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.
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to try this collection of five years of my columns in the Hawkesbury Parish News, with, as bonus material, a previously unpublished set of essays about country life that I wrote when I first move to the village over twenty-five years ago.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)
This week I’m talking about Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the July Book of the Month for our BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club
Like many avid readers, if I only ever read books that I most wanted to read, I’d never have discovered lots of great books that I’ve gone on to enjoy. For example, I never used to read historical fiction, not because of any aversion to it, but it wasn’t something I naturally gravitated towards.
Then I joined a local Historical Novel Society book group, largely because I wanted to support Lucienne Boyce, the historical novelist who was setting it up, and was quickly hooked on the genre, even though I disliked about half the books we read there. As a result, I’m now an official reviewer for the HNS, and very much enjoy being a part of it.
As Featured on BBC Radio Gloucestershire
Similarly, I’ve been glad when I’ve had to read a book or an author that I felt I ought to have read, but had never got round to doing so. July’s Book Club choice for the BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book of the Month was a case in point. I didn’t especially enjoy it, but I’m glad that I’ve now read it and now what the fuss is all about – because fuss there certainly is.
Although Jonathan Livingston Seagull was published back in the seventies, it’s still in print, and even had a fourth part added to its three-part format recently in a beautiful new edition, and there’s even an app for it, so its publisher clearly thinks it’s an evergreen book and a sound business investment.
The story is essentially a fable about being true to yourself and following the path in life that is right for you, rather than mimicking the masses – a very 1970s message. The hero prefers flying to scavenging for food, which causes him to become an outcast from his social group, but he decides he cannot compromise for the sake of conformity.
A Book to Change Young Lives?
When I asked Facebook friends who else had read it, I was overwhelmed by the flurry of passionate responses about how the book had changed their lives, empowering them to go on to become what they are today.
Personally, I don’t think it will change mine – but then I’m reading it in middle-age, when I am comfortable with my life choices and with where I am and what I’m doing now.
However, had I read it when a teenager or student or young aspiring PR executive (and mostly hating it), it might have given me the courage to step into the ejector seat sooner of what become a long career, and not waiting till a significant birthday to decide what I really wanted to be when I grew up was a novelist. (I finally published my first novel this spring – more about that at the foot of this post.)
When discussing the book on BBC Radio Gloucestershire with lunchtime presenter Dominic Cotter and fellow panelist Caroline Sanderson, associate editor of The Bookseller magazine, we agreed that it was more of a young person’s book. Of the three of us, only Dominic had read it before, as a teenager, and still loved it, whereas Caroline and I found it a bit harder to take – Caroline described it as schmaltzy, and I had trouble with my natural aversion to seagulls and to characters with unlikely names. (I know, I’m that shallow.) But we were all glad we’d read it.
(You can listen to the show on iplayer here for the next four weeks if you’d like to hear our full discussion, which starts a few minutes into Dominic’s show.)
The Ultimate Beach Read?
So although I wouldn’t say to someone “You must read this book, it’s fantastic and it will change our life”, I am most certainly saying “You must read this book, if you haven’t already, because it’s a significant piece of popular culture from the 1970s that many of my friends adore.”
It is also a very short, quick read, will be universally available from bookshops and libraries, and, like the tiny books I was recommending this time last week, it will slip easily into your hand-luggage for your summer holidays. It might also have one benefit unanticipated by the author: if you’re heading to a British seaside resort this summer, it will make you more tolerant of the inevitable plague of seagulls, and more forgiving if they do the classic seaside thing and swipe your Cornish pasty or ice-cream cone.
Happy reading, wherever you decide to read it!
PS Fancy reading one of my books this weekend?Best Murder in Show, a lighthearted modern mystery story, is the perfect summer read, set at the time of a traditional village show. Now available as an ebook for Kindle or in paperback – order from Amazon here or at your local neighbourhood bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223139.
For Writers’ Wednesday (#ww), a post about writing fiction. This post first appeared on the Authors Electric blog, for which I’m now a regular monthly contributor. (I write a new post on the 30th of each month).
If you go down to the woods today…
When I started writing my new series, the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and set myself the ambitious target of publishing a cycle of seven novels over two years, I had no idea how much I would come to enjoy escaping into its fictitious Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow.
Having now drafted the first three in the series – Best Murder in Showwas published in April,Trick or Murder?will launch in August, and Murder in the Manger will be my 2017 Christmas special (no surprises there) – I feel as if the characters are old friends. I feel entirely at home with them.
That shouldn’t really come as a surprise, because in real life, I’ve resided in the small Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton for over a quarter of a century.
