During lockdown, our community magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News, has heroically continued to publish, thanks to its dedicated team of volunteers writing, editing, printing and distributing it about the village.
In the absence of news of events, which usually makes up a large part of its content, the editor, Colin Dixon, has solicited plenty of new and interesting editorial to fill the space, including personal lockdown diaries by local residents.
Although many of the services advertised in its pages are suspended during lockdown, these companies are continuing to support the magazine, as they book and pay for a year’s advertising each January. They deserve our support in return when normal life returns.
In these strange times, it is comforting to see the Hawkesbury Parish News drop through our letterbox each month, giving some semblance of normality and regularity to the disrupted pattern of life in the time of Covid-19. A huge thank you to the whole team for your continuing service to our community.
Now here’s the column that I wrote for the June issue.
My top tip for lockdown entertainment is to acquire a pair of kittens.
We did this only by chance, collecting Bingo and Bertie (named after P G Wodehouse characters) at nine weeks old, two days before lockdown.
21st March seemed a particularly auspicious day for us to bring them home. Not only is it the Spring Solstice, but it was also my parents’ 67th wedding anniversary.
Reading the adoption paperwork when we got home, I was astonished to find that they were also born on my birthday, January 18th – the same day that our older cat Dorothy moved in. Dorothy was a stray found by neighbours (the Rounds) in their garage on a school snow day. She was personally delivered by another neighbour, Roland Starling, when I joked on Facebook that she could be my birthday present – that’ll teach me to be flippant! Best birthday present ever, though!
As Dorothy did when she first came to live with us, the kittens have provided daily cheer and distraction. The timing of their arrival has meant that we have spent as much time as possible bonding with them, and they settled very quickly.
Much as we love the kittens, my daughter has already declared that she is looking forward to seeing how they turn out when they’re full grown. I know just what she means. When she was born 17 years ago, I worried that I might be sad when she grew up. I soon realised that at each stage of development, I loved her even more.
Of course, kittens are for life, not just for lockdown, but I’m glad to have at least this one positive souvenir of these challenging times.
We are very grateful to the Cats’ Protection League for caring for our kittens until they were old enough to leave their mother. Their loving care gave Bertie and Bingo a wonderful start, and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons that they are such affectionate, good-natured creatures now.
Further reading inspired by cats: “Springtime for Murder”
Don’t worry, no cats come to any harm in this book!
In the fifth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, I wanted to write about cats and so I introduced some new characters – an elderly neighbour, Bunny Carter, who has a house full of cats, and an irritating do-gooder who keeps trying to foist more cats upon her while also trying to persuade her to leave her fortune to the local cat charity (not a bit like the wonderful Cats’ Protection League, I hasten to add!)
Sophie, as a cat person like me, is easily persuaded to adopt a black kitten, whom she names Blossom, a name nominated by my friend Sue, and not Beelzebub, which was suggested by my friend John, whom I suspect is more of a dog lover! Unfortunately Sophie discovers too late that Hector, her boss and her boyfriend, is a dog lover too…
Full of fun about cats and cat-lovers, and featuring the usual banter between the regular cast of characters in this series, this story is underpinned by serious thoughts about family relationships and the importance of solving family feuds before it’s too late. (Bunny, who earned her nickname by producing so many children in her younger days, has fallen out with all of her offspring.)
The book is available as both a paperback and an ebook, and makes a relaxing escapist read at any time of year.
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.
One of the many things I love about my writing life is the social side – attending lit fests and writers’ groups and meeting author friends for coffee and a catch-up. You don’t need me to tell you that, to quote Basil Fawlty, “that particular avenue of pleasure has been closed off”“.
However, despite my initial reaction that online events are no substitute for the real thing – as a very tactile person, I spend quite a lot of my own Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest (HULF) hugging people! – I’m being won round to the wonders of online litfests and other author events. They have several benefits compared to conventional events:
no travel required, so no fare/fuel/parking/travel time necessary
they’re generally free to attend (HULF is free, but that’s unusual)
they are open to a worldwide audience, so anyone can attend, wherever they are in the world
Your Invitation to Attend Crediton Literary Festival Online (Saturday 6th June)
So in today’s post, I’m extending an invitation to you to join me at the next one: Crediton Literary Festival, hosted by Crediton Library in Devon, on Saturday 6th June. As you can see from the programme below, I’ll be part of a crime and thriller panel at 11.30am, but you’re welcome to attend any or all of the events, wherever you are in the world.
