I wrote this column towards the end of April for the May 2020 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News
Now that all but essential keyworkers are at home all day and most of us are no longer slave to the alarm clock, are you finding your body clock is changing?
In our house, we’ve moved into a different time zone, four hours behind British Summer Time. We’re in synch with Rio de Janeiro.
We’re also sleeping more, typically nine to ten hours a night instead of the usual seven. It feels almost like hibernation, but that’s all wrong for spring.
Anyone for estivation? – a handy word meaning the summer equivalent of hibernation, mostly done to survive periods of drought.
As I’m used to working from home, I’d assumed lockdown wouldn’t affect my writing schedule. When getting up at 6.30am to see my daughter off to school, I used to start writing between 8am and 9am, before any other business of the day might distract me. Now I don’t start writing until mid-afternoon. That’s a much bigger lag than our sleep schedule.
I’ve no idea why this is so, but as with all else in lockdown, I’ve decided to go with the flow and count any day that ends without a crisis as a win.
Our current situation makes clear how artificial “office hours” of 9am-5pm are. How did they ever catch on? Of course, office hours don’t apply to many of those keyworkers whose true value to society is now apparent to us all. I bet many people now enjoying working their own flexible hours from home will be lobbying to retain them post lockdown.
Even so, I will have to break my current habit of stepping outside the front door in my nightie at midday to bring in the newspaper/milk/parcels, as there will once again be passers-by to consider.
Roll on the day when moving the wheelie bin onto the pavement no longer feels like an exciting, slightly illicit outing.
Need Escapist Lockdown Reading?
While all of my novels class as comfort reads (despite the odd murder!), my latest novel Murder Your Darlings is particularly escapist, as it takes place in the idyllic setting of a tiny, remote Greek island in the month of May. Starting an finishing in the village of Wendlebury Barrow, the action takes Sophie Sayers outside of her comfort zone while she takes stock of her relationship with Hector. Will absence make the heart grow fonder? You’ll have to read it to find out!
My column for the April 2020 issue of our community magazine, Hawkesbury Parish News, was written about a week after lockdown started and so included my initial impressions of the positive changes it might bring to our lives.
As ever, I tried to keep my column lighthearted and upbeat. Now in the fourth week of lockdown, all that I wrote still rings true for me – although I’m not sending anything out in the post, as our precautionary self-isolation due to various health vulnerabilities in our household are precluding the short walk up to the post box at the centre of the village.
Our heroic village post office remains open, however, thanks to Dick, our selfless postmaster, as is the Hawkesbury Stores, our community village shop, aided by dozens of volunteers.
The other difference is that I gave my stash of fancy soaps and hand lotions to an appeal for toiletries for nurses in our local hospital – but the jewel-like blue of my cheap-and-cheerful Pears soap lifts my spirits every time I use it.
Whatever is changing for you during lockdown, I send you my very best wishes.
The current restrictions, courtesy of Covid-19, are radically changing our lives. Much of these changes may linger post-virus, but, ever the optimist, I can see some good may come of it.
We will have learned to cherish luxury soap. Fancy bars that once ranked as unwanted Christmas gifts are coming into their own as we wash our hands many times a day. So much nicer than the usual squirt of washing-up liquid before I cook tea.
We will have nothing but praise for delivery men, from old faithfuls like the milkman and the postman to the anonymous man in a white van. Forget the odd package or pinta left at the wrong house in the past. All will be forgiven. We’ll be happy to see a delivery man at all.
Our houses will be immaculate. With so much time at home, we’re sorting dusty shoeboxes of old photos and alphabetising our CD collections. We’re rearranging our books by author, by size, by topic or by colour – or all four, in turn. When charity shops reopen post-virus, they’ll be swamped with our discarded clutter.
We’ll all have turned into vegetable gardeners. Our natural instinct to Dig for Victory is kicking in. This summer, we’ll no longer complain about a surplus of marrows. We won’t want to waste a speck of food after seeing so many empty supermarket shelves. The Hawkesbury Show 2020 will receive a record number of entries. We might even start our craft entries early, rather than finishing in a frenzy the night before Show Day.
