Ah, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sneak Preview of Developments in Wendlebury Barrow
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!
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.
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 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.
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
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.
Perhaps because I write in the first person and I live in a village in the Cotswolds, readers sometimes assume that my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are partly autobiographical. One of my best friends, who has known me since we were 11, said to me after reading the first in the series, Best Murder in Show, “Sophie Sayers – she’s you, isn’t she?” Today I’d like to explain some of the similarities and differences between us.
First of all there is a disparity in our ages. I’m old enough to be Sophie’s mother, but I was only four years older than Sophie when I moved to the Cotswold cottage where I still live and work today.
Like Sophie, I had previously lived in towns and cities before moving to a village, but I moved here with my husband rather than as a single girl on the rebound from a failed relationship.
Sophie and I are both lucky enough to live in a Victorian Cotswold stone cottage with a pleasant established garden, but Sophie inherited hers. I had to buy mine, paying off my mortgage a few years ago. I envy Sophie her mortgage-free status from such a young age!
Strangely, when I write about Sophie’s cottage, I don’t picture my current home. That might seem the obvious choice, but it’s the wrong size and shape for my story. Mine is a three-bedroomed semi-detached cottage, whereas Sophie’s is a two-bedroomed terrace. (That’s a row house to American-English speaking readers.)
For the internal layout, I picture an amalgam of my maternal grandmother’s 1920s terraced house in Sidcup and my first house, a Victorian two-up, two-down workman’s villa in Tring, Hertfordshire. Both of those houses were brick-built, but Sophie’s is definitely made from the local honey-coloured Cotswold stone, like all the other old houses in her village.
Sophie and I both harboured writing ambitions since childhood. Like Sophie, when I decided the time was right to start taking my writing seriously, I took baby steps rather than plunging straight into writing novels. Having swapped my full-time job for a part-time one to give myself time to write, I committed, as Sophie does, to writing a monthly column in the village community magazine, in my case the Hawkesbury Parish News. This was to force myself into a regular writing habit and to nurture the discipline of writing to deadline and to length.
Unlike Sophie, I volunteered to write a second column for a magazine with a larger readership and circulation, the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, which serves the nearby Cotswold market town.
For both publications, I write about seasonal or topical issues, and they’re generally humorous, ending with a smile even when addressing a serious issue such as Covid-19, but the editors give me free rein as to choice of topic.
Sophie, on the other hand, confines herself initially to writing for Wendlebury Barrow’s parish magazine, in which her column is called “Travels with my Aunt’s Garden“. The great aunt from whom she inherited her cottage was a travel writer and filled her cottage garden with plants that remind her of her favourite places around the world. Each month Sophie writes a seasonal piece about a plant currently thriving in her garden and its exotic origins.
There are many differences between us:
Sophie’s got light brown hair and blue eyes, my natural colour at Sophie’s age was dark brown, as are my eyes.
I’ve never worked in a bookshop or dated a bookseller, although I do love bookshops of all kinds.
Sophie is thriving in her job running the Hector’s House tearoom, whereas my only stint as a waitress was in a tea shop in York while I was at university. I was very bad at it and soon made my excuses and left.
Sophie’s parents live and work in Inverness; mine retired to Bristol after working in London, Frankfurt, Detroit and Los Angeles.
Sophie has taught at international schools, whereas I attended one as a pupil between the ages of 14 and 18.
Sophie is an only child, while I have a brother and sister.
Writers’ Retreat as a Turning Point
But there is one final similarity that unites us: we have both attended writers’ retreats on Greek islands. Mine was on Ithaca, run by author, designer, poet and musician Jessica Bell, an Australian living in Athens. Sophie’s is on a tiny fictitious island just off the end of Ithaca and is run by a specialist company based in London.
Sophie wins her place on her retreat as a competition prize, whereas I attended Jessica’s as a paid speaker.
Yet both Sophie and I returned from our retreats significantly changed.
For me, the retreat was the turning point that made me realise that I really could write novels. Previously I’d focused on short stories, nervous of tackling the larger canvas of full-length fiction. My eighth novel, Stranger at St Bride’s, is due to launch on 1st July.
Sophie enters her retreat questioning not only her ambition to write books, but also the future of her relationship with Hector.
How is Sophie changed by her retreat? You’ll have to read Murder Your Darlingsto find out!
While the coronavirus pandemic hampers foreign travel, writers’ retreats abroad can be only a fantasy. That’s a great shame, because writing is terrific therapy in a time of crisis, even if you write only for yourself.
But here’s news of a different kind of writers’ retreat that you can set up for yourself at home – the new Fictionfire – you may be interested in a different kind of this talk of retreats has got you hankering after taking such a trip yourself.
