Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Weekly Whimsy: The Angry Bird and the Gardener (from the Hawkesbury Parish News July 2017)

Photo of blackbird
“Now where did I park my nest again?” (Photo by ManicMorFF via http://www.morguefile.com)

My column for the July 2017 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News shares my husband’s latest gardening crisis

As he’s nearly severed a finger not once but twice while cutting wood, when my husband announces that he’s going to prune some of the trees in our garden and a chainsaw is mentioned, I decide my best course of action is to retreat to my study and hope for the best.

A little later, an anguished cry comes from downstairs.

“Help! It’s an emergency!”

I nearly have an accident myself running to his aid, wondering what injury he’s sustained this time.

Pale and anxious, he’s standing in the middle of the kitchen pointing at a small pile of sticks on the table. That’s not much to show for an hour’s pruning, I think, then I hear some faint cheeps, and realise it’s a nest full of open-beaked baby blackbirds.

He’s inadvertently pruned the limb supporting the nest and is unsure what to do about it. My maternal instinct kicks in on the mother bird’s behalf.

“Put the nest back in the same tree as close as you can to the original site, and she’ll follow the sound of her chicks to find them,” I advise him.

When he steels himself to check next day, all are alive and cheeping, so I’m guessing my plan worked. I bet the mother bird told her chicks off for moving the nest while she was out, though.

Cover of All Part of the Charm
Available as an ebook and in paperback

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to try this collection of five years of my columns in the Hawkesbury Parish News, with, as bonus material, a previously unpublished set of essays about country life that I wrote when I first move to the village over twenty-five years ago. 

“Totally charming… makes you want to pack up and move there right away”
(5* review on Amazon UK) 

 

Posted in Family, Personal life

The Naming of Rooms

My column for the June edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News

Photo of my childhood home in the present day
The suburban semi where I grew up still holds a special place in my heart

Having grown up in a suburban semi, identical to every odd-numbered house in the street (the even numbers were its mirror image), I’d always wanted to live in a house where you couldn’t guess the layout of the rooms from outside. Moving to my Hawkesbury cottage allowed me to achieve that goal.

Here, visitors regularly get lost trying to find their way out.

Our new extension has added a further surprise. Now that it’s nearing completion, we really must start calling it something other than “the extension”. For some unknown reason it’s labelled “the breakfast room” in the plans, although we don’t expect to eat breakfast there. I need to change the name before it becomes ingrained.

I missed that trick with our utility room. Now every time I refer to it, I picture Batman’s utility belt, instead of a laundry.

So I’m going to wait to see how we use our new room before deciding what to call it. I feel like one of those parents who refers to their new baby as “Baby” for a week after it’s born, while trying to decide which name would suit its looks.

I did the opposite with my daughter, naming her Laura some weeks before she was born. What a good thing she turned out to be a girl.

And in case you’re wondering why I named her Laura, and with such certainty, before we’d even met, this post from my archives will tell you:

 Why I Named My Daughter Laura – for Lauras Everywhere

 

Photo of a patriotic house, Union flags flying
My Cotswold cottage is definitely a one-off, and moving to this community inspired me to write my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries
Posted in Family, Personal life

A Shout-out for Life Kitchen – Catering for People with Cancer

A serious post about an important new cause

Life Kitchen logo
A new initiative to tempt the appetite of people with cancer

Driving to hospital for a routine rheumatology appointment this morning, I heard a moving interview by on BBC R4’s Today programme with Ryan Riley, a young man who has set up a new initiative in memory of his mother who had died of lung cancer. It is called Life Kitchen and aims to help people whose tastebuds and appetite have been adversely affected by chemotherapy and other treatments for cancer. The interviewer Nick Robinson recently had lung cancer himself, and although he barely mentions it, the project clearly resonated with him.

Why It Resonated with Me Too

It hit a nerve for me as well because seventeen years ago my first husband died of leukemia after a brief but brutal illness (seven weeks from diagnosis to death) in which one of the first and lasting characteristics was the change of his attitude towards food and drink. Losing his desire for both, he rapidly lost weight and with it his physical strength and mental resilience.

