Friday, March 26, 2021

Weekend treat

Seven years ago another writer asked me which one of the four books I'd written was my favourite, and I refused to pick one.

One year ago, my sixth book was published, and this is the roll call:

Plotting for Beginners

Zuzu's Petals

But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You

Plotting for Grown-ups

Even When They Know You

Days Are Where We Live

and if someone asked me now, I would pick two favourites...

But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You


and Days Are Where We Live

But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You has sold many more copies than Days Are Where We Live and yet to my mind the quality of the writing and entertainment value is equal.

Both of these books were self published, but I spent heaps and heaps more time and effort on marketing But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You. Also, sales were given a boost because of a mention in The Guardian and because the National Autistic Society chose the book as one of their favourite novels about autism.

The other difference is that But I Told You is a novel, whereas Days Are Where We Live would fall into the category of memoir, being a chronological collection of the very best of my blog posts. (And incidentally it's 95% politics-free.)  Perhaps people don't want to read a memoir of someone they have never heard of. Is that the reason? 

It's a year since I published this darling book, and from today, Friday March 25th, until Sunday 27th, I am giving away Kindle copies for free. If you have not already read it, now's your chance - there are plenty of persuasive reviews on Amazon -  and if you have read it, perhaps you'd tell your friends about the special offer, and put it on social media, too? Also, if you see my tweets about it, would you be kind enough to retweet them?

And please, if you like the book, review it online. Thank you, friends.

I asked two fans of the book which sections I should include as a taster: one said 

"I particularly liked the bravery of the posts where you both celebrate and miss Mary - that was big. People aren’t usually able to share the complexity of those aspects of life, in a way that is honest without being maudlin."

The other fan said I should quote sections where Dave is being funny. goes...first three posts about Mary, and then a post about Dave and me and our opposing approaches to life.

February 7, 2015

The answer

My dearest friend and confidante is gravely ill and my concern for her is having a weird effect: it’s making me sensitive to all kinds of exaggerated anxieties and sadnesses which are focussed on my family.

I’m not usually like that.

I expect it will pass.

And there’s a helpful quote from Rohinton Mistry which I found in that book I recently read twice in one week, Kate Gross’s Late Fragments. It especially speaks to my condition:

“There’s only one way to defeat the sorrow and sadness of life – with laughter and rejoicing. Bring out the good dishes, put on your good clothes, no sense hoarding them.”

-Rohinton Mistry from Family Matters

To that end, I am having pancakes for breakfast.

And I’m enjoying looking at photographs of the girls in Colorado.

And Dave is going out for the day which means I can get on with the rewrite of episode one of the screenplay undisturbed. Yay!


February 11, 2015

Current reading

This morning, feeling sad, I googled “Poems to read to the dying” and in a couple of links arrived at Anthony Wilson’s wonderful Lifesaving Poems Blog. I have been sitting in bed reading the poems on his list. Now, I’m ordering the anthology which is to be published in June by Bloodaxe.

In all my waking moments when I am not actually doing something, I am working my way through the poems on Anthony Wilson’s blog. It seems like an appropriate response in the face of death.


February 14, 2015


Sometime in the last century I saw an advert in the paper: someone was making a TV programme about best friends, and they wanted volunteers to be on it. Being a bit of a show-off, I suggested to Mary that we should offer, and she, being a shy, private person was horrified.

Mary died yesterday at home, surrounded by her beloved family.

If she thought about it beforehand she might guess I was going to say something about her on here.

Mary could be infuriating, embarrassing, and – for the first twenty years of our friendship – invariably late. But outside of my large family (and yes, Dave, as you define family differently from me, I am including you in my family) Mary was the person in my life I have loved the most.

In so many ways we were opposites. I am driven. She was whatever the word is to define minus drive. I could be writing at 6 a.m. She would be eating her porridge at noon. It would have driven me insane to share living space with her. But our values overlapped completely, and as a friend she was unsurpassable. She was a huge emotional support through long tough times in my life. She was caring, compassionate, tactful, loyal, discreet, non-judgmental, and considerate. (Ten years ago, she stopped being late.)

Another dear friend sent me a sweet email yesterday saying she knew I’d be devastated by Mary’s death. That about sums it up.

And here’s a Dinah Craik quote which sums up Mary…

“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.”


