My Young By Name Blog

Posted in Writing

My Favourite School Story: The Adventures of Jennings – with Alison Morton

array of Jennings books
Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings stories – an addictive series

In this last of my series about favourite school stories, which I launched to celebrate the publication of my own school series for grown-ups, Staffroom at St Bride’s, I’m delighted to welcome thriller writer Alison Morton to talk about her choice: the Jennings series by Antony Buckeridge. These hilarious books were my personal favourite when I was growing up, although they seemed dated even then.

Alison Morton with Jennings books
Alison Morton shares her love of Anthony Buckeridge’s school stories

Set in a traditional English boys’ boarding school, and written by a former prep school teacher, the series revolves around the spirited, well-intentioned Jennings and his cautious best friend Darbishire. What I liked most about it was the humour, and it came as no surprise to me to learn recently that one of Buckeridge’s writing heroes was P G Wodehouse. (One of mine, too!)

I especially adored the language, peppered with posh schoolboy slang that I’d never come across in real life – a “wizard wheeze” for a good idea, and so on. (More on that in a moment from Alison.) But I could never use those terms in conversation, as only fellow Jennings fans might understand them. Which is why I was especially pleased to hear that Alison Morton was on the same wavelength.

Over to Alison now to tell us more…

Please give title, author and a brief description of the book.

Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge.

It’s (John Christopher Timothy) Jennings’s first term at Linbury Court prep school. He befriends clever, but socially inept vicar’s son Darbishire, foxes into town in disguise, accidentally kicks the Archbeako (headmaster) on the kneecap while practising his football-skills, displays too much (or not enough) initiative during fire practice, and has a hair-raising incident with a poisonous spider. The expression ‘getting into scrapes’ must have been invented for Jennings, but he has such a genuine sense of honour it’s hard to be cross with him!

How old were you when you first read it, and how often and at what age have you reread it?

photo of Alison in school uniform aged 11
Alison first “met” Jennings when she started secondary school

Ha! I think I was eleven, as I remember borrowing it from the library in my new school when I was in the Lower Thirds (equivalent of Year 7 today). I re-read it recently, and let’s say it’s several decades on from when I was first enthralled by Jennings and Darbishire.

How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?

I was surprised to find myself still chuckling. Either author Anthony Buckeridge was a very clever man or I still have an infantile sense of humour. Actually, I probably laugh at different places today. And although Jennings is impetuous and sees the world in a very specific way, I still find him endearing and, in his own way, logical. I probably don’t find him as exciting as eleven-year-old me did as I have done more exciting things during my own life!

What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?

The humour (and there is plenty of it) rests on misunderstandings resulting from Jennings’s literal-mindedness and impetuosity. In the earliest novels in the series there are some Latin puns; these were often omitted from later reprints which is a pity, but times changed from the 1950s and few children now learn Latin. Comradeship, behaving fairly and a desire to ‘do the right thing’, even though the school staff might not agree with the boys’ view of what that right thing was, runs through the books.

The earlier novels including Jennings Goes to School present an idealised version of small town, middle-class English life in the 1950s and mid-1960s which is the period I went to school in Tunbridge Wells, so a lot of the environment was what I considered ‘normal’.

But for me, who loved playing with words, spoke passable French and was learning Latin, the coolest thing (although we didn’t say cool then) was the invented language.

Post-war slang ‘wizard’ generally meant ‘good’ or ‘very good’. ‘Ozard’ that the boys use derives from ‘Wizard of Oz’ and was used to describe anything the boys disliked or dreaded.

It was also used to describe the anger of Mr Wilkins, Jennings’ form master, which could be ‘ozard’. ‘Ozard squared’ and occasionally ‘ozard cubed’ implied the direst of occurrences!

I have to confess that we still use ‘bish’ in our family to describe a mistake and will often ‘square’ or ‘cube’ something that’s very unfortunate.

Which character did you identify with?

It has to be Jennings, but I do sympathise with Darbishire on occasion. As an adult, I can sympathise with ‘Old Wilkie’ being completely unsuitable in temperament to deal with a class of bright, lively little demons.

How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

Even though it was written about boys, this and the other Jennings stories were set in a children’s world where exciting things happened. I was extremely fortunate to be brought up by a mother who was determined to treat her son and daughter equally and my father agreed. I couldn’t see why girls and boys shouldn’t have the same adventures.

Jennings’ world was one I could escape to when my school had been particularly insistent on me behaving like a young lady rather than just a child.

