth.

“Blaming me for my mother’s death, my father made sure that I would cook, clean and wait on tables from an early age. I had to endure the sly touches from his customers when he wasn’t looking, the beatings for lying when I told him what they had done, and the awful loneliness. He never married again but plenty of women shared his bed.

“He would make me sleep in the kitchen with the dogs and woe betides if I ventured upstairs for any reason other than to clean. I wanted to escape this life, and when Thomas Ball told my father he would take me off his hands for a small fee, he agreed, and I thought anything would be better than this life of drudgery.

“I was wrong. Thomas Ball took great delight in using me as a punch bag. Even when I was nine months pregnant he would take his belt to me in one of his drunken rages. I lost five babies due to his beatings. I began to think I would never have any children. Then, when I was eight months pregnant with my last child, my father took seriously ill. He insisted that I move back in for a month or so to look after him and he bribed Thomas with a free glass or two of ale every night. That gave me just enough time for my daughter to be born without the constant threat of beatings.

“She was a beautiful baby, but it wasn’t long before the beatings started again, and when he had punched me senseless he would turn his attention to our daughter. I tried my best to protect her. At the start of one of my husband’s rages I would send Mary Ann outside to play in the street. It was safer there than back in her own home.”

Mary looked up into the face of the prison chaplain and thought she saw pity there, as if he realised she was someone who had been greatly mistreated by everyone she had ever come into contact with. He looked ashamed now of his torture, but Mary guessed he would soon be justifying himself by thinking that if he hadn’t done it, someone else would have.

“I hated my husband, loathed him with every breath that I took. I wished him dead many, many times but kill him, no, I didn’t kill him – he killed himself.

“Yes, I bought the arsenic from the chemist in Market Square and yes, I sat the bottle in the mantelshelf, but it was to kill bugs. I always put it high up, out of reach from my daughter. Thomas came home late; he was drunk and smelt of perfume from his latest woman. I had never seen him so drunk. He fell asleep on the chair and I went to bed happy in the knowledge that at least for one night my daughter and I would be safe.

“When I awoke the next morning, I found Thomas lying on the floor clutching a blue glass bottle. In his drunken stupor he had picked it up, believing it to be stomach salts. I took the bottle from his hand and hid it in my apron before sending for the doctor, because I knew I’d get the blame.

“Everything would have been fine, if someone hadn’t decided to tell the police that I had been heard in the street shouting at him ‘I’ll do for you!’ They decided on a post-mortem and, analysing his stomach contents, found more than the usual amount of arsenic.

“All my life I have fought so desperately hard, but when I heard the knock on the door and opened it to find the police standing there, I knew right there and then that my life was over. I would never see my daughter again.

“The only thing I can do for her now is to go to my death with grace and dignity.” The tears poured down her cheeks as she lifted her eyes and looked into the face of her tormenter.

“I believe you Mary, but I cannot do anything about it. I can, however, promise you that I will find a kindly family to look after your daughter and that she will be well cared for.”

“Thank you, sir. That’s all I can hope for.” Mary made her mark on the paper.

The day of the execution was sunny with a slight breeze; ideal hanging weather. The roads from Nuneaton and Bedworth were full of men, women and children, some riding, some walking. Laughter and music filled the air and a real gala day atmosphere was everywhere. There were pedlars on every street corner selling their wares; the smell of hog roast and fresh bread filled the nostrils as you passed. People were placing bets on how long it would take Mary to die. The Golden Cross had never been so busy. They couldn’t fill the jugs quickly enough.

Mary had walked the floor of her cell all night and, although exhausted, she knew it wouldn’t be long before she could leave this cruel world behind. In a resigned fashion she longed for 10 o’clock to come, when the noose would be placed around her neck and all of her past pain would disappear. She could hear the laughter and the music from the crowd outside and hoped she didn’t disappoint. Her only regret – Mary Ann, her daughter.