February 17, 2015

A burst of colour

Some of my family don’t understand why I write personal stuff on here: but they love me anyway. The thing is - I am a writer, and writing is what writers do. And I like the Ted Hughes quote: “What’s writing really about? It’s about trying to take fuller possession of the reality of your life.” And the Cecil Day-Lewis one: “We write not to be understood, we write to understand.”

Every morning and at periods throughout the day, Dave, concerned, asks me how I am. So far it’s been the same answer: “I’m sad. And I feel raw. As if I’ve been skinned.”

A few weeks after my mother died, I wrote this on the blog:


Being bereaved is like being a walking wound. Every part of you is tender. You can't settle to anything because nothing feels comfortable. Sometimes you forget you're a wound and you become absorbed by something outside yourself - like cutting back the autumn garden, sweeping up the leaves, watching three hundred crows wheeling over the field at the back of the house.

Sometimes you go to a familiar place and chat to a friend and forget you're a wound, and you laugh out loud at a shared joke and you think to yourself "I can do this. I can live without my mother and still be happy." And then you leave your friend and walk down the street and you're a wound again. I will know I am healed, I suppose, when all the happy interludes join up and there are no aching times in between. And it is getting better every day.

This morning, sitting in bed, I turned sideways and saw the burst of colour on my bedside table, and I loved it: the freesias and genista I bought for myself the day Mary died. Then I spent five happy minutes trying to get the best possible photo of it.

The sky is clear and bright today, and my grandsons are coming over. It’s Pancake Day, so we’ll have pancakes, and later, I’ll tempt them to walk down the Trail with the lure of ice cream at Hassop Station.

I know that when they’ve gone home I’ll feel like a walking wound again, but in the meantime I’m going to seize any colour the day has to offer.

Dave and me

December 18, 2018

Frugality plus inventiveness can be a trap

When people see all the beautiful things Dave has made - furniture, stained glass, carvings, Christmas decorations - they envy me. They also envy me because he is so good at FIXING things. I am a lucky woman. I know this. However...there is a dark side to all this talent: his eagerness to create things from bits and bobs when one would much rather go out and BUY said object. 

Take yesterday. I came home from Bakewell market and complained to Dave about the heavy shopping, and how I was wondering about buying a shopping trolley - a trendy one (if 'trendy shopping-trolley' is not an oxymoron.)

He said “Oh, you mean one of those tartan ones.”

“No! No! Something modern!”

“You don't need to buy one,” he said. “I'll make you one. Something robust and capacious.”

My heart sank.

“What you need is one like window cleaners used to have,” he said. “I could use old bike wheels. I've got two in the shed.”

“I have no idea what you're talking about, but NO.”

“Yes, yes,' he said. 'Google an image of a traditional window cleaner's trolley.”

I did. It had large wooden cart wheels with a platform on top.

“That's it,' he said. 'But there should be a big box on top.”

“And just how am I expected to get that in the back of the car to bring it home from Bakewell?”

“I'll make you a ramp!”

You may laugh, dear reader. I would if I didn’t live with this man.

Anyway, this conversation reminded me of a piece I once had in the Times which I don't think I've shared with you before:

Make do and mend spend!

Do you ever look with dissatisfaction at your furniture and wish you could start again? You don’t want to submit to the horrors of trial by makeover, but you would like to junk that ugly lumpen armchair your mother-in-law gave you, or that trendy-in-the-seventies standard lamp reminiscent of a salon hairdryer? After we lost all our things in a fire, and the emotional ashes began to settle, we had that chance to start again. But even with a lump sum and an empty house the task was arduous for a couple with no experience of buying new furniture.

We married as impoverished students, and as the years passed most of what furnished our house before the fire was not so much chosen and bought, but inherited, or just somehow acquired. Objectively speaking we had some good stuff, such as the three handsome grandfather clocks my husband Dave had inherited. But I could have counted on the fingers of one hand the items of furniture which we actually went out and bought in a shop. This was a result partly of lack of funds at the appropriate time, but also of an abhorrence of waste, a make-do-and-mend philosophy, a drive to recycle and reclaim wherever possible, and the inability to look a gift horse in the mouth.