How did it affect your writing?

Hm, interesting question. Perhaps it gave me a wish to read books only with snappy dialogue and a succinct style and plenty of action. And as we write what we would like to read, I hope I have passed this partiality onto the readers of my Roma Nova series.

In that equally imaginary world, my first heroine Aurelia’s child is home-schooled in the 1960s with a tutor although she did attend a private girls’ school in London when Aurelia was posted there. In her early days, Carina, my second heroine, and still Karen went to the local state school in rural America. Her children in Roma Nova went to school in the 2010s after initial nursery education at home.

What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?

A Church of England primary school which actually had an unofficial admissions policy. My mother, a teacher herself, had sussed this out and revealed this to me years later. It had an 80% pass rate of the 11 Plus (the national school exam that determined what kind of senior school you went to) and highest entry into grammar school in the area. Talk about hothouse! We didn’t know anything about that – it was just school.

I went on to one of the local grammar schools – Tunbridge Wells County Grammar School for Girls (as it was called then.) Famous alumnae include comedian Jo Brand and tennis player Virginia Wade. It was at TWCGS that thanks to Latin classes I discovered the rude poetry of Catullus, a book of which I actually gave to Carina, the heroine of Inceptio, my first Roma Nova novel!

Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?

Oh no, Jennings was definitely my private world!

Would it still resonate with young readers today?

I think so. Anthony Buckeridge was still writing the stories in 1994, although he changed some of the content with the times while keeping the basic concept intact. The themes of interacting with others in your group, acting equitably, trying to make your way through the bewildering business of school and growing-up are universal even though expressed differently today. My son went to a local prep school for a while in the 1990s before transferring to grammar school, and there were definitely some resemblances to Jennings’ Linbury Court!

It was a (surprising) pleasure to re-read Jennings and thank you, Debbie, for nudging me to rediscover that world.

Thank you, Alison, for sharing your passion for the Jennings school stories. I hope our shared enthusiasm will encourage more 21st century readers to discover his joyous world. 


About Alison Morton

cover of Double Identity by Alison Morton
Available to pre-order before its 7 January launch

After tearing round Europe clambering over Roman ruins, serving six years in uniform and collecting an MA in History on the way, Alison settled down to write the award-winning Roma Nova alternative history thriller series of nine books. Her first psychological thriller, Double Identity, will be published on 7th January 2021 and is now available to pre-order here.

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site: https://alison-morton.com

Introduction to Alison’s Roma Nova series,  via the first series, Inceptio:

cover of Inceptio by Alison Morton
The first in Alison Morton’s alternative history thriller series set in Roma Nova

“It’s about blood, survival and money. Mostly yours.”

New Yorker Karen Brown is running for her life. She makes a snap decision to flee to Roma Nova – her dead mother’s homeland, and last remnant of the Roman Empire in the 21st century. But can Karen tough it out in such an alien culture? And with a crazy killer determined to terminate her?

Store links for Inceptio:
Order paperback here
Order ebook here


That’s all from my Favourite School Stories series for 2020. Next year, I’ll be introducing a new monthly guest post series to my blog: Travels with my Books, exploring books set in other countries and times. 

 

 

 

 

.

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Stranger than Fiction

In my last column of the year for the Tetbury Advertiser, I reflect on the strange year that was 2020.

Irrationally fond of round numbers and irrepressibly optimistic, this time last year I was convinced that 2020 would be the antidote we needed to the rigours of 2019. Before 31st December 2019, given ‘2020’ in a word association test, I’d have automatically replied ‘vision’, alluding to the optician’s measure of perfection.

graphic of an eye
So much for 20-20 vision

I was also excited at the prospect of a new decade. Could we look forward to our own ‘Roaring Twenties’ – the heady days of economic growth and prosperity that followed the Great War? (Preferably without an equivalent to the Great Crash of 1929.)

photo of four flappers dancing
The shape of things to come – a new Roaring Twenties? (Image: public domain)

Back to the present day, and that neat and tidy number has morphed into a curse. It’s become the standard response on social media to anyone’s report of misfortune.

Car broken down? “Well, it is 2020.”
Washing machine flooded? “2020 strikes again.”
95-year-old film star dies peacefully in his sleep? “Aargh, 2020, what are you doing to us?”