The prison chaplain entered Mary’s cell along with two guards. He found it difficult to look at her after listening to her story last night. The guards shackled her arms and legs with heavy chains.

“Please sir, what will happen to my body after I’m dead? Will there be a headstone for my grave?” The chaplain looked at Mary and, with almost a hint of pity in his voice, he said,

“I’m sorry but your body will be buried upright in an unmarked grave, underneath the cobbles, beyond the grounds of Holy Trinity Church. All murderers must be buried upright so that they may never rest in peace. A death mask will be cast of your face and will be placed on a pole for everyone to look at in quiet contemplation. There will be no headstone.”

It was a short walk from the goal to the gallows in Pepper Lane. Mary summoned from deep within all of the strength and dignity needed to see her through the next ten minutes. As she stepped up to the gallows, there was a hush from the huge crowd. They held their breath; the rope was placed over her head and the trapdoor opened. Mary’s body jerked once or twice like a puppet on strings and then stopped.

The crowd erupted.


‘Sex’ or ‘Gender’?

Back in the day, when I studied Latin at a girls’ grammar school, I learnt that all nouns had a gender – masculine, feminine, neuter. The masculine/ feminine, minus the neuter, found its way into French grammar lessons too, but not into English – which was a relief as our language is quite complicated enough already.

Sex (male / female) was studied in biology classes and, as I attended a reasonably progressive school, we learnt about sex and sexual reproduction in humans rather than rabbits. (Not sure who was the more embarrassed; the young male teacher, or the increasingly pink faced girls he studiously avoided eye contact with, as he delivered the lesson to the back corner of the ceiling).

Outside school, we understood gender to be a polite alternative to using the word sex – with its happy or embarrassing (depending on your point of view) extra meaning of sexual intercourse. Hence, forms that asked for someone to indicate their sex, would often be completed with comments like ‘yes please,’ or ‘five times a night.’ Asking for someone to indicate their gender, though, would get the more useful, if duller, reply ‘male’ or ‘female,’ or possibly ‘prefer not to say / other.’

But language around gender has become more complicated and charged, especially in the last decade or so. Since the 1970s, in academic circles, the term was slowly expanded to deliver a range of other nuanced meanings. Yes, it has continued to be a grammatical term used in the study of many languages, and a very commonly used synonym for sex among the general population, but, spreading from academia, a common understanding is being lost in a range of subtle extra definitions.

Hence, gender is sometimes used to denote social stereotypes that are sex based (male / female). Viz: high heels and lippy = feminine; a fondness for DIY and car engines = masculine. Gender is also being used to differentiate between social roles – carer / cleaner / housewife = female; breadwinner / captain of industry / janitor = male. To women coming of age in the late 60s – 80s, who were brought up with the notion that girls can do or be anything – engineers, mechanics … (and likewise boys can wear velvet and become nurses …), such biological determinism doesn’t sound remotely progressive.

These seem to have been, however, steps on the way to introducing the notion of ‘gender identity’ into the language. I.e. no matter that your sex was recorded as male or female when you were born, you are the gender you feel most comfortable as (or conform most stereotypically to?) Hence some high profile trans identified males, who choose to live their public lives in dresses and high heels, have stated that they feel they perform femininity better than most women. In contrast, that is, to many women, particularly over a certain age, who happily slop around in sensible shoes and slacks (Velcro rocks!) and never doubt their femaleness. A trans acquaintance, aware of these language nuances but grounded in biological reality, says about gender v sex – ‘I identify with women, not as a woman.’ It’s a nice distinction; both thoughtful about the purpose behind transitioning, and considerate of female sensibilities.

Writing about sex and gender, even when it is not the direct subject of your book, has become a tricky area. So many readers are still blissfully ignorant that gender is anything other than a politer term for sex, but others – some of them quite forceful – insistent that gender, as in ‘gender identity’, trumps sex as a person’s defining attribute, whether that ‘person’ is the author, reader, or a character in the book. Which creates a potential minefield for modern writers in some genres.

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