I tried to tempt him with various foods in his hospital bed – he was an inpatient for virtually the whole time – with no success. It wasn’t that the hospital food was bad, but it wasn’t great either. Because of the inevitable lag betwteen ordering and eating it, he often didn’t want the dishes he’d chosen by the time they arrived.

There was one memorable evening when I was visiting, as I was every weekday and twice a day at weekends, when he was delivered a pork pie, still in its wrapper and as solid as a brick. He could barely stand to look at it, and was about as likely to eat the plate as the pork pie, indigestible as they are at the best of times. I assumed he’d ordered it because it was something he’d enjoyed eating in happier circumstances, but as an invalid food, it was, er, invalid.

Giving up on hospital food, he would ask me to bring things in that he thought he might fancy, despatching me to a supermarket or takeaway to fetch whatever his whim of the moment was. And whatever it was, he would practically never eat it, his palate reduced to intolerance of just about everything.

I remember him clutching my arm in real distress at one point and saying “What if I can never eat more than five different foods again?” (I forget now what those five tolerable foods were, but he wasn’t eating much of them either.) I didn’t have the heart to tell him that was the least of his problems.

At that point I was myself living largely off food from garage forecourt shops bought on my journey to and from the hospital, apart from whatever was on the lunch menu at my workplace. I’d therefore end up eating his rejects to avoid waste. I’ve never felt as conspicuous as when surreptitiously eating Kentucky Fried Chicken out of a cardboard box in the middle of a hospital ward surrounded by seriously ill people, trying not to let its spicy, fatty fragrance waft around the ward.

Of course none of this was his fault, but it was enormously upsetting for us both. Already exhausted and stressed out, I felt terrible for feeling cross and resentful and anxious about the cost. I wouldn’t have minded if all this effort had made him eat, but the weight just fell away from this man whose body had always been strong and healthy and more than adequately covered with flesh. It was like watching him dissolve.

How to Support Life Kitchen

Whether Life Kitchen would have made a difference to him I will never know, but surely it is an idea worth supporting and exploring. I’ve just made a small donation to its crowdfunding appeal, and if you’d like to support the cause, you’ll find more details here, along with Ryan’s own moving story: https://www.gofundme.com/LifeKitchen You can also follow its progress on Twitter at @LifeKitchen.

Full marks to this young man for dreaming up the initiative. I am sure his mother would be very proud of him. 

Ryan Riley and his late mother
Life Kitchen founder Ryan Riley with his late mother Krista

 

 

Posted in Family, Reading

A Book is A Book: In Praise of the Argos Catalogue – Reflections on Children’s Reading after World Book Day 2017

An opinion piece about World Book Day costumes in support of the boy who dressed as the Argos catalogue

Screenshot of tweeted pic of boy as Argos catalogue

It’s unusual for the morning news to make me smile, so this morning’s report on BBC Today programme about Bristol mum Vicki Bowles who sent her son to school dressed as the Argos catalogue was a welcome change.

“Well, it is his favourite book,” she explained.

There can’t be many parents who have ever had an Argos catalogue in the house with whom this didn’t resonate. No matter how many wonderful storybooks you provide, for children of a certain age, the lure of the Argos catalogue has almost magical powers, especially the winter edition, when the toy section is expanded. Entering its pages has the allure of the Narnian wardrobe, allowing admission to a magical land where money is no object and you might have any or all of the toys you could wish for.

The Magical Lure of the Argos Catalogue

Argos logo
Gosh, it’s just struck me how similar their logo is to Amazon’s

If you’re not familiar with the Argos catalogue, which I think is a UK-only brand, it’s a massive free catalogue of around 1,000 pages of Bible-thin paper but printed in full colour, promoting the vast range of goods available from its many stores around the country.

Argos shops are little more than warehouses with a trade counter in front, front. You choose your desired item from the catalogue either at home or in-store, take the product number to the till or to a machine, pay, and queue at the counter to collect your item. The process is iconic and unique, and to those of a certain age, waiting for your item to appear on the conveyor belt from the mysterious depths of the concealed warehouse, has the same frisson of excitement as watching the prizes move slowly across the screen in front of contestants on that old Saturday prime-time TV favourite, The Generation Game.

