Friday, March 31, 2017


This describes exactly how I feel, and what I'm wrestling with:

And for regular readers, here's my favourite recent photo of Lux:

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Spring Break

I'm busy working on my new book this week and not in a blogging frame of mind, but I thought I'd just tell you that Wendy is having a break from her life of treatment this week - on holiday with the rest of the family in Palm Springs. And they are having a super time.

Monday, March 27, 2017

My friend Mary

I've been thinking a lot about Mary just lately, and have struggled to explain to people what was so special about her and why I miss her so much. But this morning on Twitter I came across this quote from a Seamus Heaney poem, At the Wellhead, which seems to sum things up:

Friday, March 24, 2017

Thursday, March 23, 2017

In defence of Neighbours - threatened with the axe

I started watching Neighbours in 1986 when Isaac rushed home from school everyday to see what had happened in the lunchtime episode he'd recorded. That was 1986. Isaac is now a high-flyer working for Google, and I am a writer.

The heroine of two of my novels - Plotting for Beginners and Plotting for Grown-ups - is addicted to Neighbours. She is also a writer, and this is just one of the things she says about the Aussie soap that is more popular in the UK than it is down under:

You have to realise, Kit, that a writer can learn from any fiction, good or bad. It shows you what mistakes to avoid in your own writing – caricatures, poor plotting, unconvincing dialogue. Watching Neighbours is educative. You don’t think I watch it for entertainment do you?

I really haven’t known him long enough to tell him the truth: that Neighbours is fab, that I love all the stupid plotlines – the amnesia, disputed paternity, blackmail, on-off love affairs, business wars, mistaken identities, manipulative ex-girlfriends, violent ex-boyfriends, people stuck down mine shafts, plane crashes that kill off half the street. And the characters – Paul Robinson, Karl Kennedy, Lucas, Jade – they’re like family. One day I’ll confess to him, but not just yet.

Our feelings for Neighbours overlap. She also finds it the perfect mind-numbing way to relax at the end of the day. She also watches the same episode twice when she's under stress.  She also likes it because it is a 25 minute escape from the real world. It is pure fiction - as Miss Prism says in The Importance of being Earnest - the good end happily and the bad unhappily. Yes, sometimes good people die, but you can be sure that when they do the culprit is eventually found and punished (assuming it's not just the sceenwriter who is to blame.)

Currently a key marriage between two favourite characters is under huge threat. It has been like this for a couple of months and the last two episodes were deeply upsetting. The thing that keeps me watching is the firm belief that eventually everything will be sorted and solved and their faces will match the smiling credits at the start of the show.

As I said a couple of years ago  (please forgive the recap, regular readers) -

It doesn’t matter how dastardly are the plots of the villains, you know they are always, always going to get their come-uppance, so you can enjoy the ride with a happy heart.

At that time in May 2015, an internationally renowned cancer specialist was telling the resident villain (Paul Robinson, my favourite character) that he had leukaemia, and was personally treating him with chemotherapy. And it was all a lie. Paul Robinson was not ill. It was just a plot so that the visiting villain could get what he wanted – a new cancer research centre. It was hilarious! It was totally ludicrous and wonderful and we knew full well that the doughty nurse Georgia (who had been framed by the visiting villain) would somehow uncover this scam and be reinstated at the hospital. And Paul would recover and carry on being the cosy resident villain.

Neighbours is an escape from the real world and I love it. And if Channel 5 axes it - as currently looks likely - and it disappears from British telly, it will be a sad day. It is an innocuous, calorie-free, alcohol-free and drugs-free temporary escape from this nasty, nasty world where we live right now.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Toasting my big sister

You know how you plan a day walking with someone and when you wake up it's raining, and the rain is set to continue till three o clock, and the someone says "I'm not going out in that! It's horrendous! We'll get soaked!" 

My big sister isn't like that. She's game. She's laid back. She's up for it.

So we donned our boots and our macs and we set off through the woods in search of Mill Gill Force. We walked along muddy tracks, along puddled stone paths through fields, up steep slippy hillsides, 

across squelchy bogs, over tree root after tree root, alongside green velvet walls - oh you should have seen that moss! 

