A tribute to my maternal grandmother through the medium of forget-me-nots
My maternal grandmother, whom we all called Mam, had simple tastes in flowers: the roses that edged the lawn of her suburban garden; sweet peas grown by my grandfather, Pop, in the vegetable patch at the end of the garden. But when as a teenager I bought her cut flowers, her preference was for freesias.
I suspect I first bought freesias because they were the only ones on the railway station stall that fell within my student budget, but she declared them her favourite.
With the hindsight of an adult, I suspect now she’d have said the same of any flower I gave her, but at the time I took her at her word and ever after I bought her freesias.
“Ah, my flowers!” she would smile, when I presented her with the latest bunch.
I appreciated them too, not just for their exotic fragrance, out of all proportion to the size of the flower, but because they were surprisingly robust, their slender stems having a wiry strength. They were also more dependable. Not for freesias the sulky post-purchase droop of hothouse roses.
But there’s a second flower that I can’t see without thinking of Mam, and that’s the humble forget-me-not.
As any English gardener knows, forget-me-knots readily self-seed and spread. Left unchecked, they’ll carpet a flowerbed in no time. Some people even view them as weeds, defining weeds as any plant that grows where you don’t want it to.
But to my child’s eye, they were enchanting, their tiny flowers like little faces nestling among the furry foliage.
They were flowers fit for a fairy.
The Discreet Charm of the Forget-Me-Not
Forget-me-nots were even more charming than the bluebells that ran wild in the woods behind my primary school. In spring, every classroom windowsill boasted a jam jar full of bluebells, picked on our way to school as an offering for our teacher. No matter how many we picked, there always seemed plenty more.
But in Mam’s garden, the forget-me-not was colonist-in-chief.
As I walked up the back garden path on my weekly visit after primary school, I’d linger to admire them, picking a bunch to present to Mam when she came to greet me at the back door.
I was particularly pleased in the years when she let them run rampant, overflowing the flower bed that ran parallel to the concrete garden path. At the time, I wondered why she looked a little wry when I remarked upon a particularly fine crop.
Only later did I realise that the best crops occurred in the years when she couldn’t find it in herself to keep the garden in order: perhaps the year her beloved big sister Auntie Ev had died, or when my grandfather, Pop, had been very poorly with a stomach ulcer.
Even if these little blue flowers didn’t have their distinctive name, they would, like freesias, ever since have reminded me of Mam.
From Fact into Fiction
And that is why, decades later, writing my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, when seeking a flower to be a motif in her stories, the choice of the forget-me-not was obvious.
In the first book in the series, Best Murder in Show (published three years ago today!), Sophie’s eyes are the colour of forget-me-nots. Without spoiling the plot, Hector Munro, who employs Sophie in his village bookshop and soon strikes up a romance with her, comes to appreciate them too. He pays a special tribute with a forget-me-not theme on Valentine’s Day, towards the end of the fourth book in the series, Murder by the Book. I think Mam would have approved.
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Every month, I write a column for our local community magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News. The copy deadline is the middle of the month prior to the cover date. After having spent much of today in my garden enjoying balmy spring sunshine and spring flowers, it seems odd to recall the stormy weather that had come to seem the norm when I was writing my March column, mid-February, which I’m sharing below.
With Storm Dennis raging outside my study window, I decided to research the naming of storms. The Met Office started this practice just five years ago to make it easier for the media to talk about storms, and so to raise awareness of the dangers they might bring.
A storm is given a human name if it is likely to trigger an amber or red weather warning for wind, rain or snow. A list of 26 named storms is announced at the start of each year, one for each letter of the alphabet. Their names are picked from suggestions submitted by the general public to represent the nation’s cultural mix – hence the likes of Asian Samir and Gaelic Roisin, alongside the solidly English Ellen. The alphabetical list alternates between male and female names. It’s probably only a matter of time before there’s a gender-neutral Robin or Vivan, but Stormy McStormface is a non-starter.
The appearance of Storm Willow in the 2020 list surprised me. I’d always thought of Willow as a good name for a cat, as in Pussy Willow, and it’s currently #23 in the cat name charts. But it’s now also in the top ten for baby girls born in 2020. Who knew? It’s still not a name I’d associate with a scary storm.
But then nor is Dennis, even though psychologists claim that unconscious bias makes us most fear storms with male names. The name Dennis makes me picture a genial old man sitting by the fire with pipe and slippers doing the newspaper crossword. The trees in my garden currently being buffeted about by Storm Dennis beg to differ.
Casting my eye down the list of names for the rest of 2020, there is one that leaps out as easily the most ominous. I can’t help wondering whether the Met Office really thought this particular choice through. In the meantime, look out for Storm Noah, folks – and better start building that ark…
If you enjoy reading my entries for the Hawkesbury Parish News, you may like to know I have published a collection of my columns from the 2010-2015 issues as an ebook and paperback.
Every month I write a column for the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, a not-for-profit community magazine. In this month’s issue, I shared one of my favourite sources of story ideas: eavesdropping.
As an inveterate eavesdropper, I shamelessly raid overheard conversations for fun phrases to put into the mouths of my fictional characters.
While I may not remember a meeting time from one day to the next (top tip: hold all meetings to coincide with elevenses), when it comes to other people’s one-liners, I have the carved-in-stone memory of a Ten Commandments tablet.
In my twenties, I worked alongside an ardent vegan, in the days when this now common lifestyle choice was rare. One day over coffee she announced that she could only ever marry another vegan. The chance of falling in love with a man who met this as well as all the usual criteria seemed to me about as likely as the miller’s daughter guessing Rumpelstiltskin’s name. Twenty years later, I used her declaration of intent as a starting point for “Housetraining Thomas”, my short story about finding partners in my collection Marry in Haste. (In case you’re wondering, my friend she eventually settled for a vegetarian and in true fairytale style they are living happily ever after.)
Working at Westonbirt School in the late 1998, I harvested a great line from former pupil Jane Reid. When compiling alumnae’s memories for the school’s seventieth birthday, I asked, “What’s the most useful thing you learned at school?” Without hesitation Jane replied, “At my prep school, how to steam open an envelope and at my senior school not to sign anything I hadn’t read.” With her permission, I lent her words of wisdom to Miss Harnett (aka Hairnet), the eccentric headmistress in my recent novel Secrets at St Bride’s.
I’m equally insouciant with members of my family. Like Bertie Wooster, I’m blessed with a fine collection of characterful aunts. When my father was reading my new novella, The Natter of Knitters, he instantly recognised a favourite saying of his Auntie Minnie’s, spoken in my story by a character worried about the well-being of a very slender neighbour: “Where does she keep her organs?” In a similar vein, my grandmother, spotting someone bending over would say “Have you seen my nice bottom?”
I wonder whether I shall pass any memorable phrases of my own down the generations? At the moment, the main contender is “Steady, Teddy”, said to any small child who is getting out of hand (and occasionally my teenage daughter). And that, I confess, was copied from my favourite television programme as a toddler, Andy Pandy. Once a thief…
If you’d like to read more of my columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, you’ll find the first six years’ worth in this collection, available in paperback and ebook. I’ll compile another at the end of this year.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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!
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’sis 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.
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.
On 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.
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.