Of course, it’s not 2020’s fault at all. It’s simply the power of association. But who would have foreseen this time last year that so much turmoil and tragedy could be wrought by a microscopic virus and a larger-than-life political leader? (More than one political leader, depending on your personal point of view.)

Neither of these news tsunamis would pass the credibility test I apply while writing fiction. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said while watching the news this year, “If I put that in one of my novels, readers would complain it didn’t ring true.”

To be fair, I stopped trusting in 2020 early in the year, when I read this piece of anti-fraud advice:

“When signing documents in 2020, write the date in full, rather than abbreviating the year to ‘20’, or tricksters will be able to add any further two digits of their choice to suit their nefarious needs. A will dated simply ‘1/2/20’ could easily be changed to ‘1/2/2000’ or ‘1/2/2025’, thus pre- or post-dating a legitimate current document, with life-changing consequences for the beneficiaries.’

Now there’s a great starting point for one of my mystery novels. The only thing is, would it be a hit with my readers? I’m not sure I should take the risk this year. After all, it is 2020.

Roll on 2021 – and I wish you all a very happy new year!

firework of the numbers 2021


IN OTHER NEWS

cover of Stocking Fillers by Debbie Young
12 short stories that are the perfect antidote pre-Christmas stress

But hang, we’ve still got to get through Christmas 2020 first! If you’re finding the preparations particularly stressful this year, with the added challenges of catering for Covid, here’s a little treat that will lift your spirits and put you into a festive frame of mind…

My collection of warm, witty short stories set in the run-up to Christmas will make you laugh and count your blessings.

“A fabulous festive treat! I’m not normally a short stories reader but I adored this little book. So well written, such an interesting mix, and perfect bedtime reading. Put me right in the mood for Christmas. Loved it.” – Jackie Kabler

Just 99p for the ebook or £4.99 for the paperback (or local currency equivalent worldwide), it’ll make you fall in love with Christmas all over again.

 * * * Buy the ebook here * * * Order the paperback here * * *

 

 

 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Let There Be Fairy Lights!

In the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I reminisced about one of my favourite memories from my childhood Christmases.

One of my favourite childhood Christmas memories is walking home in the dark after dinner at my maternal grandmother’s house. Even on the coldest night, counting the Christmas trees in people’s front windows gave us an inner glow as we passed by.

In those days, the Christmas tree was the only thing we’d decorate with fairy lights. Many homes in our London suburb had pay-as-you-go electricity meters, which had to be fed with shillings to maintain the supply, so adding to the electrical load was not a great idea.

It was a more frugal age in other ways too. These days I think nothing of buying new fairy lights each Christmas. Back then, if your string of lights stopped working, you just went to Woolworths to buy a new bulb. That is, after you’d worked out which bulb was the dud causing the string to short.

This laborious task required taking out each bulb in turn and turning the mains power switch off and again every time, until you’d solved the mystery. (We may not have been great at recycling in those days, but we knew how to make do and mend – if your electric kettle packed up, you just replaced the element.)

There were also stricter rules about when to put up your decorations: 1st December at the earliest. In any case, you’d be unlikely to find them in the shops until after Guy Fawkes’ Night on 5th November. Now I switch on the fairy lights in my front garden immediately after Armistice Day (11th November).

As the nights get longer and winter chills set in, lighting up the darkness lifts my spirits.

Christmas tree lights in a window
(Photo by Kaleb Tapp via Unsplash)

This year, we can’t gather in Hawkesbury High Street for our annual community switching-on ceremony – a tradition I love so much that I’ve borrowed it in my festive novel, Murder in the Manger. (You can read that extract at the end of this post.) So I hope that instead there’ll be more fairy lights than ever popping up around the village.

To me fairy lights feel like symbols of hope, with the same promise that rainbows offer the rest of the year. I like to think that if Noah had had fairy lights, he’d have lit up the ark as the flood waters began to subside.

Whatever you choose to do about fairy lights this December, I wish you a bright and cosy Christmas – and a New Year that can only be better than this one!


Extract from Murder in the Manger, the third Sophie Sayers Village Mystery

Chapter 34    Lights!

images of ebook and paperback
Available in paperback and ebook

As I stood outside The Bluebird in the dark, trying to spot Hector amongst the crowd, a stocky figure in a duffle coat sidled up to me. It wore a bobble hat covered with mistletoe, topped with an old bicycle lamp tied on with string. In its hand was a pint glass spilling over with mulled wine. Its growly voice startled me.

“Good evening, girlie.”