The old-fashioned habit of sending letters and postcards will enjoy a lasting revival, despite the cost of postage. While the internet helps us connect with our loved ones, it’s much more special to receive a tangible show of affection from afar – well worth the price of a stamp. Bonus point: while we’re writing traditional letters and cards, we’re not frightening ourselves with misinformation online.
With regard to correspondence, the soulless modern sign-offs “Kind regards” and “Best wishes”, or “Best” or even “BW” in abbreviation, will disappear. The evidence in my inbox this week suggests that in future emails and letters will end “Take care and stay well” – a sentiment sent from the sender’s heart.
And that is how I’d like to end this month’s column. Confined to my house as a vulnerable person for health reasons, I’m frustrated not to be out helping fellow villagers, as so many kind parishioners are doing now. I pledge to make up for it once I’m allowed out. You have been warned!
So for now, take care and stay well. This too will pass.
Special Offers on Escapist Reads to Lift Your Spirits
If you fancy a bit of escapist reading from life under lockdown, you might like to take advantage of two special offers currently running on the ebook editions of the first books in my two series of novels throughout the month of April.
The first in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Best Murder in Show, is currently free to download on all ebook platforms worldwide. Click here to nab your free copy.
My first St Bride’s School story, Secrets at St Bride’s, is currently reduced to 99p in most stores, including Amazon UK, Kobo, Apple Books and Barnes and Noble. (With apologies to Amazon readers outside of the UK – this promotion is being run by Amazon and is only on my home turf!) Click here to buy your bargain copy.
Every month, I write a column for our local community magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News. The copy deadline is the middle of the month prior to the cover date. After having spent much of today in my garden enjoying balmy spring sunshine and spring flowers, it seems odd to recall the stormy weather that had come to seem the norm when I was writing my March column, mid-February, which I’m sharing below.
With Storm Dennis raging outside my study window, I decided to research the naming of storms. The Met Office started this practice just five years ago to make it easier for the media to talk about storms, and so to raise awareness of the dangers they might bring.
A storm is given a human name if it is likely to trigger an amber or red weather warning for wind, rain or snow. A list of 26 named storms is announced at the start of each year, one for each letter of the alphabet. Their names are picked from suggestions submitted by the general public to represent the nation’s cultural mix – hence the likes of Asian Samir and Gaelic Roisin, alongside the solidly English Ellen. The alphabetical list alternates between male and female names. It’s probably only a matter of time before there’s a gender-neutral Robin or Vivan, but Stormy McStormface is a non-starter.
The appearance of Storm Willow in the 2020 list surprised me. I’d always thought of Willow as a good name for a cat, as in Pussy Willow, and it’s currently #23 in the cat name charts. But it’s now also in the top ten for baby girls born in 2020. Who knew? It’s still not a name I’d associate with a scary storm.
But then nor is Dennis, even though psychologists claim that unconscious bias makes us most fear storms with male names. The name Dennis makes me picture a genial old man sitting by the fire with pipe and slippers doing the newspaper crossword. The trees in my garden currently being buffeted about by Storm Dennis beg to differ.
Casting my eye down the list of names for the rest of 2020, there is one that leaps out as easily the most ominous. I can’t help wondering whether the Met Office really thought this particular choice through. In the meantime, look out for Storm Noah, folks – and better start building that ark…
If you enjoy reading my entries for the Hawkesbury Parish News, you may like to know I have published a collection of my columns from the 2010-2015 issues as an ebook and paperback.
Every day last week I had the pleasure of spending some time at Westonbirt School, talking to English classes in Years 7, 8 and 9 (11-14 year olds), sharing insights into an author’s life and writing advice that I wish I’d been given at their age.
