Author of mystery, mayhem & comedy in the Cotswolds
Author: Debbie Young
English author of warm, witty novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Staffroom at St Bride's School series, both set in the Cotswolds. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors and for the children's reading charity, Read for Good. Public speaker for the Type 1 Diabetes charity JDRF.
In this month’s issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I’m talking about late summer gluts in the garden. The copy deadline is half way through the previous month to the cover date, and a month after writing this article, we’ve only just finished dealing with our surplus fruit, but still the lanes round here are dotted with baskets of free apples, squash, and other produce for sale or for free at the garden gate.
Before I moved to Hawkesbury Upton, I couldn’t understand how people could leave windfall fruit to rot. My previous house, in Tring, Hertfordshire, was a tiny two-up, two-down Victorian terrace with a back yard rather than a garden, so growing fruit and vegetables was out of the question. So when a neighbour encouraged us to strip her crab apple tree of all its fruit for our new hobby of winemaking, we were overwhelmed by her generosity. Only now that my kitchen is full of baskets of windfall apples – plus a bucket containing 27 pints of fresh apple juice – can I empathise with her relief at offloading her surplus to a grateful home.
When we moved here from Tring, the garden was one of the biggest attractions of our new house. Its substantial lawn was edged with mature plum trees, and an apple tree divided the lawn from the kitchen garden, where soft fruit bushes flourished. Over the years, we’ve added crab-apple, pear and more apple varieties, and damson and cherry trees have planted themselves. (Thank you, wild birds!)
Our plum trees have also multiplied, due to our habit of picking a ripe plum to eat on the move before chucking the stone on the ground wherever we happen to be. One summer, I anticipated a fairy ring of plum trees springing up where my aunt had sat in the garden, working her way through a dish of plums and leaving a circle of their stones around her chair.
This year we’ve had our largest yield of plums yet.
In the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s good to have a reminder that nature can also be benevolent – so much so that it’s been hard work even to give away our surplus.
There’s only so much jam one can use. When I put my latest jars of plum jam in the larder, I discovered we still had four jars from last year.
At least our plums are delicious, unlike the marrows that Nick Cragg throws in with every lot at the Show Day auction. His cry of “And a marrow!” always raises a laugh.
But in the absence of this year’s Village Show, what are we going to do with all our marrows? At the 2021 Show, I predict record entry levels in the spirits category.
Anyone for marrow rum?
If you like the idea of the Village Show, you might enjoy my novel Best Murder in Show, the first in my lighthearted Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series. Available in paperback, ebook and audiobook, it’s a cheery read to help you eke out the summer for a little longer.
The sixth in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories
When I launched my St Bride’s series set in a British girls’ boarding school, I asked some author friends which school stories they’d most enjoyed when they were growing up and invited them to share their enthusiasm on my blog.
This month we’re staying in England for a series of school books that is quintessentially British, in the company of novelist Linda Gillard, author of nine novels, two of which became Kindle bestsellers. Linda will explain why she loves the Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, set in a classic boys’ private school, St Custard’s. (Searle also created the equivalent girls’ school, St Trinian’s.)
Molesworth & Me
I needed no introduction to Molesworth. When I was a child, we had a well-thumbed hardback omnibus edition that all the family enjoyed, including my mother, a teacher, and my brother and sister, who both trained as teachers when they grew up. (I was never a teacher, but I did work in a boarding school for 13 years.) None of us had boarding school educations, but we still appreciated the witty satire about private school life, and I especially loved the anarchic use of language, full of quaint schoolboy slang, complete with painfully bad spelling which is an intrinsic part of the humour.
Linda Gillard & Me
I first got to know Linda Gillard online about seven years ago and it was a couple of years before we were able to meet in person, because she lives hundreds of miles from the Cotswolds in Scotland. However we have managed to meet at two very appropriate places – Leakey’s wonderful secondhand bookshop in Inverness, and at Foyles’ flagship store in London.
