My Young By Name Blog

Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

Casting On for Autumn

My column from the October 2019 edition of the Tetbury Advertiser was all about knitting

To read the October issue in full, please click the photo

Winning first prize in the knitting category at a village show has ignited my winter addiction to knitting a little earlier than usual. It generally kicks in as the clocks go back, the evenings become long and dark, and any excuse will do to spend more time in my armchair by the fire.

Knitting gives me the feeling of doing something constructive while just sitting down and having a rest. The rhythmic, repetitive movements of the needles and yarn quickly send me into a pleasant meditative state, especially now I’ve swapped old-fashioned steel and plastic needles and artificial yarns for smooth bamboo and natural fibres warm and soft against my hands.

Every stitch feels like a caress.

Childhood Pattern

I learned to knit at the age of five, and under my mother’s coaching quickly learned to knit and read simultaneously. Before long, I rose to the dizzy heights of having my own named box in the backroom of Rema’s, our local wool shop. Here were stored the requisite number of balls for your current project, and you’d buy them one at a time as it progressed – effectively buying a sweater on the instalment plan.

In those days, everyone knitted because home-made jumpers were significantly cheaper than shop-bought ones. The downside was the slower speed of delivery. When I was ten, I grew faster than the jaunty orange, green and brown striped sweater on my needles. On completion, I had to keep pulling on the sleeves to make them reach my wrists.

Later, I knitted countless sweaters for boyfriends. At university I knitted the same Fair Isle pullover in different colourways for two different boys in quick succession. (I must have been keen.)

My prize-winning tea cosy, knitted for this year’s village show

Downsizing for Charity

These days I prefer to make small items for charities and have found enough outlets to keep my needles busy through the winter. The most innovative is a Canadian project to provide small knitted dolls instead of styrofoam chips in humanitarian medical aid boxes. Twiddlemuffs are another great idea: knitted hand muffs adorned with buttons, beads and other decorations to comfort people with dementia.

But for now I’m keeping it simple, making blanket squares to be taken to India at half term by pupils of Westonbirt School. (Frankenstein blankets, as my friend Charlotte calls them, for obvious reasons!) My teenage daughter is doing the same for Syrian refugees. It’s humbling to be able to help others while, with our pretty yarns and silky-smooth needles, we’re just indulging ourselves in a soothing hobby.

But my prize-winning knitted tea cosy, with its thirty-plus individually knitted flowers and leaves, all sewn on by hand, isn’t going anywhere. Well, they do say charity begins at home.


Coming Soon

This episode has inspired me to write a new Sophie Sayers novella centred around knitting – look out next year for my first collection of novellas featuring Sophie and friends, working title Tales from Wendlebury Barrow. In the meantime, if you’d like to read the first Sophie Sayers novella, The Pride of Peacocks, you can do so for free by joining my Readers’ Club mailing list via the form below.

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Posted in Events, Personal life

A Not So Indian Summer

a tree with leaves turned the colours of flame
Autumn colour at Westonbirt Arboretum, just down the road from me

My column from the October 2019 Hawkesbury Parish News

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that autumn begins the day after the Hawkesbury Village Show. This year cooler autumn weather arrived right on cue on 1st September. A couple of weeks later, with chestnut leaves already starting to turn bronze as I write this column, we’re basking in an ‘Indian summer’.

Or so I thought, until I decided to investigate what actual Indian summers are like.

It turns out they’re nothing like this at all. Having never been to India, I had no idea that their summers can bring winds so strong as to be fatal and thunderstorms accompanied by hailstorms. And once they’re over, there’s a four-month monsoon season to look forward to.

It turns out that what we’ve been having is a Native American summer.

Nineteenth century settlers coined the phrase ‘Indian summer’ to describe the unseasonably warm, dry spells in the fall which the indigenous people (termed Red Indians by European immigrants) favoured for hunting.

Outside of the English language, different terms are used for this phenomenon. Germans called it ‘Altweibersommer’ which means ‘old wives’ summer’, as do Eastern Europeans in their own languages. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because the elderly find a less aggressive heat of a good autumn easier to bear than high summer?

The concept can also be used metaphorically. In the English translation of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, the term Indian summer is used to describe the run-up to the October Revolution: the calm before the storm.

Given the current political climate, I prefer a more soothing philosophy. This autumn, whatever the weather may bring, I’ll be bearing in mind that optimistic closing line from Shelley’s Ode to Autumn: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Let’s hope so.


PS For a more seasonal read for October, you might like to try the second in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Trick or Murder?, in which a village finds itself divided by a conflict between Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night. Read the first chapter here for free.


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Posted in Reading

Reading Tag #1: In Which Robinson Crusoe is “It”

As a long-standing Desert Island Discs fan, I can’t help speculating Crusoe’s choice of music

If you’ve ever looked something up on Wikipedia, I bet you’ve found yourself clicking on a link in one article that takes you to another. Then in the second article, you find another that leads you to a third… and before you know it, an hour’s flown by.

