Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

A Lockdown Date with Kittens

photo of two kittens on fleecy blanket
Two sources of comfort in lockdown: kittens & the Hawkesbury Parish News

During lockdown, our community magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News, has heroically continued to publish, thanks to its dedicated team of volunteers writing, editing, printing and distributing it about the village.

In the absence of news of events, which usually makes up a large part of its content, the editor, Colin Dixon, has solicited plenty of new and interesting editorial to fill the space, including personal lockdown diaries by local residents.

Although many of the services advertised in its pages are suspended during lockdown, these companies are continuing to support the magazine, as they book and pay for a year’s advertising each January. They deserve our support in return when normal life returns.

In these strange times, it is comforting to see the Hawkesbury Parish News drop through our letterbox each month, giving some semblance of normality and regularity to the disrupted pattern of life in the time of Covid-19. A huge thank you to the whole team for your continuing service to our community.

Now here’s the column that I wrote for the June issue. 

 

Photo of cat gazing into fish tank
Bertie enjoys cat television

My top tip for lockdown entertainment is to acquire a pair of kittens.

We did this only by chance, collecting Bingo and Bertie (named after P G Wodehouse characters) at nine weeks old, two days before lockdown.

21st March seemed a particularly auspicious day for us to bring them home. Not only is it the Spring Solstice, but it was also my parents’ 67th wedding anniversary.

Reading the adoption paperwork when we got home, I was astonished to find that they were also born on my birthday, January 18th – the same day that our older cat Dorothy moved in. Dorothy was a stray found by neighbours (the Rounds) in their garage on a school snow day. She was personally delivered by another neighbour, Roland Starling, when I joked on Facebook that she could be my birthday present – that’ll teach me to be flippant! Best birthday present ever, though!

Dorothy, my personal assistant, reporting for duty at my writing desk
Photo of cat with head in mug of tea
A nice cup of tea always goes done well. (Bertie likes to search for teabags and lift them out with his paw.)

As Dorothy did when she first came to live with us, the kittens have provided daily cheer and distraction. The timing of their arrival has meant that we have spent as much time as possible bonding with them, and they settled very quickly.

Much as we love the kittens, my daughter has already declared that she is looking forward to seeing how they turn out when they’re full grown. I know just what she means. When she was born 17 years ago, I worried that I might be sad when she grew up. I soon realised that at each stage of development, I loved her even more.

Of course, kittens are for life, not just for lockdown, but I’m glad to have at least this one positive souvenir of these challenging times.


We are very grateful to the Cats’ Protection League for caring for our kittens until they were old enough to leave their mother. Their loving care gave Bertie and Bingo a wonderful start, and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons that they are such affectionate, good-natured creatures now.


Further reading inspired by cats: “Springtime for Murder”

cover of Springtime for MurderDon’t worry, no cats come to any harm in this book!

In the fifth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, I wanted to write about cats and so I introduced some new characters – an elderly neighbour, Bunny Carter, who has a house full of cats, and an irritating do-gooder who keeps trying to foist more cats upon her while also trying to persuade her to leave her fortune to the local cat charity (not a bit like the wonderful Cats’ Protection League, I hasten to add!)

Sophie, as a cat person like me, is easily persuaded to adopt a black kitten, whom she names Blossom, a name nominated by my friend Sue, and not Beelzebub, which was suggested by my friend John, whom I suspect is more of a dog lover! Unfortunately Sophie discovers too late that Hector, her boss and her boyfriend, is a dog lover too…

Full of fun about cats and cat-lovers, and featuring the usual banter between the regular cast of characters in this series, this story is underpinned by serious thoughts about family relationships and the importance of solving family feuds before it’s too late. (Bunny, who earned her nickname by producing so many children in her younger days, has fallen out with all of her offspring.)

The book is available as both a paperback and an ebook, and makes a relaxing escapist read at any time of year.

Click here to order the paperback

Click here to order the ebook from your favourite ebook retailer

Posted in Family, Personal life, Travel

Nescafe in Albania

A nostalgic travel piece about coffee in Greece & Albania

image of a glass of iced coffee with a copy of Murder Your Darlings against a blue cotton sarong
The backdrop is the sarong I bought in Kefalonia on my first trip, patterned with the indigenous turtles. A similar sarong is one of the clues in my Greek island mystery, “Murder Your Darlings”.

During lockdown, I’m drinking much more coffee courtesy of my Nespresso machine, which I continue to love, despite a Times journalist recently referring to it as “the Fisher Price of coffee makers”. (Besides, what’s not to love about Fisher Price, maker of the iconic chunky toy telephone?)

