Friday, December 29, 2017

Blogging in dark times

I always spend some time between Christmas and New Year thinking over the past year, and then ahead to the year that's coming.

This year I had to read through the blog from last January to remind myself what happened. There weren't many amusing posts, and I'm sorry about that. This is the only one that springs to mind. There were too many posts where I lamented the state of the world, and I won't bother you with links to those: I'm sure you have your own lamentations. 

There was quite a lot about Lux and Cece, but then I spent twice as much time in Colorado this last year than I do under normal circs.

I did have some great times in the UK too, like the drenching wet walk I went with my sister in March.

There was probably too much on the blog about writing: I have been working on a new novel, and it's taken up a lot of space in my brain. 

I told you about writing letters to politicians. This is not surprising, as there hasn't been a year in my life when I have written so many letters or signed so many petitions. And although I recently tweeted about having petition-signers' burnout I will carry on. In our Quaker Advices and Queries it says "Remember your responsibilities as a citizen for the conduct of local, national, and international affairs. Do not shrink from the time and effort your involvement may demand." It's a tough call to action.

I didn't tell you about the two peace vigils we had in Bakewell this year, though I did post about our BRIDGES NOT WALLS event in January on the day of Trump's inauguration.

And I mentioned the refugee hospitality days we held in Bakewell, and will be continuing with in 2018.

By the way, did you know that the charity Help Refugees now has a shop in London where you can go and buy items that refugees need, and they will provide them to the refugees where they are. You can access this shop online too. Here.

I used to try to keep the blog non-political, but as the years have gone by since this government decided that austerity was the way to go, and poverty and  homelessness have surged in the UK as a result, I can't keep silent. I just saw this tweet from an ITV journalist about their recent reports on local deprivation.

We live in dark times, and I blogged in November about how I stay sane when the world appears to be falling apart.

Here is the thought I'd like to leave with you for 2018:

It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017


Well, I got my new computer on Saturday and the machine is fine, but I'm struggling to get used to the strange environment. You know how new (i.e. up-to-date) software makes you feel as if you're working in a foreign language? AArrgghh! I've just touched something and the text is now huge and I can't work out how to get it back to normal. That's the kind of thing I mean. 

How are you all? Having a nice time? It's been so quiet at Hepworth Towers we would have been able to hear a Christmas tree needle drop, had any been dropping. But the tree I dug up from the garden is sitting in a tray of water and isn't losing any. 

We've been reading and cycling and fielding phone calls from our three scattered children, and that's about it. So today's post is on books, in the mode of that one they have in the paper every Saturday.

The book I am in the middle of reading:
I was reading Midwinter Break by Bernard Maclaverty for the second time in two months, to examine the craft of the author, but then someone gave me this for Christmas:

which is surprising and interesting and weird and quirky, but is difficult to describe, so here's what the first sentence inside the dust jacket says: 'Bluets winds its way through depression, divinity, alcohol, and desire, visiting along the way with famous blue figures, including Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, Yves Klein, Leonard Cohen and Andy Warhol.' Actually, I could have described it but I'm feeling lazy. 

The book that changed my life:
Writing down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. This is the creative writing book that sprung me from writing technical reports into creative writing - both non-fiction and fiction. I return to the book every so often for help and inspiration.

The book I never finished:
Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. I tried twice and gave up  because I was bored. I've also tried twice to read Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which I was enjoying but lost heart with because it was so wordy. I'll try again with this one.

The last book that made me cry:
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. I like books that make me cry. I would like to write such books.

The last book that made me laugh:
It's one I return to for encouragement when I'm in the middle of writing a novel - The Unstrung Harp; or Mr Earbrass writes a novel by Edward Gorey. I've shared excerpts with you a couple of times, but I'm not sure you get it.

The book I am ashamed not to have read:
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. A good friend (who doesn't read my blog) gave it to me and my heart sank, because although I think Kingsolver is a good writer, she uses twice as many words as I would like her to. I don't like wordy writing and avoid it. I also don't like this question, because I think that feeling ashamed not to have read a famous or lauded book is a waste of emotion.

The book I wish I'd written:
There's more than one, but let's stick to one of Kent Haruf's - the second one of his trilogy - Eventide. I love his spare writing, and his humanity.

(I just got back the text on my screen to the normal size and have no idea how I did it.)

The book I think is most overrated:
Stoner by John Williams. It's MISERABLE but mainly, I don't understand why everyone makes such a fuss of the writing. I am baffled.

The book I think is most underrated/maligned:
Mrs Vole the Vet by Allan Ahlberg. See my post on it - here. And read my review on Amazon here.

The book I most frequently give as a present:
When I first discovered Homestead by Rosina Lippi I gave a copy to all my close friends. Now I don't give books to people apart from to my brother, because I know how uncomfortable it is when someone gives you a book that is not to your taste.