Both the fictitious and the real village are safe, fun but eccentric places to live. (Well, safe apart from the odd murder – only in Wendlebury Barrow, ouf course.) Frequently heard in response to Hawkesbury Upton events is the phrase “You couldn’t make that up!” There are probably more implausible events happening in the actual village than in the pretend one.
I love living in Hawkesbury Upton, and although I’ve been careful to make all my characters and events fictitious, I write about Wendlebury Barrow in celebration of the kind of village life that surrounds me.
I’ve only once so far caught myself writing “Wendlebury Upton.”
Of Darker Places
Which leads me to wonder whether authors who write much grittier crime books than mine feel the same about the grimmer worlds that they have conjured up. Do they live in places like that? Do they want to visit them? I don’t think so. Yes, I do know about catharsis, but the closest I get to enjoying it in fiction is in the likes of Alice in Wonderland, with its classic “oh thank goodness it was only a dream” moment.
As for me, I’d rather feel safe all the time, whether weaving stories in my fictional world or walking the streets of my home village.
Not for me the more violent books, films or television programmes that my husband enjoys. You probably know the sort of thing I mean: where the soundtrack consists almost entirely of the physical impact of violence (fists on flesh breaking bones, bullets sinking into fleshy targets) and the dialogue would be half the length if all the swear words were omitted.
Or maybe that’s why he watches them – precisely because they make me swiftly leave the room. Perhaps straight afterwads, he channel-hops to “Strictly”.
Incitement to Murder
However, I must admit that writing the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries is also in part a response to his previous complaint that “nothing happened” in my three volumes of short stories – well, nothing violent, anyway.
My pre-planned series of titles commits me to at least one murder per book. My only problem now is that I’m getting so attached to the characters that I don’t want to kill any of them off.
Which my neighbours in Hawkesbury Upton will probably be very glad to know…
The first Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Best Murder in Show, is set in the summer months, at the time of the traditional village show, so it makes the perfect summer read. It’s now available to order Amazon in paperback or ebook here, or from your local neighbourhood bookshop by quoting ISBN 978-1911223139.
My column for the July/August issue of the Tetbury Advertiser is a whimsical post inspired by the classic scent of an English summer
At the start of the heatwave, I throw open my study window and am almost knocked over by the heady scent of honeysuckle immediately filling the room. On the first floor of my cottage, my study is at the same height as the vast drift of the stuff that has engulfed the old apple tree outside my back door.
Daily at my desk, I assess the passing of the seasons more by the state of the branches of tress than by shrubs and flowers at ground level. This is probably the closest I will ever get to having a tree house, which I hear is the latest trendy addition to the domestic garden, outranking in the cool stakes the previous must-have shed office, or shedquarters, as my friends call theirs.
There’s something magical about the scent of honeysuckle. The fragrance is so thick and heady that I’m almost surprised I can’t see it as it sneaks up and takes possession of me, holding me captive before I’ve even noticed that it’s about to pounce. But the associations are all positive, and I’m sure it lowers my blood pressure, makes me calmer, more reflective, and more content with my lot.
Straight to Sidcup
This perfume takes me straight back to my suburban childhood home, where we had a vast hedge of it scrambling over the wall by the back door. That’s why I planted this one in a similar spot in my present country garden. Next on my list is to establish a rose garden. I may be some time.
Roses have a similar effect on me to honeysuckle, although their assault is more subtle, and you have to meet it halfway. Having grown up in a suburb where nearly every garden featured traditional roses, I still cannot pass a rose in full bloom without the impulse to bury my face in its petals and inhale.
Sense of Swimming
A recent trip to the world-famous walled rose garden at Mottisfont, where the old warm bricks entrap and intensify the scent of thousands of roses, made me feel like I was swimming through perfume. No matter how glamorous or alluring the advertisements for modern designer perfumes, surely no chemical manufacturer will ever develop a product with such magical and transformative powers. I’m a naturally calm and optimistic soul, but such experiences always send me a few notches up the laid-back scale, to the nearly horizontal.
Scents for Sense
Living in a chaotic political age, when sometimes the whole world seems in turmoil, I can only draw hope from the knowledge that the grounds of both the White House and 10 Downing Street include a rose garden. I can only hope that this summer our leaders spend more time in such grounding and redemptive places, emerging stronger, saner, and more sensitive for the experience. There, I told you I was an optimist.
PS If you love traditional English gardens as much as I do, you might like to know that one recent reviewer of my village mystery novel Best Murder in Show said “The book is worth the read just for Young’s description of gardens and hedgerows!” You can imagine how happy that made me!
My column for the June edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News
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: