Driving to hospital for a routine rheumatology appointment this morning, I heard a moving interview by on BBC R4’s Today programme with Ryan Riley, a young man who has set up a new initiative in memory of his mother who had died of lung cancer. It is called Life Kitchen and aims to help people whose tastebuds and appetite have been adversely affected by chemotherapy and other treatments for cancer. The interviewer Nick Robinson recently had lung cancer himself, and although he barely mentions it, the project clearly resonated with him.
Why It Resonated with Me Too
It hit a nerve for me as well because seventeen years ago my first husband died of leukemia after a brief but brutal illness (seven weeks from diagnosis to death) in which one of the first and lasting characteristics was the change of his attitude towards food and drink. Losing his desire for both, he rapidly lost weight and with it his physical strength and mental resilience.
I tried to tempt him with various foods in his hospital bed – he was an inpatient for virtually the whole time – with no success. It wasn’t that the hospital food was bad, but it wasn’t great either. Because of the inevitable lag betwteen ordering and eating it, he often didn’t want the dishes he’d chosen by the time they arrived.
There was one memorable evening when I was visiting, as I was every weekday and twice a day at weekends, when he was delivered a pork pie, still in its wrapper and as solid as a brick. He could barely stand to look at it, and was about as likely to eat the plate as the pork pie, indigestible as they are at the best of times. I assumed he’d ordered it because it was something he’d enjoyed eating in happier circumstances, but as an invalid food, it was, er, invalid.
Giving up on hospital food, he would ask me to bring things in that he thought he might fancy, despatching me to a supermarket or takeaway to fetch whatever his whim of the moment was. And whatever it was, he would practically never eat it, his palate reduced to intolerance of just about everything.
I remember him clutching my arm in real distress at one point and saying “What if I can never eat more than five different foods again?” (I forget now what those five tolerable foods were, but he wasn’t eating much of them either.) I didn’t have the heart to tell him that was the least of his problems.
At that point I was myself living largely off food from garage forecourt shops bought on my journey to and from the hospital, apart from whatever was on the lunch menu at my workplace. I’d therefore end up eating his rejects to avoid waste. I’ve never felt as conspicuous as when surreptitiously eating Kentucky Fried Chicken out of a cardboard box in the middle of a hospital ward surrounded by seriously ill people, trying not to let its spicy, fatty fragrance waft around the ward.
Of course none of this was his fault, but it was enormously upsetting for us both. Already exhausted and stressed out, I felt terrible for feeling cross and resentful and anxious about the cost. I wouldn’t have minded if all this effort had made him eat, but the weight just fell away from this man whose body had always been strong and healthy and more than adequately covered with flesh. It was like watching him dissolve.
How to Support Life Kitchen
Whether Life Kitchen would have made a difference to him I will never know, but surely it is an idea worth supporting and exploring. I’ve just made a small donation to its crowdfunding appeal, and if you’d like to support the cause, you’ll find more details here, along with Ryan’s own moving story: https://www.gofundme.com/LifeKitchen You can also follow its progress on Twitter at @LifeKitchen.
Full marks to this young man for dreaming up the initiative. I am sure his mother would be very proud of him.
Worn down by a bleak and hostile environment filled with threats, this month I turned to an old friend for comfort. No, I’m not talking about our current political climate, but about the final episode of the television series Sherlock.
Holmes regenerates in different guises more frequently than Dr Who, with over 200 films listed by IMDB. Although I loved the earlier episodes of the Cumberbatch incarnation, the finale left me cold. It was as if the cast had taken a wrong turning and ended up on the set of a James Bond villain’s lair. I craved the cosy retreat that is the centre of the world for the original Holmes and Watson: 221b Baker Street.
221b or Not 221b?
What a stroke of genius it was for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to add the “b” to that address. With a single letter, he suggests the quirky subversiveness of a hero who makes up his own rules and isn’t afraid to stand up against the establishment – a true hero then and now.
These days the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street claims that door number as its own, but it’s actually just a plaque on the wall. The address is and always was fictitious, a Narnian wardrobe that many have sought but never found.
In times of trouble, whether personal, national or international, fictional characters and places can offer as much consolation as real ones, and often more. Sinking recently into the opening pages of Holmes’ first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, which I’d nominated as the BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club’s February Book of the Month, was like stepping into a hot bubble bath after running through a thunderstorm with neither raincoat nor umbrella. Elegant prose, cracking storytelling and engaging characters lured me into a world where there may still have been crime and hatred, but where there’s also the inevitability of resolution and the triumph of good over evil.
A Story for Our Times
Subtle moral lessons are woven in along the way. I’d forgotten that one of the themes of A Study in Scarlet is religious tolerance, the crime revolving around questionable acts by Mormons in nineteenth-century Utah. Over a century after publication, it’s a story still relevant to our times.
So if you’re troubled by the state of the world in 2017, Dr Watson would surely prescribe spending time in the company of the original “consulting detective”, Sherlock Holmes, as he first emerged from the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Though you may feel, as I do, that if Benedict Cumberbatch appeared up on your doorstep, you wouldn’t turn him away. Alternative medicine, perhaps?