You need to book in advance, as there is an attendance limit of 100 people per session for reasons of bandwidth, but booking is very easy: just send an email to Crediton Library at email@example.com, stating which event you’d like to attend and how many tickets you require. (NB If you’re sharing your screen with your lockdown housemates, only one ticket is needed.)
Catch Up with my Previous Lockdown Events
Crime & Thriller Panel at MYVLF.com
I’ve also done several other online events since lockdown began, and all are still available to view or listen to.
MYVLF.com (short for My Virtual Literature Festival) is a multiple-award-winning digital organisation staging great litfest sessions all year round via its smart Virtual Theatre interface. (If you’ll look closely, you’ll see two my photo and the cover of my latest novel, Murder Your Darlings!)
I was delighted to be part of the Crime & Thriller panel chaired by C L Taylor alongside Mel Sherratt and Trevor Wood. Our discussion is still available to view when you log in to MYVLF and navigate to the Theatre Hall, click on Past Interviews/Events when you get there, and scroll down to our event on Saturday 28th March.
Oakwood Literature Festival Facebook Live Interview
I was honoured to be asked to officially open the Oakwood Literature Festival three years ago, so jumped at the chance to be a guest of their new Facebook Live series of interviews with festival founder Dawn Brookes. Dawn and I both write mystery fiction and have been friends since before the launch of her debut novel, and it’s always good to catch up with her. As Dawn had the foresight to record the Facebook Live session, you can still watch it here:
The Writing & Marketing Show Podcast with Wendy H Jones
Today my latest guest spot has gone live, for which I was interviewed by Wendy H Jones, President Chair of the Scottish Association of Writers and author of fiction for all ages. Wendy lives in Dundee, where her books are set, but has also been to my home village of Hawkesbury Upton when she came to speak at HULF last year.
Wendy had asked me to speak primarily about self-publishing, in my capacity as the UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors (affiliate link), so much of the talk is a speedy lesson in how to become an indie author, but we spend the last ten minutes talking about my novels, of which Wendy is a big fan!
I do hope you’ll be able to join me on Saturday 6th June for Crediton Literature Festival – it would be great to see this public library in Devon virtually full!
Escape to a Writing Retreat through My Latest Novel
Meanwhile the jury is still out on whether I’ll be able to attend the two writers’ retreats that I’d booked into this autumn – one in North Wales as a guest speaker, and the other simply as a writer in Surrey. Mind you, most of the time these days, I do feel as if I’m on retreat from the world, so they could feel like a busman’s holiday!
In the meantime, if you fancy a taste of a writers’ retreat, you can do so not online, but via the pages of my latest novel,Murder Your Darlings, set on a remote Greek island. It’s full of fun and humour about writers, writing and reading, and I hope it’ll provide you with a welcome escape and a change of scene from wherever you are locked down right now.
Available in paperback from Amazon and in ebook on all the usual ebook sites.
I wrote this column towards the end of April for the May 2020 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News
Now that all but essential keyworkers are at home all day and most of us are no longer slave to the alarm clock, are you finding your body clock is changing?
In our house, we’ve moved into a different time zone, four hours behind British Summer Time. We’re in synch with Rio de Janeiro.
We’re also sleeping more, typically nine to ten hours a night instead of the usual seven. It feels almost like hibernation, but that’s all wrong for spring.
Anyone for estivation? – a handy word meaning the summer equivalent of hibernation, mostly done to survive periods of drought.
As I’m used to working from home, I’d assumed lockdown wouldn’t affect my writing schedule. When getting up at 6.30am to see my daughter off to school, I used to start writing between 8am and 9am, before any other business of the day might distract me. Now I don’t start writing until mid-afternoon. That’s a much bigger lag than our sleep schedule.
