Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: Pippi Longstocking – with Guest Author Helena Halme

The second in my occasional series of guest posts by author friends who love school stories

When I launched Secrets at St Bride’s, the first in my new series of school stories for grown-ups, (the story revolves around the staff rather than the pupils), I began to realise just how many of my author friends also loved school stories like I did! I’m therefore inviting them to share on my blog their enthusiasm for their favourite school story.

I’ve also pledged to read any that they nominate that are new to me. You might like to read along with us.

First up was Jean Gill, talking about Anne of Green Gables (click here to read her interview).

Now it’s the turn of Finnish romantic novelist Helena Halme, who nominated the Swedish classic Pippi Longstocking series by Astrid Lindgren – one of my own childhood favourites.

Pippi Longstocking at St Bride’s

Funnily enough, Pippi makes an appearance in Secrets at St Bride’s as a favourite bedtime story of the youngest girls in the school, as in the following extract.

Cover image of Secrets at St Bride's

FROM CHAPTER 21 – STORY TIME

“What are you going to read to us tonight, Miss?” asked Tilly from the bed in the far corner, busy plaiting her long dark hair, presumably to keep it tangle-free overnight. 

That took me by surprise. “Me? Now? Read to you?”

“Miss Bliss always reads to us for fifteen minutes.”

I wondered why Oriana hadn’t included that in my briefing. Were they having me on?

“Really? What does she read?”

The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking,” they chorused, clearly relishing the name.

“Aren’t you-?” I was about to say “too old for these stories,” which I remembered enjoying back in priarmy schol. But as I clocked their eager, hopeful faces, soft in the low light cast from their bedside lamps, I realised the connection: they shared the motherless Pippi’s vulnerability. Seeing her sea-captain father only at rare intervals she claimed complete self-reliance and gloried in her independence, although her more conventional friends suspected her of making up her madcap adventures to hide her loneliness.

“Pippi Longstocking it is, then,” I beamed, gratefully accepting the big green hardback that Imogen held out to me.

Meet Helena Halme – and Pippi Longstocking!

headshot of Helena Halme
Meet Helena Halme, Finnish novelist and Pippi Longstocking fan

Now over to Helena Halme to explain her love of Pippi Longstocking!

Helena is a prize-winning author, former BBC journalist, bookseller and magazine editor. She holds an MSc in Marketing and an MA in Creative Writing. Full-time author and self-publishing coach, Helena also acts as Nordic Ambassador for The Alliance of Independent Authors and has published ten Nordic fiction titles and two non-fiction books. Apart from writing stories set in her native Finland, Helena is addicted to Nordic Noir and dances to Abba songs when nobody’s watching. 

You can find more about Helena and her books on her website at www.helenahalme.com, and connect with her vial her favourite social media: Facebook (@HelenaHalmeAuthor/), Twitter (@helenahalme) and Instagram (@helenahalme)

Hi Helena, welcome to my blog, and I’m so pleased to have you here to share your love of Astrid Lindgren’s legendary creation, Pippi Longstocking! Can you please kick off with a brief description of her books?

The latest edition in the UK features endearing illustrations by Lauren Child

Pippi Longstocking is a girl with upturned plaits the colour of fire. She lives on her own in a large wooden house with a pet monkey and a white black-spotted horse and never wants to grow up. Pippi is superhumanly strong and can lift her horse one-handed, but she’s also playful and unpredictable. She dislikes unreasonable adults and often makes fun of them or plays tricks on them, especially if they are unfair or pompous. Her father is a swashbuckling pirate captain and she tells endless adventure stories about him. Whether all of them are strictly true is another matter… Her four best friends are her horse and monkey, and the neighbours’ children, Tommy and Annika.

How old were you when you first read Pippi’s adventures?

I was seven when I was first introduced to the crazy world of Pippi and her friends. Pippi’s unconventional, unruly, and exciting life was in such stark contrast to anything I had ever experienced that I was immediately hooked. Although with a good heart, Pippi had a wicked side to her and often exposed grown-ups, particularly teachers, for their double-standards. The books tell Pippi’s story through the eyes of her two best friends, Annika and Tommy, who were ‘normal’ children, with a mum and dad at home.

How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?

Reading Pippi Longstocking later has made me realize how the book reflected social changes in Swedish society at the time. The books were published in 1945, with a hugely popular TV series 1969, which sealed the success of the Pippi stories. I believe that the books reflect the post-war era when the Western world craved freedom and looked toward higher moral values such as peace, humanity and even feminism, all of which are reflected in the Pippi Longstocking books.