It’s especially easy to play reading tag online like this, where hotlinks provide easy stepping stones. Playing the same game with physical books requires more planning and patience, but I still find it hard to resist.

The most recent bout for me took Daniel Defoe‘s novel Robinson Crusoe as its starting point. To mark its three hundredth birthday, we chose it earlier this year as our Book of the Month at the BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club, hosted by Dominic Cotter as part of his lunchtime show, with Caroline Sanderson and me as his regular panel.

This wonderful 1964 children’s television series is now available to buy as a DVD

I’d read Robinon Crusoe at university and really enjoyed it, as well as Defoe’s Moll Flanders, but that was long enough ago for me to have forgotten most of the content. To be honest, my most vivid memories of the story stemmed from the old French television series, dubbed into English, which made a strong impression on everyone of my vintage who saw it, with its stirring theme music (do click the link to listen!) and compelling narrative, mostly true to the original novel.

Robinson Crusoe…

For a three-hundred-year-old novel, it was surprisingly accessible. Written in the voice of Crusoe, the novel fooled many of its early readers into thinking it was a memoir. As well as the familiar story of his shipwreck and solitary status on the island for most of his stay, there is wrapped around it a substantial tale of how he came to go to sea in the first place, including an earlier adventure along the coast of Africa, and the saga of his journey home. Rereading it now, I found it compelling and intriguing, although as a twenty-first century reader, his condescending attitude to non-Europeans jars.

… and Other Castaways

Hearing the Book Club broadcast, my author friend Edward James recommeded a new non-fiction book to complement it: Crusoe Castaways and Shipwrecks in the Perilous Age of Sail by Mike Rendell. On request, the publisher, Pen and Sword, kindly sent me a review copy.

Tales of real-life castaways and shipwrecks

The book was a pleasure to hold as I read it – it felt like a luxury item. Here’s how I reviewed it on Amazon UK:

This is a beautifully presented book, the cover immediately getting you into the frame of mind for the era that it describes. I had it recommended to me after reading Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, which is, as the title suggests, the jumping off point for this guide to the real Crusoe (and Defoe), other castaways of the era, and victims of shipwrecks, some famous, some infamous, some little known but worth knowing about.

It’s a very readable guide for the casual reader, as well as for serious historians, with a high level of detail about the various journeys. The author’s style is personal and personable, authoritative without ever being stuffy.

Having read it, I realise that Crusoe was not untypical of this dangerous age, and reading about the hazards of the journeys even when plain sailing (the nutrition, the piracy, the mutinies) made me wonder that anyone arrived at their destination intact at all.

This would be a good gift for anyone interested in Robinson Crusoe and Defoe in particular, or in historical sea voyages in general. My only criticism is that the captions on the very attractive colour plates, which added atmosphere to the narrative, were absurdly short. There is a list of image acceditation at the back, but I thought it would have made more sense to add this detail to each picture, rather than have the reader turning back and forth between the plates and the text. Otherwise, an engrossing read and aesthetically enjoyable too.

… including a Castaway Cat

At around the same time, by chance I cam across another Crusoe-inspired book, (and goodness knows, he’s inspired plenty of spin-offs over the years, from The Swiss Family Robinson to Lost in Space). Visiting the fabulous Old Station Pottery and Bookshop in Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, I spotted The Nine Lives of Island Mackenzie by Ursula Moray Williams, its cover featuring an Edward Ardizzone illustration referencing Robinson Crusoe.

A heartwarming castaway tale for all ages

Ardizzone’s evocative line drawings are scattered throughout Moray Williams’ gentle and witty text, intended as a chapter book for younger readers, but a delight to Crusoe fans of any age, especially if they also love cats! Not wishing to spoil the plot of this delightful read, suffice to say there are plenty of parallels to Defoe’s story, as well as a satisfying ending.

Over to You

So now I’m all Crusoed out – but feel free to share via the comments box news of your own reading tag adventures.

I wonder how many degrees of separation there are between books? I’d love to know!

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Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

The Alchemy of Marrows

My column from the September 2019 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

My current stockpile of marrows from my cottage garden

“A glut! How rural!” said a city-dwelling friend when I complained about an excess of vegetable marrows.

The dictionary defines a glut as “an abundant supply – more than one could need or sell”. Some might argue that when it comes to marrows, a glut is any number above zero. At the Hawkesbury Show, auctioneer Nick Cragg always raises a laugh when he adds “and a marrow” to the list of items in a lot – you can’t give marrows away in the country at this time of year.

photo of auction in progress at Hawkesbury Village Show with Nick Cragg and Terry Walton
Country Property auctioneer Nick Cragg this year was aided by BBC Radio 2’s allotment guru Terry Walton

But each spring, knowing they’ll provide a guaranteed crop, untouched by the caterpillars and slugs that decimate brassicas, it’s hard to resist the temptation to plant them. This year, in an attempt to make the inevitable glut more interesting, my husband planted a yellow variety.