Yesterday, during an afternoon in which my garden was as hot as a Greek island, I forgot to collect a cup from the machine until it was cold. Not wanting to waste the coffee capsule, I decided to recreate the iced coffee that I used to enjoy on holiday in Greece – or café frappé, as they call it there. This refreshing long drink is not to be confused with the tiny cups of stronger stuff supped by backgammon players in the local kafenio.

With echoes of Proust‘s madeleine, the first sip took me back to the Greek islands where I spent a lot of time in the early Noughties, frequenting touristy tavernas and bars as we island-hopped around Zakynthos, Kefalonia, Ithaca, Lefkas, Corfu, and more.

More recently, spending an idyllic week at a writers’ retreat on Ithaca, run Jessica Bell at the delightful Hotel Nostos (which I highly recommend, by the way, once lockdown is over), café frappés sustained us through our daily writing sessions. (I’ll be writing more about that experience in a later post.)

A Durrell Pilgrimage

But my favourite coffee-related memory relates to an earlier stay in Corfu. When my daughter Laura was three, I booked a Durrell-inspired pilgrimage to the island setting of Gerald Durrell‘s My Family and Other Animals, staying in Kalamis, the village in which his brother Lawrence lived and wrote. I’d had this ambition since first reading the book at the age of 12.

I hadn’t realised until I travelled to Corfu that just a few miles across the water lay Albania, a closed communist country which had somehow managed to fall out with the entire Eastern European bloc, leaving China as its only trading ally. Its repressive regime was notorious, and many of its citizens tried to flee Albania for Greece in search of a better life. This was illegal in Albania and any would-be migrants faced harsh punishment.

The only Albanian national I’d ever met was in Lefkas, where we used to have a small share in a small sailing yacht. Commonly known as Albanian George, he was a former circus performer who ran the Ola Kala Bar on the main drag in Nidri. He’d lure in tourists by doing handstands on the tables and riding through his taverna on a unicycle. We liked him very much.

My latest novel will transport you to the beautiful Greek islands of the Ionian without leaving your armchair

From Corfu to Albania

When in Corfu Town I spotted a boat running day trips to Albania, I couldn’t resist. I had assumed its borders were closed to tourists, so snapped up the chance to visit. The journey to the Albanian harbour of Saranda was only a few miles, but was topped and tailed with strict immigration procedures. The tight control continued when we reached our destination. It became clear that our excursion would be spent in the company of official government guides wherever we went.

Echoes of Hong Kong

It reminded me of a day trip I’d had a decade before, from Hong Kong while still under British rule to mainland China, where we were only allowed to see the official version of the country. I soon wised up that when our sweet Chinese tour guide, Polly, said “Look left”, it was more interesting to look right to spot what they didn’t want us to see. (Polly was enchanted when a member of our party introduced her to the old nursery rhyme “Polly, Put the Kettle on”.)

Kickstarted with Coffee

In Albania, our day included a walking tour of Saranda, a town very much under construction, which the government was hoping to turn into a major attraction for the yachties that flocked to the Ionian. Our first port of call was where the coffee connection comes in. The coach took us to a small, old-fashioned hotel for a restorative drink after our journey. There was no menu – just instant coffee all round, in chunky white mugs emblazoned with the international Nescafé logo. The staff were clearly proud and excited to offer it to us, so we tried hard to look suitably impressed and grateful.

Charmed by the Children

As we got back on our coach, numerous small children crowded around, pressing us to buy their souvenirs in exchange for valuable Euros, chattering in English. Charmed by these dark-eyed, glossy haired young entrepreneurs, whose average age must have been about ten, I quickly parted company with all the Euro coins in my purse in exchange for trinkets made in China: plastic bead bracelets and cotton handkerchiefs. I wondered whether the Nescafé mugs had also come from China.

Bowled over by Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that gave us a potted history of Albania, we returned passing fields where the crops were being hand-harvested with scythes, to Saranda for a walking tour. This included a stop at the official government souvenir shop that stocked virtually no souvenirs. Still, I was pleased with an Albanian colouring book, a board book of Albanian words and pictures, and a small bag bearing the Albanian double-headed eagle, all for Laura.

The tour ended with an invitation to sample the local spirit. Our Greek tour operator had warned us against this firewater. With a three year old in tow, we decided to spend the rest of our time in Albania enjoying a stroll along the seafront, inspecting the marina under construction. Everyone else hit the harbourside bar.

An Unusual Carousel

Further down the promenade, Laura’s eyes lit up when she spotted an off-duty carousel bearing the most unchildish assortment of rides. Instead of the traditional painted horses, there were only miniature government vehicles: tanks, jeeps, police motorbikes and other symbols of state authority.

With no staff in attendance, the best we could do was to let her climb up on the platform to walk around. Suddenly a throng of olive-skinned Albanian children appeared from nowhere. Entranced by Laura’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, they scooped her up, sat her in a tank, and jumped down onto the promenade, where they proceeded to push the carousel round manually, delighted at her obvious pleasure. After a while they stopped and sat her in a police car, and so it continued.