The book I would most like to be remembered for: 
I can't answer this. Which one of mine will you remember me for?

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Found wanting

Here is another post with austerity-formatting because I am still without a laptop.

Today is the day of family, feasting and games at Zoe's house, and I have my pile of contributions assembled ready in a corner of my study. 

Yesterday I went to see the Muppets Christmas Carol on my own. A friend told me it was a great Christmas film, and I believed her, and spent the week trying to find someone with time on their hands like me (a writer whose laptop has died and whose new one has not yet arrived.) Everyone I asked was too busy, even the one to whom I offered a free lunch and the price of the cinema ticket. Altogether I approached six people. I should have listened to the universe. It was not worth the trip into town and the sacrifice of a whole afternoon of bright skies. Michael Caine was excellent but Miss Piggy had barely a walk on part. What is the point of any kind of Muppets Show if Miss Piggy doesn't do her thing? Still, the Dickens message was clear, and I came home wanting to watch It's a Wonderful Life, partly to remind myself what a great Chritsmas movie is, and partly to compare the messages.

I think Dave must have been feeling sorry for me because he insisted he could sit beside me on the sofa while the film was on, and make not a peep. He LOATHES that film. I said thanks, but no thanks, thinking there is no fun in watching a film with someone next to you who is muttering under their breath. But he did it! He sat there reading his Mary Beard book, and doing Times crosswords, while I became a soggy mess on the sofa. I start crying near the start, when Mr Gower hits the young George and makes his sore ear bleed. The thing that struck me last night was how much austerity Britain feels like the scenes where George goes down the Main Street of Bedford Falls when it's not Bedford Falls, but it's Pottersville. ( If you've never seen the film and don't know what I'm talking about, I feel sorry for you. Get it sorted!)

In the middle of the film, one of my grandsons ( aged 11) rang. He is a drummer and last time I saw him I rashly promised to learn Baker Street on my sax and play it with him. He rang to ask if I'd learned It yet. Could I take my sax over today and play? Reader, I have been practising Baker Street but am a long, long way from being proficient. I feel a failure. Letting a grandchild down is a big deal. I think I'm going to have to come clean and substitute something else that's raunchy and has a good beat. But it won't be happening today. I hope he understands.

This has been a very quiet week. It has felt what empty nest syndrome must feel like (which is something I didn't suffer from when it actually happened) so I am really looking forward to sitting round the table at Zoe's house, with two of my offspring and their appendages. I'm not allowed to have photographs of any of them on here these days, so here are the little ones who will be missing. We can't wait to see them and their parents in January.

Happy Christmas, dear readers!

Monday, December 18, 2017


My computer has died. I have a day on my own to write and my computer died last night.
The rewrite of the book is done and a fairly recent draft is backed up, so at least I'm not worrying about that. But blogging on here is restrictive - I can't change the header, add links, or edit pictures, and the fonts are ill-disciplined, so you'll have to put up with an austerity blog until I get a new laptop.

We've had a fortnight of amazing dawns like this

and stunning sunsets. On Saturday I was driving home over the hills from Sheffield and the sky was a glorious, stupendous tapestry of orange and purple. Drivers were stopping on the crest of the ridge and taking photographs of it. I didn't have a camera and kept driving, but it's a wonder I didn't crash, because my eyes were continually drawn back to the sky.

Christmas seems different this year. Or at least, my mood this year is different from how it's been before. Sombre, I think is the word. I have held back from saying this, because I don't want you to think I see myself as a character from Little Women, but this year I am so aware of the hardships of so many people in "austerity" Britain - homelessness, debt, poverty - with so many dependent on food banks, that it feels pretty irrelevant as to whether I am having the kind of Christmas I consider to be my absolute ideal i.e. stuffed full of family. I am so, so fortunate in every way that matters. I never used to be able to understand when my father said he didn't want anything for Christmas - would I just give a donation to Shelter? - but now I do. 

Dave has already given me my Christmas card for this year. He always makes me something in wood. Here it is:

I have an empty house today and a dead computer and I shall be decorating the tree. Yay!

I hope you all have the kind of Christmas you long for. 


         Wendy Cope   (Copyright) from If I Don't Know, Faber 2001

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”  

Thomas Mann

I'm still rewriting my novel, and enjoying it. I'm making changes to character, plot and wording.
I was just sitting here in bed at 6.35 a.m. trying to decide which sounds more colloquial -

‘Well, you think of a word for yellow that’s got one syllable!'
'Well, you think of a word for yellow that has one syllable!'