 - till we got to the falls. They were worth the trek, though the camera lens was damp and the picture not so sharp:

And here is the video. It's the first video I have managed to put on the blog, and I haven't worked out how to turn it round, so I apologise (also it might not show up on mobile devices):

By that time, Kath was wet right through to her pants (underpants to you Yanks) and the track only promised a slide into full frontal mud, so we turned back. At which point I fell over. Thwack. The strangest thing was that I didn't swear, I didn't even yelp. Is my big sister's stoicism rubbing off on me? At last! It's only taken 60 years. And here's a tip - fresh moss is a very efficient cleanser - of hands and coats.

All I really want to say is that if I had been with a lot of other family members - no names, no pack drill - they would have moaned at the rain, at the wind, at the wet. They would have turned back. Some would not have set out. Kath set out and never complained, and the trip was exhilarating and fun. Thanks, Kath. 

Friday, March 17, 2017


Another day they dropped in on an old friend of Kay's mother who told them she had had an exhausting morning - she had rinsed out her shoe laces and brushed her teeth. They couldn't stop laughing at this, repeating it time and again and inventing variations. 'I'm so tired, I just washed my feet and ironed a hanky.' 'I'm just done in, I've blown my nose and changed my underpants.'

from the short story Times of Sickness and Health by Carol Shields

I woke up this morning after a good night's sleep and have felt like the woman above all day. I've not even been able to face my laptop until now - 4.35 p.m. 

Tomorrow I'll feel better. I have to: I'm driving to Wensleydale and meeting my big sister there for a weekend of walking. I'm SO looking forward to it.

photo by Rosemary Mann

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Wendy's progress

When I meet a friend these days, as soon as they've asked how I am, they want to know about Wendy.  And I'm guessing that you'd also like an update. 

Wendy is doing OK. She has to have six chemotherapy treatments three weeks apart, and she'll be having her fourth tomorrow. For the first week after she's had her treatment she feels terrible, and spends a lot of time in bed. After the last treatment, she went to sleep on a Friday and woke up on Sunday. During the second and third weeks after the chemo she feels pretty awful, needs to rest, but is fit enough to be up and about and to teach her yoga classes. 

Her matter-of-fact approach to the awfulness that is cancer and its treatment is an inspiration; and she's willing to answer questions from anyone honestly. She lost her hair, couldn't find a wig she liked and is happier to be bald than to wear a headscarf. This is her on her birthday last month:

In May she will have three solid weeks of radiotherapy and I am going to stay and act as family backstop. It's a long haul for all of them, but they are getting through, and Wendy says that it gives her strength to know that people all over the world are rooting for her. So, thank you my lovely, warm-hearted regular readers.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Making things up

I'm cock-a-hoop this week because my sax teacher says my improvisation has moved to a new level. This is not to say it's audience-worthy - just that I am getting the hang of making stuff up that sounds like music, not just random notes.

And in another realm, I had some success in making stuff up. I wanted three matching bowls to sit my tete-a-tetes in on the kitchen windowsill, and as I was driving into Sheffield on Thursday, I thought - Mmm...I'll pop into the Oxfam shop and see what I can find. Wouldn't it be great if they had two blue glass dishes that match the one I have in the cupboard? 

Guess what? They did!

As far as writing goes, I'm currently trying to conjure up a voice for my main male character. It's hard. This will be the first novel in which Dave does not appear disguised as a character. He was the inspiration for Gus, Richard, Sol and Rob, so writing dialogue for any of those characters was easy-peasy. If you live with someone for 46 years, and you have an ear for dialogue, their voice is going to be strong in your head.  Yesterday, I found this sweet little bookmark the publisher gave me when Plotting for Beginners was published:

I didn't actually make up the bit of dialogue on there. It's something Dave said - word for word. But when I wrote new dialogue for any of these guys, their voices were clear to me. I had no trouble.