It was Billy. He pointed to his hat.

“Got a Christmas kiss for your old friend tonight?”

To my relief, at that precise moment Hector came jostling through the crowd, wearing an ancient deerstalker and a thick stripy scarf over a long overcoat. I was beginning to wonder whether I’d missed the notice for fancy dress to be worn.

“Do I detect unrest?” was his greeting to me.

I grinned.

“Nice hat, Sherlock.”

He touched it appreciatively.

“I’ve had it since I was a teenager. It came from my parents’ antique shop. It’s so battered that I only bring it out in the dark when you can’t see the moth holes. But I’m very attached to it.”

“Can I be your Dr Watson?”

“Wouldn’t you rather be Mrs Hudson? You do make a fine cup of tea.”

I batted his arm for teasing me, but before I could protest further, a slight figure dressed entirely in black bowled up to join us, a sinister balaclava covering all of its face but the eyes. Alarmed, I took a step back, but Hector was not worried.

“Hello, Tommy.”

Tommy pulled off the balaclava and stuffed it crossly into his pocket.

“How did you know it was me?”

Hector tapped his deerstalker. “Sherlock Holmes says you can never disguise a back.”

“But this is my front.”

Tommy stomped off, pulling his video camera out of his other pocket as he went. I surveyed the crowd as it absorbed him.

“Gosh, I’d forgotten quite how many people live here.”

I reached into my coat pocket to pull out the pile of invitations to the Wendlebury Writers’ book launch. The lighting-up ceremony provided the perfect opportunity to distribute them to villagers without having to go door-to-door. I wondered where to start.

“I suppose these are all villagers.”

Hector nodded.

“Most of them, as far as I can tell, although I suspect a few usually come up from Slate Green to get their hands on some free mulled wine. Word gets around about such things.” He pulled his scarf a little closer around his neck, and I looped my arm through his to snuggle closer.

“I’m surprised how many villagers I know now. And it’s nice to no longer be the newest person in town. I can see at least one person who wasn’t even born when I moved into my cottage.”

I pointed to a tiny baby in the arms of a slight lone female standing on the edge of the crowd. The mother, hood up, head bowed, was completely engrossed in her baby’s company, holding its hands and talking to it, as if there was no-one else around. I wondered whether she was as much a newcomer to the village as the baby. Perhaps she was painfully shy. There was no father in evidence, and of all the crowd, she seemed to be the only one not mingling with others.

“She looks a bit lonely and awkward,” I said. “I don’t know who she is, but there’s something familiar about her. Why does she remind me of Billy? No, hang on, she’s more like Carol, only a young, pretty version.”

Hector laughed. “Everyone looks the same on a dark night like this, all bundled up against the cold. It’s easier to recognise people in their Halloween outfits.”

He turned around to check her out, and gazed at the woman for so long that I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t think she was that good-looking.

“Actually I don’t know who she is either,” he said at last. “I wonder whether she’s a traveller? They congregate down on Slate Common now and again, until the council gets the police to move them on. I hadn’t heard they were back.”

I wanted him to return his attention to me.

“So what happens now?” I asked.

“I’ll show you.”

He took my hand and led me through the crowd to a trestle table outside the pub, where Donald and his wife were busy ladling mulled wine into polystyrene cups.

“First, we all have some of this, on the house.” He picked up two full cups and handed one to me. “Then we all assemble round the Christmas tree on the green, where the youngest child in the school and the oldest person in the village do the ceremonial switching on of the tree lights. It’s a big honour.”

I thought about this for a moment.

“Has anyone ever hung around long enough to have done both?” I asked.

“Good question, Sophie. If you ask Bella, as the parish clerk, she’ll be able to look it up in the council archives and tell you.”

As they collected their mulled wine, people began to surge away from the pub towards the green. Nobody took the most direct route, but wove in and out as they talked to each other. The sight put me in mind of a murmuration of starlings at dusk.

“Has anyone ever been the oldest person in the village for more than a year?” I asked. “I don’t think I’d fancy being the chosen one. It would feel like stepping to the front of the queue for the village graveyard.”

Hector steered us expertly into a place at the inner edge of the throng, now arranging itself in a circle around the green. “I think the record was five times for one old lady when I was a child. I was starting to think she was immortal, some kind of witch. She even survived the lights fusing the fifth time she switched them on.”

“Maybe the power surge recharged her batteries.”