My friend Lorna Fergusson, an award-winning author, writing coach and editor, has set up this course online at a very reasonable price ($17 earlybird rate until 21st June, $37 after that). This gives you a lifetime access to the course materials.
Lorna also runs free online writing retreat sessions, and having enjoyed a couple of those during lockdown, I know that her course will be of a high standard (and yes, I have already snapped one up at the earlybird rate!) Click here for more information.
A nostalgic travel piece about coffee in Greece & Albania
During lockdown, I’m drinking much more coffee courtesy of my Nespresso machine, which I continue to love, despite a Times journalist recently referring to it as “the Fisher Price of coffee makers”. (Besides, what’s not to love about Fisher Price, maker of the iconic chunky toy telephone?)
Yesterday, during an afternoon in which my garden was as hot as a Greek island, I forgot to collect a cup from the machine until it was cold. Not wanting to waste the coffee capsule, I decided to recreate the iced coffee that I used to enjoy on holiday in Greece – or café frappé, as they call it there. This refreshing long drink is not to be confused with the tiny cups of stronger stuff supped by backgammon players in the local kafenio.
With echoes of Proust‘s madeleine, the first sip took me back to the Greek islands where I spent a lot of time in the early Noughties, frequenting touristy tavernas and bars as we island-hopped around Zakynthos, Kefalonia, Ithaca, Lefkas, Corfu, and more.
More recently, spending an idyllic week at a writers’ retreat on Ithaca, run Jessica Bell at the delightful Hotel Nostos (which I highly recommend, by the way, once lockdown is over), café frappés sustained us through our daily writing sessions. (I’ll be writing more about that experience in a later post.)
A Durrell Pilgrimage
But my favourite coffee-related memory relates to an earlier stay in Corfu. When my daughter Laura was three, I booked a Durrell-inspired pilgrimage to the island setting of Gerald Durrell‘s My Family and Other Animals, staying in Kalamis, the village in which his brother Lawrence lived and wrote. I’d had this ambition since first reading the book at the age of 12.
I hadn’t realised until I travelled to Corfu that just a few miles across the water lay Albania, a closed communist country which had somehow managed to fall out with the entire Eastern European bloc, leaving China as its only trading ally. Its repressive regime was notorious, and many of its citizens tried to flee Albania for Greece in search of a better life. This was illegal in Albania and any would-be migrants faced harsh punishment.
The only Albanian national I’d ever met was in Lefkas, where we used to have a small share in a small sailing yacht. Commonly known as Albanian George, he was a former circus performer who ran the Ola Kala Bar on the main drag in Nidri. He’d lure in tourists by doing handstands on the tables and riding through his taverna on a unicycle. We liked him very much.
From Corfu to Albania
When in Corfu Town I spotted a boat running day trips to Albania, I couldn’t resist. I had assumed its borders were closed to tourists, so snapped up the chance to visit. The journey to the Albanian harbour of Sarandawas only a few miles, but was topped and tailed with strict immigration procedures. The tight control continued when we reached our destination. It became clear that our excursion would be spent in the company of official government guides wherever we went.
Echoes of Hong Kong
It reminded me of a day trip I’d had a decade before, from Hong Kong while still under British rule to mainland China, where we were only allowed to see the official version of the country. I soon wised up that when our sweet Chinese tour guide, Polly, said “Look left”, it was more interesting to look right to spot what they didn’t want us to see. (Polly was enchanted when a member of our party introduced her to the old nursery rhyme “Polly, Put the Kettle on”.)
Kickstarted with Coffee
In Albania, our day included a walking tour of Saranda, a town very much under construction, which the government was hoping to turn into a major attraction for the yachties that flocked to the Ionian. Our first port of call was where the coffee connection comes in. The coach took us to a small, old-fashioned hotel for a restorative drink after our journey. There was no menu – just instant coffee all round, in chunky white mugs emblazoned with the international Nescafé logo. The staff were clearly proud and excited to offer it to us, so we tried hard to look suitably impressed and grateful.
Charmed by the Children
As we got back on our coach, numerous small children crowded around, pressing us to buy their souvenirs in exchange for valuable Euros, chattering in English. Charmed by these dark-eyed, glossy haired young entrepreneurs, whose average age must have been about ten, I quickly parted company with all the Euro coins in my purse in exchange for trinkets made in China: plastic bead bracelets and cotton handkerchiefs. I wondered whether the Nescafé mugs had also come from China.
Bowled over byButrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that gave us a potted history of Albania, we returned passing fields where the crops were being hand-harvested with scythes, to Saranda for a walking tour. This included a stop at the official government souvenir shop that stocked virtually no souvenirs. Still, I was pleased with an Albanian colouring book, a board book of Albanian words and pictures, and a small bag bearing the Albanian double-headed eagle, all for Laura.
