Sunday, February 28, 2016

Measures of success

In 2002, the year my father died, I found one of my now favourite books  - Homestead by Rosina Lippi - in a local charity shop. It made me sad that I hadn't found it until after Pa had died because I knew he would have loved it as much as I did. Since then I've read it every couple of years, and a month ago I found the website of the author and dithered over whether to email her and tell her how much I liked the book. I didn't bother.

Yesterday someone tracked me down. They had kept one of my Times pieces since 2002, and decided to finally find out who I was, and tell me what the piece had meant to them. The piece was about losing my father. You can read what they said in the comments section of yesterday's post. I read the comment (which arrives as an email) in a hurry in the kitchen in the middle of cooking, and it moved me to tears.

When I look back on the time that I've been writing and think of what it is that pleases me most, it's 

  • my pieces in the broadsheets (most of which were in the Times); 
  • Plotting for Beginners (my first novel/baby) being on the tables in Waterstones
  • the email I got from a literary agent praising my writing in all kinds of ways, and saying how she adored Sol (one of my characters)but my novel was too quiet to sell; 
  • the success of said novel - But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You - after I'd had to publish it myself; 
  • the fact that my mother and siblings liked the private stuff I wrote for them after my father died, and then after my mother died; 
  • that my dearest friend Mary's family liked my eulogy for her;
  • that one or two people re-read my books because they find them cheering;
  • the friendships I've made through my blog; 
  • and the message I received about one of my pieces from just one unknown person yesterday.

Now I am going to email Rosina Lippi. But first, here's that piece about my father.

Voyage around my father

My 85 year old father died this year. The private family burial was a beautiful occasion, the day so special that the first thing I wanted to do when I got home was to write to my father and describe it, tell him what had happened, how we had been and behaved, what everyone had said. So I wrote him a letter and sent a copy to my brothers and sisters and my mother. It makes us cry but captures the day on paper. I don’t know why that is a comfort but it is.

But then my mother asked me to write my father’s obituary for the local paper. This task hung over me like a dreaded piece of homework. I did not want to be writing my father’s obituary, because I did not want my father to be dead.

Once begun it was soon completed, but not to my satisfaction. The paragraphs about his schooling, his work, his successes and his triumphs described the public man. He sounded like a thoroughly accomplished chap (as he was) but I hated that obituary. The required formal style, and the sensitivity to my mother’s feelings, constrained me. I could say that he was brought up a Quaker, but not that for the last ten years of his life he would lie on the sofa every afternoon watching the racing on telly. I could say that he was a keen hockey player but not that he had a passion for Stilton cheese and Craster kippers and home grown raspberries. I could say that he was a successful freelance writer, but make no mention of his sometimes less than happy use of words - that his criticism could be scorching, his rudeness outrageous, or that his acerbic tongue could reduce a sensitive grandchild to a pulp.

Neither could I say how fervently he loved his family, how sure they were of this, how much they valued his wit, intelligence, knowledge and affection, and how much they will miss him sitting smoking in the corner being crabby, and then at the end of the evening asking for a goodbye cuddle. The last time I visited him at home I knew he was ill because it was the first time he did not say “I had a shave especially, so I could give you a kiss.” This could not go in the obituary either: so much for obituaries.

I don’t think I ever described him as “a wonderful father” but so what? He was my father and I loved him. All my life I have felt as though I sailed in a sturdy ship, my family, looking down on other mortals whose ships were not so handsome and fine as mine. When he died it was as though someone had blown a hole in the side of our craft.

I am surprised that at 52 I am so shaken by his death. I am not a child. I have a large and loving family. And dying at 85 he was not robbed – he had a good innings is the cliché. But I am sad for me, not for him.

As children we would roll our eyes when he told us, yet again, about his great-grandfather’s heifer which won first prize in the London Show, and then “was roasted whole for the poor of Chelsea.” Now he is gone I see all the dog-eared stories of his farming forebears as weighty anchors to our family history.

Searching for written records of them in his desk I found a photograph of his mother: it could have been me in Edwardian dress. I used to hate being likened to someone else, but this photograph has been a strange comfort. I now feel like a link in a long chain stretching back into the past, and forward through my children into the future. My father may be gone, but he is still a valid link. He may no longer sit at the head of the table repeating his catch-phrase “As good a Stilton as I’ve tasted in years,” but at future family gatherings one of us can say it for him. “Only if the cheese merits it,” says my brother. Ah, that critical gene again.

©        Sue Hepworth/Times newspapers  2002
published here with kind permission of Times newspapers

Friday, February 26, 2016

In praise of...