Retaining its Appeal in the Digital Age

They’ve updated the model to allow for online browsing, ordering and delivery, and for checking and reserving stock before you visit a store. However you shop with them, it’s a no-frills service that keeps prices down but also offers excellent customer care, and I believe it looks after its staff well too.

A relative who worked for them one Christmas told me they were advised when dealing with difficult customers to err on the side of their own safety, as no product was more important than themselves.

On the other hand, another relative who had worked for them as a student told me it sealed the offer for a much more demanding customer service job later on, because, in the words of his interviewer, “if you can handle Argos customers, you can handle anyone”.

But back to the catalogues…

Free Catalogues for All

Cover of an Argos catalogue
Drawing you in with its magical powers…

Twice a year, huge piles of catalogues are made available in store for shoppers to collect free of charge, encouraging them to pore over at home. I am sure that pester power from children does a lot to shift these vast supplies. My daughter certainly used to clamour for one, and spent many happy hours browsing its pages, around the time that she still believed in Father Christmas.

Nostalgia for the Old Mail-Order Equivalents

Although Argos wasn’t around when I was a child, I remember lying for hours on my stomach on our living room carpet reading and re-reading the toy section in my mum’s mail order catalogue, Kays, which was much the same thing, for a different era, only patience was required as you had to wait for everything to be delivered by the postman.

We also had the Littlewoods one at one point, but I always preferred Kays. I’d read the descriptions over and over again for the items I coveted, till I could practically recite them, like a magical incantation. It didn’t stop me reading other books, it just added a new dimension to my literary canon.

It might be one reason why I naturally took to writing short fiction later in life, enjoying the facility to capture a whole story in very few words.

But It Gets Kids Reading!

While it’s easy for book snobs to be cynical about the catalogue – and I confess I’ve done it myself, laughing when a friend self-deprecatingly told me that she had only two books in her house and one of those was by Argos – my years spent working for national children’s charity Readathon convinced me that actually it’s fine if that’s what your child wants to read. The important thing is that they’re reading something, and learning to associate reading with pleasure and empowerment – even if it’s only how to spell what they want to put on their Christmas list.

Reading anything they enjoy will boost their confidence and enthusiasm for reading.

It helps form an immovable leisure habit that is well known to lead to happier, more successful and more fulfilled lives – not only academically but in relationships and other aspects of one’s daily life. (You’ll find more about this on the Readathon website.)

Reading to the Beat of a Different Drummer

While some children take naturally to reading what parents or teachers might choose for them – my thirteen-year-old daughter’s teacher recommended the classics at Parents’ Evening recently, while her preference is for Harry Potter – others find their own paths, and should be allowed to do so.

Photo of Garfield books
Garfield taught my daughter to read

 

I gave up trying to make my daughter read my prescribed books when she discovered her own preferences. I have Garfield to thank for her eventual reading fluency – she used to sleep with Jim Davis’s cartoon strip collections under her pillow. Wry humour was the key that unlocked her enthusiasm for reading. Mo Willems was another of her passions.

I’m sad that she’s too old for dress-up days at school now but was heartened that she told her friends yesterday that she was actually being Hermione Granger for World Book Day, but under a disguise spell providing her usual school uniform.

Cover of "We are in a book!" by Mo Willems
Humour helped my daughter learn to love books

Why Readathon Gets Children Reading for Life

One reason that Readathon is so effective as an organisation in encouraging children to read for pleasure is that the sponsored reading programme that it runs for schools allows participants to choose their own reading list. It might be books on a particular theme, such as all the Harry Potter books, or books about horses or any other interest the child has, or it might be reading comics or magazines or even food packaging or computer game manuals. Audio books and other vehicles for words are also allowable.