Although Linda is English, and went to university not far from me in Bristol, many of Linda’s books are set in Scotland, and I particularly enjoyedEmotional Geology, set on the Scottish Isle of Skye, where I’ve often been with my Scottish husband.
(Leakey’s Bookshop and Skye will feature in the eighth Sophie Sayers novel, which I’m looking forward to writing – but first I must finish the seventh, Murder Lost and Found!)
Now, let’s find out why Linda has chosen Molesworth as her favourite school story.
Linda, welcome to my blog. I’m thrilled that you chose what for those of a certain age is a timeless classic. To kick off, please tell us a little more about it.
Thank you, Debbie for inviting me to talk about my favourite school book. It’s been delightful re-acquainting myself with the works of Nigel Molesworth, “the Curse of St Custard’s”.
The Compleet Molesworth, by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, comprises four short volumes of memoir crossed with self-help manual, written by the fictional Nigel Molesworth, a pupil at a second-rate English public school in the 1950s.
How old were you when you first read it, and how often and at what ages (approx) have you reread it?
I don’t remember exactly when I first read it, but I was a junior pupil at a strict, old-fashioned girls’ grammar school when I was lent a copy of How to be Toppby one of my posher friends who had a brother at public school. (State education was apparently good enough for girls in the 1960s.) I was probably about twelve or thirteen.
I’ve returned to Molesworth throughout my life, just to dip in and chuckle. I owned Puffin paperbacks of all four books (Down with Skool, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms and Back in the Jug Agane) and passed them grudgingly on to my children, then one day in a second-hand bookshop I came across a hardback omnibus edition. I pounced.
I shelve that with children’s fiction, but like the William Brown books of Richmal Crompton, Molesworth’s oeuvre was in fact intended for adults. His diary first appeared in Punch and generated so much fan mail, four books appeared in the 1950s.
How has your perception of the books changed with later readings?
When I first read them, my response was (as it has been to a great deal of literature, including poetry and Shakespeare) a mixture of awe, delight and only partial comprehension.
I had a sense of opening a window on to an absurd and hilarious world: not just the appalling prep school, St Custard’s, but a new world of anarchic language (Willans) and illustration (Searle).
The books have enriched my life, my children’s and my parents’. I can’t think of any other books that have been enjoyed by all three generations. My respect for Molesworth has grown over the decades. He still makes me laugh.
What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?
Every page is laugh-out-loud funny. You only have to mention The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter or The Molesworth Bogus Report to aficionados and they will start to smile. (Whenever I trimmed his hair, my father would quote a line from Matron’s Report: “We forgot to pack his combs. Simply couldn’t face it.”.)
The genius of the book is the perfect pairing of Geoffrey Willans’ economic text with Ronald Searle’s baroque illustrations. Searle is quite rightly credited as co-author, rather than illustrator. The text would be nothing without the illustrations, but equally the deadpan text points up the grotesque humour of the illustrations. “Distance back to pavilion is now 120000 miles” is the caption underneath a picture of a seething, bowled-out Molesworth in the “Criket” section.
Which character did you identify with?
Nigel Molesworth, the rebellious anti-hero. I had a younger sister, two forms below me, so I understood the long-suffering tolerance of his annoying sibling, known as Molesworth 2. (“He do not share the charm and good looks of his elder bro, molesworth 1, hem hem. Strange that they could be related.”)
How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?
I don’t think the books influenced me particularly, though they might have made me more tolerant of the Latin I had to study as far as O Level. Like Molesworth, I didn’t see any point in learning Latin. (I do now.) The books were just joyous entertainment, something I shared with my friends and family. I would feel an instant kinship now with anyone who said they’d read and loved them. They confer the camaraderie of the old school tie.
How did it affect your writing?
Nigel Molesworth’s total disregard for grammar, spelling and political correctness had no effect on my writing, fortunately.
What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?
I attended a girls’ grammar school in the 1960s. We weren’t allowed to talk to boys outside school, not even pupils at the Boys’ Grammar School across the road (of which Mick Jagger was a recent ex-pupil). We wore unflattering felt hats in winter and equally unflattering straw hats in summer, of a design that made even pretty girls look dowdy. It was detention if you were caught turning your hat brim up.
