Posted in Personal life, Reading, Travel

The Serendipity of Secondhand Books

In my column for the September 2020 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, I’m musing about my love of secondhand bookshops and the unexpected treasures to be found in them.

cover of September issueAh, the joy of browsing through secondhand books! – one of the few things I missed about not having a summer holiday this year. Wherever we go, we always end up in vintage bookshops. They’re my main source of holiday souvenirs and more besides.

Last August in Norfolk, the proprietor of The Old Station Bookshop in Wells-next-the-Sea introduced himself to us as Harry Potter’s potter. Some years before, a film company’s properties scout had spotted the bookseller’s side-line in ceramics, nestled between the books. A few days later an order arrived, presumably delivered by owl, for two sets of matching pots in different sizes – one small version for Harry Potter and chums, the other scaled up for Hagrid the giant.

The film scout had clearly adhered to

my golden rule of second-hand bookshop shopping: never look for anything in particular.

On no account take a shopping list because you won’t find what you’re looking for. Instead, browse the shelves with an open mind, and let the books find you.

Timely Reading

The best second-hand books leap out at me with extraordinary timing. A vintage copy of Where No Mains Flow, Rebecca Warren’s witty memoir of restoring an old cottage, kept my sense of humour intact as we did up our own place.

 cover of Where No Mains Flow
I was so pleased to find another copy of this mid-century book, having loaned my original copy and never got it back

 

Just after I’d joined a VE Day 75 committee, the first book I saw at the Bookbarn near Wells was a slim hardback of The White Cliffs, Alice Duer Miller’s novel in verse written in 1940. (Yes, it predates the Vera Lynn song.) I’d never heard of it, but in its heyday it sold a million copies and was even credited with bringing the Americans into the Second World War.

cover of The White Cliffs
This book was the first one I saw displayed cover outwards when entering the Bookbarn – an extraordinary coincidence when i was working on a WWII community project

Just after my sixtieth birthday in January, I decided to reread Graham Greene. On my next visit to a secondhand bookshop, I picked up A Burnt-out Case. Wondering when it was published, I opened the book at the copyright page: 1960, same vintage as me. Suddenly I felt very old.

cover of A Burnt-Out Case
Same vintage as me – but I think I have aged a little better than the chap on the cover

For the Love of Covers

Then there are the books I’ve acquired simply for the sake of their covers. Naturally, it was during Storm Ciara that a vintage hardback of Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon leapt out at me, its cover so atmospheric that you can practically hear the wind roar.

cover of Typhoon
I can feel the winds howling every time I look at this gorgeous cover

Best of all are the curiosities bought as talking points. Who could resist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes printed entirely in Pitman shorthand? Now all I need to be able to read it is an old copy of Teach Yourself Pitman Shorthand. But I’d better not go searching, or I’ll never find one.

sample pages of Sherlock Holmes novel in Pitman Shorthand
I confess I cant read Pitman Shorthand, but this was an irresistible find!

Sneak Preview of Developments in Wendlebury Barrow

cover of the Clutch of Eggs
My next book will be out in October

Such is my love of secondhand books that in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, I’m planning to make Hector Munro to start a vintage section in Hector’s House, the bookshop at the heart of this series. He already has a large private collection of what he refers to as his “curiosities”, and these occasionally play a part in my stories, such as a festive short story that I wrote last year – you can read it here for free if you can bear to think about Christmas just yet!

His curiosities collection also gets a mention in my new book, The Clutch of Eggs, the next in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads series, which will be out in October – more news of that to follow shortly. (You can join my Readers’ Club mailing list here if you want me to notify you of the publication date.)

Then in the eighth book in the Sophie Sayers series, one of his “curiosities” will be at the heart of a mystery that takes Sophie and Hector from Wendlebury Barrow to the Scottish Highlands.  But first I must write the seventh – Murder Lost and Found, my November project, for the first draft, anyway!

Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

With Love to Ithaca & Other Ionian Islands

In this post I reminisce about my travels to the Ionian islands off the west cost of Greece, which inspired my latest novel, and I send my love to all those affected by the Medicane (Mediterranean hurricane) Storm Ianosthat affected the area a week ago.

(You can read the BBC’s news report about the storm here.)

Back in the early 2000s, I spent a lot of time sailing in the Ionian Sea. This was not as extravagant as it sounds. My husband and I purchased a share in a small refurbished sailing yacht, (sadly in the days before digital photography and smart phones, so apologies for the lack of photos!) Our share entitled us to six weeks aboard each year. It cost us just £3,000, and a few years later we sold it on for exactly the same sum.

The Idyllic Ionian Islands

From my first trip to Kefalonia in the summer of 2000, I adored the beautiful islands, their big-hearted people, and their idyllic climate, with its clear blue skies and sunshine every day. As a sailor who prefers calm waters, I appreciated that there was just enough warm wind for gentle sailing from around 10am until the dependable “five o’clock blow”, which gave you just enough puff to get you into the harbour of your choice for the night.

Several years after selling our boat share, I attended a writers’ retreat run by Jessica Bell at the excellent Hotel Nostos on Ithaca, and was amused when its proprietor Nicki Anagnostatos apologised to her guests for the presence of a few tiny clouds in the azure sky.

Ithaca photo
Wonderful memories and much knowledge gained from the retreat organised by Jessica Bell six years ago

Ithaca was just one of the islands we’d sailed to. Our yacht was based in Nidri on Lefkas, and we also sailed to  Meganisi, Kefalonia, many smaller islands, and occasionally to the mainland.

Not So Safe Harbour

One year, on arrival, we passed a small private marina full of boats that looked as if they’d been in the seafaring equivalent of a motorway pile-up. The marina belonged to a sailing school, and at first we assumed either teachers or pupils or both were shockingly inept. Then we discovered a spring storm had hurtled across the islands not long before our arrival, wrecking everything in its path.

We found it hard to believe that such freak weather could affect what we’d come to regard as a haven, until we experienced it at first hand.

Storm over Asos

A year or two later, after mooring our yacht in the beautiful horseshoe-shaped harbour at Asos on Kefalonia, having sailed calmly across from Lefkas, we were awoken at 2am by howling gales rocking our boat vigorously from side to side. Ropes and chains were rattling all around us, amid frantic shouts in Greek, English and other languages.

Peering up through the hatch to see what was going on, we discovered a storm in full force. The larger boats were moving out to anchor in the middle of the bay, away from anything that could damage their sides, while the smaller boats like ours were advised to turn ninety degrees to park sideways on to the harbour wall, rather than nose or tail on as was the usual practice to allow more boats to access the town. That way we could secure both ends of the boat to dry land, and reduce the chances of crashing into neighbouring vessels.

Still our boat rolled, and first thing in the morning we fled to the town to rent a room till the winds had dropped. In this very sheltered bay, nestling at the bottom of steep cliffs, it was still beach weather, and the storm will have made no difference to holidaymakers staying on land. But it was several days before the water was safe enough for us to leave.

Earthquake Legacy

Storms were not the only weather extremes that have affected the Ionian islands over the years. On Kefalonia, we were conscious of the legacy of the devastating earthquake of 1953 – 7.3 on the RIchter Scale. The quake changed the face of the island destroying numerous buildings, many of which still lie in ruins, and causing some settlements to be abandoned forever.  (Read more about the history of the earthquake here.)

So while it’s true that whenever we went to the Greek islands we expected idyllic weather, the ghosts of past natural catastrophes were always with us and with the residents of the islands.

Inspiration for a Novel

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”.

The latent threat beneath the idyllic weather inspired the latest novel in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, Murder Your Darlings. It’s set on a small fictitious island just off the tip of Ithaca. An old windmill damaged by the 1953 earthquake is the scene of the mysterious disappearance of a famous romantic novelist, Marina Milanese. When a summer storm prevents the police from reaching the island, Sophie and her fellow guests must solve the mystery themselves – not easy, when just about everyone on the island, including Sophie herself, is deemed to have a motive to murder Marina Milanese.