I’ve no idea why this is so, but as with all else in lockdown, I’ve decided to go with the flow and count any day that ends without a crisis as a win.
Our current situation makes clear how artificial “office hours” of 9am-5pm are. How did they ever catch on? Of course, office hours don’t apply to many of those keyworkers whose true value to society is now apparent to us all. I bet many people now enjoying working their own flexible hours from home will be lobbying to retain them post lockdown.
Even so, I will have to break my current habit of stepping outside the front door in my nightie at midday to bring in the newspaper/milk/parcels, as there will once again be passers-by to consider.
Roll on the day when moving the wheelie bin onto the pavement no longer feels like an exciting, slightly illicit outing.
Need Escapist Lockdown Reading?
While all of my novels class as comfort reads (despite the odd murder!), my latest novel Murder Your Darlings is particularly escapist, as it takes place in the idyllic setting of a tiny, remote Greek island in the month of May. Starting an finishing in the village of Wendlebury Barrow, the action takes Sophie Sayers outside of her comfort zone while she takes stock of her relationship with Hector. Will absence make the heart grow fonder? You’ll have to read it to find out!
The third in my occasional series of interviews with 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. I’m therefore inviting them to share on my blog their enthusiasm for their favourite.
I’ve also pledged to read any that they nominate that are new to me. You might like to read along with us.
Although I’ve known of the book for a long time, it’s one of those that I was meaning for years to get round to, and only managed it a couple of years ago. I’d also put off seeing the film until I’d read the book – so the film is now on my to-watch list!
Over to Clare Flynn to tell you about why she chose Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as her favourite school book.
Clare Flynn, welcome to my blog! Before we begin, can you please just tell us a little about yourself for readers not already familiar with your historical novels?
I’m the author of ten historical novels and a collection of short stories. My tenth novel, The Pearl of Penang, set in Malaya around the Second World War, was published on December 5th and is the winner of The Selfies UK Awards for the UK’s best self-published novel for adults. I live on the Sussex coast and an a former Marketing Director and management consultant.
When did you first read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?
I can’t remember whether I read the book first or saw the film – probably around the same time and I would have been about fourteen or fifteen. I think my mum was reading it and I probably pinched her copy. I’ve recently read it again – fifty years later. Shriek!
How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?
I really enjoyed re-reading it although I can’t help hearing the unmistakable voice of Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie – impossible not to. Spark’s writing is beautiful. It defies the test of time.
I wonder whether I’d have found it harder to relate to now if I hadn’t got this nostalgic link to my past reading. Miss Brodie’s girls lived a world far removed from the experiences of schoolgirls today with their phones and social media. Yet there is so much about human nature that is still very relevant today.
What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?
I loved the waspish humour, in particular the way it so deftly nails Miss Brodie’s overbearing certainties and incapacity to admit alternatives. In virtually all of her absolute certainties she is to be proved wrong. It is a real lesson in hubris. In some ways, Jean Brodie is a monster – her espousal of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler (later modified to a post-war admission that ‘Hitler was rather naughty’), her determination to shape and mould her girls in her own image. Yet at the same time her desire to ‘put old heads on young shoulders’, to inspire and to stretch her pupils way beyond the confines of a narrow curriculum are praiseworthy. I’d have enjoyed being in her class.
I love the constant repetition by both Miss Brodie and her girls that she is ‘in her prime’ and they are the ‘creme de la crème‘. Miss Brodie has a complete absence of any sense of irony – Muriel Spark however has it in spades.
Here’s a typical example of an exchange between her and her pupils:
‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’
‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’
‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’
Or this, regarding a poster the headmistress has stuck on the wall:
‘This is Stanley Baldwin, who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ‘ere long,‘ said Miss Brodie. ‘Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan “Safety first”. But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first.’
