Friday, July 30, 2010


July2010 037 It’s a still quiet morning here, at 5.42 a.m. The dawn was red and yellow and deep dark grey – beautiful. I am up and awake because I am waiting for news of the baby. The Little Red Hen went into labour 13 hours ago and all through last evening we got updates and now there is no response to my texts, and Isaac’s last tweet said “update: no update.” San Francisco is an awfully long way away, and 13 hours is a long time to be in labour, although I know it’s not been heavy going all that time, because on Isaac’s first call he said Wendy was having contractions every four minutes and eating cereal in between. Several hours later, his text read “Wendy is eating a burrito.” But that was a whole English night ago. What is she eating, now?

10 a.m. I am still waiting. Poor Wendy.I don’t think she’ll be eating anything, now.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Domestic update

sweet pea header 2

1/ I am waiting for quotes from 3 local printers so I can cost out self-publishing;


2/ I am still considering whether I can change the book in the way the agent wants;

3/ our painter, Ben, has been here, and not here, for so long (on account of unsettled weather impeding his progress) that he has become part of the family. The cat has been sleeping in the back of his van in the daytime, and I no longer make mistakes from nerves when I am playing the saxophone in Ben’s earshot. (I have just realised that these two behaviour patterns are linked! The cat always leaves the premises when I am practising – and now she has somewhere comfy to go.) Lastly, Ben’s assistant can not only walk the length of my slackline - (pest! I still can only walk half of it) - but he has gone and bought one for himself.

4/ every time the phone rings I expect it to be Isaac, telling me the Little Red Hen has gone into labour, which makes me somewhat edgy, and that – added to my general ratbagginess -  probably contributed to my recent unpleasant telephone behaviour. (The Sally Howe part of me is also always half expecting the agent to ring, saying she has changed her mind. Poor Sally.)

Finally, a British Prime Minister calls a spade a spade

"Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp."

How very refreshing. And how very strange that it is a Tory prime minister saying this, and not a Labour one.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sue Hepworth is a ratbag

I am a ratbag. It’s official. I chew people up on the phone. And I don’t mean people selling double glazing or trying to entice me back to BT, or someone from the subscription department of The Times, with a great, great offer.
I chew people up who I like. I chew them up when I’m stressed. I chew them up when I’m waiting impatiently for a particular call and the wrong person rings.
On Saturday morning a good friend got it. She was due to come over with her boys, and after speaking to me, she changed her mind. (Who could blame her? Even I didn’t like me much on Saturday.) The boys were looking forward to coming to see me, so she tried to bribe them to go paddling in Padley Gorge instead. They chose me.  She told them I was a ratbag. They still wanted to come. She told them she’d buy them an ice cream. But they wanted to see me more. I apologised profusely on the phone to her, and begged her to come. She relented, bless her. She forgave me.
So…I may not have a publisher for my novel, but it is a delicately nuanced novel.
I may be a ratbag, but my grandsons like me more than ice cream.
No-one is perfect. And I am especially not perfect, but the people who matter still love me. So everything is OK.
And here is an official apology to everyone I have ever chewed up. I’m really sorry.

Monday, July 26, 2010

But I told you last year that I loved you - The good news and the bad news

publication day 009

the good news: My third book – But I told you last year that I loved you - is written and ready to go, and my critical readers all think it is better than my others.

the bad news: I don’t have a publisher. For various reasons, I parted company with the publisher of my first two books, and I have been trying for a long time to get a literary agent, as these days, publishers will not look at novels unless they are submitted through an agent. I had lots of responses from agents who said they liked my writing, my characters, my dialogue, etc, etc, that I was a very accomplished writer, etc, etc, but they were not going to offer to take me on “in this current climate.” That phrase was a mantra at the end of all their letters. The recession has hit publishing like every other section of the British economy. Publishers are publishing fewer novels, and there is a common phrase in literary papers - “death of the midlist.” The mid-list is my home.

the good news: In April I got an email from a top agent saying:

I’ve read it and I love it. I think you're a wonderful writer and the novel is lovely - clever, funny, subtle, wry, sad and uplifting all at once. I ADORE Sol.

I think it needs a bit more work, though, a bit more of a journey, more of a challenge for Fran before she gets to where she should be. And I also think it won't be easy to sell this quiet, delicately nuanced novel in which nothing much (other than Life!) happens in our current horrible publishing landscape.

