Saturday, November 30, 2019

Blast from the past

I'm currently working on a project that involves me reading my old blog posts, and as I have nothing of any interest to tell you about my week, I thought I'd repost an old post I liked from ten years ago, with apologies to those of you on Twitter who have already seen it this week.

A map of grief
In the last year I have progressed from intense grief for the loss of my mother, to a place on the map that is not so bleak. I miss my mother and think of her often, but now when I go to stay at her house with brothers or sisters, I enjoy the visit. Eleven months ago, I felt differently and wrote this…

Losing my mother

Sometimes, it’s a comfort having my mother’s things around me - her Austrian jug on the windowsill, her mahogany chest in the bedroom, her Piers Browne painting on the wall. Sometimes I hate to look at them.

Sometimes I like to see her photograph – her smiling, strong, straightforward face. Sometimes I can’t abide it on my desk. I never had her photo on display before she died, so if I have it here now, she must be dead. And I don’t want her dead. I don’t like the new dispensation.

We have been clearing out her house in monthly weekend bursts, ever since she died at the end of last October. It’s April now, and I’ve just spent a weekend there. The weather was achingly beautiful – clear blue skies and sunshine, the full bright light of early spring skies, lambs in the fields, daffodils in the gardens and on the verges - and a brother and sister to keep me company.

Over the months we’ve been denuding the house of personal, sentimental and valuable items, and now it’s like the holiday cottage it was when our parents bought it, 50 years ago. It no longer feels like our mother’s home, but like a cottage we all feel comfortable in. We know how everything works – that there are two immersion heater switches, and both of them must be on for the heater to work, that the draught for the fire points to the right, that you have to thump the washing machine in the middle of the door at the top to get it going. But it does not feel like the place where I took my babies, my children, my teenagers, to visit their grandparents, and latterly went on my own to visit my mother.

We have a lovely photo of her, taken 6 weeks before she died. When we visit the house, we take it out from behind the bookshelf curtain and stand it on the shelf, and see her wise, healthy, loving face, and when we drink our wine at meals we toast her.

It was good to be with my brother and sister at the weekend, comforting to have a hug and a laugh, to share memories and to miss our mother together. But the only time I got that rush of the safe, the cosy, the familiar, was when I was standing at my mother’s sink, washing up. At that moment, she might have been still alive, sitting in front of the fire, doing the codewords puzzle from the Telegraph, turning on the radio for a cricket update.

When Peter and Jen set off on the Sunday morning for their long drive south, I waved them off, and sat under the front wall on the bench that Ma put there (to catch the last of the setting sun) and I looked at the house.

Behind me on the road, two hikers were walking down the lane and when they saw the estate agent’s sign, the woman said, “I could live there,” and her partner agreed.

“It’s a tidy garden.”

“A very tidy garden.”

“And look, it’s big – there’s an extension at the back.”

They walked out of earshot.

I didn’t feel sad at the thought of someone else living there, or outraged at the thought of someone talking about my mother’s house as if it was on the open market – after all, it was! I ached because she wasn’t there. No matter how many times I go up to stay with a brother or sister, she won’t be there. It wasn’t a chore to visit her, a woman in her nineties. She was vivacious, alert and chatty and she had a great sense of humour, a ready laugh. She was good company, and easy. And she was a rock.

Not one of my siblings – and I love them all – is a substitute for her. She wasn’t there on that bright spring day and she won’t be there in May for my nephew’s wedding, when the May blossom is out and the verges are thick with sweet cicely and cow parsley. She won’t be there to smell the Arthur Bell roses in June, or the lavender in July. She won’t be there to enjoy the colours of Crocosmia Lucifer in August, or the Michaelmas daisies in September.
I have to get used to losing her. To having her missing from my life. To have her gone, out of reach, unavailable for hugs or chats or encouragement, to live without that unfailing love that made the world feel safe.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Who is telling the story?

There are all kinds of ways for writers to waste time once they're sitting down at their desks intending to write. Some people ogle stationery online, some check Twitter for the latest example of the BBC distorting the news by 'mistakes' in editing footage, and some delay starting their novel - which they have already peopled and plotted - by dithering over what voice to use. 

