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.

Posted in Personal life, Writing

What’s in a Name, Mr Weed?

Nominative determinism – the theory that we grow into our names – has always fascinated me, perhaps because I feel I’ve been touched by it myself.

photo of two brass bees by a computer keyboard
Brass bee mascots on my writing desk

Deborah is Hebrew for bee. I’m definitely a busy bee and have adopted bees as my mascot. Two large brass bees live on my desk, keeping me company as I write.

I realised long ago that I could no more marry someone with a repellent surname than I could live in a village with an ugly address. The charming name “Hawkesbury Upton” first drew me to the village where I’ve now lived for nearly 30 years. (Read about that episode here.)

I decided I could do a lot worse than be forever Young.

Always on the look-out for other examples of nominative determinism, I’ve found the world of gardening fruitful. My favourites include Bob Flowerdew and Pippa Greenwood, both regulars on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time. When the late Clay Jones was chairman, I was doing battle with a garden with a clay-based soil.

And today I came across a new addition to my list. Just appointed President of the Royal Horticultural Society is one Keith Weed. As a bonus, his mother’s maiden name was Hedges.

After a lifetime of being teased about his name by anyone old enough to remember Little Weed in The Flowerpot Men, Keith Weed’s appointment to a role in which his name will be positively celebrated must feel like a homecoming.

If you’re thinking a weed is bad news in horticulture, let me tell you my favourite gardening saying: “a weed is just a flower growing where you don’t want it”.

I can’t help wondering what has become of Keith Weed’s predecessor, Sir Nicholas Bacon. I’m rather hoping he’s gone to work for the Pork Marketing Board.

black and white still of Bill and Ben and Little Weed
“Weeeeed” was the only word that Little Weed could say to Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men ( Source: Wikimedia – click for details)

I have great fun choosing the names for the characters in my novels. If you’d like to know how the central characters in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series got their names, you may enjoy the following posts from my archive. 

Who Is Sophie Sayers Anyway?

Why I Named the Leading Male Character in “Best Murder in Show” Hector Munro

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Kitten Therapy

During the early part of lockdown, the Tetbury Advertiser furloughed itself for a couple of issues (May and June). With content that is events-led, reporting on recent events and anticipating imminent ones, it seemed a sensible step. However, it’s good to see it return for its summer issue (a joint July/August edition, for which I wrote this piece about our new kittens, acquired just before we began to self-isolate. As ever, you can read the whole issue online – here’s the link for the July/August edition

(I also wrote about kittens for the June issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, and I posted that article on my blog here last month- so apologies if this sounds familiar!)

There’s nothing like the acquisition of kittens to lift the spirits, and ours couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

We arranged in February with the Stroud Cats’ Protection League to adopt a pair of boys as soon as they were old enough to leave their mother. This took us to Saturday 21st March, a pleasingly auspicious date on two counts: the first day of spring and my parents’ anniversary (67 years and counting).

Silver Linings

Back in February, little did we know that collecting the kittens from the kindly foster-carer would be our last family outing before lockdown. Ever the optimist, I soon realised that enforced confinement at home would give us the best chance of bonding with our new arrivals, especially for our daughter, who would otherwise have been at school all day.

photo of Bertie with his head in a mug of tea
The kittens share many of our simple domestic pleasures. Bertie is especially enjoys fishing for teabags.

Once home, inspecting the adoption papers revealed another good omen: the kittens had been born on my birthday. This happened also to be the date our senior cat, Dorothy, a former stray, adopted us seven years ago. We called her Dorothy after the character in the Wizard of Oz who finds herself unexpectedly far from home. We named Bertie and Bingo, both boys, after the skittish, privileged and generally irresponsible young men in PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories.

Dorothy, my personal assistant at my writing desk – where the kittens are not allowed, for fear of the ensuing chaos

Bertie and Bingo, after spending the first nine weeks of their lives in a pen (albeit an ample one), were initially content to keep to one room in our house. Since my husband built his room a couple of years ago, we had, with a singular lack of imagination, referred to it simply as “the extension”. Now I think of it as The Drones’ Club, which is where Bertie Wooster and chums take their meals in the Jeeves novels, often leaving chaos in their wake.

Advised to keep the kittens indoors for a couple of weeks, we eventually let them into our enclosed garden. We kept them on tiny harnesses to slow them down until they’d got their bearings. Bertie and Bingo do everything at high speed, unlike our senior cat, Dorothy, who lopes around languidly like the Pink Panther.

kittens curled up asleep in base of plant pot
In their early days, the kittens moved so fast it was hard to get a photo that was not blurred – until they were asleep.