The uniform was a horrible bottle green and we had to wear two pairs of knickers: white next to our skin and bottle green over the top of those. We were subjected to occasional spot checks to make sure we were wearing both pairs.
Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?
A friend introduced me to Molesworth. In turn I showed the books to my sister (Gillard 2) and eventually our parents, who probably recognised in Molesworth a natural successor to Spike Milligan and the Goons.
We all became fans and Molesworthian expressions crept into our everyday speech. As any fule kno, I have given it to the poor boys, Hullo clouds hullo sky and I diskard him were favourites. The fact that I was able to share the books in this way with friends and family was half the joy. It gave us a common frame of reference, a shared, quirky language. Right up until their deaths, my parents would still quote Molesworth, smiling:
Would it still resonate with young readers today?
Searle’s illustrations are timeless and will be eternally hilarious, but Willans’ text is problematic. I doubt whether the books would appeal to young readers. Few children learn Latin now and there are a lot of jokes about the teaching of Latin. Most young people don’t regard correct spelling, grammar and punctuation as important, so I’m not sure they’d see the joke of Nigel’s cavalier literary style.
The books are also very much of their time. Corporal punishment is not a laughing matter now, nor are defective teaching or parenting. A public school education is no longer something to be envied or admired and the ridicule of wealthy, white, male privilege hardly seems subversive.
However, the popularity of the recent dramatisation of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books made me wonder whether Molesworth could still be enjoyed as a quirky period piece by teenagers. You certainly don’t have to attend public school to enjoy Molesworth, but I do wonder if Willans’ wit would travel down the decades for those who enjoy a modern and enlightened education. “Caesar had some jam for tea” depends on familiarity with “Caesar adsum iam forte”. The books might now be dismissed as élitist, as Blyton’s are. Ironically the intention was to ridicule an élite and celebrate the indomitable and ingenious spirit of the British underdog.
Thank you, Linda, it has been a joy to hear about your passion for the immortal Molesworth.
Here’s an introduction to Linda Gillard’s highly acclaimed latest novel, Hidden:
A birth. A death. Hidden for a hundred years.
“Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”
In 1917 a sense of duty and a desire for a child lead celebrated artist Esme Howard to share her life and home – 16th-century Myddleton Mote – with Captain Guy Carlyle, an officer whose face and body have been ravaged by war. But Esme knows nothing of the ugliness that lurks within Guy’s tortured mind, as he re-lives the horrors of the trenches. As a child grows within her, Esme fears Guy’s wrath will be turned on them both. A prisoner in her own home, she paints like one possessed, trusting that one day someone will hear her silent cries for help.
A century later, Miranda Norton inherits Myddleton Mote and its art collection from a father she never knew and decides to move on after the end of an unhappy marriage. Inviting her extended family to join her, Miranda sets about restoring the house and turning it into a thriving business. When someone from Miranda’s past returns to torment her, an appalling act of vandalism reveals the Mote’s dark secrets, hidden for a hundred years.
For more information about Linda Gillard, her books and her writing life, visit her website at www.lindagillard.co.uk.
In this month’s Hawkesbury Parish News, I’m sharing my experience of reorganising my bookshelves.
Ten years ago, I was given a copy ofHoward’s End is on the Landing, Susan Hill’s memoir inspired by the chaotic state of her bookshelves. This gave me the idea of reorganising my books, library style, and I displayed her book on my landing to remind me of my plan.
In all that time, I got no further than occasionally taking the book down to dust it.
Then came lockdown, offering enticing glimpses of immaculate bookshelves of famous people broadcasting from home. Once more I began to yearn for shelves so neat that they’d have space for other items, from pot plants and family photos to curious kittens with a head for heights.
With bookshelves in every room in my house, reorganising my books was no small undertaking. Yet a week after I started, not only is Howard’s End on the landing, but so is the rest of my fiction.