I am guilty of the last two of these. I don't need to ogle stationery because I know what I like: UNI BALL EYE MICRO UB-150 ROLLERBALL PEN BLACK, and LEUCHTTURM1917 (348101) Notebook Medium (A5), Hardcover, 251 Numbered Pages, Ruled.

It's the indecision on voice which is currently bugging me. I've so far written novels in the first person and the third person. I've always disdained omniscient narration, where the reader is aware there is someone outside the story who knows everything about the characters and events in the story, and sometimes makes comments.  I generally don't like reading this kind of book because it breaks, for me, the fictive dream. I want to feel myself inside the story, sharing the feelings of the character, or characters, if there are multiple viewpoints. 

It's the same reason I prefer the cinema to the theatre. At the theatre I am aware I am sitting in an audience watching something on a stage. It obviously can't be real. In a cinema, I'm sitting in the dark, and in good cinemas, where people know how to behave (she said snootily) I can be unaware of the rest of the audience. I can be immersed completely in the action and emotions of the people on the screen. I frequently cry in the cinema but don't think I ever have at the theatre.

My first published novel, Plotting or Beginners, was written in the first person, and so was the sequel, Plotting for Grown-ups. I thought that was all I could manage when I first began to write. Now I've mastered the third person, but in the new book there are four characters and I am dithering over whether to have one of them write in the first person, and the other three stories to be in the third. 

This has been my excuse for delay. So this week I tried to break the deadlock by writing some dialogue from some of the scenes I've planned, so it is stripped of all description and thus point of view, and reads like a play. It's a dubious ploy but it has revealed to me some completely new information about the characters. e.g. I didn't know that Josie thinks reading fiction is a waste of time, and I didn't know she doesn't care a jot for clothes and fashion. 

This cannot go on - either the blog post (because I have to get up and have breakfast and cut Dave's hair) - or the stripped back dialogue writing. I've got to get on with the job of setting the scene and telling the story. I hope to manage that today.

p.s. I just discovered that you can rate a book on Amazon without writing a review: someone new has given BUT I TOLD YOU LAST YEAR THAT I LOVED YOU   5 stars. 
This is a prompt for all those people who enjoyed my books and can't face writing a review. So....

Friday, November 22, 2019

Falling leaves

I've been to three funerals and a wake this year. Deaths come thick and fast when you reach the end of your 60s. This week I went to a memorial service. It was touching to hear all the tributes. 

On Wednesday - a day I had set aside for writing because Dave was out - I was so tired that my brain couldn't think about writing. I couldn't even hold up a mug of coffee. I spilled half a mug of it on our newly covered sofa (aarggh) so I decided to give up on indoor pursuits and clear the leaves from the patio instead. It was lovely out there in the autumn sunshine.

Didn't they look beautiful?

Look at the 'after' photo. Isn't it drab?

After lunch, I gave up on all upright activity and went to bed with Nora Ephron, who I haven't read for some time. At the end of her book I feel bad about my neck - now there's a woman with an eye for a great title - she has a piece called Considering the alternative. Perhaps you can guess what it's about. There is so much unadorned truth in that piece that I want to quote whole pages to you. It's hard just to pick a sentence or two, so I won't. 

OK. I've considered several pages from her piece but this is the bit I'm going to paste on here:

Believe it or not, I'm not feeling glum today. I just wanted to share with you a bit of my week.

At the end of the lane there was a huge field of corn. Dave hates this crop because sometimes it is eight feet high and obscures the view. This year wasn't sunny and it only reached five foot. From certain angles, I found it picturesque. Don't you?

They harvested it this week and the field looks sad, but Dave has got his view back.

by the way...
If you have had difficulty with leaving comments, try the Anonymous option and write your name within the text (if you want to.) This often works better than trying to sign in. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Book group

You know I said recently how I'd love to have a blog readers' book group in which they discussed my latest book Even When They Know You, or any of my other books come to that?  

I can read the reviews on Amazon of people who liked it and can be bothered to post a review. And a big thank you to those who do, and who can. But I don't hear more nuanced views, and when you've spent 4 years on a book and the only fun bits to write were the argument scenes between the two main characters, it would be nice to hear more from readers. It usually takes me 18 months to write a book, and most of the writing is fun. This last one was different.

saw an old friend ten days ago who I haven't seen in months, and I asked her what she thought of Even When They Know You. I don't know if this is the case with other writers, and it might shock you, but after a new book comes out, the top thing on my mind when I see a friend is - DID THEY LIKE THE BOOK? 