"Twice a week I go to a beauty salon and have my hair blown dry. It’s cheaper by far than psychoanalysis, and much more uplifting.’  Nora Ephron

I went to the hairdresser yesterday. When I arrived, I was tired and slightly anxious about something. Nicky came over and sat down on the sofa next to me and looked me in the eyes and asked me how I was, and I don't know I responded, but she, being a sensitive woman who has been cutting my hair for 25 years, could tell anyway. Then she asked me what I wanted her to do to my hair, and got a minion to wash it before the cutting began.

I have been going to Nicky for all this time because she is such a good cutter, but also because she is sensitive, fun, and I can have a conversation with her that isn't about meaningless trivia. 

At the end of the trim and the blow dry, when she'd shown me the back of my head in the hand-mirror, as they do, she put down the hand mirror, stood and looked at me in the big mirror with her hands on the back of my chair and said "Right." 

And I found myself saying - without thinking -  "I've got to get up, now, haven't I?" 

I said this because it seemed like such a shame to be leaving the company of someone so amenable (as well as skilful) whom I only see for 45 minutes, every seven weeks. And also because I felt so much more cheerful than when I'd arrived. 

"Yes, you've got to get up," she said, laughing. "You're done."

Oh, these wonderful people who are trusty landmarks in our daily lives. Dave and I have a local optician and a car mechanic, both of whom we like and rely on, and it fills us with mild panic that they are both on the brink of retirement.

When I was 15, I remember a friend's mother asking me what I wanted to do when I left school and I said "Something useful." She said "Every job is useful if it's done well." And I, in my idealistic world-changing mode, said with disdain: "What? Even a hairdresser?"

Oh, how little I knew back then. 

How would I respond to my friend's mother now?

"What? Even an arms dealer?" 

As I don't have a photo of Nicky, here is another of my personal heroines, the writer, Nora Ephron:

Thursday, February 25, 2016

a tiny question about trivia

There is something that happens in dramas on screen that always strikes me as a visual cliché, but worse than that, as actually untrue. You know when characters are missing someone they love and they pick up a photograph of the loved one and look at it longingly?  Or they find a photo in an album and look at it. Have you noticed that the next thing they do is they touch the photo?

I never touch photographs. Do you? Yes, I might pick up a framed photo of someone I love and look at it. But I don't touch the person pictured in it. I don't touch the image. It's not about marking the photo - because I don't do it if the photo is framed. 

Do you? Does anyone? Tell me I am wrong and then I can stop feeling annoyed every time I see this on screen.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"Nature is creeping up"

I've just been on a bike ride on the Monsal Trail and although it was cold, it felt less like an act of self-discipline and endurance, and more like a wonderfully refreshing trip.

I heard birds singing, and there was a bright spring sky, and I felt as though I was cycling into a painting by Sisley. 

It made me think of that anecdote about Whistler, when a woman told him that a landscape reminded her of one of his paintings, and he responded: "Yes, Madam. Nature is creeping up."

Monday, February 22, 2016

The old me

I've just been reading some of my old blog posts from 2008 and realised that I used to be much more lighthearted than I am today. I'm going to have to think about why that is.

exhibit A 

exhibit B 

But I'm not going to worry about whether there is too much self analysis on the blog these days because of something I read at an art exhibition the other day:

"Some pieces are very personal self-portraits where the artist explores their own identity. These works reveal something about the artist, but can also make us think about our own history, memories and experiences." 

Blog as self-portrait. I like it.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Compassion, not politics

I know I said I was having a break from the blog but I keep coming across things I want to share with you.

On Monday, the French authorities are going to start demolishing part of the Calais Jungle. There are over 5000 refugees and only 1500 places for them to move to.

How can this be? How can any of it be?

100 plus actors and writers and others, led by Jude Law, have written an open letter to David Cameron to urge him to rescue the hundreds of unaccompanied children and teenagers there, by bringing to the UK ones who have family connections here, and by persuading the French authorities to look after the ones who don't. 

I have signed the open letter, and if you would like to sign it as well, follow this link
And please share the link on Facebook or Twitter or both. It's urgent.

If you want more information about what's going on, follow the same link and you'll find more details.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Urgent - breaking into the break

This is urgent. We have today and tomorrow to act in a government consultation about the investment decisions of local councils.

Sounds boring? Yes, it does. But it's about the rights of local councils to make investments based on ethical considerations. The government is trying to stop local councils from boycotting Israel.

If you care about this, please follow this link and send an email to the government consultation before close of business tomorrow, Friday.

Why should you care? Here is one of so many reasons - 

The Israeli government demolishes the homes of Palestinians in order to build their new settlements on occupied territory - in defiance of international law.