So I talked to the agent – who was very professional, and very enthusiastic about my book, and who knew my minor characters by name! – and she said that because fewer books are being published, publishers are no longer interested in books that appeal to sets of people. They want big hitters and nothing else. She said she had submitted 33 novels to publishers this year – novels she really believed in - and she had only sold 10. That’s how terrible the current climate is in publishing.

So, she said I needed to make my novel more dramatic. (it is difficult to explain this fully without telling you about what happens in it and spoiling it for you when you eventually get to read it.) So I tweaked the novel in response to most of her reservations, but I did not make the big change she was looking for, to make the plot sufficiently gut-wrenching. I could not think of a way to do it that was true to my characters or my idea of the story.

reading 2

the bad news: The agent says that she cannot sell it to an editor as it is. This does not mean that there will not be people out there who want to read my book, just that the publishers will not make squillions out of it so they’re not going to bother publishing it.

I respect the agent’s professional judgment, which means I have to think again – can I do what she wants? Can I change it in the way she wants and retain the integrity of my novel? At present I don’t think I can. But I will continue to ponder on this.

the good news: Dave and I could publish the book ourselves as it is – the way I am happy with it.

the bad news: The marketing would be difficult. We could sell it on Amazon, but probably not through every bookshop in the land.

the good news: if I am self-publishing, I can produce the book EXACTLY as I want it. I can choose the cover! (In case you didn’t know, an author rarely decides on the cover of her book. I hate the cover of Zuzu’s Petals. Who the hell is that vapid-looking bimbo in the hat supposed to be?)

So there you are – that was the bad news I got on Wednesday night when the rabbit bounced onto the blog. Oh, but I do love it that I have written a “delicately nuanced” novel.

Comments welcome.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Bunny Club, episode 2: Outed

I wrote the last post late at night because I couldn’t sleep (on account of the bad news – of which more later). I sat here in my study writing. The house was silent, and I was just about to go and make some cocoa, when I heard a sudden skirmish behind the kitchen door. I froze. I didn’t want to stumble on a scene of carnage. So I went to bed, cocoa-less. When your kitchen -the ultimate altar to domesticity - becomes a place of creepiness and possible death, it’s deeply uncomfortable.

What was hiding in there behind the units? When four mousetraps had not caught it, but were contemptuously tossed across the kitchen by the quarry, you worry. When the demon is lurking out of sight, just sneaking out occasionally to snatch fragments of chocolate digestive lodged on said mousetraps (“Sorry, Ben,” (the painter), “the rabbit has finished the chocolate biscuits, you’ll have to have shortbread fingers”)  - somehow the intruder assumes the proportions of a monster. I mean – Dave said he saw a rabbit, but was it really a rabbit? It could have been a rat. He has been known to be wrong. He is a man. He just came in the bedroom saying he was freezing cold and had been waiting for me to wake up before coming in for clothes, and I pointed out that he has a heap of discarded jeans and jumpers in his study. If he can miss those, he could surely confuse a rabbit and a rat…

Thankfully, in the morning, the kitchen floor wasn’t strewn with bloody lapine entrails nor garnished with a headless corpse. We hadn’t really wanted the cat to kill the intruder, but we’d gone to bed fed up, and it seemed the natural thing to say to her - “You brought it home, you flush it out!”

When we opened the door, she bolted from the kitchen, as if desperate to get away from something. Was it a rat? Later she deposited a gutted bird on the doorstep, an apology for failing us.

“Right,” said Dave, after breakfast. “We can lure it out with lettuce, or consider force majeure.” He began to dismantle the kitchen again.

“I think it must be behind the fridge,” I said.

Dave pooh-poohed the idea: “There isn’t room.”

He pulled out the washer, the cooker and the dishwasher and cleaned their tops, their sides and the floor behind them. Then he took the kickboards off the units and swept out the droppings underneath. “Where the hell is it?” he said.

“I think it’s behind the fridge,” I said.

More pooh-poohing: “There isn’t room.”

He poked between the units and the wall with a long stick. Nothing.

“I think it’s behind the fridge,” I said.

Finally, he pulled out the fridge, and yes! It was a rabbit! Thank God! It wasn’t injured, and it didn’t have a stray mousetrap clipped to its ear. But then it rushed into the boxing around the pipes.

July2010 022

So Dave unscrewed the boxing. July2010 016

July2010 019

July2010 021

He put it on the back lawn and the harmless, cuddly bunny hopped jauntily away. 

Our kitchen hasn’t been this clean for years.