I thought this friend might not like it because she hadn't brought it up in an hour long conversation. I was right. She thought it was sentimental and a bit chick-litty (which by the way, predictive text sometimes translates as 'choclatey' and sometimes as 'shitty' - which could both be appropriate, if you know what I mean.)

I thought about it and was puzzled by the 'sentimental' criticism because I don't think it is. As evidence of the chicklit criticism, she offered Joe turning up when Jane fell off her bike. 

Then a few days ago I saw another old friend who said she found the book compelling, but that she didn't like Jane and thought she was unkind to Joe. Hmmm...interesting. I love the fact she thought the book compelling, and I can live with the fact that she didn't like Jane because Jane was meant to be imperfect, and as for Joe - no, I think Jane did the right thing. 

The next thought that sprang to mind was this: I never fancied Joe. I know this  is irrelevant but it interests me because I wonder if it influenced how he came across. I did fancy Kit, the love interest in Plotting for Grown-ups. I really fancied Kit. 

had modelled Joe in my mind's eye on Sam Elliott, who I do fancy, except for his moustache. Maybe the moustache always got in the way with Joe, too. This book group is deteriorating into trivia. I'm going to end it here, but I'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Letter from home

Despite the desperate political news, and the terrible floods, I've had some good times this week.

OK, so we've been stuck inside unable to cycle and driving each other nuts, but one cold wet afternoon, desperate for fresh air, I went out armed with a stout stick and cleared the gullies on the quarter mile lane at the end of ours. Why people don't want to clear gullies opposite their houses is beyond me. All that fun on their doorsteps and they leave it to someone on a neighbouring lane. I drove home past them in pouring rain yesterday, the road awash with water because they were clogged with leaves again. Honestly! Don't people realise how satisfying it is to clear mud and leaves and grit from a grate and to see and hear the rainwater gushing down it? 

This is me returning home sodden and happy and looking like a sidekick of Foggy, Cosmo and Clegg.

This is me and my little sister 60 odd years ago...

Had we been clearing out gullies then?

Another reason to be cheerful was Series 3 of Atypical on Netflix. This touching comedy drama gets better with every series. I gulped down an episode a night, smiling one minute and crying the next, and I loved loved loved the final episode. But there'll be no spoilers here. Watch it, and if you've never seen it, start with the first episode of series 1.

And as for news, I was immensely cheered by this story of a Dewsbury butcher who has been discreetly giving meat parcels to families who can't manage on Universal Credit. Do follow the link and read the story. It's heart-warming. Here is his Twitter account.

Lastly, there's a new review of EVEN WHEN THEY KNOW YOU on Amazon:

Thursday, November 14, 2019

What I'm thinking about

I'm sorry you've had to wait so long for a post. There are a lot of disparate thoughts swirling around my head this morning but I'll try to get them into some kind of order. I was going to write a domestic post but other things have come to the forefront of my thoughts. Tune in tomorrow for something different. 

I am not on Facebook, but I spend too much time on Twitter, following politics, writing, art, personal friends and family, and three accounts to cheer me up, namely @SeaSkyCraster, @ObamaPluskids, and @VictoriaQOTD (quotes from Victoria Wood.)  Far too much time. 

Such is Britain after 9 years of a Conservative government. 

Just now I learned on Twitter that in Gaza a family of 6 has been killed by Israeli bombs, and the shelling is continuing. At the time of writing 26 people had been killed and 95 injured. Gaza is the most densely populated area in the world. Two million people live in an area of 25 x 7 square miles. More than 50% are children. They are besieged and there is no escape, and Israel is bombing them. 

Yes, they are bombing them in retaliation to rocket attacks from Hamas, but the sides are unequal, and more importantly, the Israelis oppress the Palestinian people. In the Occupied Territories, Israeli settlers steal their land and their water, chop down their olive trees, and the authorities bulldoze their houses. Gaza is besieged and short of too many things to list here, but vital medicines are one item. Did you know the Israelis frequently refuse permission for people to leave Gaza for cancer treatment they cannot get at home? Did you know they frequently forbid parents to travel with their seriously ill children for treatment outside Gaza?