Poetry and biography have moved to the bedroom, including, pleasingly, some poets’ biographies. Arts, crafts, history and music now have their own space in the extension, and cookery, gardening, and rural interest live in the kitchen.
Science, politics, philosophy, geography, and Scottish books are assigned to my husband’s study, while mine is reserved for writing reference and research books. Phew.
How Many Books Do I Really Need?
As the process required me to remove every book from its original position, I took the opportunity to reject any that didn’t “spark joy”, as Marie Kondo puts it. Incidentally, the Japanese decluttering guru believes no household needs more than 10 books, despite having written two herself. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and kept my copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying.
New Lives for Old Books
I set aside some of the rejected books to replenish the Little Free Library on my front wall. (Books awaiting their turn out there are stored in the dining room.) The remaining ten bags full I donated to the Bookbarn* a warehouse near Wells stocking a million second-hand books for sale at bargain prices. The good news is that while delivering my donation, I bought only ten more books. I count that as a win.
Everything in its Place
Every day now I gain so much satisfaction from gazing at my new-look bookshelves that I’m surprised it took me so long to get round to streamlining them. After all, I’m the sort of person who likes to have everything in its place. In my purse, for example, I make a point of sorting the banknotes in descending order of denomination, the right way up, and with the Queen facing me as I take them out to spend.
Not that sorting my banknotes takes very long, being far less numerous than my books. Do you think the two facts might be related?
*The Bookbarn gets a mention in Stranger at St Bride’s, as the source of a place to buy books by the metre for decorating pubs and the homes of the pretentious!
In the eighth book of my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Hector Munro, proprietor of the village bookshop, Hector’s House, will be starting a vintage department, using his vast personal collection of curious old books currently housed in the spare bedroom of his flat above the shop. I think my shorthand Sherlock Holmes book would be right at home there!
Anyone who has read my first Sophie Sayers novel,Best Murder in Show, will be familiar with the very English phenomenon of the annual Village Show.
At this action-packed event, locals display their home-grown fruit and vegetables, baking, handicrafts and sometimes livestock too. Often such shows include funfair rides, market stalls and organised entertainments in an outdoor arena.
A tea tent and a beer tent are always popular, and other catering options are likely to include a hog roast, a deer roast, a fish and chip van and ice-creams.
Hawkesbury’s Village Show
In the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton, where I’ve lived for nearly 30 years, the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, which takes place on the last Saturday of August, is generally acknowledged by villagers to be the social highlight of the year for all ages. The community is proud of the show’s credentials as the second-longest running of its kind in the country. Not even the First and Second World War managed to close it down.
Postponed until Next Year
So it was with great sadness last month that the Show Committee announced that the 2020 Village Show would have to be postponed until August 2021.
Postponed, please note, not cancelled, due to circumstances beyond our control – which means that our place in the record books will still stand.
The Village Show and Me
Over the years, I’ve been involved with the Village Show in many ways. Like most people in the village, we have submitted entries into the marquee for judging, winning prizes for all sorts of things. I’ve done particularly well in the knitting and crochet, but also once took the top prize for the oddest shaped vegetable!
I’ve run stalls – for many years, a secondhand bookstall in aid of the village school’s PTA or youth club – and taken part in the carnival procession on floats and in groups on foot.
I’ve been the Queen of Hearts for an Alice in Wonderland team, with my husband as the White Rabbit and my daughter as Alice. I was the Chinese Ambassador in our family’s Pandamonium trailer, celebrating the arrival of Chinese pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. (My husband was the Scottish zookeeper in his kilt, my daughter, step-grandaughter and friends were pandas.) I’ve even been a St Trinian’s schoolgirl for one of the youth club floats. (I helped run the village youth club years ago.)
A highlight for our family was when my daughter and her best friend were on the Carnival Queen‘s float, my daughter one of the attendants to her best friend, the queen. It was a historic day because for the first time the other attendant was a boy. It was the first year the random draw of the pupils in the top class of the village school included boys as well as girls. We’ve since had our first Carnival King.
