In this month’s Hawkesbury Parish News, I’m sharing my experience of reorganising my bookshelves.
Ten years ago, I was given a copy ofHoward’s End is on the Landing, Susan Hill’s memoir inspired by the chaotic state of her bookshelves. This gave me the idea of reorganising my books, library style, and I displayed her book on my landing to remind me of my plan.
In all that time, I got no further than occasionally taking the book down to dust it.
Then came lockdown, offering enticing glimpses of immaculate bookshelves of famous people broadcasting from home. Once more I began to yearn for shelves so neat that they’d have space for other items, from pot plants and family photos to curious kittens with a head for heights.
With bookshelves in every room in my house, reorganising my books was no small undertaking. Yet a week after I started, not only is Howard’s End on the landing, but so is the rest of my fiction.
Poetry and biography have moved to the bedroom, including, pleasingly, some poets’ biographies. Arts, crafts, history and music now have their own space in the extension, and cookery, gardening, and rural interest live in the kitchen.
Science, politics, philosophy, geography, and Scottish books are assigned to my husband’s study, while mine is reserved for writing reference and research books. Phew.
How Many Books Do I Really Need?
As the process required me to remove every book from its original position, I took the opportunity to reject any that didn’t “spark joy”, as Marie Kondo puts it. Incidentally, the Japanese decluttering guru believes no household needs more than 10 books, despite having written two herself. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and kept my copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying.
New Lives for Old Books
I set aside some of the rejected books to replenish the Little Free Library on my front wall. (Books awaiting their turn out there are stored in the dining room.) The remaining ten bags full I donated to the Bookbarn* a warehouse near Wells stocking a million second-hand books for sale at bargain prices. The good news is that while delivering my donation, I bought only ten more books. I count that as a win.
Everything in its Place
Every day now I gain so much satisfaction from gazing at my new-look bookshelves that I’m surprised it took me so long to get round to streamlining them. After all, I’m the sort of person who likes to have everything in its place. In my purse, for example, I make a point of sorting the banknotes in descending order of denomination, the right way up, and with the Queen facing me as I take them out to spend.
Not that sorting my banknotes takes very long, being far less numerous than my books. Do you think the two facts might be related?
*The Bookbarn gets a mention in Stranger at St Bride’s, as the source of a place to buy books by the metre for decorating pubs and the homes of the pretentious!
In the eighth book of my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Hector Munro, proprietor of the village bookshop, Hector’s House, will be starting a vintage department, using his vast personal collection of curious old books currently housed in the spare bedroom of his flat above the shop. I think my shorthand Sherlock Holmes book would be right at home there!
Anyone who has read my first Sophie Sayers novel,Best Murder in Show, will be familiar with the very English phenomenon of the annual Village Show.
At this action-packed event, locals display their home-grown fruit and vegetables, baking, handicrafts and sometimes livestock too. Often such shows include funfair rides, market stalls and organised entertainments in an outdoor arena.
A tea tent and a beer tent are always popular, and other catering options are likely to include a hog roast, a deer roast, a fish and chip van and ice-creams.
Hawkesbury’s Village Show
In the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton, where I’ve lived for nearly 30 years, the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, which takes place on the last Saturday of August, is generally acknowledged by villagers to be the social highlight of the year for all ages. The community is proud of the show’s credentials as the second-longest running of its kind in the country. Not even the First and Second World War managed to close it down.
Postponed until Next Year
So it was with great sadness last month that the Show Committee announced that the 2020 Village Show would have to be postponed until August 2021.
Postponed, please note, not cancelled, due to circumstances beyond our control – which means that our place in the record books will still stand.
The Village Show and Me
Over the years, I’ve been involved with the Village Show in many ways. Like most people in the village, we have submitted entries into the marquee for judging, winning prizes for all sorts of things. I’ve done particularly well in the knitting and crochet, but also once took the top prize for the oddest shaped vegetable!
I’ve run stalls – for many years, a secondhand bookstall in aid of the village school’s PTA or youth club – and taken part in the carnival procession on floats and in groups on foot.
I’ve been the Queen of Hearts for an Alice in Wonderland team, with my husband as the White Rabbit and my daughter as Alice. I was the Chinese Ambassador in our family’s Pandamonium trailer, celebrating the arrival of Chinese pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. (My husband was the Scottish zookeeper in his kilt, my daughter, step-grandaughter and friends were pandas.) I’ve even been a St Trinian’s schoolgirl for one of the youth club floats. (I helped run the village youth club years ago.)