Dave is a star.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Bunny Club – a late night posting

Do you remember I said we had a mouse in the kitchen and the cat wasn’t interested because she just wants to catch rabbits these days? Well…

… there I was in the dining room at 7.45 pm, eating a late tea of fish and chips and drinking a glass of Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, trying to recover from some bad news I’d just received via a phone call, when Dave came in from the kitchen and said, “It’s not a mouse in the kitchen, it’s a rat. And it’s hiding under the dresser. I’m getting my boiler suit on and my wellies, and I’m going to deal with it.” Then he retreated.

Five minutes later he came back and said, “It’s not a rat, it’s a rabbit. Can you come and help?”

I finished my tea and went into the kitchen, to find him climbing behind the washing machine.

“I thought it was under the dresser,” I said.

“It ran out when I poked it. It was too quick to catch.”

We don’t have a big kitchen. We don’t have a fancy kitchen. Half an hour later we still had not found the dratted rabbit. Had it escaped through the open window while his back was turned? Who bloody knows? We’ve left the cat in there, and I’m telling you now, Dave can go in there first in the morning.

The phone caller with the bad news had left a message with Dave for me to call her back when I got in at 7. “I hope that doesn’t spoil your dinner plans,” she said.

Dinner plans? Fish and chips for one, while the other dismantles the kitchen in search of a fugitive rabbit?

p.s. I am considering whether to tell you the bad news.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010



My son and my daughter-in-law (AKA the little red hen) are expecting their first baby at the end of July, and the other night I dreamed they sent it over here from San Francisco for the first two weeks of it’s life, for me to look after. They didn’t want me to feel left out.

They ring us every week. They come to see us when they can. I go to visit once a year. It’s not as if we aren’t in touch. Somehow, though, when momentous events are in the offing, Skype and email and blogging are not an adequate substitute for being together for real.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Almost persuaded

There are a load of vegetarians in my family, and every so often I consider whether I should be a vegetarian too, and then decide against it. I am a carnivore, bred in the bone. I was brought up on a farm where animals were for milking, fleecing, or eating. Oh yes, and for stealing eggs from. That kind of upbringing is hard to shake. It is especially hard to shake if you really, really, really, like bacon.

I do care about animal welfare. For years I have had the policy of not eating eggs that aren’t free range, and I won’t buy meat where the animals were not reared outdoors. This means that although I love chicken, I avoid it in restaurants and bought products, because it’s almost certain the chicken will have been intensively reared. I have had this policy for at least ten years. (I am not annoyingly strict about this, in that If I am eating at someone else’s house, I eat what is provided, so as not to be a nuisance.)

So why have I raised the subject?

Aug08 022

Because the cat is ignoring the mouse that has come to live in our kitchen. She has developed more sophisticated tastes. On Friday, when we were sitting playing Scrabble in the kitchen, waiting for the jam to reach setting point, she appeared on the windowsill with a baby rabbit dangling from her jaws.

I don’t blame the cat. It’s in her genes.

But being faced with such a horrid sight at such close range – “nature red in tooth and claw” – was far more persuasive that any number of lectures from veggies.

The cat is following her instincts. I have a choice. Why is it sadder and more vicious to eat a rabbit than a pig?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Jam making time again? Already?

July2010 012

The jam took so long to reach setting point yesterday that we had a game of Scrabble on the kitchen table and watched an episode of American Office while we were stirring. If Dave kicked the bucket, and the Little Red Hen persisted in living in the US, I’d give away the blackcurrant bushes. I wouldn’t want to make jam on my own.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Blast from the past

Pa and Sue,1965

In amongst the scores of letters that my mother saved, was a letter I wrote to my Gran when I was 14. Here is an excerpt, transcribed precisely…

We had our Christmas Fair last Saturday; I was fencing, Jen was doing Judo, and Pete was in the Gym display. Our form had a Tin Shy and a fortune teller. For the fortune teller’s booth we rigged up some screens and curtains with piles of brightly-coloured posters on the outside. We had two fortune tellers, who took it in turns, but we called them both “Mme Zena,” because they wore the same wig. One was a boy and one was a girl, and they were a great success. One man went in and was told he would have six children. He looked very worried and said that he was not married. To which Madame Zena replied, “Don’t worry. The truth often hurts.”


Love Sue xxx

p.s. Remember: the Rolling Stones are the best group in the world. Please give my love to Mrs Dirkin.