The Man Who Knew His Onions
I also served on the Show Committee for 13 years. I didn’t realise it was that long until I resigned and was thanked for my long service. During that time, I was editor of its printed schedule, still produced today in the format that I designed. Show Committee meetings, which go on all year round, were always entertaining.
My favourite moment was a visit from the onion judge (all judges come from beyond the village, in the interests of fairness), who proudly showed us his onion rings – no, not the edible kind, but a shiny set of brass hoops used to gauge the precise dimension of each entry in his class. His father had used them before him, and possibly his grandfather too.
For the last few years, I’ve run a pop-up lit fest with a few guest authors promoting the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, which takes place in April. The visiting authors have even volunteered as carnival judges.
There are also poignant memories. My first husband, John Green, adored the show and carried off prizes for his home-made wine. He once took first prize for a bottle of potato wine that had earned second prize the year before. When he died in 2000, I donated the John Green Cup in his memory for best home-made wine. Seeing it awarded each year is a bittersweet moment.
I also arranged for a memorial trophy to be presented in memory of my friend Lyn Atherton, an early green campaigner who co-launched Hawkesbury’s recycling schemes. At the request of her widower, Clive, I sought out a secondhand trophy to be recycled into the Lyn Atheron Cup for a Useful Object Made from Recycled Materials. I found just the thing on my summer holiday in a curiosity shop in a tiny Scottish seaside town. When I told Clive where we’d got it from, he was astounded – that seaside town happened to be the site of their first ever holiday together. He had fond memories of barbecuing sausages on the beach there with Lyn, washing off the sand in the sea.
My second husband, Gordon, is the proud winner of the Lyn Atherton Cup, and my aunt and my father have also won this cup.
Eerily Quiet August
Every August, as the start of the Show week, seeing the bunting go up, crisscrossing the High Street, and hearing the rumbling of the funfair rides arriving in the village gets everyone excited as we put the finishing touches to our carnival floats and show entries. This year, the last week of August will seem strangely quiet, as it will in all the showgrounds around the country as Covid-19 makes such crowded events too high risk.
In the meantime, if you’d like a flavour of a traditional English village show like ours, there’s always Best Murder in Show, which from now until after what would have been Show Day will be reduced to just 99p for the ebook, and there’ll be £1 off the paperback. It’s also now available as an audiobook at various prices on various platforms – currently a bargain at just £2.99 on Amazon’s Audible.
Nominative determinism – the theory that we grow into our names – has always fascinated me, perhaps because I feel I’ve been touched by it myself.
Deborah is Hebrew for bee. I’m definitely a busy bee and have adopted bees as my mascot. Two large brass bees live on my desk, keeping me company as I write.
I realised long ago that I could no more marry someone with a repellent surname than I could live in a village with an ugly address. The charming name “Hawkesbury Upton” first drew me to the village where I’ve now lived for nearly 30 years. (Read about that episode here.)
I decided I could do a lot worse than be forever Young.
Always on the look-out for other examples of nominative determinism, I’ve found the world of gardening fruitful. My favourites include Bob Flowerdew and Pippa Greenwood, both regulars on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time. When the late Clay Jones was chairman, I was doing battle with a garden with a clay-based soil.
And today I came across a new addition to my list. Just appointed President of the Royal Horticultural Society is one Keith Weed. As a bonus, his mother’s maiden name was Hedges.
After a lifetime of being teased about his name by anyone old enough to remember Little Weed in The Flowerpot Men, Keith Weed’s appointment to a role in which his name will be positively celebrated must feel like a homecoming.
If you’re thinking a weed is bad news in horticulture, let me tell you my favourite gardening saying: “a weed is just a flower growing where you don’t want it”.
I can’t help wondering what has become of Keith Weed’s predecessor, Sir Nicholas Bacon. I’m rather hoping he’s gone to work for the Pork Marketing Board.
I have great fun choosing the names for the characters in my novels. If you’d like to know how the central characters in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series got their names, you may enjoy the following posts from my archive.