For parents whose children have struggled with literacy, watching them pore over the messages on a packet of cereal over breakfast for the first time can be an incredibly moving moment:  the moment that their child discovers the joy and the power of reading

drawing of people and animals emerging from a book
Unlocking the power of books – illustration for Readathon by Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell

Trying Not to Judge

So next time you’re taken aback by what might at first seem a child’s inappropriate choice of World Book Day costume, don’t judge – just embrace their individual approach. As long as they’re reading, they’ll be just fine.

PS

Though to be honest, I’m still not sold on last year’s most controversial costume – the kid who went to school as Christian Grey from the infamous Fifty Shades, because I’m sure – or at least I hope – that wasn’t his own book of choice. Dorian Grey, I could have forgiven. Ok, so maybe I am a book snob after all!

And finally, a question: What’s YOUR favourite guilty reading pleasure? Mine would have to be the Cath Kidston catalogue! (Sorry, Argos!)

  • If you’d like to find out more about Readathon, and great reasons to get your child’s school involved, visit their website here: www.readathon.org
  • To find out more about World Book Day, click here: http://www.worldbookday.com
  • To read more about why I’m so passionate about books, check out the talk I gave recently when I was honoured to be the judge of the Westonbirt School Inter-House Reading Competition: For the Love of Books
Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Youthful Treasures

My Young By Name column for the February issue of the Tetbury Advertiser

Cover of February 2017 edition of the Tetbury Advertiser
I’m glad to have caused Ian Carmichael, who played Lord Peter Wimsey on telly, to appear on the cover of the February “Tetbury Advertiser” (bottom right inset pic)

With 2016 behind us, and with it, we hope, the relentless string of premature deaths of national and international treasures, I was startled to spot on social media today what struck me as a desperate headline:

See Cliff Richard live through 2017!

Good heavens, I thought, are people now so paranoid that they’re publicly rooting for the survival of their favourite celebrity? Could such an appeal really enhance one’s chances of escaping the Grim Reaper until 2018?

I can think of more constructive tactics to keep a person feeling young and full of life, and I’m happy to share them here.

 Age is Relative

First, hang out with old people. By old people, I mean anyone who is at least twenty years older than yourself (because we’re all in our prime, aren’t we?) Accompanying my eighty-year-old aunt to my 100-year-old cousin’s funeral not only reassured me of my family’s strong genes but made me feel positively youthful.

Secondly, marry someone older than you. My husband will reach his three score and ten a year before I have to start to wonder whether, in Paul McCartney’s immortal words, whether he’ll still need me when I’m 64. (Which echoes point #1 – hang out with Paul McCartney.)

Thirdly, if you plan to change your name when you marry, pick a spouse whose moniker offers subliminal powers of rejuvenation. Theoretically I’m now forever Young, at least till the next time around. Just joking, Gordon, honest – but any Mr Old who has me in his sights should give up now. (My fictional idol Lord Peter Wimsey got crossed off my theoretical “marry” list when I discovered one of his middle names was De’Ath. What were his fictional parents thinking?)

 All in the Mind

Cover of notebook with slogan "Careful or you'll end up in my next novel"
A favourite birthday gift from a friend who knows me well…

Finally, if you’re a writer, on the same principle that you can put someone in a novel and kill them, you can assume a younger persona and, in your head at least, spend quite a lot of your life pretending you’re them. I’m currently writing a series of novels, the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries (yes, the name’s a tribute to the late great Dorothy L Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey), in which the eponymous heroine is 25. The stories are narrated in her voice, and I’m rather enjoying being 25 again. Naturally her love interest is 32. (The first book, Best Murder in Show, will be launched in April.)

Cover of Best Murder in Show by Debbie Young
Click the image to read the opening of the first in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, to be published in April

By the same token, do you think Ian McEwan, who in his latest novel Nutshell has made the central character a foetus, has a secret whim to rewind his own age? Whatever next – a novel starring the glint in the milkman’s eye?

From one extreme to the other, back to Sir Cliff: I now realise that the slogan I saw was not an appeal to spare Britain’s answer to Elvis, but an advert for the singer’s new year concert tour, with “live” to rhyme not with “give” but with “hive.

All the same, I bet his promoters have got their fingers crossed…