The tour ended with an invitation to sample the local spirit. Our Greek tour operator had warned us against this firewater. With a three year old in tow, we decided to spend the rest of our time in Albania enjoying a stroll along the seafront, inspecting the marina under construction. Everyone else hit the harbourside bar.
An Unusual Carousel
Further down the promenade, Laura’s eyes lit up when she spotted an off-duty carousel bearing the most unchildish assortment of rides. Instead of the traditional painted horses, there were only miniature government vehicles: tanks, jeeps, police motorbikes and other symbols of state authority.
With no staff in attendance, the best we could do was to let her climb up on the platform to walk around. Suddenly a throng of olive-skinned Albanian children appeared from nowhere. Entranced by Laura’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, they scooped her up, sat her in a tank, and jumped down onto the promenade, where they proceeded to push the carousel round manually, delighted at her obvious pleasure. After a while they stopped and sat her in a police car, and so it continued.
“I’m sorry, I have no money to pay you,” I said, opening my empty change purse to show them.
They understood, but were not downhearted. They may have hoped for a tip, but they were motivated by kindness, not money. One boy even ran home to fetch a packet of biscuits, offering them to Laura and to us. They carried on entertaining her until it was time for us to leave to catch our return ferry.
The Perfect Ambassadors
Touched by their generosity, we were sorry to have to say goodbye and felt guilty to be returning to our comfortable holiday back on Corfu. We’d heard how impoverished the Albanian people were and feared for the children’s future in their totalitarian state.
But perhaps we need to not have worried. The Albanian government’s plans for Saranda paid off, and apparently it’s now a favoured cruise ship destination. With hospitality like that, I’d return in a heartbeat if I could – although I suspect I saw it at its best, before the crowds descended. I certainly count that day trip it as one of the best holidays in my life. It even made me think a little more kindly of Nescafé,
(Apologies for the lack of photos – I have no idea where my photos from so long ago are stored. Sorting out my photo archives should be my next lockdown project!)
Café frappés prove popular with Sophie Sayers when she spends a week at a writers’ retreat on a tiny Greek island in my latest novel, Murder Your Darlings, available now in ebook and paperback.
My column for the September edition of the Tetbury Advertiser
There’s nothing like a holiday in a place very different from home to give you a fresh perspective. This summer we headed for East Anglia, as flat as the page of this magazine. Not only was the landscape a change from the gently undulating Cotswold hills, but we also learned a lot about British history.
Neolithic flint mines: who knew? I thought flint was just something you found on the surface. But Neolithic tribes discovered that the best type for spearheads lies in a vertical seam thirty feet below the ground and sank pits to dig it out. Near Thetford, my husband and daughter descended a mine-shaft ladder to bear witness. (Smart delegation on my part.)
In the city museum of Ely, birthplace of republican Oliver Cromwell and base for Hereward the Wake, resistance leader against the Norman invasion, we learned the remarkable story of how the flooded fenland has been reclaimed and made farmable over the centuries. They’re nothing if not determined, these East Anglians.
But for me the highlight was a trip to a history festival at Castle Rising, once owned by William the Conqueror’s brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, commissioner of the famous tapestry. Dozens of linen tents pitched around the grounds housed historical reenactors in costumes from throughout the last couple of millennia.
A small boy toddling past me in homespun tunic clutched a green plastic Thomas the Tank Engine.
“Ah, a time travelling baby!” I observed.
“Just don’t ty to separate him from Thomas,” replied his dad, a medieval peasant. “Some Romans tried that earlier, and there’s not much left of them.”
A passing Agincourt archer showed me his quilted jacket, thirty-one layers thick to withstand arrowheads.
“I like your sunhat,” I smiled, thinking he must be melting in the heat.
“Armoured straw,” he said with a wink.
But this was no cosmetic exercise. Also on show were impressive demonstrations of historical skills, from handforging chainmail to armed combat with a vast array of authentic weapons. Now I know what a poleaxe looks like, I realise how devastating being poleaxed would be. This stout stick taller than the soldier ends in a combined dagger, axe and hammer – a medieval forerunner of the Swiss Army knife, on a grander scale.
How did ordinary people cope with such gruesome methods of fighting? A Redcoat, polishing his musket, explained.
“It was just normal life to them. When you’re used to slaughtering your own livestock to survive, the only difference in battle is that the blood and guts spilled are human.”
Afterwards, my daughter asked me which era I would choose to live in. I was quick to reply. “The modern era, but in ten years’ time, when all this Brexit nonsense is over and done with.”
And if it’s not, at least I now know how to fell a politician with a poleaxe.
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