In our young and untroubled student days when we were able to afford a Land Rover but not new furniture (why was that?) we had been asked by some newly married friends if we would take to the tip a “hideous three piece suite” which a parent was foisting upon them to be helpful. Well, the suite turned out to be beautiful - art deco, upholstered in blue velvet, with walnut veneer arms – so we took it home. It became one of my favourites, much coveted by the more discerning of my friends, but much reviled by my modernist husband.  It was followed by similar items, which friends wanted to get rid of and which I wanted to give a good home to. At one time in the sitting room of our first small flat we actually had three sofas.

It’s hard to buy new things when recycling is in your genes. I remember going off to camp for the first time with a home made rucksack my mother had recycled from an old gaberdine mac, with zips reclaimed from long dead trousers, and a cord from a pair of tattered pyjamas. She would make us bedside tables and dolls houses out of orange boxes, and even long after she had anyone needing dolls furniture, she found it excruciating to throw away those tiny plastic catering tubs when emptied of jam or UHT milk - they made such wonderful wash-basins. Her one thousand and one ways with a pair of old tights is so well documented that we can’t see a pair adrift in a hedgerow without my husband saying “your mother must have been here again.” Her favourite use was as twine for tying up my father’s raspberry canes in the autumn.

And my grandmother was the same. She made a superior picnic blanket out of an old tweed coat, and dusters out of old knickers (“every gusset a memory” – Victoria Wood.) Her better underwear was not suitable for dusters, being made from an old silk parachute. The tights-recycling gene manifested itself in her case in the knitting of them into peg bags.

As for Dave, his recycling tendencies verge on the pathological. Once, to get rid of unwanted junk, we hired a skip with the couple next door. The two men would each wheel a barrow full of old rammel through their respective gates to meet at the skip with mutual cries of “Don’t you want that? Can I have it?” followed by the swapping of treasures and the wheeling of full barrows back up the two garden paths.

So you can see that the fire did us one or two favours:  I am delighted to be rid of the hundreds of beads from a dismantled car bead seat, the spherical light shade made out of Sainsburys High Juice plastic bottle caps, and a mound of worn bicycle tyres.

Make-do-and-mend is a trap. In one of my Dave’s joyful austerity periods he mended my daughter’s glasses with string and then sprayed it gold to match the glasses: she has never forgiven him. He also resoled his shoes with an old car tyre. Even now, when anyone needs anything at all, from a bird feeder to a roof rack, our long flown children will say with ghoulish delight “Don’t worry - Dave will knock you one up out of an old bike tyre!” Don’t get me wrong: I love the huge set of wind chimes made from wardrobe rail which now adorn our hall; and the aerobic ankle weights he fashioned from a piece of old lead piping are great.

But recycling requires raw materials, and even Dave was flummoxed by an empty house. On receiving the insurance cheque it was extremely difficult to break away from frugal ways and actually spend money on large items of furniture, particularly when we viewed them as once only purchases which had to last us the rest of our lifetimes.

And even though we had been married for 25 years, the profound clash in our tastes only became apparent when we were choosing new things. It was a case of traditionalist with a penchant for period style meets radical minimalist who thinks that form should always follow function. What possible middle ground in clothes storage is there between someone who wants an Edwardian chest of drawers in satinwood, and someone who prefers a stack of wipe clean plastic boxes? Or between someone who yearns for a kingsize cast iron bedstead, and someone who hankers after hammocks?

Yet another problem was Dave’s aversion to shopping. I thought I’d found the solution by using mail order. But catalogue sofas with apparently perfect proportions, when transposed to our sitting room looked like sofas on steroids. We returned them, and for 18 months we sat on the floor. 

We have now managed to buy most of the furniture we need, but it has been a novel and a gruelling process. And after having a lot of detritus forcibly taken from us, we are definitely more discerning in our recycling. But what’s that lurking behind the new sofa? A carrier bag full of old tights?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh to find a good use for all the things we have saved for the day when they will be useful.

One of the main things I have taken from reading your blog over the years is the concept of living joyfully and purposefully in the face of so much pain and loss and wrong, partly as an act of defiance and partly because those who can’t do all the things we have the freedom to do, would ask us - why do we not do them when we so easily can. I need to return to this frequently - and to have your words to read out to my lockdown companions (son and husband) because from you they are wise and from me its just mum trying to be jolly.

I wonder where I put my bag of old tights ?