On the Thursday, for World Book Day, I returned in the evening to co-judge the school’s annual inter-house reading competition, alongside the award-winning poet Shirley Wright and two sixth-form pupils. We judged the pupils’ readings were on four criteria: clarity, confidence, choice of passage and overall performance. The overall standard was really high, and, in the stunning setting of the school’s Grade 1 listed library, being a judge was a very enjoyable experience.
Congratulations to all those pupils who performed, and to the English department, so ably led by Miss Sheehan, for staging such a streamlined and impressive evening of entertainment.
But before the readings began, I had to give a small performance of my own: a brief motivational speech to all those taking part. In case you’re interested, here’s the transcript.
My Address to the Readers
People often assume that being a professional writer is a lonely business, spent in isolation. But as I’ve been explaining in these classes, the writer’s life is all about collaboration. It’s team work. Editors, proof-readers and cover designers help turn my manuscripts into books, before the books are sent out into the world.
Reaching readers is by far the most important stage in any book’s journey, because a book’s success stands or falls by what its readers make of it. Every reader interprets the writer’s intention in their own way. Furthermore, the same reader, reading the same book at different times in their life, may find it a completely different experience. Books you love now may leave you cold when you get to my age. On the other hand, in later life you may find you love books that you struggled to enjoy at school.
Those who read books aloud to entertain others add another layer of interest to a writer’s words.
In the audiobook publishing world, these people are called voice artists. Good voice artists add value and interest to a book and inject it with their own personality. They also make the process look easy. But even when you know a text really well, reading it aloud is hard work, as I know from my own experience. At the launch of my first novel, performing an extract from Best Murder in Show, instead of reading about “Rex’s elegant girlfriend”, I managed to call her “Rex’s elephant girlfriend”. That’s quite a different thing and an error I’ll never forget. (Click here to witness my gaffe!)
Using your voice to engage an audience is a valuable life-skill in any setting. If you apply the skills demonstrated in this competition in other settings, such as the classroom, the boardroom or in government, you can change lives and may even change the world.
Last Friday, in the rain and the mud in Bristol, Greta Thunberg spoke for just four minutes. Her immaculate delivery of her succinct and perfectly polished script moved not only the tens of thousands on College Green, my own daughter among them – but, thanks to the internet, her voice resonated around the world, mobilising millions to support her cause – including you, here, at Westonbirt School, as you watched her speech streamed live in the Great Hall. (Watch her speech on Youtube here.)
Those of you who are reading to us tonight may be reading words written by someone else, but in years to come, when you use the power of the spoken of word to deliver your own messages, we may find ourselves as mesmerised by you as we were by Greta.
You have already proven your exceptional skills by being chosen to represent your houses in school-wide heats. No matter who wins this competition tonight, your houses should be proud of you all and you should be proud of yourselves.
Now let the stories begin.
The Story Behind the Story
My time spent working at Westonbirt School (1997-2010) was the inspiration for my new St Bride’s School series, which begins with Secrets at St Bride’s. However, the situation, the plot and the characters are completely made up!
To read the first chapter for free and to find out more about this jolly romp of a novel, click here.
As my Christmas present to you, here is a new free short story, available to read right here on my website, set in the world of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries. It’s not a murder mystery, just a bit of feel-good fun that will transport you straight into Hector’s House, the Wendlebury Barrow village bookshop, as Sophie and friends get ready for the festive season.
“It doesn’t feel the least bit like Christmas,” I complained to Hector as I added another couple of books to our window display of festive gift ideas. The sky was a pure, clear forget-me-not blue, the air was still, and the sun beamed down fit to melt the fake snow on the inside of the glass.
“Just think of it as a green Christmas rather than a white one,” replied Hector, closing the door behind a departing customer. “After all, we’re giving a new lease of life to all that packaging material.”