What’s your favourite comfort reading? I’d love to know!
Find more comfort in books and reading when you come along to the FREE Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 22nd April 2017 in the delightful Cotswold village that I call home. I’m looking forward to unveiling my own mystery series there, Best Murder in Show. Come and join the fun!
An opinion piece about World Book Day costumes in support of the boy who dressed as the Argos catalogue
It’s unusual for the morning news to make me smile, so this morning’s report on BBC Today programme about Bristol mum Vicki Bowles who sent her son to school dressed as the Argos catalogue was a welcome change.
“Well, it is his favourite book,” she explained.
There can’t be many parents who have ever had an Argos catalogue in the house with whom this didn’t resonate. No matter how many wonderful storybooks you provide, for children of a certain age, the lure of the Argos catalogue has almost magical powers, especially the winter edition, when the toy section is expanded. Entering its pages has the allure of the Narnian wardrobe, allowing admission to a magical land where money is no object and you might have any or all of the toys you could wish for.
The Magical Lure of the Argos Catalogue
If you’re not familiar with the Argos catalogue, which I think is a UK-only brand, it’s a massive free catalogue of around 1,000 pages of Bible-thin paper but printed in full colour, promoting the vast range of goods available from its many stores around the country.
Argos shops are little more than warehouses with a trade counter in front, front. You choose your desired item from the catalogue either at home or in-store, take the product number to the till or to a machine, pay, and queue at the counter to collect your item. The process is iconic and unique, and to those of a certain age, waiting for your item to appear on the conveyor belt from the mysterious depths of the concealed warehouse, has the same frisson of excitement as watching the prizes move slowly across the screen in front of contestants on that old Saturday prime-time TV favourite, The Generation Game.
Retaining its Appeal in the Digital Age
They’ve updated the model to allow for online browsing, ordering and delivery, and for checking and reserving stock before you visit a store. However you shop with them, it’s a no-frills service that keeps prices down but also offers excellent customer care, and I believe it looks after its staff well too.
A relative who worked for them one Christmas told me they were advised when dealing with difficult customers to err on the side of their own safety, as no product was more important than themselves.
On the other hand, another relative who had worked for them as a student told me it sealed the offer for a much more demanding customer service job later on, because, in the words of his interviewer, “if you can handle Argos customers, you can handle anyone”.
But back to the catalogues…
Free Catalogues for All
Twice a year, huge piles of catalogues are made available in store for shoppers to collect free of charge, encouraging them to pore over at home. I am sure that pester power from children does a lot to shift these vast supplies. My daughter certainly used to clamour for one, and spent many happy hours browsing its pages, around the time that she still believed in Father Christmas.
Nostalgia for the Old Mail-Order Equivalents
Although Argos wasn’t around when I was a child, I remember lying for hours on my stomach on our living room carpet reading and re-reading the toy section in my mum’s mail order catalogue, Kays, which was much the same thing, for a different era, only patience was required as you had to wait for everything to be delivered by the postman.
We also had the Littlewoods one at one point, but I always preferred Kays. I’d read the descriptions over and over again for the items I coveted, till I could practically recite them, like a magical incantation. It didn’t stop me reading other books, it just added a new dimension to my literary canon.
It might be one reason why I naturally took to writing short fiction later in life, enjoying the facility to capture a whole story in very few words.
But It Gets Kids Reading!
While it’s easy for book snobs to be cynical about the catalogue – and I confess I’ve done it myself, laughing when a friend self-deprecatingly told me that she had only two books in her house and one of those was by Argos – my years spent working for national children’s charity Readathon convinced me that actually it’s fine if that’s what your child wants to read. The important thing is that they’re reading something, and learning to associate reading with pleasure and empowerment – even if it’s only how to spell what they want to put on their Christmas list.
Reading anything they enjoy will boost their confidence and enthusiasm for reading.
It helps form an immovable leisure habit that is well known to lead to happier, more successful and more fulfilled lives – not only academically but in relationships and other aspects of one’s daily life. (You’ll find more about this on the Readathon website.)
Reading to the Beat of a Different Drummer
While some children take naturally to reading what parents or teachers might choose for them – my thirteen-year-old daughter’s teacher recommended the classics at Parents’ Evening recently, while her preference is for Harry Potter – others find their own paths, and should be allowed to do so.
I gave up trying to make my daughter read my prescribed books when she discovered her own preferences. I have Garfield to thank for her eventual reading fluency – she used to sleep with Jim Davis’s cartoon strip collections under her pillow. Wry humour was the key that unlocked her enthusiasm for reading. Mo Willems was another of her passions.
I’m sad that she’s too old for dress-up days at school now but was heartened that she told her friends yesterday that she was actually being Hermione Granger for World Book Day, but under a disguise spell providing her usual school uniform.
Why Readathon Gets Children Reading for Life
One reason that Readathon is so effective as an organisation in encouraging children to read for pleasure is that the sponsored reading programme that it runs for schools allows participants to choose their own reading list. It might be books on a particular theme, such as all the Harry Potter books, or books about horses or any other interest the child has, or it might be reading comics or magazines or even food packaging or computer game manuals. Audio books and other vehicles for words are also allowable.
