A fourteen year old girl gets raped. A man attacks his parents with a blade. A thirteen year old is kidnapped and taken to a brothel. An abused woman tries to kill herself and her child. A nine year old boy murders a six year old. The news doesn’t get any better, does it? Or perhaps it doesn’t get any worse, because all these stories were printed in The News of The World, not from September 2008, but Sunday October 1st 1843. That gives the lie (which you didn’t believe, did you) to the story that Victorian times were halcyon days of goodness and peace. Pfft.

I have a small collection of old newspapers (original and reproduction) and they are a continual source of interest and information. Not only do they give you a factual background – assuming that you remember that, like all sources, they are written for a certain point of view and for a certain audience – but they give a wonderful flavour of the time they’re from. I never really thought anyone actually did seriously report that there’d been laughter in court, but the Daily Telegraph does, in 1855, in a paternity case concerning a Mrs Thatcher (I kid you not).

I would adjure you to be careful about the matter of accurate reporting; that’s something else which hasn’t changed much over the years. I refer you to The Daily Mirror of April 16th 1912 . “Montreal, April 15 – It is now confirmed here that the passengers of the Titanic have been safely transhipped to the Allan liner Parisian and the Cunarder Carpathia. The Virginian is still towing the Titanic towards Halifax.” So now you know the truth.

And it’s the little snippets which are so fascinating. Do you know what was showing in the London theatres on D-day? I do. You could have seen, among others, the lovely Robert Donat in Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. Or would you have preferred (perhaps more apt for this blog) Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years? I know, because my paper tells me so. And I bet the reports about ‘what’s on’ are more accurate than some of the news items.

I love the adverts, as well. A wonderful source of information on fashions, prices, ‘lingua franca’. Fancy your hero in a nice pair of men’s poplin pyjamas from Selfridges? They’d only cost you 5/- (that’s five shillings to you youngsters, i.e. 25 pence) in 1935. Now, writers beware, those adverts might just catch you out, if you have your hero reading the headlines on the front page of the paper, because for most of the time The Macaronis are writing in, the average British newspaper might well have had adverts/notices on the front of it. Research needed before you commit the faux pas.

You might also be caught out if your 1950’s hero can’t sleep and decides to get up and watch middle-of-the-night TV. Even in 1966, UK TV programmes ended at 11.20 pm and didn’t start until 9.00am the next day. (According to the Telegraph of Sunday July 31st 1966. Prize to anyone who

can spot why I have that particular paper.) Actually, as it was Sunday, ITV didn’t start until 11.00am. Still, if you had Southern region, you could watch the film ‘Captain Horatio Hornblower’ in the evening so it wasn’t all bad.

So, if you want to add a little authentic touch to your tale, why not get your hands on a newspaper from the time/location of your story? You can find some of them online, e.g. at http://archive.timesonline.co.uk/tol/archiveand specific issues can sometimes be purchased directly from the publishers. It’s cheaper to root them out at things like jumble sales, or buy reproduction copies. Or ask me if I’ve got just the one you want.

I’m off now to puzzle over what story lies behind “LENA-Balham tube 12 today-CLANCY” and whether “Bar assistant man, wants job” ever got one, or if the death of John F Kennedy the day before rather overshadowed the intrigues of the personal column.

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