Return to Ithaca

This summer a natural phenomenon of a different kind has ruled out travel to the Greek islands for many of us, but I’m hoping that once the storm that is Covid-19 has passed, we’ll be returning to the Ionian islands to continue our love affair with them. If you’ve never been, add them to your bucket list for post-Covid holidays. You’ll be glad you did – and you’ll be helping the islanders rebuild their economy, for the benefit of us all.

Posted in Personal life

“And A Marrow!”

In this month’s issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I’m talking about late summer gluts in the garden. The copy deadline is half way through the previous month to the cover date, and a month after writing this article, we’ve only just finished dealing with our surplus fruit, but still the lanes round here are dotted with baskets of free apples, squash, and other produce for sale or for free at the garden gate.

close-up photo of apples on tree
One of several apple varieties in our garden

Before I moved to Hawkesbury Upton, I couldn’t understand how people could leave windfall fruit to rot. My previous house, in Tring, Hertfordshire, was a tiny two-up, two-down Victorian terrace with a back yard rather than a garden, so growing fruit and vegetables was out of the question. So when a neighbour encouraged us to strip her crab apple tree of all its fruit for our new hobby of winemaking, we were overwhelmed by her generosity. Only now that my kitchen is full of baskets of windfall apples – plus a bucket containing 27 pints of fresh apple juice – can I empathise with her relief at offloading her surplus to a grateful home.

When we moved here from Tring, the garden was one of the biggest attractions of our new house. Its substantial lawn was edged with mature plum trees, and an apple tree divided the lawn from the kitchen garden, where soft fruit bushes flourished. Over the years, we’ve added crab-apple, pear and more apple varieties, and damson and cherry trees have planted themselves. (Thank you, wild birds!)

Our plum trees have also multiplied, due to our habit of picking a ripe plum to eat on the move before chucking the stone on the ground wherever we happen to be. One summer, I anticipated a fairy ring of plum trees springing up where my aunt had sat in the garden, working  her way through a dish of plums and leaving a circle of their stones around her chair.

row of seven flagons of cider fermenting
One way of coping with a glut of apples: cider!

This year we’ve had our largest yield of plums yet.

In the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s good to have a reminder that nature can also be benevolent – so much so that it’s been hard work even to give away our surplus.

There’s only so much jam one can use. When I put my latest jars of plum jam in the larder, I discovered we still had four jars from last year.

At least our plums are delicious, unlike the marrows that Nick Cragg throws in with every lot at the Show Day auction. His cry of “And a marrow!” always raises a laugh.

But in the absence of this year’s Village Show, what are we going to do with all our marrows? At the 2021 Show, I predict record entry levels in the spirits category.

Anyone for marrow rum?


image of square version of Best Murder in Show cover, ready for new audiobook
Now available as an audiobook as well as in paperback and ebook

If you like the idea of the Village Show, you might enjoy my novel Best Murder in Show, the first in my lighthearted Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series. Available in paperback, ebook and audiobook, it’s a cheery read to help you eke out the summer for a little longer. 

Buy from online retailers here.

The paperback is also available at Hawkesbury Stores and to order from all good local bookshops.

Posted in Personal life, Reading

The Biography is in the Bedroom

Photo of Howard's End is on the Landing on my bookshelf
I blame Susan Hill…

In this month’s Hawkesbury Parish News, I’m sharing my experience of reorganising my bookshelves.

Ten years ago, I was given a copy of Howard’s End is on the Landing, Susan Hill’s memoir inspired by the chaotic state of her bookshelves. This gave me the idea of reorganising my books, library style, and I displayed her book on my landing to remind me of my plan.

In all that time, I got no further than occasionally taking the book down to dust it.

