Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Out of the Mouths of Aunts

cover of March 2020 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
To read the whole issue online, click the image

Every month I write a column for the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, a not-for-profit community magazine. In this month’s issue, I shared one of my favourite sources of story ideas: eavesdropping.


As an inveterate eavesdropper, I shamelessly raid overheard conversations for fun phrases to put into the mouths of my fictional characters.

While I may not remember a meeting time from one day to the next (top tip: hold all meetings to coincide with elevenses), when it comes to other people’s one-liners, I have the carved-in-stone memory of a Ten Commandments tablet.

Impressive Pledge

Inspired by old memories

In my twenties, I worked alongside an ardent vegan, in the days when this now common lifestyle choice was rare. One day over coffee she announced that she could only ever marry another vegan. The chance of falling in love with a man who met this as well as all the usual criteria seemed to me about as likely as the miller’s daughter guessing Rumpelstiltskin’s name. Twenty years later, I used her declaration of intent as a starting point for “Housetraining Thomas”, my short story about finding partners in my collection Marry in Haste. (In case you’re wondering, my friend she eventually settled for a vegetarian and in true fairytale style they are living happily ever after.)

Legendary Lessons

A Westonbirt alumna’s quote borrowed with her permission

Working at Westonbirt School in the late 1998, I harvested a great line from former pupil Jane Reid. When compiling alumnae’s memories for the school’s seventieth birthday, I asked, “What’s the most useful thing you learned at school?” Without hesitation Jane replied, “At my prep school, how to steam open an envelope and at my senior school not to sign anything I hadn’t read.” With her permission, I lent her words of wisdom to Miss Harnett (aka Hairnet), the eccentric headmistress in my recent novel Secrets at St Bride’s.

Family Favourites

cover of The Natter of Knitters
Auntie Minnie helped!

I’m equally insouciant with members of my family. Like Bertie Wooster, I’m blessed with a fine collection of characterful aunts. When my father was reading my new novella, The Natter of Knitters, he instantly recognised a favourite saying of his Auntie Minnie’s, spoken in my story by a character worried about the well-being of a very slender neighbour: “Where does she keep her organs?” In a similar vein, my grandmother, spotting someone bending over would say “Have you seen my nice bottom?”

old family photo
Grandmothers and aged aunts – a great source of quotable quotes

I wonder whether I shall pass any memorable phrases of my own down the generations? At the moment, the main contender is “Steady, Teddy”, said to any small child who is getting out of hand (and occasionally my teenage daughter). And that, I confess, was copied from my favourite television programme as a toddler, Andy Pandy. Once a thief…


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

If you’d like to read more of my columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, you’ll find the first six years’ worth in this collection, available in paperback and ebook. I’ll compile another at the end of this year.

Click here to order as an ebook

Click here to order the paperback from Amazon, or ask your local bookshop to order it in using ISBN 978-1911223030.

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Nought to 60 in No Time At All

Click the image to read the whole magazine online

For ten years now, I’ve been a regular contributor to the Tetbury Advertiser, a multiple-award-winning community magazine run by the Tetbury Lions. As well as providing a valuable community news service, it donates any profits from advertising to local good causes. I’m proud to be a part of it. 

The monthly deadline is around the middle of the month prior to the cover date, so I wrote my column for the February issue around the time of a very big birthday…

When the calendar flipped over to 2020, I was very pleased. I’ve always liked round numbers. 18 days later, another round number was due to enter my life: I was about to turn 60.

It was hard to understand where all that time has gone. But when I wondered why I was having trouble sourcing a new refill for a favourite pen, I realised I’d had the pen for 42 years.

For the Love of 60

headshot of Grandma in a beret
My beloved Grandma – always me + 60

Despite my natural aversion to growing old, I have always loved the number 60. Write it in Roman numerals (I’m currently learning Latin), and it looks like the suffix of a luxury car model:  LX.

At primary school, 60 was my favourite times table answer. My love affair with maths ended as soon as we got beyond arithmetic.