A highlight for our family was when my daughter and her best friend were on the Carnival Queen‘s float, my daughter one of the attendants to her best friend, the queen. It was a historic day because for the first time the other attendant was a boy. It was the first year the random draw of the pupils in the top class of the village school included boys as well as girls. We’ve since had our first Carnival King.
The Man Who Knew His Onions
I also served on the Show Committee for 13 years. I didn’t realise it was that long until I resigned and was thanked for my long service. During that time, I was editor of its printed schedule, still produced today in the format that I designed. Show Committee meetings, which go on all year round, were always entertaining.
My favourite moment was a visit from the onion judge (all judges come from beyond the village, in the interests of fairness), who proudly showed us his onion rings – no, not the edible kind, but a shiny set of brass hoops used to gauge the precise dimension of each entry in his class. His father had used them before him, and possibly his grandfather too.
For the last few years, I’ve run a pop-up lit fest with a few guest authors promoting the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, which takes place in April. The visiting authors have even volunteered as carnival judges.
There are also poignant memories. My first husband, John Green, adored the show and carried off prizes for his home-made wine. He once took first prize for a bottle of potato wine that had earned second prize the year before. When he died in 2000, I donated the John Green Cup in his memory for best home-made wine. Seeing it awarded each year is a bittersweet moment.
I also arranged for a memorial trophy to be presented in memory of my friend Lyn Atherton, an early green campaigner who co-launched Hawkesbury’s recycling schemes. At the request of her widower, Clive, I sought out a secondhand trophy to be recycled into the Lyn Atheron Cup for a Useful Object Made from Recycled Materials. I found just the thing on my summer holiday in a curiosity shop in a tiny Scottish seaside town. When I told Clive where we’d got it from, he was astounded – that seaside town happened to be the site of their first ever holiday together. He had fond memories of barbecuing sausages on the beach there with Lyn, washing off the sand in the sea.
My second husband, Gordon, is the proud winner of the Lyn Atherton Cup, and my aunt and my father have also won this cup.
Eerily Quiet August
Every August, as the start of the Show week, seeing the bunting go up, crisscrossing the High Street, and hearing the rumbling of the funfair rides arriving in the village gets everyone excited as we put the finishing touches to our carnival floats and show entries. This year, the last week of August will seem strangely quiet, as it will in all the showgrounds around the country as Covid-19 makes such crowded events too high risk.
In the meantime, if you’d like a flavour of a traditional English village show like ours, there’s always Best Murder in Show, which from now until after what would have been Show Day will be reduced to just 99p for the ebook, and there’ll be £1 off the paperback. It’s also now available as an audiobook at various prices on various platforms – currently a bargain at just £2.99 on Amazon’s Audible.
Nominative determinism – the theory that we grow into our names – has always fascinated me, perhaps because I feel I’ve been touched by it myself.
Deborah is Hebrew for bee. I’m definitely a busy bee and have adopted bees as my mascot. Two large brass bees live on my desk, keeping me company as I write.
I realised long ago that I could no more marry someone with a repellent surname than I could live in a village with an ugly address. The charming name “Hawkesbury Upton” first drew me to the village where I’ve now lived for nearly 30 years. (Read about that episode here.)
I decided I could do a lot worse than be forever Young.
Always on the look-out for other examples of nominative determinism, I’ve found the world of gardening fruitful. My favourites include Bob Flowerdew and Pippa Greenwood, both regulars on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time. When the late Clay Jones was chairman, I was doing battle with a garden with a clay-based soil.
And today I came across a new addition to my list. Just appointed President of the Royal Horticultural Society is one Keith Weed. As a bonus, his mother’s maiden name was Hedges.
After a lifetime of being teased about his name by anyone old enough to remember Little Weed in The Flowerpot Men, Keith Weed’s appointment to a role in which his name will be positively celebrated must feel like a homecoming.
If you’re thinking a weed is bad news in horticulture, let me tell you my favourite gardening saying: “a weed is just a flower growing where you don’t want it”.
I can’t help wondering what has become of Keith Weed’s predecessor, Sir Nicholas Bacon. I’m rather hoping he’s gone to work for the Pork Marketing Board.
I have great fun choosing the names for the characters in my novels. If you’d like to know how the central characters in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series got their names, you may enjoy the following posts from my archive.
During the early part of lockdown, the Tetbury Advertiser furloughed itself for a couple of issues (May and June). With content that is events-led, reporting on recent events and anticipating imminent ones, it seemed a sensible step. However, it’s good to see it return for its summer issue (a joint July/August edition, for which I wrote this piece about our new kittens, acquired just before we began to self-isolate. As ever, you can read the whole issue online – here’s the link for the July/August edition.
