My friend David Penny, who writes historical novels set in Spain, has just been accepted to appear on A Place in the Sun. This television programme helps weather-weary would-be expats find a new home in the foreign country of their choice.
Authors make great candidates for the programme because as people who spend their days imagining themselves in different places, they’re good at walking into a house and picturing what it might be like to live there. Relocating to the place that’s the setting for their books must feel like a dream come true.
Tempting though it is to pitch for a spot myself, not least because the show’s guests get a free week’s holiday out of it, it wouldn’t work for me, because the novels I’m writing now are set in a small fictitious Cotswold village called Wendlebury Barrow, inspired by Hawkesbury Upton.
All characters and incidents are entirely fictitious, not only because I don’t want to be sued. It’s also because events in Hawkesbury are often so funny/bizarre/surprising that you couldn’t make them up if you tried.
And that’s another reason I’m glad to be living here. At this time of year especially, it may be cold, wet and grey, but life in Hawkesbury Upton is certainly never dull.
A quick shout-out for my festive TV appearance before the 12 Days of Christmas are over!
In our household, we have a strict rule that the Christmas decorations don’t come down till 12th Night, which we reckon is tomorrow, 6th January. I know there are various theories on when Christmas starts and finishes, but that’s the one we stick to – even though I’m often itching to declutter well before then, and make the house feel a bit more springlike. (Yes, I know we’ve still got a long way to go before the first day of spring on 21st March, but I hate January and February, and like to pretend they don’t exist.)
However, this attitude is to my advantage today, because it means I can just about get away with sharing with you the videos of two pieces I read on a regional television station for Christmas, when, along with Mari Howard, Lynne Pardoe and Thomas Shepherd, three author friends from the Oxford Authors Alliance, I was a guest at Talk Oxfordshire. We each read short stories or passages from our books with a festive flavour, and they’ve just put the tapes up on YouTube where those outside of the station’s reach.
I did two readings – one non-fiction, one fiction – and you can view them both by clicking the images below.
In the second, I’m reading “Do You Believe?”, a lighthearted short story about a shrewd little boy’s visit to Father Christmas. This is one of the twelve short festive stories in my collection Stocking Fillers.
I’m planning to add more readings soon, so to hear them as they appear, you might also like to subscribe to my YouTube channel.
Finally, as I brace myself to clear away Christmas, I’d like to share a quick anecdote from my great-niece (3), who finding that the Christmas tree and decorations in her house had been taken down overnight while she slept, asked “Where’s Christmas gone?” When told it was over now that January was here, she said crossly “Go away, January!” I know how she feels.
(This is my November column for the Hawkesbury Parish News, published just before the annual village Bonfire Night celebrations)
I’m old enough to remember not only the time when “Penny for the Guy” was a common cry at this time of year, but when a penny would be enough to buy something.
You could get four fruit salad sweets or a chocolate mouse for a penny. Or for just a few pennies, you could buy the cheapest fireworks from our local Post Office. My favourite was a box of coloured matches, while naughty boys preferred bangers or jumping jacks. Children were allowed to buy them, and we did. These days we may complain that health and safety regulations have gone mad, but looking back, you can see why we needed to invent them.
My favourite childhood memory of Fireworks Night was our family party. Raised in London suburbia, I was lucky enough to live in a house on the corner of the street, with a wrap-around garden big enough to host a decent bonfire without torching either the guests or the neighbours. That’s something you couldn’t do in most modern estate houses.
Each year our guy got sent on his way atop a pile of crumpled newspaper and sticks. In that simpler age, it didn’t occur to us to build a bonfire shaped like anything other than a bonfire.
Not so now we live in Hawkesbury, where the village bonfire is always a spectacular structure: Tower Bridge last year, complete with London bus. What shape will this year’s be? Whatever it is, if the old guys we used to make could see it, they’d be flabbergasted. Some guys have all the luck, they might say.
(This post was written for the November issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, which was published prior to both Guy Fawkes Night and the US Election)
“We don’t do Halloween in our house, because it’s all about fear and ingesting too much sugar,” said a friend of mine halfway through October. With two children under five in her household, the second point alone was something to fear.
While her comment didn’t make me cancel the Halloween party I’d promised my daughter (13), it did remind me that prior to becoming a parent, I’d been anti-Halloween too.
I’d preferred Guy Fawkes Night, believing it to be a more patriotic tradition until I discovered recently that Halloween was a British export to America.