I also liked 60 because it was the age my beloved grandmother turned just after my entry into the world. Throughout my childhood she was therefore my age plus 60. To my childish imagination, this seemed a significant bond, almost like us being twins, despite her being a Victorian.

The Perks of Turning 60

Back to 2020, and as my big day approached, there were reminders everywhere I went. Signs enticed those over 60 to claim extra points at Boots, 25% off at the local optician, and a significant discount with a railcard.

A few days before my birthday, I found myself in a hospital’s charity bookshop. I’d been meaning to read more Graham Greene since enjoying his autobiography last year, so when I spotted his name on the spine of an ancient Penguin (the book brand, not the bird), I pulled it off the shelf without checking the title.

A Special Vintage

headshot of Debbie Young against Cheltenham Lit Fest logo
Reading at Cheltenham Literature Festival at the tender age of 56 and channelling Grandma’s love of hats

It turned out to be A Burnt-out Case, set in a leper colony in the Belgian Congo. (Whoever donated that novel to a hospital bookshop lacked tact.) Wondering when it was published, I consulted the copyright page. You’ve guessed it: 1960, same vintage as me. At secondary school, I wrote a history essay (possibly with that now empty pen) about the Belgian Congo gaining independence, but I couldn’t remember the year it took place. I looked it up on line. Who’d have thought it? 1960.

Finally, when I woke on the big day, I was relieved to realise that not only did I feel no older than the day before, but that my grandmother, if she were still alive, would next month turn 120 – exactly twice my new age. That pleased me immensely – and made me feel much younger. Then her daughter, my 89-year-old aunt, wrote in her birthday card to me that the sixties are the best time of your life. So, all in all, I’m sold on the idea of turning 60 now. So let the good times roll… and with discounts!

CLICK HERE TO READ THE WHOLE OF THE FEBRUARY ISSUE OF THE TETBURY ADVERTISER FOR FREE ONLINE


For the Love of Knitting

One of the many traits I inherited from Grandma was a love of knitting – the theme of my latest book, The Natter of Knitters.

It’s now available as a cute compact paperback the size of a picture postcard – the perfect size to slip in a birthday card for knitting addict friends! -, as well as in all ebook for

cover of The Natter of Knitters
The first in a fun new series of quick reads

mats.

It’s a quick read – a short novella, about 20% the length of one of my novels – and features Sophie Sayers and friends from Wendlebury Barrow, as well as introducing new ones, such as the officious Mrs Fortescue, organiser of the village yarnbombing event, and Ariel Fey, self-appointed defender of local sheep.

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

A Trick of the Light

photo of sunset behind leafless trees
Sunset on Starveall Lane, one of the single-track roads that leads into Hawkesbury Upton

Every month, I write a topical column for the Hawkesbury Parish News, the local magazine run by an apparently tireless team of volunteers, for the benefit of everyone within our local community. What could be more topical for an English village in the middle of winter than a heartfelt longing for signs of spring?

Yesterday mid-morning, in a brief interlude between torrential downpours, there was a clear, fresh quality to the daylight in my back garden. If I were an artist, I would have been reaching for my paints, eager to capture the arrival of spring. Yet the calendar told me winter would last two more months.

I welcomed the arrival of this blackbird every morning last week as it worked its way through old apples left over from last autumn

Unlike my husband, I don’t always trust supposedly scientific evidence. Our bathroom scales are another case in point. Bringing them into the bedroom to weigh himself last week, he was startled to find he’d lost ten kilos. “Put them back in their usual place and try again,” I advised.

Sure enough, when returned to the bare boards of the bathroom floor, the scales showed his usual weight. Those ten kilos were never lost – they were just temporarily mislaid. Like his car keys and his phone, which go missing several times a week, I knew they’d turn up eventually.

Weight is in any case relative and not worth getting worked up about. At my health MOT at the GP surgery last week, the nurse congratulated me: “Well done, you’ve lost five pounds since this time last year.”

Taking the compliment with good grace, I chose not to confess that I’d actually lost a stone – and then regained nine pounds.