(I also wrote about kittens for the June issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, and I posted that article on my blog here last month- so apologies if this sounds familiar!)
There’s nothing like the acquisition of kittens to lift the spirits, and ours couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
We arranged in February with the Stroud Cats’ Protection League to adopt a pair of boys as soon as they were old enough to leave their mother. This took us to Saturday 21st March, a pleasingly auspicious date on two counts: the first day of spring and my parents’ anniversary (67 years and counting).
Back in February, little did we know that collecting the kittens from the kindly foster-carer would be our last family outing before lockdown. Ever the optimist, I soon realised that enforced confinement at home would give us the best chance of bonding with our new arrivals, especially for our daughter, who would otherwise have been at school all day.
Once home, inspecting the adoption papers revealed another good omen: the kittens had been born on my birthday. This happened also to be the date our senior cat, Dorothy, a former stray, adopted us seven years ago. We called her Dorothy after the character in the Wizard of Oz who finds herself unexpectedly far from home. We named Bertie and Bingo, both boys, after the skittish, privileged and generally irresponsible young men in PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories.
Bertie and Bingo, after spending the first nine weeks of their lives in a pen (albeit an ample one), were initially content to keep to one room in our house. Since my husband built his room a couple of years ago, we had, with a singular lack of imagination, referred to it simply as “the extension”. Now I think of it as The Drones’ Club, which is where Bertie Wooster and chums take their meals in the Jeeves novels, often leaving chaos in their wake.
Advised to keep the kittens indoors for a couple of weeks, we eventually let them into our enclosed garden. We kept them on tiny harnesses to slow them down until they’d got their bearings. Bertie and Bingo do everything at high speed, unlike our senior cat, Dorothy, who lopes around languidly like the Pink Panther.
Off the Leash
After a few days we allowed them to roam at will, gradually expanding their territory and surprising us with their feats of athleticism. They share a talent for scaling vertical walls with the power and grace of Spiderman. Bingo has proven a dab paw at swingball, which he sees as a scaled-up version of their scratching post, which happens to be topped by a ball on a string. Bertie prefers the trampoline, climbing to the top of the netting surround with ease.
It’s only when one of the kittens tries to squeeze into the cardboard box that used to be big enough for both of them that we realise how much they have grown. I haven’t yet dared step on the bathroom scales to see whether lockdown has had the same effect on me.
(The next issue of the Tetbury Advertiser will be out in September, as they also publish a double issue for July/August.)
Cats and Kittens in my Stories…
As a cat lover, it’s perhaps inevitable that cats and kittens feature in my novels, often serving to move the plot along and adding new dimensions to the characters.
In Springtime for Murder, the fifth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Sophie acquires a kitten, while investigating the strange goings-on at the Manor House, where Bunny Carter, a sparky elderly lady, lives with a houseful of cats and her cat-averse daughter.
(Buying links: buy the ebook online here, buy the paperback online here, or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223344.)
In Stranger at St Bride’s, the first in my St Bride’s School series, McPhee, the headmistress’s cat and constant companion, joins forces with Gemma to try to drive away the unwelcome stranger, with comical results. (Buying links: Buy the ebook online, buy the paperback online or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 979 19 11 223 597.)
(I’ve just realised that in both cases the cats are black – I suppose that’s what comes of writing mystery stories!)
The fifth in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories
When I launched my St Bride’s series set in a British girls’ boarding school, I asked some author friends which school stories they’d most enjoyed when they were growing up and invited them to share their enthusiasm on my blog.
This month we’re heading to the other side of the world to talk to Tasmanian author Madeleine D’Este about her love of Enid Blyton’s The O’Sullivan Twins.
I first got to know Madeleine last year when she kindly invited me to be a guest on her lively podcast series. It was great fun to speak to her online in Melbourne, Australia, at opposite ends of our day, thanks to the twelve-hour time difference! You can hear our conversation on her podcast site here.
Madeleine is the first guest in this series to choose an Enid Blyton classic – which has surprised me, as when I mention school stories, most people immediately think of Enid Blyton.
(However I do have another post lined up for later in the year in which Malory Towerswill be the guest’s choice.)
Madeleine also writes school stories herself, aimed at teenagers and young adults. Her latest novel, The Flower and the Sword, nominated for a prestigious Australian Shadow Award last year, is a horror story set around a high school production of Macbeth. What a great idea, especially as in the UK at least “the Scottish play” is on the syllabus for the GCSE public exams!