What a hoot.

p.s. I am very impressed with my 14 year old punctuation – aren’t you?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Rare creatures

I told you how I had searched and searched for a fire engine birthday card for Gil to no avail, didn’t I? Because of that, I decided to start looking for a dinosaur card for Tate two months ago, and I found a pink one ( hooray! Tate loves pink!) in a craft shop in Northumberland.

tate's diplodocus 2

I took it to the counter to pay and said to the woman, “This is a Diplodocus, isn’t it?”

She studied the card and said, “Yes.” Then she paused. “But I don’t think they were pink.”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I have just got in from the garden. I’ve been picking strawberries in my nightie and dressing gown and wellington boots. It’s good to be home.
oct 05 014
It’s good to be home. There is no comfort in my mother’s house any more. Aristotle asked - when you are eating an apple, when does it cease to be an apple?  Is it after the first bite? Or the second? Is it when you get down to the core?
We have stripped the house of everything that was uniquely my mother and father – except for the cloth thing with pockets that hangs at the bottom of the stairs and is stuffed full of knitted gloves and scarves and a rolled up, yellow kagoule.
Kevock Nov 08 089
When Kath and I wanted to sit down, to read the paper, or to eat our dinner, we sat in the sunny porch on Kath’s garden chairs, not in the cheerless house. Oh, there’s an old tapestry cushion made by my mother still in the porch, and a piece of faded floral linen (so archetypical of her taste) on one of the garden chairs.
It’s all but finished, now. We took down the ancient airing rack from the kitchen ceiling for Kath’s daughter. She will have the cutlery, too. Every one of the eleven grandchildren has taken something, which is a wonderful testament not just to their upbringing of re-using old things, but more because they have such happy memories of staying at Gran and Grandpa’s house, and they want a little bit of them somewhere in their own homes. Someone has the milking stool, someone the sewing machine, someone will have the fire irons.
How lucky I was to share the task with my cheerful, positive, hard-working, big sister Kath. And how lucky I was to be able to drive down the M1 and arrive at Zoe’s house in Sheffield where part of the future of the family –  my elder grandson– was having his sixth birthday. He is dinosaur crazy, and knows the names of them all, every last syllable. He even knows what it means when a fossil is labelled the Cretaceous period. He wants to be a palaeontologist when he grows up – “Actually,” he said, “I am a palaeontologist now.”
This is him on the right. (He asked his little brother, to help him blow out the candles.)

Here’s to the future (she said, trying to buck herself up.)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

More signing off

Aysgarth august 2007 274

I am going to Wensleydale with Kath today, to undress our mother’s house (that Jen and Kath and I dressed in March in order to sell it) because… someone wants to buy it. I hope they will love it as much as we do.

I am looking forward to being there, and walking in the dale with Kath, and having a laugh with my brother Jonty, but at the same time I am hating the mission. It is one step nearer to losing the house.Aysgarth august 2007 083

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Less is more

manor farm dispersal sale

The other evening, Pete and I looked through a suitcase of papers I’d brought back from Wensleydale last year. Most of the stuff in there was to do with Pa. There were records of the prizes his cows won at the Dairy Show, appreciative letters from his employers, the 1958 brochure for the dispersal sale of the prize-winning herd he’d built up, and so on and so on.

Pa with trophy

We found some things we had never seen before – such as a letter awarding him a scholarship, a photograph of him in a school production, and one doing the long jump (mid-flight), and this photograph of him above, clutching a Dairy Show trophy. I don’t remember him looking like this - I was only 3 at the time. 

To begin with it was interesting and fun to look through the papers in the suitcase. I was curious, and then enthralled, and we plundered on, and then suddenly I had had enough, overcome with a heavy sad weariness at the weight of it all…the memories, the sadness of his huge successes reduced by a corporate decision to sell the farm, the transience of everything, the loss of our childhood, the fact that we would rather have our father back than any kind of treasure trove.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

What’s in a name?


My brother Pete (above) and family have been staying, and it’s been grrrreat, and I’ve been too busy to post. (Gosh, I didn’t ask him if I could put his photo on here – I hope he doesn’t mind!)

We have also had the painters here for the last week and one of them – Ben – is painting the front door as I write - the undercoat for Lulworth Blue.

I love these painters – they are quiet, hard-working, reliable, friendly and funny, and I think they like it here, too, because they get six mugs of tea a day and as many chocolate digestives as they can eat. They also get a go on the slackline in their lunchbreak.

Do you know what I like most of all, though?

The chief one calls me boss…as in

“Hi Ben.”

“Good morning, boss.”