Opportunity Unlocked

Then came lockdown, offering enticing glimpses of immaculate bookshelves of famous people broadcasting from home. Once more I began to yearn for shelves so neat that they’d have space for other items, from pot plants and family photos to curious kittens with a head for heights.

after reorganising bookshelves
…but I’m pleased with the end result

With bookshelves in every room in my house, reorganising my books was no small undertaking. Yet a week after I started, not only is Howard’s End on the landing, but so is the rest of my fiction.

Poetry and biography have moved to the bedroom, including, pleasingly, some poets’ biographies. Arts, crafts, history and music now have their own space in the extension, and cookery, gardening, and rural interest live in the kitchen.

Science, politics, philosophy, geography, and Scottish books are assigned to my husband’s study, while mine is reserved for writing reference and research books. Phew.

How Many Books Do I Really Need?

As the process required me to remove every book from its original position, I took the opportunity to reject any that didn’t “spark joy”, as Marie Kondo puts it. Incidentally, the Japanese decluttering guru believes no household needs more than 10 books, despite having written two herself. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and kept my copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying.

New Lives for Old Books

image of Teach Yourself Rapid Reading on the shelf
Now all I need to do is read them

I set aside some of the rejected books to replenish the Little Free Library on my front wall. (Books awaiting their turn out there are stored in the dining room.) The remaining ten bags full I donated to the Bookbarn* a warehouse near Wells stocking a million second-hand books for sale at bargain prices. The good news is that while delivering my donation, I bought only ten more books. I count that as a win.

Everything in its Place

Cover of shorthand edition of Sherlock Holmes book
I rediscovered forgotten curiosities such as this Sherlock Holmes book entirely in Pitman Shorthand

Every day now I gain so much satisfaction from gazing at my new-look bookshelves that I’m surprised it took me so long to get round to streamlining them. After all, I’m the sort of person who likes to have everything in its place. In my purse, for example, I make a point of sorting the banknotes in descending order of denomination, the right way up, and with the Queen facing me as I take them out to spend.

Not that sorting my banknotes takes very long, being far less numerous than my books. Do you think the two facts might be related?


*The Bookbarn gets a mention in Stranger at St Bride’s, as the source of a place to buy books by the metre for decorating pubs and the homes of the pretentious!

In the eighth book of my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Hector Munro, proprietor of the village bookshop, Hector’s House, will be starting a vintage department, using his vast personal collection of curious old books currently housed in the spare bedroom of his flat above the shop. I think my shorthand Sherlock Holmes book would be right at home there! 

Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

The Show Must Go On (Eventually)

cover of show schedule
The promise of the Village Show to come: the annual schedule

Anyone who has read my first Sophie Sayers novel, Best Murder in Show, will be familiar with the very English phenomenon of the annual Village Show.

At this action-packed event, locals display their home-grown fruit and vegetables, baking, handicrafts and sometimes livestock too. Often such shows include funfair rides, market stalls and organised entertainments in an outdoor arena.

A tea tent and a beer tent are always popular, and other catering options are likely to include a hog roast, a deer roast, a fish and chip van and ice-creams.

Hawkesbury’s Village Show

In the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton, where I’ve lived for nearly 30 years, the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, which takes place on the last Saturday of August, is generally acknowledged by villagers to be the social highlight of the year for all ages. The community is proud of the show’s credentials as the second-longest running of its kind in the country. Not even the First and Second World War managed to close it down.

Postponed until Next Year

So it was with great sadness last month that the Show Committee announced that the 2020 Village Show would have to be postponed until August 2021.

Postponed, please note, not cancelled, due to circumstances beyond our control – which means that our place in the record books will still stand.

The Village Show and Me

Over the years, I’ve been involved with the Village Show in many ways. Like most people in the village, we have submitted entries into the marquee for judging, winning prizes for all sorts of things. I’ve done particularly well in the knitting and crochet, but also once took the top prize for the oddest shaped vegetable!

inside pages of the show schedule
There are hundreds of categories you can enter in the Show, as these sample pages from the schedule demonstrate

 

photo of rosettes
Rosettes, proudly worn by show day winners, are kept for posterity and displayed at home year round

I’ve run stalls – for many years, a secondhand bookstall in aid of the village school’s PTA or youth club – and taken part in the carnival procession on floats and in groups on foot.