What did you particularly like about this series and about the author? Was there anything you disliked?

I just adored the unruliness of Pippi’s life, especially as underneath it, there was often a message about right and wrong. The fight against authority to protect the weak is a ‘red thread’ running through all the books, and that really appealed to me.

I, as did many of those who read the books in Sweden, was later made uncomfortable by some of the racially offensive language used in some of Pippi books, such as Pippi in the South Seas. I believe the text has been changed in later editions.

Which character did you identify with?

In the Pippi books, I identified with Annika, who was the ‘goody two shoes’ to Pippi’s mad and Tommy’s more boisterous character. Annika would often vote against some hair-brained scheme that Pippi came up with, while Tommy was the first to agree to it. I would have liked to have been like Pippi, but knew that it just wasn’t me. However, Annika, who (mostly) followed the rules and was praised by teachers (like me) would have done anything even if it meant rebelling against authority to protect her friend. I hoped I might also behave in a similar way if called upon to do so.

How did Pippi Longstocking affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

Reading the Pippi books gave me a huge amount of confidence. Although at the time, my parents were still married, they were constantly fighting, and reading about this girl who could live on her own, supported by her friends, gave me comfort. Although I wouldn’t be able to lift a horse or stand up to my teachers if they were being unfair, it was nice to daydream! Besides, Annika didn’t have those powers, but she was best friends with a girl who did.

How reading Pippi Longstocking affect your writing?

Astrid Lindgren is, first and foremost, a storyteller. The Pippi books started off as bedtime stories she told her own daughter when ill and having to stay at home from school. Her books made me dream about being able to write, to entertain readers and also to convey a message through the stories. The Pippi Longstocking books also made me understand that there is no such thing as a story that is too fantastical!

What type of school did you go to yourself?

What type of school didn’t I go to? Mainly due to my dad’s job (he was a telecoms engineer), as well as because of the on-off break-up of my parents’ marriage, we moved a lot while I was growing up. Between the ages of eleven and sixteen, I went to five different schools. That’s a school per year.

My first years were spent in a lovely primary school in Tampere in Finland, where everyone respected the teachers and my big sister was with me. Next, we moved to Stockholm to a large secondary school where the teacher was bullied and sometimes physically abused by the pupils. This was the worst school I’ve ever attended. I cannot tell you the number of times I saw the teacher cry at the end of the lesson when the pupils piled out of class. How I wished I’d have the physical and mental abilities Pippi possessed to deal with the bullies!

The next school in Stockholm was the polar opposite of the first one. A small class of just 15 pupils, I was encouraged to pursue my artistic side by our wonderful teacher. Tall, blonde and blue-eyed, every girl in my class had a crush on Johan Johansson!

Back in Finland, schools were very much the same as my primary school in Tampere. Disciplined, academic and pressurized, I thrived because I was quite good at learning. And by that stage, I’d acquired a new language: Swedish, something which helped.

Were your friends also Pippi fans, or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?

Everyone loved Pippi Longstocking! I remember once when I was eight, a friend was having a fancy dress party for her birthday. No less than five freckled-faced Pippis, including me, turned up. They must have sold out of red wigs in the local shop…

Would the Pippi Longstocking stories still resonate with young readers today?

I absolutely think that Pippi Longstocking will still appeal to today’s children. I certainly intend to introduce the rebellious, strong and fair-minded redhead Pippi to my granddaughter when she’s old enough. Pippi’s belief in her own strength, moral judgement and refusal to follow conventions is perfect for today’s world!

Like to try one of Helena Halme’s books for free? Download the free ebook of the first in her compelling Nordic Heart series of romantic novels. Click the image to find out more.

Connect with Helena Halme

You can find more about Helena and her books on her website at www.helenahalme.com, and connect with her vial her favourite social media: Facebook (@HelenaHalmeAuthor/), Twitter (@helenahalme) and Instagram (@helenahalme)


Cover image of Secrets at St Bride's
My own take on school stories – one for the grown-ups!

PS If you’re wondering what the girls at St Bride’s make of Miss Lamb’s rendition of Pippi, here’s what happens next:

As I read, the girls gradually clicked off their bedside lights, until I was conscious of sitting in a dark room, the only lamp still illuminated focused on Pippi. Halfway through the second chapter, I glanced around to check how many of the girls were asleep and realised that while I had been reading they had all styled their hair into two plaits, which they’d arranged at right angles to their heads, draped across the pillows as they lay down. Each had closed her eyes, slight chests gently rising and falling in the comfortable rhythm of sleep. Perhaps they were all Pippi Longstocking in their dreams, reliving the chapter in which her father returned home from sea.