“I’m sorry, I have no money to pay you,” I said, opening my empty change purse to show them.

They understood, but were not downhearted. They may have hoped for a tip, but they were motivated by kindness, not money. One boy even ran home to fetch a packet of biscuits, offering them to Laura and to us. They carried on entertaining her until it was time for us to leave to catch our return ferry.

The Perfect Ambassadors

Touched by their generosity, we were sorry to have to say goodbye and felt guilty to be returning to our comfortable holiday back on Corfu. We’d heard how impoverished the Albanian people were and feared for the children’s future in their totalitarian state.

But perhaps we need to not have worried. The Albanian government’s plans for Saranda paid off, and apparently it’s now a favoured cruise ship destination. With hospitality like that, I’d return in a heartbeat if I could – although I suspect I saw it at its best, before the crowds descended. I certainly count that day trip it as one of the best holidays in my life. It even made me think a little more kindly of Nescafé,

(Apologies for the lack of photos – I have no idea where my photos from so long ago are stored. Sorting out my photo archives should be my next lockdown project!)


FURTHER READING

cover of Murder Your Darlings
Fly away with Sophie to an idyllic Greek island!

Café frappés prove popular with Sophie Sayers when she spends a week at a writers’ retreat on a tiny Greek island in my latest novel, Murder Your Darlings, available now in ebook and paperback.

Order the ebook for the ereader of your choice.

Click here to order the paperback. 

Posted in Events, Family, Personal life, Writing

Body Clock Versus Alarm Clock: A Lockdown Dilemma

photo of two sleeping kittens curled up
Chez Young we are sleeping like kittens during lockdown – including our new kittens, Bertie and Bingo

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?

cover of Murder Your Darlings
Fly away with Sophie to an idyllic Greek island!

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!

Order the ebook for the ereader of your choice here.

While most bookshops are currently closed, order the paperback from Amazon during lockdown – or contact me to provide a copy to you directly.

Addicted to Audio?

image of square version of Best Murder in Show cover, ready for new audiobook
An audiobook bargain at just £2.99!

Audiobooks make a great accompaniment to gardening, decorating, crafts and other activities you may be doing more of during lockdown.

I’ve just discovered that the ebook of my first novel, Best Murder in Show, is currently on special offer at just £2.99 on Audible. (Also available from many other ebook retailers – prices may vary.)

Click here to order your copy on Audible.

Siobhan Waring did such a great job with this story that I’ve just booked her to narrate the audiobook of Secrets at St Bride’s later this year.

 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Keep Calm and Tidy Up

Cover of the April 2020 issues of the Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read this month’s issue in full online for free

My column for the April 2020 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, written just as Covid-19 lockdown was beginning here in the UK. outlines my usual response to a crisis: tidying up.

In times of crisis, tidy up.

For years this mantra has helped me dispel anxiety. Sometimes I don’t even realise I’ve deployed it until my husband complains that I’ve rearranged the furniture yet again, expressing his fervent hope that this time I will feel I’ve finally got it right.

We will always have worries in our lives, due to personal, national and global issues. How dull life would be without cares. But any adverse situation in the wider world is easier to handle when your home turf is under control.

photo of packed bookshelves
Very proud of my newly tidy bookshelves – featuring my Alice in Wonderland collection and books about knitting and sewing. With apologies to Marie Kondo…

Not that I’m a disciple of Japanese decluttering guru Marie Kondo. No matter how sweetly charming she is in her books, on her tv show and in the media, I cannot buy into a philosophy that advocates each household should have no more than a dozen books.

Our smallest room alone would fill that quota, and I wouldn’t want to live in there. But having Marie-Kondo’d my usually packed diary to the point of blankness (with apologies for the postponement of my scheduled local talks and the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest), I’m planning to fill my windfall of  leisure time by rationalising my possessions.

Calm in a Crisis

By the time the Covid-19 all-clear sounds, my bookshelves, wardrobe, craft supplies, board-games cupboard and larder should all be in perfect order. I’ll have bagged up all surplus items ready to take to charity shops.

Once the weather warms up, my garden will be the most weed-free it is ever likely to be. The year I moved in to my cottage, an elderly neighbour whose own plot was immaculate leaned over our shared wall and surveyed my fine crop of dandelion clocks to offer a friendly, folksy warning:

“One year’s weeds, seven years’ seeds.”

photo of garden with ladders, tools etc
A work-in-progress: the taming of the garden

Given that my garden has never been weed-free since, I daren’t do the sums to work out how many weed seeds are stored up out there, but this spring will surely be my best chance of reclaiming the soil for things I do intend to grow.