Whenever either of us had a moment, we’d uncrumple the kraft paper that came wedged into our suppliers’ boxes to stop books getting damaged in transit and iron it on the stockroom table. Then we cut it into A2 sheets to make it more manageable and put them at the centre of the children’s play table in the bookshop’s tea room, alongside Christmas stencils and coloured felt tip pens. Hey presto – environmentally-friendly Christmas gift-wrap! Complimentary gift-wrapping of all books purchased in Advent encouraged locals to do their Christmas shopping at Hector’s House rather than in town or online.
“That’s child labour, that is,” declared Tommy, breezing in through the door as I stepped back from the shop window.
Although local teenager Tommy is a regular visitor to the bookshop, he comes not for the books but for the company. More often than not, he tries to blag a free milkshake. Occasionally, when flush from helping old Billy with odd jobs, he actually pays for one. We’d seen more of Tommy than usual this week, after their lucrative double-act hawking wheelbarrows of holly, ivy and mistletoe around the village.
Tommy sat down on one of the child-sized chairs at the play table opposite his little sister Sina. His gangly legs ranged either side of the table like a young giraffe’s.
“How much are they paying you to do that, Sina?”
He jabbed a grubby finger at her orderly rows of holly leaves. I thought he might put her off, but she was not so easily deterred, continuing to loop her green felt pen along the edge of the stencil.
“Nothing, and I don’t care, because it’s fun. Actually, I think we’re lucky Hector’s not charging us to do it.”
Hector cleared his throat.
“And it’s helping a good cause, Tommy. Two good causes, in fact: the environment, by finding a good use for paper that would otherwise go for recycling, and the church’s Christmas appeal.”
When Tommy looked dubious, I explained.
“Hector’s donating the amount he’d usually spend on gift wrap to the charity’s Christmas appeal.”
“And very grateful we are too,” said the vicar, emerging from the non-fiction section with a couple of hardbacks. He set them down on the trade counter and took out his wallet to pay Hector. “It’s astonishing how many people forget to bring money for the Christmas service collections, or who find themselves short of cash once they’ve all finished their Christmas shopping. Priorities, my dears, priorities…”
While Hector gift-wrapped each book, the vicar took a seat at one of the tearoom tables.
“Cappuccino, please, Sophie. I think I’ve earned it after hosting the village school’s visit to the church this afternoon.”
Sina laid down her green pen and beamed at the vicar.
“Yes, that was fun, especially getting a chocolate decoration each off the Christmas tree.”
Tommy pulled a sheet of paper towards him and picked up a black pen and a snowman stencil.
“You lucky duck! We never do anything like that at my school.”
Tommy had long since left the village primary school and now attended the nearest secondary school a few miles away.
“Chocolate wasn’t the prime purpose of the visit,” said the vicar. “I invited the children for a sneak preview of our crib.”
Each year, the vicar brings out an ancient set of china figurines to recreate the Bethlehem nativity scene. There’s also a charming model stable, lovingly crafted in elm by some parishioner long since departed to the churchyard.
He’s not daft, the vicar. Inviting the schoolchildren to view the crib is an effective way of enticing whole families to come to his Advent and Christmas services, persuaded by their children’s delight in the traditional tableau.
Sina folded her arms.
“Yes, but it was a con, because the baby Jesus wasn’t even there.”
Tommy drew a fierce expression on his first snowman, making it look like a chubby Halloween ghost. For a moment I thought he’d added two noses by mistake, then I realised they were fangs.
“Maybe today was the baby Jesus’s day for playgroup.”
He glanced up to check Sina’s reaction to his joke. Her expression was stern.
I hoped a young visitor hadn’t pocketed the baby Jesus during the school visit. I could understand the temptation. There may have been no room for him at the inn, but he’d fit perfectly in a Sylvanian Family playhouse.
The vicar sighed.
“The thing is, Sina, Jesus isn’t born until Christmas Day, so we don’t add him to the crib till then. Come to the morning service on the twenty-fifth and you’ll see him then.”
I was ashamed to have forgotten that detail, despite having been a Sunday School teacher since Easter.
As I set the vicar’s coffee on his table, Sina raised a forefinger to herald a bright idea.