Secrets at St Bride’s is now available both as a paperback and an ebook.

  • Order the ebook online from your favourite eretailer here.
  • Order the paperback from your favourite bookshop quoting ISBN 978 1911 223 436, or online from Amazon.
Posted in Events, Reading, Writing

Back to School for a World Book Day Reading Competition

Every day last week I had the pleasure of spending some time at Westonbirt School, talking to English classes in Years 7, 8 and 9 (11-14 year olds), sharing insights into an author’s life and writing advice that I wish I’d been given at their age.

World Book Day logo 2020On the Thursday, for World Book Day, I returned in the evening to co-judge the school’s annual inter-house reading competition, alongside the award-winning poet Shirley Wright and two sixth-form pupils. We judged the pupils’ readings were on four criteria: clarity, confidence, choice of passage and overall performance. The overall standard was really high, and, in the stunning setting of the school’s Grade 1 listed library, being a judge was a very enjoyable experience.

Congratulations to all those pupils who performed, and to the English department, so ably led by Miss Sheehan, for staging such a streamlined and impressive evening of entertainment.

But before the readings began, I had to give a small performance of my own: a brief motivational speech to all those taking part. In case you’re interested, here’s the transcript.

My Address to the Readers

People often assume that being a professional writer is a lonely business, spent in isolation. But as I’ve been explaining in these classes, the writer’s life is all about collaboration. It’s team work. Editors, proof-readers and cover designers help turn my manuscripts into books, before the books are sent out into the world.

Reaching readers is by far the most important stage in any book’s journey, because a book’s success stands or falls by what its readers make of it. Every reader interprets the writer’s intention in their own way. Furthermore, the same reader, reading the same book at different times in their life, may find it a completely different experience.  Books you love now may leave you cold when you get to my age. On the other hand, in later life you may find you love books that you struggled to enjoy at school.

Those who read books aloud to entertain others add another layer of interest to a writer’s words.

In the audiobook publishing world, these people are called voice artists. Good voice artists add value and interest to a book and inject it with their own personality. They also make the process look easy. But even when you know a text really well, reading it aloud is hard work, as I know from my own experience. At the launch of my first novel, performing an extract from Best Murder in Show, instead of reading about “Rex’s elegant girlfriend”, I managed to call her “Rex’s elephant girlfriend”. That’s quite a different thing and an error I’ll never forget. (Click here to witness my gaffe!)

Using your voice to engage an audience is a valuable life-skill in any setting. If you apply the skills demonstrated in this competition in other settings, such as the classroom, the boardroom or in government, you can change lives and may even change the world.

Last Friday, in the rain and the mud in Bristol, Greta Thunberg spoke for just four minutes. Her immaculate delivery of  her succinct and perfectly polished script moved not only the tens of thousands on College Green, my own daughter among them – but, thanks to the internet, her voice resonated around the world, mobilising millions to support her cause – including you, here, at Westonbirt School, as you watched her speech streamed live in the Great Hall. (Watch her speech on Youtube here.)

Those of you who are reading to us tonight may be reading words written by someone else, but in years to come, when you use the power of the spoken of word to deliver your own messages, we may find ourselves as mesmerised by you as we were by Greta.

You have already proven your exceptional skills by being chosen to represent your houses in school-wide heats. No matter who wins this competition tonight, your houses should be proud of you all and you should be proud of yourselves.

Now let the stories begin.


Cover image of Secrets at St Bride's
My own take on school stories – one for the grown-ups!

The Story Behind the Story

My time spent working at Westonbirt School (1997-2010) was the inspiration for my new St Bride’s School series, which begins with Secrets at St Bride’s. However, the situation, the plot and the characters are completely made up!

To read the first chapter for free and to find out more about this jolly romp of a novel, click here

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: Anne of Green Gables – with Guest Author Jean Gill

photo of hardback of Anne of Green Gables as part of a set of children's classics
My copy of “Anne of Green Gables” had been gathering dust unread on my shelf, until Jean Gill alerted me to the joys of this classic children’s novel

There can’t be many people who didn’t love a school story of some kind when they were growing up.

Cover image of Secrets at St Bride's
My own take on school stories – one for the grown-ups!

That’s one reason I decided last year to write a new series set in a classic English girls’ boarding school, St Bride’s. My series gives an old premise a new twist: it’s a school story for grown-ups, revolving around the intrigues among the staff, including the headmistress, commonly known as Hairnet, the teaching staff, including newcomer and narrator Gemma Lamb, and the support staff including Max Security, trying to keep everyone safe from harm.