Structurally the book is clever the way it jumps back and forward in its timeline – so that from the beginning the reader is aware of the future fates of the Brodie set and their teacher and her ‘betrayal’. This is a hard act to pull off by a writer and Spark succeeds brilliantly. In fact, the whole time we are a party to Miss Brodie’s self-delusion, her misplaced assumptions – particularly about Sandy. Within the first few pages we are told what each girl is ‘famous for’ – Rose ‘for sex-appeal’, Eunice ‘for spritely gymnastics and glamorous swimming’, Sandy ‘for her small, almost non-existent eyes’ and Mary MacGregor ‘for being a silent lump’. Just a few pages later in Chapter 2 we are to discover that at only twenty-four, Mary MacGregor is to die in a hotel fire, Sandy of the little ‘pig-eyes’ is to sleep with the art teacher, ‘betray’ Miss Brodie and then become a nun.
Spark is wonderful at creating a vivid sense of time and place. I was immediately pulled into the world of pre-war Edinburgh. Very prim, Presbyterian and proper.
Which character did you identify with?
I suppose I identified with the girls, particularly Sandy and Jenny – at least my memory of myself at that age. I loved the scenes where those two write romances in which their teacher engages in passion-fuelled entanglements with fictional heroes. I used to write daft stories all the time (when I was around eleven or twelve) and turn them into plays to perform with friends.
The two girls write imaginary letters between Miss Brodie and the music teacher. The last of which – when they fictionalise her declining his marriage proposal – ends
‘Allow me, in conclusion to congratulate you warmly on your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing. With fondest joy, Jean Brodie.’
I remember two or three teachers who made a big impression on me – but none in the kind of suffocating and exclusive manner Miss Brodie employed.
How did the book affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?
As a child, I was probably grateful I didn’t live the restricted life those Edinburgh girls did. I had access to television and radio – to pop music, to parties, to weekend/ holiday jobs to earn some cash – and so probably grew up faster.
In other ways, my own schooldays were similar. My school was full of teachers that were comparable with those at Marcia Blane Academy – numerous post-war, aging spinsters for whom we would create interesting backstories about how their motorbike despatch driver fiancé was killed in occupied France, or their true love blown up in the Blitz. None of them struck us as being in their prime! Mostly well over-the-hill so, instead of being unduly influenced by them, we felt rather sorry for them.
How did it affect your writing?
Muriel Spark was one of many good writers I read and absorbed from a tender age and I believe all of them must in a subliminal way have influenced my own writing. I just wish I had a fraction of her talent!
What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?
I went to a direct-grant Catholic convent then, after we moved, to a state girls’ grammar school before the comprehensive revolution began.
Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?
Books were a private world for me – mostly to escape from being part of a large noisy family! I shared my passion with one friend in particular and we would recommend books to each other.
Would the book still resonate with young readers today?
I hope so, but somehow, I doubt it. It is such a world apart and these days there is an expectation of ‘relatability’ – which is rather a shame.
Thanks for giving me the excuse to go back and read this again, Debbie!
Connect with Clare Flynn
Find out more about Clare Flynn’s excellent historical novels via her website www.clareflynn.co.uk, where if you sign up for her readers’ newsletter you may claim a free download of her collection of short stories, A Fine Pair of Shoes. You can also find her on Facebook as authorclareflynn, on Twitter as @ClareFly and also on Instagram as @ClareFly.
Next time in this series I’ll be talking to another historical novelist, Helen Hollick, who will be sharing her passion for stories about quite a different kind of school to Miss Brodie’s – Ruby Ferguson’s Riding School!
POSTSCRIPT: 3 Strange Coincidences
I mentioned at the start of this interview that Clare’s novel The Pearl of Penang was awarded The Selfies UK Award 2020 last month. By a strange coincidence, my school story, Secrets at St Bride’s was in the final shortlist of six novels for that award!
Clare has since published the sequel to Pearl of Penang, called Prisoner from Penang – and I’m about to publish the sequel to Secrets at St Bride’s, called Stranger at St Bride’s (due out on 1st July, the ebook is already available to order.
I’ve only just noticed that in both pairs of books, we’ve chosen alliterative titles! Kindred spirits indeed!
For more information about my School Stories for Grown-ups, and to read the first chapter of the first in series for free, click here.