I’ve been the Queen of Hearts for an Alice in Wonderland team, with my husband as the White Rabbit and my daughter as Alice. I was the Chinese Ambassador in our family’s Pandamonium trailer, celebrating the arrival of Chinese pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. (My husband was the Scottish zookeeper in his kilt, my daughter, step-grandaughter and friends were pandas.) I’ve even been a St Trinian’s schoolgirl for one of the youth club floats. (I helped run the village youth club years ago.)

Photo of panda-themed float called Pandamonium
Our Chinese-themed entry for the carnival a few years ago (although every Show Day it’s pandemonium in our house)

A highlight for our family was when my daughter and her best friend were on the Carnival Queen‘s float, my daughter one of the attendants to her best friend, the queen. It was a historic day because for the first time the other attendant was a boy. It was the first year the random draw of the pupils in the top class of the village school included boys as well as girls. We’ve since had our first Carnival King.

The Man Who Knew His Onions

I also served on the Show Committee for 13 years. I didn’t realise it was that long until I resigned and was thanked for my long service. During that time, I was editor of its printed schedule, still produced today in the format that I designed. Show Committee meetings, which go on all year round, were always entertaining.

My favourite moment was a visit from the onion judge (all judges come from beyond the village, in the interests of fairness), who proudly showed us his onion rings – no, not the edible kind, but a shiny set of brass hoops used to gauge the precise dimension of each entry in his class. His father had used them before him, and possibly his grandfather too.

For the last few years, I’ve run a pop-up lit fest with a few guest authors promoting the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, which takes place in April. The visiting authors have even volunteered as carnival judges.

photo of lit fest marquee
A A Abbott, one of the authors at the pop-up lit fest, kindly provided this photo featuring Lucienne and Gerard Boyce, now regular carnival judges

Bittersweet Connections

There are also poignant memories. My first husband, John Green, adored the show and carried off prizes for his home-made wine. He once took first prize for a bottle of potato wine that had earned second prize the year before. When he died in 2000, I donated the John Green Cup in his memory for best home-made wine. Seeing it awarded each year is a bittersweet moment.

I also arranged for a memorial trophy to be presented in memory of my friend Lyn Atherton, an early green campaigner who co-launched Hawkesbury’s recycling schemes. At the request of her widower, Clive, I sought out a secondhand trophy to be recycled into the Lyn Atheron Cup for a Useful Object Made from Recycled Materials. I found just the thing on my summer holiday in a curiosity shop in a tiny Scottish seaside town. When I told Clive where we’d got it from, he was astounded – that seaside town happened to be the site of their first ever holiday together. He had fond memories of barbecuing sausages on the beach there with Lyn, washing off the sand in the sea.

My second husband, Gordon, is the proud winner of the Lyn Atherton Cup, and my aunt and my father have also won this cup.

photo of wooden bench with trophy
The garden seat nade frin old pallets which won my husband the Lyn Atherton Cup last year

Eerily Quiet August

Every August, as the start of the Show week, seeing the bunting go up, crisscrossing the High Street, and hearing the rumbling of the funfair rides arriving in the village gets everyone excited as we put the finishing touches to our carnival floats and show entries. This year, the last week of August will seem strangely quiet, as it will in all the showgrounds around the country as Covid-19 makes such crowded events too high risk.

cover of Best Murder in Show
First in my Sophie Sayers series, set in high summer, was inspired by Hawkesbury’s annual show

In the meantime, if you’d like a flavour of a traditional English village show like ours, there’s always Best Murder in Show, which from now until after what would have been Show Day will be reduced to just 99p for the ebook, and there’ll be £1 off the paperback. It’s also now available as an audiobook at various prices on various platforms – currently a bargain at just £2.99 on Amazon’s Audible.

Buy the ebook online herebuy the paperback online here or order it from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223139, and buy the audiobook from Audible here or from your favourite audiobook online store.