But I’ll store up my husband’s experience for future reference. Then when I really want to lose weight and keep it off, I’ll just put the scales on the bedroom carpet.

photo of snowdrops in the churchyard at Slad
More signs of spring in the Cotswolds: carpets of snowdrops at the churchyard in Slad, resting place of the writer Laurie Lee

And In Case You’re Impatient for Summer…

A Free Summer Read!

A fun story set in high summer in a classic English village – first in a series of five novels (book six due out at the end of February!)

If these signs of spring aren’t enough to lift your spirits, here’s a chance to download a free ebook of my novel set in high summer, Best Murder in Show.  For a limited time only, the ebook edition is available to download free of charge from all good ebook retailers (Kindle, Kobo, Apple, etc).

Just click this link to download your copy in the format of your choice. 

Why am I giving it away? I’m hoping readers will get hooked and go on to buy the rest of the series – especially as book six in the series, Murder Your Darlings, is due out at the end of February!

Fortunately, it costs me nothing to give away an ebook as the file is a digital download, with no print or delivery costs. I just wish I could do the same with paperbacks!

More news about Murder Your Darlings soon…

Posted in Family, Personal life

How My Childhood Made Me A Citizen of the World

cover of December issue of Tetbury Advertiser
Click to read the whole issue online

In my Young by Name column for the December issue of the Tetbury Advertiser – written during the build-up to the UK general election – I reflected on how my upbringing has affected my world view – and my love of languages.

From an early age, I counted myself as a traveller. Born in an era when most British families took holidays in their own country, and only one a year, usually in the summer, I had a fortunate head start at the tender age of eight.

An American Road Trip

My father’s job as a computer engineer required that he spend a year in the USA, and he took the whole family with him – my mum, my older brother and sister, and me. Initially posted to Philadelphia, he was asked after a month to relocate to Los Angeles.

Photo of my dad with tour guide looking at old photos
My dad impresses our tour guide on the HMS Belfast with photos of his seafaring days

My father’s natural sense of adventure had been nurtured by his earlier service with the Royal Navy, including two years during the Korean War on HMS Belfast, now a museum on the Thames. He negotiated swapping our expenses-paid plane tickets for petrol, and so began our great American road trip in the family car. Our scenic route was designed to take in world-famous, memorable landmarks such as Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone Park and Las Vegas. Before I turned nine, I had seen more of the US than many American adults.

The Railways of Europe

His subsequent posting to Germany during my last four years of high school saw me hopping on and off trans-European railways in my school holidays, a confident solo traveller. Only recently, as my own teenage daughter started travelling abroad independently, did my parents reveal that they were much less insouciant about my train trips than I was.

East, West…

In adulthood, I have made countless journeys abroad, not only for pleasure. Business trips have taken me as far afield as Hong Kong and the Caribbean. Yet now, with the likelihood of trans-European travel becoming less straightforward post Brexit, coupled with concern for my carbon footprint, my appetite for foreign jaunts is waning.

A World of Languages

graphic of Duolingo owl
The cute Duolingo owl is your personal cheerleader as you learn new languages

Therefore my recent decision to start learning more foreign languages may seem incongruous. I already have some French and German from my schooldays and a little tourist Greek from evening classes, which for many people might seem plenty. But when my daughter introduced me to Duolingo, a free app that makes learning another language fun, she sparked a latent desire. The languages offered by this app are not only the obvious ones from the the school curriculum. Hankering after Hawaiian? Keen on Klingon? Duolingo has those too.

I’m starting with Latin, because I’ve long wanted to have a better grasp of the roots of English. But Latin is only a small part of the picture. Our English language has of course been enriched by many more tongues since the Romans left English soil, via immigrants, invaders and imported texts.

Whatever happens politically in the next few months, nothing can take away our rich linguistic culture. Every time I pick up my pen, I celebrate our long heritage of the blending of Anglo Saxon with French, German, Greek, Latin and many more European languages.

As JFK almost said at the height of another politic crisis, “Ich bin Europäer”.

 


cover of Young by Name
The cover illustration is a watercolour by my father

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read more of my columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, which I’m compiling into books. The first volume, Young By Name (the name of my column in the magazine), covers the issues from 2010 through 2015. The second volume, taking us from 2016 through 2020, will be out at the end of 2020.