Talking about it among friends, I soon became aware that I was not the only adult to still care passionately about school stories aimed at children.

Among the keepers still on my bookshelf are:

  • Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings and Darbyshire series, which I loved for their laugh-out-loud humour
  • Classic girls’ boarding school tales, such as the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer and Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books
  • Richmal Crompton’s “Just William”, whose antics were originally intended for an adult audience

Fascinated to know which school stories some of my author friends most enjoyed, I’ve now decided to start a new monthly blog series in which a guest author shares their favourite. I’m pledging also to read the books they recommend – although I’m sure I’ll already be familiar with some of them. You might like to read along with us.

Jean Gill’s Choice: Anne of Green Gables

photo of Jean Gill with book and dog
Author Jean Gill with her vintage copy of “Anne of Green Gables”, guarded by her dog Watson!

Kicking off the series is Jean Gill, who has written a huge array of books across a multitude of genres. Jean is an award-winning writer and photographer who lives in the south of France with two scruffy dogs, a beehive named Endeavour, a Nikon D750 and a man.

Jean’s choice is a book I confess I’d never read before: Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery. First published in 1908, this Canadian novel is now considered a world-class  classic for readers of all ages. Over to Jean to describe what makes it so special for her…

Hi Jean, it’s a pleasure to have you as the first ever guest in this new series, and I was captivated by your choice when I read it. Such a beautiful natural world conjured up there, in a stunning corner of rural Canada, and I enjoyed that as much as I did Anne’s blossoming under the care of her adoptive family. How old were you when you first read it, and how often have you read it since?

My aunt, who lived in Canada sent it to me as a Christmas present when I was eight years old. I read it two or three times when a child and revisited it thanks to the recent television series.

How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?

When I was a child, I accepted Anne’s world as it wasn’t so very different from the one I knew in its sexism, physical punishment, demands that children be seen and not heard, that they work to earn their keep and should think themselves lucky if they were adopted after being orphaned. Later on, I was horrified by the adults’ behaviour and by the social norms but still recognised them in the historical context.

What did you particularly like about this book and about the author – and was there anything you disliked?

I love the misfit heroine, a ‘swotty girl’ if ever there was one, who lives and loves with passion, fired by her own imagination, a rule-breaker whenever the rules are wrong. What makes the book timeless is that Anne wins hearts while staying true to herself. The phrase ‘kindred spirits’ stays with me still and, like Anne, I’ve found kindred spirits to treasure, sometimes across the potential divides of age and culture. The development of Anne’s relationship with her new parents is beautiful, without being mawkish, and Montgomery portrays so well the change brought to their suffocating lives by this child.

And who couldn’t love Gilbert Blythe? – competition in the classroom and temptation outside of it, even though Anne knows love is bad for a girl’s high aims in life. That is another element which makes this book amazing for its time – falling in love is not the be-all and end-all for a girl. There is more to life!

The answer’s is probably obvious already, but which character did you identify with?

Anne, without a doubt!

The books that we love when are young often leave a lasting impact on us as we grow up. How did Anne of Green Gables affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

The criticism ‘too much imagination’ was shown to be ridiculous. Imagination is Anne’s superpower as it was – and I hope still is – mine.

It was one of many books that allowed me to develop a sense of self that did not fit into all those rules about what I was supposed to do and be. Unlike Anne, I had a lot of self-control, and it was very satisfying to lose my temper vicariously through Anne’s fiery responses to life’s injustices. I too suffered from a permanent sense of unfairness, and the way Anne is blamed in school and at home for other people’s wrong-doing or for well-intentioned disasters hit exactly the spot where I felt wounded.

I remember being spanked when I was seven because early one morning I’d let out into the garden a dog we were looking after and he barked. I still don’t understand why (possibly) waking the neighbours was a hitting offence – and we were very rarely spanked, so my father must have felt strongly that this was an act of serious disobedience.

That was very much an Anne-type action and consequence, within a world that made no sense. I still react strongly to the unfairness of Anne being punished for acts of empathy and for rule-breaking.

How did it affect your writing?

I like breaking rules 😊

Anne goes to a small rural school in which all the ages are together in one schoolroom, and her ambition is to become a teacher. How did your own education compare to hers?

Mostly army schools. My father was a soldier, so the longest we stayed in any one place was two years. Sometimes we moved after only six months. I went to one school for only four months, so each time I had to start again, trying to make friends, following a different curriculum. I was taught the Tudors eight times, and at one time shifted for a few months to a school that taught Maths via Cuisenaire rods – all very confusing and lonely. I was told off by teachers for holding my pen wrongly and being too advanced a reader – and for dumb insolence 😊 So inevitably, like Anne, I became a teacher and I like to think I looked out for the misfits.