“Why don’t you just put his scan picture in the crib in the meantime? That’s what people do who can’t wait to see their real baby. My auntie had a scan picture of her baby in a frame on the mantlepiece for months before it was born.”
“Who’s just been born?” asked Billy, entering the shop for the second time that day. “Christmas babies always follow a good spring.”
“The baby Jesus,” replied Sina. “Only he hasn’t been born yet. That’s the trouble.”
“You’re two thousand years behind the times, girlie,” said Billy, touching his cap to the vicar. “Don’t that pesky internet teach you anything useful?”
“Coffee, Billy?” asked the vicar.
“That’s very kind of you, vicar, but I’m here on a mission.”
“That should be your line, shouldn’t it, vicar?” said Hector, as he opened the till and tipped a bag of pound coins into the cash drawer. “What are you after, Billy?”
Billy untied his scarf. I was pleased to see he was wearing the one I’d made for him during the recent village craze for knitting.
“I’m after the right book for my old cousin Maurice.”
Hector had heard tales of Maurice before. “You mean the one you haven’t seen for twenty years?”
“Aye, that’s the one.” He wagged a finger at Hector. “You know I’ve been buying him a book here every Christmas, ever since you opened this shop of yours. So don’t you go implying I’m neglecting him. I wouldn’t do that, not with so few of my family left alive, God bless ‘em.”
Like Tommy, Billy rarely buys a book, treating Hector’s House like a social hub rather than a purveyor of fine reading materials. But that’s okay. The best bookshops are much more than the means of buying a book – they are at the heart of the community. That’s one of the reasons I love working here. Well, that and Hector. Soon after I started working here, Hector became my boyfriend as well as my boss.
Hector came out from behind the trade counter, rubbing his hands together.
“So, what’s it to be this year, Billy? If I remember rightly, last year it was a collection of nature notes for every day of the year. Lovely woodcut illustrations, I recall.”
“Yes, and what a fine idea of yours that was. If Maurice has been using it properly, he’ll have read a little bit each day and that’ll have made him think of me all year round.” Billy lifted his cap to scratch his head. “But I don’t know about this year, Hector. What can I give him?”
“Poor as I am,” returned the vicar, quick as a flash.
I smiled at the reference to my favourite Christmas carol, which I’ve loved since I first learned it at primary school.
Hector consulted the non-fiction shelves for a few moments, then pulled out an astronomy guide with a map of the night sky for every week of the new year and an anthology of 365 poems.
“It must be hard to live at a distance from your relatives,” I said gently.
My parents live in Inverness, hundreds of miles from our Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow, so I thought I knew how he must feel.
“Aye,” said Billy, taking the books from Hector to examine. “Especially without a car. That’s the only reason I regrets never learning to drive.”
The local bus company runs services as far as Slate Green, our nearest market town, but that’s all. To travel further afield, you have to change at Slate Green, and even then you can’t get beyond a radius of about ten miles.
“I don’t want a heavy book, mind.” Billy weighed the two books up against each other, one in each hand. “Postage ain’t cheap these days.”
I was curious as to how far flung Billy’s relations were. I knew he’d lived in Wendlebury all his life, although his brother had left as a young man.
“So where exactly does this Maurice live, Billy?” I asked. “Is he still in the UK?”
I wondered whether he’d emigrated, like Hector’s twin brother Horace.
Billy passed both books back to Hector with a shake of his head.
The vicar slammed his coffee cup down on his saucer.
“What?” he and I cried together.
I fetched a cloth to wipe up the vicar’s spillage.
“But you get the bus to Slate Green to go shopping at least once a week,” I pointed out. “How come you’ve never found the time to call on him?”
Billy shuffled his feet.
“He ain’t been to see me neither. It ain’t my fault. Besides, we always used to meet at our mums’ houses. His mum was my mum’s sister. His mum or mine took turns to cook Sunday dinner and we’d all sit down together, both families. But them days are long gone, and so are our mothers. We was both so upset after they died, just a few weeks apart, that we never really got round to making new arrangements. We missed them too much, see. It just wouldn’t have been the same without them.”