Order from AmazonOrder ebook from KoboOrder ebook from other online stores

Or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223030.

Join My Readers’ Club & Get a Free Ebook

cover of The Pride of Peacocks
Download this free ebook when you join my Readers’ Club mailing list

Click here to join my Readers’ Club mailing list and receive news about my books by email plus a free ebook on joining? 

Posted in Family, Personal life

Artistic Connections

cover of the November issue of Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read the whole issue for free online

In my column for the November issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, I’m talking about what can be found on the walls of my Victorian Cotswold cottage, thanks to the talents of my artistic relatives! 

My Cotswold cottage is full of the unexpected. Having been raised in a suburban semi with the same layout as every other house in the street, I’m pleased that my current home, although modest in size, is sufficiently rambling that visitors have been known to get lost.

I’m also glad to have pictures on the wall that can be found only in my house. This is because they are mostly originals by my paternal grandfather, father, aunt, cousin, brother, daughter and brother-in-law. Not that I come from a family of famous artists, just from a line of gifted and enthusiastic amateurs.

Changing Tastes

Not so in my previous homes. In my twenties, in my first flat in a modern London block, I displayed cheap prints of old masters, clichéd by over-exposure, such as Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire”.

By the time I moved to a Victorian artisan’s two-up, two-down terrace, I favoured nineteenth-century sentimentality. Think G F Watts’ “Choosing”, in which a teenage Ellen Terry can’t decide between a handful of diminutive sweet-smelling violets held close to her heart and showy but odourless camellia bush. My daughter, the same age as the model, hates this picture with a passion, which makes me wonder how poor Ellen Terry felt about the set-up, painted by her future husband, thirty years her senior. The marriage was short lived.

Keeping It in the Family

photo of pastel drawing of lighthouse
Grandpa’s pastel drawing of a lighthouse

Now I have the family’s landscapes, seascapes, portraits, textiles and calligraphic compositions in almost every room. My latest acquisitions are from an old school sketchbook of my grandfather’s: a pastel drawing of a lighthouse and watercolours of a steam train and a hospital ship at sea. As my grandfather was born in 1905, he would have painted these during the First World War. In the same sketchbook are drawings of an airship and a tank – the latest technology of his day, exciting and glamorous to an Edwardian schoolboy.

photo of two framed painting in situ on the wall
Grandpa’s schoolboy watercolours, now proudly displayed in my front room

I already had Grandpa’s pencil sketch of Kentish oast houses, made towards the end of his life while in Farnborough Hospital. He was still drawing during the final illness that took him too soon at just sixty-six years old.

pen and ink drawing of Kentish rural scene
Grandpa’s painting of Kentish oasthousses

I regret that I lack his artistic genes scattered down the generations. My daughter certainly has them. Her drawing skills surpassed mine years ago.

Indelible Lines

But still we connect, my grandfather and I. In a light-hearted conversation with my eighty-seven-year-old father about decluttering in old age (my message: don’t bother, just enjoy what you have and leave the decluttering to your descendants), he said with a fond smile: “I remember Mum saying to me after Dad died, ‘But why did he need three fountain pens?’”

Silently I opened my handbag, withdrew my pencil case, unzipped it and spilled out onto the table three fountain pens. Artistic or not, I am my grandfather’s granddaughter.

photo of my pencil case with three fountain pens

 


cover of Young by Name
The cover illustration is a watercolour by my father

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read more of my columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, which I’m compiling into books. The first volume, Young By Name (the name of my column in the magazine), covers the issues from 2010 through 2015. The second volume, taking us from 2016 through 2020, will be out at the end of 2020.

Order from AmazonOrder ebook from KoboOrder ebook from other online stores

Or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223030.

Join My Readers’ Club & Get a Free Ebook

cover of The Pride of Peacocks
Download this free ebook when you join my Readers’ Club mailing list

Click here to join my Readers’ Club mailing list and receive news about my books by email plus a free ebook on joining?