This is my only openly political stance on a non-political blog - my support for the rights of Palestinians, and my encouragement to you to join the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel until they start to treat Palestinians justly.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Taking a break

I'm taking a break from the blog. My head is full of writing, and I am currently a conversational dud. I hope I'll be back soon...probably in a week. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A jewel

"I hold dead friends like jewels in my hand
Watching their brilliance gleam against my palm
Turquoise and emerald, jade, a golden band..." Sasha Moorsom

My dearest friend Mary died on February 13th a year ago. 

What is there to say about her that I haven't already said?  She was my soul-friend, my anam cara. She's here with me right now: I carry her in my heart. I always will.

“But oh! the blessing it is to have a friend to whom one can speak fearlessly on any subject; with whom one's deepest as well as one's most foolish thoughts come out simply and safely.

Oh, the comfort — the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person — having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.”

Dinah Craik

Monday, February 08, 2016

I think this is probably a post

I don't know if you've ever been to a Quaker meeting, but they usually last for an hour, and they are silent unless someone feels led to get up to speak. We don't have a minister and anyone is allowed to give spoken ministry. It can be a reading, an anecdote, a thought, a prayer, sometimes people sing. It can be anything at all except an argument with someone who has already spoken. 

Yesterday someone who has been coming to meeting for a couple of years got up to speak for the very first time. She said something interesting and helpful that built on earlier spoken ministry. I thanked her afterwards, over coffee, and she said she had been very nervous, and dithering as to whether to get up to speak, but she said she'd had no option: she just had to get up and speak. That's how you know when to get up - when you are driven by something insistent inside.

I was thinking this morning that writing a blog post, for me, is rather similar. I don't want to write one unless I have something bubbling away in my head that I want to share. That's why I haven't written for the last few days.

I could tell you what I've been doing in the interim - writing, knitting, sewing, cycling, moaning about my aching legs, trying to find cheap travel insurance for someone my age with my health problems, worrying about the 30,000 refugees on the Turkish border - but it wouldn't add up to a blog post.

What might be worth sharing is how I have been feeling since February arrived. Long time readers know to their cost how for years and years I have hated February. (Even the characters in my books hate February.)  

This year, despite the execrable weather, I feel differently. I keep thinking back to this time last year, when Mary was dying. This year the thought constantly running through my head like one of those banner headlines under a newscaster is: "No February could ever be as bad as last year's February." And the next thing I think is: "I am still here, still alive. Mary isn't. I am lucky. I get to see another spring, I get to talk to my kids and laugh with my grandkids, and hear that 3 year old Cecilia said on the day of the Superbowl "I would like to be a Broncos player when I grow up but I more want to do fossils," I get to talk and laugh with Mary's kids, I get to sit in the sun and play my sax and share things with my friends and cycle up the Monsal Trail, and laugh at the hilarious things Dave says, and so on and so on.

And I get to walk round the back of the shed and find a surprise - the têtes-à-têtes I hid round there last May after flowering - already blooming and ready to be carried round to the front doorstep.

So I am not going to moan about February again. And if I do, please remind me why I shouldn't.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

of blurbs and author bios and other stuff

I woke up at 4.30 this morning. I had to wake up. I was having really annoying dreams. And as I've been thinking about Zuzu's Petals this week (because someone blogged about it) and because there was a copy in the bedroom, I read it until I got up.

It was an interesting experience after all this time. And I enjoyed it. There were quite a few phrases and sentences I wanted to cut, and a few verb tenses that weren't quite right, which neither I nor the publisher had spotted. Most surprising was the fact that a child had a different name in one chapter. The thing that surprised me most, though, was the last sentence in the author bio at the back:

Sue Hepworth is addicted to sweet peas and romantic comedies but no longer thinks that everything in life has a happy ending.

I wrote that. It was 2007. I obviously forgot in the interim, because every time something happens that isn't a happy ending I am appalled. Again. You've seen what a fuss I make about things. I came across a quote recently from Matt Haig:
 "To write you need a thin skin. To be published you need a thick skin.."

Writing author bios is hard, but successfully writing the blurb for the back cover of your own novel is nigh on impossible. I just got an excited email from a friend who has a new publisher:


and I have to tell you that this friend is the least capital-lettery person I know.

When I had to write the blurb for ZP  I couldn't decide how much of the story to give away. In retrospect I think the quote on the back was a mistake because it emphasised the humour. Actually, I hate the whole blurb. The only bit that rings true is the ending, and even then I'd cut out the "funny":

Funny and delicately observed, Zuzu's Petals is a tender, compelling story about family, friendship and different kinds of love.

And the pink frilly cover still offends me. I have hated it ever since I saw it. I particularly hate the bimbo. That's the reason I don't have it on the side of my blog with my other book covers. 