My older sister went to boarding school, and we’ve compared notes on our very different schooldays. I think Secrets at St Bride’s would make her smile and reminisce!

Were your friends also fans of Anne,  or did you feel that this was your own private world?

I don’t remember talking about the world of books in which I spent most of my time, when I was eight but later, from eleven onwards, I definitely shared book recommendations with friends. A friend who met me at eleven remembers us being the only ones allowed to read the top shelf books (Dickens was up there).

Do you think Anne of Green Gables would still resonate with young readers today?

I think so and I’ve found out that Anne is big in Japan! The television series has highlighted the books again and the French translator for my books. Laure Valentin, has translated Anne of Green Gables into French – another example of kindred spirit serendipity!

BANNER AD for Jean Gill's eco-fantasy novel

I like to think that Anne of Green Gables would enjoy Jean Gill’s latest eco-fantasy novel, Queen of the Warrior Bees, in which a teenaged girl who doesn’t fit in with her peers finds her true purpose in working with nature to save their world – by shape-shifting into a bee! 

Click here to find out more about Queen of the Warrior Bees and to buy a copy. 

To find out more about Jean Gill and her wide-ranging work as an author and photographer, visit her website: www.jeangill.com.

COMING SOON:

  • Helena Halme on The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (February)
  • Clare Flynn on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie  by Muriel Spark (March)
  • Helen Hollick on Riding School stories by Ruby Ferguson (April)
  • Madeleine D’Este on The O’Sullivan Twins series by Enid Blyton (May)
  • Julie Cordiner on The Chalet School by Elinor Brent-Dyer (June)
  • Linda Gillard on Molesworth by Ronald Searle (date tba)

DON’T MISS OUT!

To make sure you don’t miss a post, subscribe to my blog, and then you’ll receive every new post in your inbox. (Click the “Follow” button towards the bottom of the sidebar to the right of this post.)

And if you meantime you’d like to read the first two chapters of Secrets of St Bride’s for free, click here and scroll down to find the opening. 

 

Posted in Events, Reading, Writing

Just for You: A New Christmas Short Story featuring Sophie Sayers – and It’s Free to Read Here!

As my Christmas present to you, here is a new free short story, available to read right here on my website, set in the world of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries. It’s not a murder mystery, just a bit of feel-good fun that will transport you straight into Hector’s House, the Wendlebury Barrow village bookshop, as Sophie and friends get ready for the festive season.

I originally wrote this story at the request of Helen Hollick, to feature on her blog this month as part of her fun series of stories inspired by songs. To read the rest of the stories in her series, with a new tale by a different author every day in December, visit her Discovered Diamonds blog here. And here’s the link to where my story appeared there on 20th December. 

 

 

IT DOESN’T FEEL LIKE CHRISTMAS

Hector’s House, the village bookshop at the heart of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries (Illustration by Thomas Shepherd at http://www.shepline.com)

“It doesn’t feel the least bit like Christmas,” I complained to Hector as I added another couple of books to our window display of festive gift ideas. The sky was a pure, clear forget-me-not blue, the air was still, and the sun beamed down fit to melt the fake snow on the inside of the glass.

“Just think of it as a green Christmas rather than a white one,” replied Hector, closing the door behind a departing customer. “After all, we’re giving a new lease of life to all that packaging material.”

Whenever either of us had a moment, we’d uncrumple the kraft paper that came wedged into our suppliers’ boxes to stop books getting damaged in transit and iron it on the stockroom table. Then we cut it into A2 sheets to make it more manageable and put them at the centre of the children’s play table in the bookshop’s tea room, alongside Christmas stencils and coloured felt tip pens. Hey presto – environmentally-friendly Christmas gift-wrap! Complimentary gift-wrapping of all books purchased in Advent encouraged locals to do their Christmas shopping at Hector’s House rather than in town or online.

“That’s child labour, that is,” declared Tommy, breezing in through the door as I stepped back from the shop window.

Although local teenager Tommy is a regular visitor to the bookshop, he comes not for the books but for the company. More often than not, he tries to blag a free milkshake. Occasionally, when flush from helping old Billy with odd jobs, he actually pays for one. We’d seen more of Tommy than usual this week, after their lucrative double-act hawking wheelbarrows of holly, ivy and mistletoe around the village.