The vicar took the cloth from me to dry his saucer.
“That’s a great pity, Billy. I’ve seen this happen far too often after a bereavement, just when you need your family most.”
Tommy looked up from his sheet of gift wrap. His latest row of snowmen had the threatening air of Mafia hitmen.
“Don’t you like each other, then?”
Billy sat down opposite the vicar, his shoulders slumping.
“Bless you, no, boy. We was thick as thieves when we were your age. Always up to mischief in the village.”
“I wish I had a thief to be thick with.”
Poor Tommy. No other boys from his class lived in the village, one of the disadvantages of being raised in a small rural community.
“We had no end of make-believe games, neither – pirates, cowboys, Robin Hood.”
The vicar set down the cloth and reached across to rest his hand on the frayed cuff of Billy’s ancient tweed jacket.
“Then I think this Christmas you should start making up for lost time. I’ll run you down to see him any time you like. You have only to ask.”
Billy’s face softened. “Well, if Hector would just buck his ideas up about the right present…”
Suddenly Hector’s face lit up.
“I know just the thing!”
And with that he dashed out of the shop.
The others looked puzzled at his unexpected departure, but when I heard Hector opening the front door to his flat at the side of the shop and running up two flights of stairs to his top floor, I knew what he was about.
Moments later, he reappeared in the shop doorway, breathless and triumphant, holding up a vintage hardback copy of Treasure Island. A colour plate on the cover showed a fierce-looking Long John Silver, complete with wooden leg, crutch and parrot.
Billy’s mouth fell open.
“Ah, now that’s what I call a book.”
When Hector put it into his hands, he gazed at it with the rapture of a starving man reading a gourmet menu.
I came out from behind the tearoom counter to appeal to the children.
“Now, who wants to give Billy their paper to wrap his cousin’s present in?”
To my surprise, Sina had laid aside her holly leaves unfinished, and was now scribbling in black pencil on a small square of plain white paper.
“I’m afraid it’ll have to be Tommy’s snowmen, Billy.”
Billy peered at Tommy’s handiwork.
“They’ll do very nicely, thank you, Tom.”
He took the paper to the trade counter for Hector to do the honours. When the vicar drained his coffee cup and got to his feet, I realised he was planning to drive Billy to see Maurice straight away, before he could change his mind.
“Just a minute, vicar,” cried Sina, laying down her pencil and pushing back her chair. “Here, I’ve made this for you. I know how much you’re looking forward to Christmas and the baby Jesus and stuff, so here’s something to keep you going.“
The vicar took the square of paper from her hand and turned it this way and that, narrowing his eyes.
“Ah, I see. It makes sense now I’ve spotted the halo.”
When he showed it to me, I too was at first puzzled by the array of fuzzy, broken lines, with just a dark kidney-shaped blob at the centre. Then it clicked.
“Oh yes, of course! Baby Jesus’s scan photo! Well done, Sina. Very imaginative.”
Sina beamed and went back to colouring in her holly leaves, humming contentedly.
As the vicar escorted Billy, wrapped gift under his arm, out of the bookshop and into his car, I went to stand behind Hector at the trade counter, reading over his shoulder. He was logging Billy’s purchase in the sales ledger he keeps for the second-hand book collection stored in his flat.
“You know what, Hector?” I said, draping my arms over his shoulders and clasping my hands on his chest. “Suddenly it’s starting to feel like Christmas after all.”
Hector closed the ledger and laid his hands gently over mine.
“So it is. Merry Christmas, sweetheart.”
Like to read more about Christmas in Wendlebury Barrow? Try the third Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Murder in the Manger, a gentle festive mystery with a touch of seasonal romance.
The ebook is now available to order from all major ebook stores, and the paperback can be ordered from Amazon or from your local bookshop.