Last night on the news I saw Boris Johnson - at last - visiting the floods in South Yorkshire. I can't tell you his precise words, but the gist was this -  'It must be  very upsetting to see your property under water.' I know for certain he used the word property and I thought it very telling. These are peoples' homes. 

We've been OK at Hepworth Towers but a few miles away it's been horrendous, and in Sheffield Zoe has been fighting hard to prevent floodwater rising up from the cellar to flood her home.

Trouble, trouble, everywhere there's trouble - strife in Hong Kong and Bolivia, war in Syria, floods in Venice as well as here, fires in Australia. In thinking about Gaza I was reminded of the work of a Palestinian artist, Mona Hatoum, whose exhibition at Tate Modern I saw 3 years ago.

One of her pieces was this:

It was a kinetic piece. As we watched it, red lights flashed on and off in different places round the globe, always changing, but somewhere there was always a hot spot.

Has it always been thus? Would it have been easier to be a Victorian and to get all your news from a newspaper, and that news probably two days old?

Friday, November 08, 2019

The stuff I can't share...

The brother who checks my blog everyday says that sometimes my posts read as if I don't know what to say. The fact is that there is plenty that's happening in my life that's bloggable, but when I'm gathering material for a new book, I don't necessarily want to share it here. I want to keep it for possible inclusion in the new book.

Here's an example of possible copy...

This week Dave was enthusing about the white mesh re-usable produce bags that Sainsbury's are selling. They are made entirely from recycled plastic bottles. You bring your apples or your potatoes home in them, and reject a polythene bag, but according to Dave they would be just as valuable as an  addition to the tools in his shed. He sees them as masks. 

They will cover your glasses and your hair and stop dust particles lodging in them. If you're routing or using the circular saw, they will stop chips flying into your face and hair. 

When you're cleaning the gutters and you're working on the roof, scraping moss off it, or clearing the gutters, you'd get perfect vision in one of these, and no bits falling on your face or in your eyes. Plus they're cool.  


If Sally Howe - of Plotting for Beginners and Plotting for Grownups fame - is going to feature in the new book, it's likely her Screwfix-catalogue-loving brother Richard will also be in it, and can't you just hear him waxing lyrical about one of these babies?

'They're not going to biodegrade and get tatty,' he said. 'At 30 pence each, they're a steal!'

Wednesday, November 06, 2019


Politics getting you down?

Or is it just life?

Here is a wonderful poem I found at the weekend, and I'm delighted that I now have permission to share it with you.

A Portable Paradise 

And if I speak of Paradise,
then I’m speaking of my grandmother
who told me to carry it always
on my person, concealed, so
no one else would know but me.
That way they can’t steal it, she’d say.
And if life puts you under pressure,
trace its ridges in your pocket,
smell its piney scent on your handkerchief,
hum its anthem under your breath.
And if your stresses are sustained and daily,
get yourself to an empty room – be it hotel,
hostel or hovel – find a lamp
and empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.

Roger Robinson

© Roger Robinson, from A Portable Paradise, 2019. Used by permission of Peepal Tree Press.

View from the Monsal Trail
photo by Isaac

Monday, November 04, 2019

Safe Passage

Of all the petitions and charity requests I get in my inbox, the ones from Safe Passage tug at my heart the most. Safe Passage works to reunite refugee children with family members who live in the UK. 

Look how safe and happy my grandkids are:

Imagine what it's like for a child their age to be fleeing danger and separated from their parents.

This is the most recent example that Safe Passage told me about:

One family, a brother and sister in France aged 6 and 16, are seeking to reunite with their aunt in the UK. They fled an oppressive regime in East Africa. On their journey to Europe, both their mother and grandma fell ill, so they courageously continued on their journey to safety alone - despite being incredibly vulnerable. They eventually got to France, where the authorities separated them, as the children’s homes were full.

They have a chance of being safe and rebuilding their lives - if we can reunite them with their family here in the UK. Once our team discovered them, we quickly got in touch with their aunt to gather all the evidence we needed to help them reunite. We’re still waiting to hear back, but we’re incredibly hopeful that they will be together soon. Every day they’re not with family, they’re at risk of exploitation or people smuggling.

If you would like to support the work of Safe Passage, a charity which finds legal routes to safety for refugee children, here is a link. Please think about it.