Tommy sat down on one of the child-sized chairs at the play table opposite his little sister Sina. His gangly legs ranged either side of the table like a young giraffe’s.

“How much are they paying you to do that, Sina?”

He jabbed a grubby finger at her orderly rows of holly leaves. I thought he might put her off, but she was not so easily deterred, continuing to loop her green felt pen along the edge of the stencil.

“Nothing, and I don’t care, because it’s fun. Actually, I think we’re lucky Hector’s not charging us to do it.”

Hector cleared his throat.

“And it’s helping a good cause, Tommy. Two good causes, in fact: the environment, by finding a good use for paper that would otherwise go for recycling, and the church’s Christmas appeal.”

When Tommy looked dubious, I explained.

“Hector’s donating the amount he’d usually spend on gift wrap to the charity’s Christmas appeal.”

“And very grateful we are too,” said the vicar, emerging from the non-fiction section with a couple of hardbacks. He set them down on the trade counter and took out his wallet to pay Hector. “It’s astonishing how many people forget to bring money for the Christmas service collections, or who find themselves short of cash once they’ve all finished their Christmas shopping. Priorities, my dears, priorities…”

While Hector gift-wrapped each book, the vicar took a seat at one of the tearoom tables.

“Cappuccino, please, Sophie. I think I’ve earned it after hosting the village school’s visit to the church this afternoon.”

Sina laid down her green pen and beamed at the vicar.

“Yes, that was fun, especially getting a chocolate decoration each off the Christmas tree.”

Tommy pulled a sheet of paper towards him and picked up a black pen and a snowman stencil.

“You lucky duck! We never do anything like that at my school.”

Tommy had long since left the village primary school and now attended the nearest secondary school a few miles away.

“Chocolate wasn’t the prime purpose of the visit,” said the vicar. “I invited the children for a sneak preview of our crib.”

Each year, the vicar brings out an ancient set of china figurines to recreate the Bethlehem nativity scene. There’s also a charming model stable, lovingly crafted in elm by some parishioner long since departed to the churchyard.

He’s not daft, the vicar. Inviting the schoolchildren to view the crib is an effective way of enticing whole families to come to his Advent and Christmas services, persuaded by their children’s delight in the traditional tableau.

Sina folded her arms.

“Yes, but it was a con, because the baby Jesus wasn’t even there.”

Tommy drew a fierce expression on his first snowman, making it look like a chubby Halloween ghost. For a moment I thought he’d added two noses by mistake, then I realised they were fangs.

“Maybe today was the baby Jesus’s day for playgroup.”

He glanced up to check Sina’s reaction to his joke. Her expression was stern.

I hoped a young visitor hadn’t pocketed the baby Jesus during the school visit. I could understand the temptation. There may have been no room for him at the inn, but he’d fit perfectly in a Sylvanian Family playhouse.

The vicar sighed.

“The thing is, Sina, Jesus isn’t born until Christmas Day, so we don’t add him to the crib till then. Come to the morning service on the twenty-fifth and you’ll see him then.”

I was ashamed to have forgotten that detail, despite having been a Sunday School teacher since Easter.

As I set the vicar’s coffee on his table, Sina raised a forefinger to herald a bright idea.

“Why don’t you just put his scan picture in the crib in the meantime? That’s what people do who can’t wait to see their real baby. My auntie had a scan picture of her baby in a frame on the mantlepiece for months before it was born.”

“Who’s just been born?” asked Billy, entering the shop for the second time that day. “Christmas babies always follow a good spring.”

“The baby Jesus,” replied Sina. “Only he hasn’t been born yet. That’s the trouble.”

“You’re two thousand years behind the times, girlie,” said Billy, touching his cap to the vicar. “Don’t that pesky internet teach you anything useful?”

“Coffee, Billy?” asked the vicar.

“That’s very kind of you, vicar, but I’m here on a mission.”

“That should be your line, shouldn’t it, vicar?” said Hector, as he opened the till and tipped a bag of pound coins into the cash drawer. “What are you after, Billy?”

Billy untied his scarf. I was pleased to see he was wearing the one I’d made for him during the recent village craze for knitting.

“I’m after the right book for my old cousin Maurice.”

Hector had heard tales of Maurice before. “You mean the one you haven’t seen for twenty years?”

“Aye, that’s the one.” He wagged a finger at Hector. “You know I’ve been buying him a book here every Christmas, ever since you opened this shop of yours. So don’t you go implying I’m neglecting him. I wouldn’t do that, not with so few of my family left alive, God bless ‘em.”