Off the Leash

After a few days we allowed them to roam at will, gradually expanding their territory and surprising us with their feats of athleticism. They share a talent for scaling vertical walls with the power and grace of Spiderman. Bingo has proven a dab paw at swingball, which he sees as a scaled-up version of their scratching post, which happens to be topped by a ball on a string. Bertie prefers the trampoline, climbing to the top of the netting surround with ease.

photo of kitten in tree
Bingo and Bertie both love to climb the fruit trees in our cottage garden

It’s only when one of the kittens tries to squeeze into the cardboard box that used to be big enough for both of them that we realise how much they have grown. I haven’t yet dared step on the bathroom scales to see whether lockdown has had the same effect on me.

(The next issue of the Tetbury Advertiser will be out in September, as they also publish a double issue for July/August.)


Cats and Kittens in my Stories…

cover of Stranger at St Bride's
Spot the cat! McPhee appears on the cover of both my St Bride’s novels

As a cat lover, it’s perhaps inevitable that cats and kittens feature in my novels, often serving to move the plot along and adding new dimensions to the characters.

In Springtime for Murder, the fifth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Sophie acquires a kitten, while investigating the strange goings-on at the Manor House, where Bunny Carter, a sparky elderly lady, lives with a houseful of cats and her cat-averse daughter.
(Buying links: buy the ebook online herebuy the paperback online here, or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN  978-1911223344.)

In Stranger at St Bride’s, the first in my St Bride’s School series, McPhee, the headmistress’s cat and constant companion, joins forces with Gemma to try to drive away the unwelcome stranger, with comical results.
(Buying links: Buy the ebook online, buy the paperback online  or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 979 19 11 223 597.)

(I’ve just realised that in both cases the cats are black – I suppose that’s what comes of writing mystery stories!)

 

 

 

Posted in Personal life

Off the Garden Wall

nest of three glass dishesIn my column for the July issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I addressed an ancient form of rural trading: the use of your front cottage garden wall as an impromptu shop counter. It’s a common sight in the English countryside to see home-grown produce sold this way, especially in times of summer surplus,with payment made via an honesty box. Where I live in the Cotswolds, and I’m sure in other rural regions all around the UK, lockdown has triggered a new twist on garden-wall trading – the free distribution of unwanted household goods.


Social media posts saying “It’s on my front wall” have become commonplace during lockdown.

As we declutter our houses, the front wall has been the closest we can get to a charity shop drop-off. This method has the added bonus of feedback. I was gratified to hear from a local boy’s mother how thrilled he was at the progress of the mint plant he’d adopted from me.

The prospect of free gifts in someone else’s front garden lured me out for my first village stroll after twelve weeks of shielding. I returned home with abundant bounty:

the perfect pot in which to store my kitchen knives

a small vase just right for the pinks I’m currently cutting every day

small pottery vase of pinks

a set of pressed glass dishes the colour of rosé wine that makes me smile every time I see them

trio of pink pressed glass bowls

and a planter just like the one I used to admire as a small child at infants’ school. (The less useful a memory, the better my recall.)

china planter with succulents

But the pleasure lies deeper than in the initial frisson of acquisition. What makes such trophies special is knowing the circumstances in which they have been given.

Antique dealers set great store by “provenance” – the record of an item’s ownership to show it’s genuine and honestly come by. The provenance of “off the wall” items is precious in a different way. Such things are being gifted, often to strangers, in a spirit of generosity fuelled by the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves.

To me these items will always be souvenirs not of Covid-19 but of the kindness of neighbours and of their propensity to offer solace in a time of crisis.

I hope such exchanges continue long after lockdown is over. I for one intend to keep putting surplus items on my front garden wall, weather permitting. With the triffid-like growth of the mint in my garden, I should have plenty to go around.


Village Trading in Wendlebury Barrow

I haven’t yet used this idea in my village mystery series. In the fictitious village of Wendlebury Barrow, all shopping scenes take place either in Carol Barker’s village shop, where she stocks goods in alphabetical order to make them easier to find, and Hector’s House, the bookshop and tearoom where Sophie Sayers works. But I’m adding it to my ideas book for future use.

There must be a good mystery plot hinging on the mysterious appearance and disappearance of various goods on Sophie’s front wall!

Best Murder in Show against backdrop of Cotswold cottages

If you’ve not yet encountered Sophie Sayers, you might like to know that the sixth book, Murder Your Darlings, was launched at the end of February, and I’m currently planning the plot for the seventh, Murder Lost and Found.