For parents whose children have struggled with literacy, watching them pore over the messages on a packet of cereal over breakfast for the first time can be an incredibly moving moment: the moment that their child discovers the joy and the power of reading
Trying Not to Judge
So next time you’re taken aback by what might at first seem a child’s inappropriate choice of World Book Day costume, don’t judge – just embrace their individual approach. As long as they’re reading, they’ll be just fine.
Though to be honest, I’m still not sold on last year’s most controversial costume – the kid who went to school as Christian Grey from the infamous Fifty Shades,because I’m sure – or at least I hope – that wasn’t his own book of choice. Dorian Grey, I could have forgiven. Ok, so maybe I am a book snob after all!
And finally, a question: What’s YOUR favourite guilty reading pleasure? Mine would have to be the Cath Kidston catalogue! (Sorry, Argos!)
If you’d like to find out more about Readathon, and great reasons to get your child’s school involved, visit their website here: www.readathon.org
To read more about why I’m so passionate about books, check out the talk I gave recently when I was honoured to be the judge of the Westonbirt School Inter-House Reading Competition: For the Love of Books
Having achieved a miracle cure for fall-induced back pain at a yoga class in January, (something clicked back into place during a floor exercise), I turned to yoga techniques again this month to counter my fear during an emergency tooth extraction.
I lay in the dentist’s chair breathing deeply, body relaxed, palms facing upwards, while the very pleasant dental surgeon went about her task. With the added distraction of pictures of Minions and Gromits on the ceiling, (something our yoga class at the Methodist Hall doesn’t have), I got through the procedure unscathed. What with this and my back pain cured, I was feeling positively smug until I caught up with the international news.
That same day, an Australian man had used yoga to escape death by drowning. Trapped in a pool of mud by his overturned mechanical digger, he adopted the Cobra position to keep just his nose above the waterline until rescue arrived… six hours later. That put my triumphs into perspective.
But it just goes to show that whatever the source of stress in your daily life, yoga can help make it better. Though I’ll still be giving muddy pools and mechanical diggers a wide berth in future.
An insight into cover creation for my books
plus the chance to download 12 free ebooks,
one of which is my short story collection Marry in Haste
The things that excite authors are not always the most obvious. Today for me it’s the imminent arrival of a package containing the wedding topper figurine featured on the cover of my short story collection, Marry in Haste.
To create the cover design I used a stock photo, which for me summed up the tone and attitude of both the title of the book and the tone of the stories in the collection:
proceed with caution
I loved the way the bride is apparently having second thoughts about tying the knot, leaning back from her husband’s over-enthusiastic embrace.
Wanting to freshen up the cover with a slight redesign of the typography, I discovered the proportions of the original image were too restrictive for what I wanted to do, and I wished I had the original statuette so that I could take my own photo.
Money for Old Rope
Then I remembered a conversation with my ever-entertaining hairdresser Tasha in which we established that you could find anything on ebay – she regaled me on how she’d won a bet that you could get “money for old rope” on ebay by finding lots of “old rope” for sale.
I’d pursued this avenue once before, buying a handful of vintage metal toy soldiers for the cover of my single-story ebook, The War of the Peek Freans Light Wounded, about a child at the start of the Second World War. They’ve lived on my desk ever since, alongside three small plastic gold Daleks and dwarfed by a three-inch-high Snowy dog from Tintin. I’m still awaiting the inspiration to bring them together in a story.
Ten minutes later, I’d found not only the precise statuette featured in the original photo, but also a companion piece to use for the cover of my planned sequel, inevitably entitled Repent at Leisure. I’m not ruling out a Happy Ever After to turn this into a trilogy in due course.
We Meet At Last!
I can’t wait to get my parcel and meet what seem like old friends to me now. It’ll be the equivalent of seeing Facebook friends in reali life for the first time, from all angles, in three dimensions, and finding out how tall they are.
It beats me, though, how anyone could want one of these less than enthusiastic plastic couples on their wedding cake. Neither of them look like the ideal representative of a happy couple.
A Model Couple?
The one on my wedding cake was nothing like either of these, having been handmade for me by my talented friend and wedding witness Jane at her pottery class. She’d been with me when we bought my dark green wedding dress, and I’d described my husband’s tartan to her, but his hat was a figment of her imagination. She also didn’t foresee the motorbike, on which he arrived at the Register Office, kilt flying as he tore down Chipping Sodbury’s high street. Nor did I.
We are still married, approaching our fifteenth anniversary, although the motorbike is long gone. (“It did the trick,” he told me later when about to dispose of it. “It got me the girl.”) I’m not sure I’d hold out much hope of the longevity of either of my little plastic statuette couples. I’m also now trying to erase mental pictures of Melania Trump leaning away from her husband’s embrace…
FREE EBOOKS – Marry in Haste plus 11 more!
If you’d like a free ebook of “Marry in Haste”, you’ve got till the end of today (Tuesday 28th February 2017) to download it via this offer, along with 11 other free books by some of my author friends.
WHERE TO BUY
It’s also always available to buy from the usual places – order from your favourite local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223016, from ebook retailers, or order from Amazon.