Like Tommy, Billy rarely buys a book, treating Hector’s House like a social hub rather than a purveyor of fine reading materials. But that’s okay. The best bookshops are much more than the means of buying a book – they are at the heart of the community. That’s one of the reasons I love working here. Well, that and Hector. Soon after I started working here, Hector became my boyfriend as well as my boss.

Hector came out from behind the trade counter, rubbing his hands together.

“So, what’s it to be this year, Billy? If I remember rightly, last year it was a collection of nature notes for every day of the year. Lovely woodcut illustrations, I recall.”

“Yes, and what a fine idea of yours that was. If Maurice has been using it properly, he’ll have read a little bit each day and that’ll have made him think of me all year round.” Billy lifted his cap to scratch his head. “But I don’t know about this year, Hector. What can I give him?”

“Poor as I am,” returned the vicar, quick as a flash.

I smiled at the reference to my favourite Christmas carol, which I’ve loved since I first learned it at primary school.

Hector consulted the non-fiction shelves for a few moments, then pulled out an astronomy guide with a map of the night sky for every week of the new year and an anthology of 365 poems.

“It must be hard to live at a distance from your relatives,” I said gently.

My parents live in Inverness, hundreds of miles from our Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow, so I thought I knew how he must feel.

“Aye,” said Billy, taking the books from Hector to examine. “Especially without a car. That’s the only reason I regrets never learning to drive.”

The local bus company runs services as far as Slate Green, our nearest market town, but that’s all. To travel further afield, you have to change at Slate Green, and even then you can’t get beyond a radius of about ten miles.

“I don’t want a heavy book, mind.” Billy weighed the two books up against each other, one in each hand. “Postage ain’t cheap these days.”

I was curious as to how far flung Billy’s relations were. I knew he’d lived in Wendlebury all his life, although his brother had left as a young man.

“So where exactly does this Maurice live, Billy?” I asked. “Is he still in the UK?”

I wondered whether he’d emigrated, like Hector’s twin brother Horace.

Billy passed both books back to Hector with a shake of his head.

“Slate Green.”

The vicar slammed his coffee cup down on his saucer.

“What?” he and I cried together.

I fetched a cloth to wipe up the vicar’s spillage.

“But you get the bus to Slate Green to go shopping at least once a week,” I pointed out. “How come you’ve never found the time to call on him?”

Billy shuffled his feet.

“He ain’t been to see me neither. It ain’t my fault. Besides, we always used to meet at our mums’ houses. His mum was my mum’s sister. His mum or mine took turns to cook Sunday dinner and we’d all sit down together, both families. But them days are long gone, and so are our mothers. We was both so upset after they died, just a few weeks apart, that we never really got round to making new arrangements. We missed them too much, see. It just wouldn’t have been the same without them.”

The vicar took the cloth from me to dry his saucer.

“That’s a great pity, Billy. I’ve seen this happen far too often after a bereavement, just when you need your family most.”

Tommy looked up from his sheet of gift wrap. His latest row of snowmen had the threatening air of Mafia hitmen.

“Don’t you like each other, then?”

Billy sat down opposite the vicar, his shoulders slumping.

“Bless you, no, boy. We was thick as thieves when we were your age. Always up to mischief in the village.”

“I wish I had a thief to be thick with.”

Poor Tommy. No other boys from his class lived in the village, one of the disadvantages of being raised in a small rural community.

“We had no end of make-believe games, neither – pirates, cowboys, Robin Hood.”

The vicar set down the cloth and reached across to rest his hand on the frayed cuff of Billy’s ancient tweed jacket.

“Then I think this Christmas you should start making up for lost time. I’ll run you down to see him any time you like. You have only to ask.”

Billy’s face softened. “Well, if Hector would just buck his ideas up about the right present…”

Suddenly Hector’s face lit up.

“I know just the thing!”

And with that he dashed out of the shop.

The others looked puzzled at his unexpected departure, but when I heard Hector opening the front door to his flat at the side of the shop and running up two flights of stairs to his top floor, I knew what he was about.

Moments later, he reappeared in the shop doorway, breathless and triumphant, holding up a vintage hardback copy of Treasure Island. A colour plate on the cover showed a fierce-looking Long John Silver, complete with wooden leg, crutch and parrot.

Billy’s mouth fell open.

“Ah, now that’s what I call a book.”

When Hector put it into his hands, he gazed at it with the rapture of a starving man reading a gourmet menu.

I came out from behind the tearoom counter to appeal to the children.

“Now, who wants to give Billy their paper to wrap his cousin’s present in?”

To my surprise, Sina had laid aside her holly leaves unfinished, and was now scribbling in black pencil on a small square of plain white paper.