Who’s That Guy?
Even so, when I was a child, we never celebrated Halloween. My first taste of trick or treating was when I spent a year in the USA at the age of eight. No-one over there had ever heard of Guy Fawkes Night. Fireworks, they told me, were for the Fourth of July, not the Fifth of November.
Back on home turf, we resumed our annual family Guy Fawkes parties. As a child, chucking an effigy on a bonfire and watching it burn never bothered me. These days, that spectacle horrifies me. Even if Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed in the act of attempted mass murder, burning him in effigy for hundreds of years afterwards is hardly a civilised response. It’s not far removed from reenacting a public hanging with a mannequin, or seeing a dressmaker’s dummy hung, drawn and quartered.
Variation on a Horrid Theme
These days most Guy Fawkes Night parties have moved away from the original cast, losing any historic justification in the process. Some communities even have elections to choose who to burn in effigy. I daresay there will be plenty of Donald Trumps atop our nation’s bonfires this month. To be fair, his hair would make a great firelighter.
I hadn’t realised how strongly I felt about this issue until I read a request from our local Fireworks Party committee to send along the scarecrows from the recent village scarecrow trail to grace this year’s bonfire. I was aghast, and not only because four new IKEA lime-green blankets went into the giant Very Hungry Caterpiller in our front garden. Most of the other scarecrows had been equally lovable figures, including a sweet elderly couple with a zimmer frame outside the local retirement home. I imagined local children being traumatised by seeing their favourite storybook characters go up in smoke, their parents worrying that granny had wandered into the danger zone by mistake.
So my vote goes for a humane rethink of Guy Fawkes. By all means keep the bonfires and the fireworks. I’m even happy for you to make a Guy. But when you’ve finished, please don’t burn him at the stake. Just chuck him in your cellar, lock the door, and throw away the key. Or export him to the States to stand as president. They could do with a good guy as candidate.
Hello folks, just a quickie to give you advance notice of two events that I’m involved in over the next few days.
1. Indie Author Fringe Conference Talk: “The Best Day Jobs for Authors” (Saturday 22nd October)
On Saturday 22nd October at 6pm, my talk in the autumn Indie Author Fringe Conference will be broadcast online by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), which hosts this fab series of free online conferences that you can join in wherever you are in the world.
ALLi runs three conferences each year, to coincide with the world’s biggest book trade events – the London Book Fair, Book Expo America and the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The Frankfurt Book Fair is currently in full swing, and the IAF Conference will run for 24 hours from Saturday through to Sunday, starting at 10am Frankfurt time. My talk will be at 6pm on Saturday 22nd October on the topic of “The Best Day Jobs for Authors”. and I’m including advice from lots of fellow ALLi authors as well as drawing on my own experience. Click here to find out about the full programme and how to join the Fringe live online as it happens, visit this page.
All the talks will also be available online for evermore afterwards too, so don’t worry, you don’t have to forego sleep for 24 hours to join the fun. If you’d like to enjoy my contributions to the two previous 2016 IAFs, here they are:
2. BBC Radio Gloucestershire: Reading “The Alchemy of Chocolate” live on air
I’m delighted to have been invited to give my first ever live reading on BBC radio of one of my short stories, The Alchemy of Chocolate. I’ve been invited to read this particular one as part of a piece promoting Stroud Short Stories,because it was the same story that I read at the April 2015 SSS event and also at SSS’s Cheltenham Festival of Literature event last Monday. (I’ll be posting separately about that once I have photos . Event organiser John Holland will be in the studio with me on Monday 24th October on the lunchtime show at 12noon, and he’ll be reading some of his stories too, which are always compelling and often very funny.) Tune in here.
“The Alchemy of Chocolate” is one of the stories in my flash fiction collection Quick Change, and it’s also available as a free download for anyone joining my Readers’ Club, which means I’ll send you news of new books, events and special offers, plus a free short story with every enewsletter. Just click here to sign up.
In the meantime, if you’d like to catch the October BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club broadcast, featuring Caroline Sanderson, Associate Editor of The Bookseller, and me, talking books with presenter Dominic Cotter, you can do so here – it starts an hour into the show. No prizes for guessing what this month’s read was – as you can see from the photo, we got into the spirit of it, raiding our wardrobes for purple. Caroline even managed to rustle up a raspberry beret! We like to think Prince would have approved.