The best thing about publishing your own book is that you can choose the front cover. The one for But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You has been a resounding success, as has the title. I wonder, though, about Plotting for Grown-ups. I'm not sure the title is enticing for people who don't know Plotting for Beginners, and I'm not sure about the black heart. Dave warned me about the significance of a black heart but I brushed his comments aside, as he never reads my books, and his idea of style is decidedly dodgy (see yesterday's blog post.)

Today we woke up to pretty snow on the limestone edge behind the house, but because I've been reading ZP, my heart is in the Pennines further north - Wensleydale. Here is one of Rosemary Mann's pictures - sheep above Hawes:

Thank you, Rosemary.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Golden Oldie

In doing some research for my sitcom, I came across this piece in the archives which I don't think I've ever shared with you. I hope you enjoy it.

Marks and Spencer’s U turn: succour for the middle aged male

 This may be the era of the grey pound when trendy fifty-somethings refuse to grow old, and avidly scan the fashion pages for what is hip. But there is a sartorially disreputable underbelly of middle aged men who are unmoved  by new styles, and who wish it was still the 1950’s when custard was custard, and middle aged men were middle aged men, in cardigans and slippers. These are the men whose wives buy all their clothes for them, who would like to wear the same thing year in and year out, and who don’t care whether black is the new black, or if bottoms are the new bust, as long as M&S still stock the same trousers as they did three years ago.

Since M&S moved away from “classically stylish” clothes, and began trying to keep up with the competition, wives who could formerly swoop in and rekit their husbands in half an hour, have been traipsing the high street looking for the middle aged look that doesn’t exist any more.

Granted, Oxfam is a godsend: I recently found four M&S (as new) shirts in my local branch for £2.99 each. And in the past few years my husband has bought three perfectly respectable jackets there.

This is the university educated, middle class professional who reached the age of forty without owning a suit, and who took Richard Branson as his role model in dispensing with ties. Some years ago he had an important job interview coming up, and he temporarily put aside his favourite Thoreau dictum that you should beware of all enterprises that require new clothes: I was dispatched to buy him a suit. Still reeling from the idea that my husband would not be visiting the shop, the shop assistant offered me something as “the most up to date style,” and was horrified when I explained that I needed a classic design that wouldn’t date, as the item would be worn for interviews only, and would be the only suit my spouse would ever own.

Having finally acquired a suit from M&S, we realised that he had no black shoes to go with it. We found some old beige ones in the back of the wardrobe and transformed them with a bottle of instant shoe colour. But during the interview, my husband was disconcerted to see the panel chairman staring at my husband’s shoes, transfixed. The black dye was flaking off the shoes, and revealing the old colour underneath. (No, he didn’t get the job.)

Whilst M&S have been chasing hot fashion, there has been an increasing danger of these middle-aged men - children in the market place - losing their way. For the past few years, two pairs of old patched jeans have been sufficient garb for my husband’s favourite pastime of DIY. But these got to the stage of being knee deep in three layers of patches, with new rips appearing just above the patch zone. One day I heard pathetic whimpering coming from my husband’s deep litter clothes storage system in the bedroom: it was the said jeans begging to be given sanctuary in the fabric recycling bin.

He let them go, and in our local agricultural suppliers he was seduced by a Dickies boiler suit in a subtle bottle green, for only £25. Here was a garment he could relate to. It was practical, comfortable, warm, commodious, cheap and had, joy of joy, 9 pockets, three of which were zipped.

But the boiler suit was so new, so comfortable, so smart, he refused to wear it for jobs such as mending the shed roof, because it might get dirty. Instead he would don it as soon as he got home from work, slipping into it as “smart leisure wear.” At the weekend he would wear nothing else, and I colluded with him, and bought him another one in navy blue.

I was on the point of persuading him that in fact they weren’t classy leisurewear, when, by some freak chance, he spotted a men’s fashion article in a colour supplement. This featured a boiler suit by Kenzo Homme, at ten times the price of his. He was trendily dressed – the only recorded time since student days.

Last week, something similar happened. The family had at last convinced him that his battered sixties white leather belt (with the white cracking off ) was past it, and I was off to M&S for a new black one. Then the photo appeared in the paper: Bob Dylan clutching a Golden Globe award and wearing a black suit with a white leather belt. Apparently, “If it’s good enough for Bob Dylan, it’s good enough for me.”

            So, come on M&S. Take the weight from our shoulders, and get back to what you do well: providing clothes for middle aged men who want to dress as they’ve always done. They can be boring and respectable, and we can have the biggest bit of the clothing budget.

©   Sue Hepworth/Times Newspapers 2001/2016
published here with kind permission of Times Newspapers