“I’m afraid it’ll have to be Tommy’s snowmen, Billy.”

Billy peered at Tommy’s handiwork.

“They’ll do very nicely, thank you, Tom.”

He took the paper to the trade counter for Hector to do the honours. When the vicar drained his coffee cup and got to his feet, I realised he was planning to drive Billy to see Maurice straight away, before he could change his mind.

“Just a minute, vicar,” cried Sina, laying down her pencil and pushing back her chair. “Here, I’ve made this for you. I know how much you’re looking forward to Christmas and the baby Jesus and stuff, so here’s something to keep you going.“

The vicar took the square of paper from her hand and turned it this way and that, narrowing his eyes.

“Ah, I see. It makes sense now I’ve spotted the halo.”

When he showed it to me, I too was at first puzzled by the array of fuzzy, broken lines, with just a dark kidney-shaped blob at the centre. Then it clicked.

“Oh yes, of course! Baby Jesus’s scan photo! Well done, Sina. Very imaginative.”

Sina beamed and went back to colouring in her holly leaves, humming contentedly.

As the vicar escorted Billy, wrapped gift under his arm, out of the bookshop and into his car, I went to stand behind Hector at the trade counter, reading over his shoulder. He was logging Billy’s purchase in the sales ledger he keeps for the second-hand book collection stored in his flat.

“You know what, Hector?” I said, draping my arms over his shoulders and clasping my hands on his chest. “Suddenly it’s starting to feel like Christmas after all.”

Hector closed the ledger and laid his hands gently over mine.

“So it is. Merry Christmas, sweetheart.”


cover of Murder in the Manger
When the village nativity play goes wrong…

Like to read more about Christmas in Wendlebury Barrow? Try the third Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Murder in the Manger, a gentle festive mystery with a touch of seasonal romance.

The ebook is now available to order from all major ebook stores, and the paperback can be ordered from Amazon or from your local bookshop.

And if you’ve not yet tried the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, find out about the whole series here on my website.

Posted in Personal life, Reading, Writing

Latin is a Language (Not Quite as Dead as Can Be)

In my column for the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I shared the new discovery that’s helping me to learn Latin: Duolingo

For a couple of years at secondary school, I studied Latin using what was then considered a revolutionary new system.

The Cambridge Latin Course tried hard to make learning fun and Latin funky. The first year’s course book had a bright orange cover – very right-on in the 1970s, when I chose to paint my bedroom walls bright orange too.

The course revolved around the story of a real-life family, headed by Lucus Caecilius Iucundus, a rich banker, living in Pompeii just before the devastating eruption of Vesuvius.

Call me suggestible, but Lucus Caecilius Iucundus and his family came to seem very real to me, and I cared about them.

When I changed schools at the age of 14, to my regret Latin was no longer an option.

Now, decades later, I’m making up for lost time with a very 21st century route to fluency: a free app called Duolingo. With an estimated three million users globally, Duolingo aims to please its students wherever they are in the world.  Thus I find myself translating surreal conversations featuring New York, Philadelphia, Boston and California, none of which existed when Latin was a living language.

screenshot of Duolingo's Twitter home page
Duoloingo’s Twitter home page indicates its popularity

Having always wondered what happened to Caecilius and family, I decided to investigate. To my surprise, our experimental texts have since become a classic teaching method, celebrating 50 years in print. The particular book I used, albeit now published with a less startling coloured cover, is currently Amazon’s #1 bestseller in Latin.

cover of first book in Cambridge Latin series showing Amazon bestseller orange flag
I was astonished to find my old school Latin textbook is currently a bestseller on Amazon – bestseller n the Latin category, anyway!

Even more surprising is that Caecilius and family have since featured in an episode of Dr Who, which my daughter kindly found me on Netflix. Their adventure opens just as Vesuvius is making ominous noises, portentous of imminent eruption and mass destruction. What becomes of my chum Caecilius? You’ll have to watch it to find out. (Here’s the link to its IMDB page: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1173173/)

But I have one remaining question: had I had been able to persevere with my Latin studies, would Dr Who have popped up in the A Level textbook? Now that would have made Latin cool.


PS Added Duolingo fun can be found on this alternative Twitter account: @shitsduosays, which highlights the more bizarre and surreal phrases it teaches you. Here are a few screenshots to whet your appetite:

screenshot showing the phrase "You are already dead" screenshot of phrase "Were did those horses learn French?

tweet in response to a phrase "This is a matter of life and death" saying "Duolingo owl, I only missed a day, oh god I'm sorry"