Do you remember that way Pippa (in both of the Plotting books) talked? She used short sentences and repeated herself and she often had a short sentence right at the end of something she was saying, like "Yes. I do." e.g.

"They have such sensitive hearing. I’ve tried positioning it in different rooms, and it makes no matter. It upsets them. Yes, it does.”

“Are you sure?”

“Please take it. I’m sure. Yes I am.”

I got this idea from a character I once saw in an Ally McBeal episode. It was so distinctive that it stuck in my head.

My head is empty, and I am doing a lot of sitting quietly, staring out of the window, trying to hear the voice of a man I have not met.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Go on - defy the zeitgeist

Dave is out for the day and I am working on the new novel. I could spend time writing a personal blog post, but what's in my mind apart from the new novel is the dire direction of politics, at home and abroad. 

Every day the UK government does things I profoundly disagree with and yesterday they voted down the plan to rescue more child refugees. The current stated position of Mrs May is that if we bring more unaccompanied child refugees to live here, it will encourage people traffickers. This position not only flies in face of the evidence and the opinions of people working on the ground, it flies in the face of reason.

I despair at the inhumanity of this government, displayed in so many areas - cuts to benefits for vulnerable people, the oppression of benefit claimants in general (watch I, Daniel Blake for the truth on this), the cruel deportations of people who have their homes and their families here, the support for and the sales of arms to brutal regimes - and now their lack of compassion for traumatised, vulnerable, homeless, family-less children.

Compassion in modern politics is rare. Let's do what we can to bring it back. Let's do what we can in our own lives to compensate. 

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Other people's lives

Twenty years ago, when I was still calling myself a research psychologist, I used to read about writers' lives in the papers. There was one regular column where writers described their typical day. I was fascinated. If I became a writer, perhaps I could have a life like theirs...

Now I do call myself a writer, and know what my own life is like - messy - I don't pay much attention to that kind of article, unless I like the writer's work. Today, for example, Elizabeth Strout is in the Guardian Review writing about her working day. I just read her piece about how she writes a novel, and was intrigued.

These days I am more fascinated by the lives of artists and illustrators. I'm trying to work out why that is. I need an illustrator for my children's books and am not sure how to find one. That's one thing, but is probably irrelevant. Another thing is that I love children's picture books and enjoy the illustrations as well as the stories - e.g. those by Shirley Hughes, Alex Scheffler, Quentin Blake, Janet Ahlberg, Judith Kerr, Oliver Jeffers, Leo Lionni and more. I like to see photographs of them at their drawing boards with all those lovely art materials at their sides. 

I am in awe of their work. I would love to have a life full of art and colour.

I have been very bad-tempered for the last two weeks, snarling and swearing under my breath, difficult to live with.  I don't think this is rare for writers whose work is not progressing as they would like.  Yesterday I had the house to myself for nine precious hours. This is rare these days. I had a long to-do list and crossed off all but one item on it, as well as making lemon curd. But the reason I'm happy today is that I got some writing done. Meaningful writing.

Maybe the Guardian Review should have a column called "Living with a writer." Poor Dave.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

on beginning to write a novel

I'm struggling. 

I always struggle when I start to write a novel. The first few chapters are killing.

Once I get to Chapter 6, I'm away: I'm in the world of the novel, I think about it all the time, wake up excited about the next scene I'm going to write, and find it easy to ignore the sun shining on the daffodils. I don't even see the daffodils.

This beginning-a-novel time is worse than all the others because it's even more difficult to write a novel when you have zero hope that anyone will want to publish it. But that's another story...and it is of course not something that an author should ever admit. It's so dire for one's public image, and these days public image is almost more important than talent. But you guys ought to know who I am by now, which is why I'm coming clean.

My favourite book about writing a novel is this one:

Note the weird semi-colon after the title. What's that about?

The book is hilarious but also true to life. My writer friend Chrissie Poulson and I love the dark truths within this book. I showed the following page plus its illustration to Dave and it left him cold, so you might feel the same way. (TUH stands for The Unstrung Harp, by the way.)

That list of questions at the end has just creased me up. Again.

Happy World Book Day!