Mary Preston

Ninety-seven years ago, in Claughton Village on the Wirral Peninsula, a baby girl was born who grew up to be – among other things – my grandmother. Mary Magdalene Preston, née Mackin. My lovely Nan.

I’ve dedicated The Weaverfields Heir (coming 22nd June) to my Nan and Grandad, Mary and Tom Preston. Grandad was a builder, an occupation and business that features heavily in the novel. Nan was one of my inspirations to write.

I didn’t realise that at the time. Teenaged boys rarely do. But I know now.

She was a wonderful storyteller. She held me spellbound, effortlessly, with tales of big family childhood days involving all the siblings and cousins I knew as grown-ups, and of Saturdays and school holidays helping in the dockland café her family ran; of long hard hours when she entered “service” as a maid straight from school; and of how she’d worked her way up to the position of cook by the time she was twenty-five.

She used to grin and wink when she reached the bit where she got the job of Head Cook in a big hospital just as the Second World War started, which always suggested to me that there’d been a degree of blagging involved.

Because she was a blagger, and proud of it. She’d definitely kissed the Blarney Stone, which no doubt helped her move on from the hospital to a better job in a posh school after the war, and then helped her move up the ladder again a few years later to the position of Catering Manager in a big maritime manufacturing company on the banks of the River Mersey.

That was where she was when I came along. She stayed with that company for the rest of her working life, overseeing a scarily busy commercial kitchen that served hundreds of employees in the working men’s cavernous café, a smarter café for the office workers, the managers’ quiet restaurant, and the directors’ luxurious dining room.

When I say she was a blagger, I don’t mean she couldn’t do her job. I remember how not only her personal office but also that whole huge kitchen and all the restaurants were filled with her personality. She shaped the place, and there was no blagging involved in that.

What I mean is that in her early life, she never let anything prevent her from shooting for her dreams. She would assure the appropriate someone that a task was well within her capabilities, and then she’d make sure it was. Somehow. Always. She was like a swan, all smiling capability on the surface while she paddled like hell under the water. That was a big part of her storytelling skill, too.

Thank you, Nan. I still hear your stories in your lovely voice, all these years later, and I still smile. You’ve never left me. I love you. Happy Birthday.

I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.

Last Friday was a horrible day.

First, I came downstairs to find my aquarium had suffered a catastrophe, when the heater cover shattered leaving the element exposed underwater. Overnight, we’d lost two of the lovely playful danios and three mature apple snails (real characters I used to chat to while I worked, whose trick of hitching rides on ascending bubble clouds and parachuting back to the bottom always made me chuckle), leaving four orphaned baby snails and a single surviving danio being bullied mercilessly by three silvertips. We put a new heater in that morning and cleaned the aquarium as gently as possible, but all the survivors were subdued and some seemed traumatised.

Then, at 5.30 in the evening UK time, my favourite online community was destroyed.

In 1999 the Guardian newspaper opened a talkboard (called Guardian Unlimited Talk and known as GUT or GU) which grew with hardly any input from its owners into a fabulous community of thousands.

It’s huge and I doubt any individual knows all of it, but most people are like me, frequenting several different parts of the board, getting to know a few hundred posters and making some genuine friendships. I know of several marriages and births that have come from people meeting on GU. Someone told me yesterday she knows twenty couples. People attended each other’s weddings and many couples chose other GUers as godparents for their kids.

People from all walks of life are there. We’ve helped each other through dark times (I know of two GUers for certain who wouldn’t be around now if it hadn’t been for the support given unreservedly by others during their respective times of crisis, and I believe there are more than those two), celebrated each other’s joys, and grieved together when GUers died.

GU is the wittiest, cleverest, most outrageously and delightfully anarchic community I ever have and probably ever will be part of.

There are some nutters in the mix, of course. There always are. But the vast majority are normal articulate people, and many are brilliant. Truly brilliant. I’ve read thousands of posts by many different people who are experts in various disciplines, and interviewed several of them while researching my novels.

It was a fantastic resource, including thousands of book and film reviews and masses of real time responses to moments in history, but more than that it was a vibrant community the size of a small town.

Until last Friday evening, when the Guardian killed it.

It wasn’t making them any money directly (although I expect they’ve lost several thousand sales per day as a result of their stupid callousness) and they did own the place, so although I question their judgement I can’t argue with their right to pull the plug. But what was so horrible is that they did it without giving us any notice. One minute it was there – the next it no longer existed. Twelve years of strong community feeling and many thousands of posts, essays, reports, reviews… all gone in a single puff of cruelty.

Dribs and drabs of us started finding each other immediately on Twitter and other places. The sense of shared outrage was strong, but I think the word I saw repeated most often was bereft.

Over the weekend a number of hubs surfaced and bunches of people gathered in them. One of them grew quickest and became more of a beach than a lifeboat. By Sunday evening 800 of us were there, but we know that place is only a temporary home. It was already scheduled for demolition before we got there and will disappear in a few weeks. Fortunately – unsurprisingly – our numbers include all sorts of geeks, including several who are more than capable of building us a permanent home, so we’ll be okay.

No thanks to the Guardian though. On Monday morning they opened a thread on the newspaper site, ostensibly to let GUers find each other but actually, I believe, to provide a pressure valve that would dissipate the strong and very vocal outrage.

It didn’t work. If anything, for many of us, it solidified our anger. Particularly stupid was their insistence that they (a)had no choice about killing GU; (b)had no choice about doing so without giving us any notice; and (c)are not able to tell us why or discuss it in any way. The implication is that it’s a legal thing, and it might be. That’s certainly one of the more sensible options among the many theories being banded about.

(Personally, I think it’s bullshit. The Guardian never appreciated what they had in GU. Certainly they never appreciated its potential. They always treated us like the difficult stepchild. My best guess is that a combination of external factors offered the opportunity to get rid of us once and for all, and some big name made the decision to pull the plug.)

But what became very clear for me on Monday is the snow-blindness of the minions sent to pacify us. Oh, they can spout buzzwords with the best. The phrase social networking never had to work so hard before. But, apart from their understandable dedication to saying nothing that might endanger their own jobs, their gaze seems to be fixed on the platform and infrastructure of what we’d lost. Not the community. I don’t think they have a clue.

All of which brings me to the earworm I’ve had since Friday: People, from the film Funny Girl.

It’s people who make communities. People matter. That’s what it’s all about.

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