Now, let’s find out why Madeleine so loves The O’Sullivan Twins…
Madeleine, welcome to my blog! To kick off, for the sake of those unfamiliar with your favourite school story, can you please tell us a little about it?
Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan are back for another term at St Clare’s and this term the twins are determined to buckle down and do well.
But the new term brings new faces to St Clare’s, including their vain cousin Alison, the pretty Lucy and the sullen Margery who seems determined not to make any friends.
There are blow-ups and pranks and midnight feasts to distract the twins from their school work, but when a fire threatens St Clare’s, which of the girls will turn out to be the real heroine?
How old were you when you first read it, and how often have you reread it since?
I devoured all the St Clare’s books when I was around eight years old in the early 1980s. I re-read The O’Sullivan Twins about five years ago and now again in 2020.
How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?
When I read The O’Sullivan Twins about five years ago, I was struck by how the key theme of the book seemed to be the need to conform. Through peer pressure, the twins and their friends ostracise and basically bully those girls who don’t fit in.
Now as an adult, I understand the historical context and that the book was written in the midst of World War II when diverting from the norm had real consequences, but the undercurrent of bullying tarnished my pristine innocent memories of the book.
But… re-reading again in 2020, I saw another side to the story. While there’s no denying the peer pressure to conform, this time I also noticed how each “outsider” character is given an opportunity to explain why they are behaving in a certain way.
The O’Sullivan Twins highlights that the non-conforming characters have various, and perfectly valid, reasons for their behaviour, they each have their own issues and traumas which the other girls may know nothing about. For example, Margery feels abandoned by her father and Mam’zelle (the French teacher) is thorny because she is worried about her sick sister. Everyone should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Who knew Enid Blyton was so layered?
What did you particularly like about this book and about the author? Anything you disliked?
I was obsessed by boarding school books and desperately wanted to go to a boarding school myself. I think I was drawn to the fun and friendship and the food. The rituals of the schools were exotic and enticing to me, the midnight feasts, the trips to town in twos and I always wondered what ‘prep’ was.
In retrospect, the way the girls are described physically was irritating. A girl who is pretty is generally good while an ugly or “unattractive” girl or woman is something to be pitied or distrusted. Sigh.
Which character did you identify with?
I was fascinated by the “sneak” character, Erica,the villain of the story – the girl who went behind everyone’s backs to spoil their fun. Her motivation intrigued me and how she continued to cause trouble even though she didn’t seem benefit or gain any status from her mean tricks.
I often wonder why people act this way in real life. What are they gaining from it?
How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?
I never went to boarding school, although I did play lacrosse (very badly) in high school, but I became obsessed with creating my own school rolls. I would take out an atlas and a book of baby names and create a list of names of the girls in my class along with their home towns (I was also influenced by The Chalet Schoolbooks and so every hometown was very exotic).
My mother still thinks it was very strange but now I understand I was creating character lists!
How did it affect your writing?
Three words: sizzling fat sausages. Enid Blyton gave me a love for sumptuous and evocative food descriptions which I still love to write (and read) today, and I continue to write feisty female characters.
What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?
I attended Australian state schools in Canberra, Launceston and Hobart.
Were your friends also fans, or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?
Reading has always been my private world, my little retreat from everyone and everything. And it still is.
My favourite time of the day is when I turn off all the devices and start to wind down by reading a good book with a big mug of herbal tea.
Would it still resonate with young readers today?
Young readers would find The O’Sullivan Twins very old fashioned, I imagine. The distinct lack of technology would make St Clare’s an alien world. However, if a young reader could overlook the “olden days” setting, I believe the themes of conformity, friendship and compassion would remain constant.
And of course, the truisms of growing up and blossoming into your own person never goes out of fashion.
Thank you so much, Madeleine D’Este, for this entertaining and insightful analysis of The O’Sullivan Twins – and best of luck with your own school stories, as well as your series for adult readers.
To find out more about Madeleine D’Este, her books and her podcast, visit her website:
If our conversation has whetted your appetite for a more contemporary take on school stories for grown-ups, now’s a good time to try my St Bride’s School series:
SPECIAL OFFER: The ebook of the first in series, Secrets at St Bride’s, is currently on special offer at 99p/99c or the local equivalent all over the world, until the end of July. (Buy online in the ebook format of your choice here – also available in paperback here, or ask your local bookshop to order a copy for you.)
JUST LAUNCHED: its sequel, Stranger at St Bride’s is hot off the press (published 1st July 2020), and already earning great reviews. (Buy online – click here for ebook or click here for paperback – or ask your local bookshop to order a copy for you. )