What’s more, we’ve now alighted upon a satisfying way of using them up: with the aid of a spiraliser. This hand-cranked mechanical cutting device is a bit like a giant’s equivalent of Grandma’s old-fashioned mincer.

photo of a spiraliser sideways on
The spiraliser – reminiscent of the traditional mincing machine

Position the marrow on the shaft, turn the handle, and a tangle of long, thin ribbons emerges through the cutting disc. Spiralising yellow marrows, I feel like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold in the Grimms’ fairy tale.

photo of spiraliser end on with ribbons of golden marrow
Tada! Spinning marrows into gold.

Simmer or stir fry the spirals briefly to provide the perfect vehicle for the pasta sauce of your choice. Who’d have thought the much-maligned marrow could give you three reasons to be cheerful? Courgetti spaghetti, to use the gourmet’s euphemism, counts as one of your five a day, save calories and carbs compared to pasta, and reduces your marrow stockpile.

So if you came home from the Hawkesbury Show with a marrow surplus to requirements, now you know what to do with it. And if you didn’t, I’m sure there’ll still be a few going begging in our household by the time you read this…


Seasonal Fiction for October

In Trick or Murder?, Sophie’s adopted village of Wendlebury Barrow must choose between Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night – risking the wrath of the strange new vicar, the Reverend Neep, who bans their traditional Halloween festivities. Join Sophie and friends as she tries to get to the bottom of what drives this strange fellow – and to prevent the despatch of more than just a guy on the village bonfire. For more information, and to read the first chapter for free, click here.


cover of Trick or Murder?
Available in paperback and ebook, with a lively story spanning Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night

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Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

Back to the Future

My column for the September edition of the Tetbury Advertiser

There’s nothing like a holiday in a place very different from home to give you a fresh perspective. This summer we headed for East Anglia, as flat as the page of this magazine. Not only was the landscape a change from the gently undulating Cotswold hills, but we also learned a lot about British history.  

The Norfolk landscape, flat as your computer screen, but stunning all the same

Going Underground

Neolithic flint mines: who knew? I thought flint was just something you found on the surface. But Neolithic tribes discovered that the best type for spearheads lies in a vertical seam thirty feet below the ground and sank pits to dig it out. Near Thetford, my husband and daughter descended a mine-shaft ladder to bear witness. (Smart delegation on my part.)

Rising Up

In the city museum of Ely, birthplace of republican Oliver Cromwell and base for Hereward the Wake, resistance leader against the Norman invasion, we learned the remarkable story of how the flooded fenland has been reclaimed and made farmable over the centuries. They’re nothing if not determined, these East Anglians.

Ely Cathedral took my breath away

Rising High

But for me the highlight was a trip to a history festival at Castle Rising, once owned by William the Conqueror’s brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, commissioner of the famous tapestry. Dozens of linen tents pitched around the grounds housed historical reenactors in costumes from throughout the last couple of millennia.

A small boy toddling past me in homespun tunic clutched a green plastic Thomas the Tank Engine.

“Ah, a time travelling baby!” I observed.

“Just don’t ty to separate him from Thomas,” replied his dad, a medieval peasant. “Some Romans tried that earlier, and there’s not much left of them.”

A passing Agincourt archer showed me his quilted jacket, thirty-one layers thick to withstand arrowheads.

“I like your sunhat,” I smiled, thinking he must be melting in the heat.

“Armoured straw,” he said with a wink.

But this was no cosmetic exercise. Also on show were impressive demonstrations of historical skills, from handforging chainmail to armed combat with a vast array of authentic weapons. Now I know what a poleaxe looks like, I realise how devastating being poleaxed would be. This stout stick taller than the soldier ends in a combined dagger, axe and hammer – a medieval forerunner of the Swiss Army knife, on a grander scale.

How did ordinary people cope with such gruesome methods of fighting? A Redcoat, polishing his musket, explained.

“It was just normal life to them. When you’re used to slaughtering your own livestock to survive, the only difference in battle is that the blood and guts spilled are human.”

Afterwards, my daughter asked me which era I would choose to live in. I was quick to reply. “The modern era, but in ten years’ time, when all this Brexit nonsense is over and done with.”

And if it’s not, at least I now know how to fell a politician with a poleaxe.

Unfortunately my camera had a flat battery when we arrived at Castle Rising, so let’s close with some classic Norfolk lavender instead!

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To be among the first to know about my new booksspecial offerscoming events and free downloads, just type your email address into the box above and click the grey button. You’ll then receive an invitation to download a free Sophie Sayers short novella, The Pride of Peacocks, available exclusively to members of my mailing list. By the way, I promise I won’t share your email address with anyone else and you may unsubscribe at any time. Thank you!

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Have You Read My Latest Novel?

Secrets at St Bride’s – A School Story for Grown-ups is now available in paperback and ebook. It’s a fun, gentle blend of cosy mystery and romantic comedy set in an eccentric English girls’ boarding school. As the series title suggests – “Staffroom at St Bride’s” – it’s about intrigues among the staff rather than the girls, but it will appeal to anyone who enjoyed reading school stories when they were younger, from Malory Towers to Chalet School to Molesworth! Click here to find out more about it and to read the opening two chapters for free.