Yes, it comes down to minutiae like that. Earlier I was lying in the dark thinking about a character and realised I needed to make an important addition to what she found in someone else's wardrobe. But then, if she did find this item, would she mention it to the person whose wardrobe it was, and if so, when?
Which reminds me of my treasured book - The Unstrung Harp; or Mr Earbrass writes a novel....

And I just checked my email and found one from me written in the middle of the night when I got up to pee that says "Change midsummer scene. Jane thinks more."

So you see, there is lots to do.

Meanwhile, it feels as though Christmas at Hepworth Towers is being rewritten. You know how people always say to you in December "And what are you doing for Christmas?" To me they always say "And is it an ON Christmas, or an OFF Christmas?"  (If you don't know what that means, read this.)

Last year it was ON, but it had to be abandoned after I'd decorated the tree, because Wendy was not recovering well from her op and I zoomed off to Boulder to help Isaac look after the family. And Dave dismantled the tree, and had the best OFF Christmas he's ever had. But we can't switch this Christmas to ON, because Zoe and family are away alternate years, and the family member who declines to be named will also be away with his fiancee. 

Last weekend one of my grandsons saw a charity appeal leaflet on the kitchen table that had a photo of an old woman on it and the caption NO FAMILY, NO TREE, NO CHRISTMAS, and asked 'Is that you, Sue?' and then gave me a big hug. Oh dear.

If the snow and frost retreat, I'll be digging up my tree and bringing it in, and it will be in the sitting room, not coralled to my study, because I had to abandon it last year. Don't tell Dave this, but apart from the tree I care less and less about the ON/OFF thing. We are both still here, alive, well-fed and warm. And I'm thankful. 

Being here with just Dave on Christmas Day will be lovely. And I'll be with all the family (bar Dave) on the 23rd for feasting and games at Zoe's house. I have it all.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Oh dear oh dear oh dear

I think I've given you the wrong impression about the main male character (note - I did not say 'hero') in my new work-in-progress. He feels the cold, but he is not weak or feeble. This may seem like a minor characteristic right now, but when you read the book it should make sense. But actually I am wishing I hadn't told you any of this, so please put it out of your mind.

I went to a book group last evening to chat about my book BUT I TOLD YOU LAST YEAR THAT I LOVED YOU.  The people there were either psychiatrists or trainee psychiatrists, and although they were friendly and welcoming - of course! - I have to admit I felt a little intimidated. 

When I got home, I told Dave how I felt, and that the next book on their list is Metamorphosis, and he said "Well, at least you turned up. They won't be getting Kafka."

Good old Dave. 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Weekend round-up

I had eight hours sleep last night and when I went to get my morning cuppa I brought the laptop back to bed so I could blog. But then I just sat there and looked at it, too tired to write.

When I went down for breakfast later I found a new batch of oatcakes on the side - thanks, Dave - and the cook in boiler suit and wellies exiting the back door to have a bonfire. So I sat and ate breakfast in the kitchen and watched the bonfire progress through the window for twenty minutes, too tired to move.

Eventually I went back upstairs and showered and dressed and donned jacket and wellies to go outside to admire the bonfire close-up, and it was such a lovely mild day I started tidying up the strawberry patch (that Dave keeps demanding we scrap right now and I keep resisting, saying, 'No let's just give it one more season.') That was a pleasant half an hour. I hadn't finished, but my hands were cold so I came back in and made a coffee and by that time the  paper had arrived so I sat on the sofa with my feet up, reading the Review section, too tired to do anything else.  

I don't know why I'm tired. There were only four events in the diary this week - seeing a live screening of Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance from the Vaudeville Theatre in London - terrific acting, but I was not sold on the play;  a curry with friends; my sax lesson; and an inset day spent with my older grandson who is now 13, and whose name and photo I am no longer allowed to post, but long-time readers will know who I mean. 

The day was lovely. We went into Sheffield on the bus and saw an exhibition of Ravilious and his associates, and my companion looked at them carefully and had lots to say. 

HMS Ark Royal by Eric Ravilious

I can't recall a gallery visit I have enjoyed as much, unless it was the visits I used to make years ago with my father to Askrigg village hall to see the annual exhibition of Wensleydale artists. He would be chuffed to bits that his great-grandson has an artist's eye, and talent too. 

Bolton Castle, Wensleydale, in December

We had a hot pasty and did bits of shopping in John Lewis - buying Christmas presents for Lux and Cece, and checking out the functions of Fitbits (as you do.) I even got the price and spec of a telly, because I'm thinking of getting one. At present we have a huge, box-like 20 year old monstrosity that is not digital and is only fit for watching DVDs.

You can tell I'm tired, can't you, by the pedestrian nature of the above?

The good news is that the rewrite of the novel is coming along. One of the things I've changed is the main male character. I've made him nesh, and I'm liking him so much better. I hope you will too.