Come to think of it, there’s never been a better time to strive for self-sufficiency. If only I had a packet of toilet roll seeds…

 

Shelves Aplenty

interior shot of tidy walk-in larder
The installation of an additional shelf by my DIY-mad husband inspired me to rationalise our walk-in larder

So, while at the time of writing, the media may be full of horror stories of supermarket shelves stripped bare, I predict that later this year, charity shops will have the opposite problem: such bulging stocks that shoppers can barely fit through the door to buy them.

In the meantime, should I tire of my husband’s complaints about the disruption within our four walls, I may find myself fantasising about despatching him to a charity shop with a label round his neck, Paddington-style:

“Please look after this Scotsman (one previous careful owner)”.

But there again he is very handy at putting up shelves. He’s busy installing a new one in the larder as I type. Perhaps that’s what’s missing in Marie Kondo’s life: she just needs a DIY-mad partner to accommodate all her stuff.

To read the Tetbury Advertiser in full online for free, click here.


cover of Young by Name
Earlier columns from the Tetbury Advertiser, available in paperback and ebook

If you enjoy reading my monthly columns in the Tetbury Advertiser, you might like to know that the first six years’ columns are compiled into a book that shares its title with my column in the magazine: Young By Name. Available in ebook and in paperback, it’s a lighthearted collection of short pieces that makes calming bedtime reading. Also a good buy for your smallest room! 

Click here to order as an ebook

Click here to order the paperback from Amazon

 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Why Forget-Me-Nots Are a Recurrent Motif in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries

A tribute to my maternal grandmother through the medium of forget-me-nots

arrangement of book cover, candle and vase
Forget-me-nots in my grandmother’s treasured old pressed glass vase

My maternal grandmother, whom we all called Mam, had simple tastes in flowers: the roses that edged the lawn of her suburban garden; sweet peas grown by my grandfather, Pop, in the vegetable patch at the end of the garden. But when as a teenager I bought her cut flowers, her preference was for freesias.

I suspect I first bought freesias because they were the only ones on the railway station stall that fell within my student budget, but she declared them her favourite.

With the hindsight of an adult, I suspect now she’d have said the same of any flower I gave her, but at the time I took her at her word and ever after I bought her freesias.

“Ah, my flowers!” she would smile, when I presented her with the latest bunch.

I appreciated them too, not just for their exotic fragrance, out of all proportion to the size of the flower, but because they were surprisingly robust, their slender stems having a wiry strength. They were also more dependable. Not for freesias the sulky post-purchase droop of hothouse roses.

Not Forgotting…

But there’s a second flower that I can’t see without thinking of Mam, and that’s the humble forget-me-not.

As any English gardener knows, forget-me-knots readily self-seed and spread. Left unchecked, they’ll carpet a flowerbed in no time. Some people even view them as weeds, defining weeds as any plant that grows where you don’t want it to.

But to my child’s eye, they were enchanting, their tiny flowers like little faces nestling among the furry foliage.

They were flowers fit for a fairy.

The Discreet Charm of the Forget-Me-Not

Forget-me-nots were even more charming than the bluebells that ran wild in the woods behind my primary school. In spring, every classroom windowsill boasted a jam jar full of bluebells, picked on our way to school as an offering for our teacher. No matter how many we picked, there always seemed plenty more.

But in Mam’s garden, the forget-me-not was colonist-in-chief.

As I walked up the back garden path on my weekly visit after primary school, I’d linger to admire them, picking a bunch to present to Mam when she came to greet me at the back door.

I was particularly pleased in the years when she let them run rampant, overflowing the flower bed that ran parallel to the concrete garden path. At the time, I wondered why she looked a little wry when I remarked upon a particularly fine crop.

Only later did I realise that the best crops occurred in the years when she couldn’t find it in herself to keep the garden in order: perhaps the year her beloved big sister Auntie Ev had died, or when my grandfather, Pop, had been very poorly with a stomach ulcer.

Even if these little blue flowers didn’t have their distinctive name, they would, like freesias, ever since have reminded me of Mam.

From Fact into Fiction

And that is why, decades later, writing my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, when seeking a flower to be a motif in her stories, the choice of the forget-me-not was obvious.

In the first book in the series, Best Murder in Show (published three years ago today!), Sophie’s eyes are the colour of forget-me-nots. Without spoiling the plot, Hector Munro, who employs Sophie in his village bookshop and soon strikes up a romance with her, comes to appreciate them too. He pays a special tribute with a forget-me-not theme on Valentine’s Day, towards the end of the fourth book in the series, Murder by the Book. I think Mam would have approved.

forget-me-not vase photographed from above on lace tablecloth


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cover of Best Murder in Show
A fun story set in high summer in a classic English village

The ebook of Best Murder in Show is currently free on all ebook readers including Kindle, Kobo and Apple Books.

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(Also available as an audiobook from all good online audiobook retailers)

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