No-one has ever called me boss, before. I like it so much it makes me want to start a business, so I can be called “boss”  everyday.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Helpful quote number 5

"The trick is to be attuned to your condition all the time. To know that you are tired when you are tired and energetic when you are energetic. And to release yourself to your condition rather than resist it. Not knowing your condition as it really is, or knowing it and resisting it: That is what's difficult. This is where the pressure builds up. But when you know your condition and release yourself to it, then there's no problem. You can negotiate yourself through your day that way and not have to worry.
There's an old saying in Zen: "Every day is a good day." This doesn't mean every day's a thrilling day or a pleasant day. There are plenty of unpleasant days, challenging days. But if you know your condition and release yourself to it, even an unpleasant day's a good day."
- Norman Fischer

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Life and death

I drove through the warm summer evening last night to Zoe’s house in Sheffield with a smile on my face. The last two weeks of hot weather has been wonderful. Life seems easier and freer and so much more relaxed when we’re in a spell of settled summer weather.

Still, I can’t stop thinking about something small and sad that happened yesterday.  i was sitting on the floor below my open study window, with the breeze blowing warm air over my head and into the room, when I heard a thump above me, and I rushed outside, knowing what it was.

One of the best things about our house is the light. My study, and the bedroom above it, has windows facing north and south. But  - and it is a big but - this means that birds see the sky through both the windows and think they can fly straight through. If they are small birds, they do occasionally hit the window, fall to the ground, and then revive, and fly away. This is my younger son holding such a bird, 15 years ago.

jak holding a garden bird

But yesterday, the bird was a big and beautiful thrush. It was lying on the flags under my window with its eyes still open, and its beak opening and closing soundlessly. I lifted it up, but its neck was broken. I laid it under the cotoneaster tree, where it died.


Secondly (and I don’t see it as a total non-sequitur) I need to say how pleased I am that after the attack on the flotilla taking aid to the people of Gaza, world opinion forced the Israeli government to say they would relax the siege a little. I hope they do. The Palestinians in Gaza need food, fuel, medicines, materials to rebuild houses and the infrastructure: and the children need toys. I don’t for a minute imagine that the Israeli government will let Gaza have everything it needs, but you know my mantra – It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.

Meanwhile, and in case you didn’t know, Israeli settlers in the West Bank have (for years) been forcing Palestinians off their land, stealing their water, killing their livelihoods, knocking down their houses, and threatening their children. Read this article in the New York Times. It is written by Nicholas D Kristof, a top columnist followed by a million people on Twitter. I am full of hope. Perhaps the publication of this piece will bear fruit in terms of a better understanding of the injustices heaped on the Palestinians by the Israelis, who are in turn supported by the West through the aid that we send.

Friday, July 02, 2010


Junly2010 002

When I spoke at the Derbyshire Literary Festival, someone asked me which authors I like to read, and I mentioned the usual suspects – Carol Shields, Anne Tyler, and the less usual – Garrison Keillor.

In the heat of the moment, I forgot all about Helen Dunmore.

She is a poet as well as a novelist, and writes beautifully. But she doesn’t let her (poet’s) love of words get in the way of her (novelist’s) characterisation and story-telling. She is a brilliant writer. I have read The Siege three times so far, and this week I got the sequel to it – The Betrayal - from the library. (When it’s out in paperback I shall buy it.) I was drawn into the world of the story from the very first paragraph, and I am loving the book. But I love it so much, that I feel I need to ration it, and only read a few pages at a time. It’s so delicious, that I want it to last as long as possible.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Life won’t wait


You turn your back for one minute (sloping off to the seaside for a couple of days) and when you get back the convolvulus has taken over your back garden. But then so many wonderful things have happened, too. The roses are blooming as if their life depended on it, the fragrance of the honeysuckle and orange blossom makes me swoon, and the climbing rose is out

and finally, that funny yellow buddleia - that I’ve had for four years and was just about to pull up because it refused to produce anything but leaves – has produced odd little flower balls.

And then there are the strawberries…

June 2010 315

June 2010 318

June 2010 322

I’ve just been out in the quiet morning garden, to pick this morning’s crop.

June 2010 331

It was balmy. It was heaven. Such a morning as this makes up for the four months of grey cold winter we get here every year. The birds have been at the strawberries. They think I don’t know. I used to have a net on the strawberry patch, but one day I found a dead blackbird caught in it, so I threw the net away. There are plenty of strawberries - enough for us to share. Which is a good job, because as well as the birds and the slugs, there are other creatures who like my fruit…

June 2010 329

If I die today, I won’t mind. I have had a fabulous week, away with Jen, and back here at home in my summer garden.