Wondering who would be the oldest and youngest this year, I was surprised when Billy stepped forward, along with a very small boy in a snowsuit and Thomas the Tank Engine wellies.

“I thought Joshua was older than Billy?” I said in a low voice to Hector as a hush fell over the crowd.

“Yes, but he’s not up to this kind of outing at night. Didn’t you read his message in the parish magazine delegating his duty to Billy?”

I chided myself for still not reading it from cover to cover, as it was the highest authority on village news.

The Reverend Murray stepped into the centre of the circle, with Mrs Murray, neat and smiling, at his side. Several people in the front row turned torches on him, during his brief speech of welcome, thanking The Bluebird for its hospitality and the team of dads who had put up the tree and the lights.

His words fell away in the cold night air, punctuated by puffs of vapour emanating from his mouth. When he stopped speaking, everyone clapped, and those who’d come early to the mulled wine whooped and cheered.

When the shouting died down to a respectful silence, the vicar pronounced a formal blessing on the ceremony and made a sign of the cross in the direction of the Christmas tree.

Finally, he beckoned to Billy and the little boy to step up to a large metal box at the foot of the tree. He lifted the lid to reveal a big red handle. I moved closer to Hector.

Billy reached first to the little boy, holding out his hand.

“Come along, Davy, you hold on to old Billy’s hand, and we’ll do this together.”

The little boy shook his head and backed away a step or two. Perhaps the sight of the red handle reminded him of the bomb detonator so often featured in cartoons.

Billy shrugged. “Suit yourself, then.” I heard his knees crack as he bent down to reach the handle. He grabbed it, then stood stock still, waiting, familiar with the drill after witnessing the process for scores of years.

“Torches off now, folks, please!” said Mr Murray. “Now let’s have the countdown. Five, four, three…”

At zero, there was a split second of expectant hush. Then BANG! But the Christmas tree lights remained dark.


cover of Murder in the Manger

 

 Like to read the rest of the novel?

Click the link below to order it in your preferred format 

*** Ebook *** Paperback ***

Although this is the third in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, it can be read as a standalone novel and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t read the first two – but I hope you’ll want to, as well as the three books after this one! Now back to writing the seventh in the series, Murder Lost and Found

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

The Consolation of Gardening

In my latest column for the Tetbury Advertiser, I was drawing on memories of a visit to Highgrove Gardens on a glorious summer’s day and sharing how it inspired me to start a new feature in my own garden.

Photo at Highgrove of Debbie, her dad and her sister
Memories of a delightful family outing to Highgrove Gardens with my dad and my sister back in September – in the background is Highgrove House, Prince Charles’s country seat, just a few miles down the road from my rather humbler Cotswold cottage home (Photo copyright Paul Burns)

My recent visit to Highgrove to admire HRH’s numerous quirky gardens-within-a-garden inspired me to start a new feature in my own plot. I christened it my Circle of Life Garden, as it’s designed to provide perspective and reassurance in a time when we are all a little more conscious than usual of our mortality. In lighter moments, I call it my Pull Yourself Together Patch or the Get a Grip Garden, but the principle remains the same.

My Circle of Life Garden

Photo of my circle of life gardenAt the centre of the feature is a small buddha statue that a neighbour wanted shot of. Recycling or reincarnation? Either way, it seemed an appropriate starting point.

On each side of the buddha are ferns, chosen to represent prehistory. According to the Eden Project, ferns have been around for 350 million years. Predating dinosaurs, they were among the first land-dwelling plants to create the oxygen essential for the origins of man. What’s not to love about ferns?

Representing more recent history, between the buddha and the ferns I’ve laid out all the fragments of china and glass that my husband has unearthed while digging the garden. No, they’re not Roman relics, but refuse buried by the previous occupants of my Victorian cottage before the invention of the council dustcart.

Symbolising the present are wallflowers given to me by my father a couple of weeks ago and a cyclamen my sister brought me when she came to lunch last week.

Looking to the future, snowdrops and crocus bulbs planted beneath a bare patch of earth in front of the buddha are scheduled to emerge next spring.

image of writing hut with circle of life garden to the right
My Circle of Life garden is just next to my writing hut

All of these features are set against a backdrop of rotting logs, the remains of a plum tree that died of old age last year. As the logs decay, they are giving new life to bugs and beetles, which in turn feed small wild mammals and birds, and so the food chain goes on.

 

Thus in a compact space just a few feet wide, my Circle of Life Garden celebrates the past and the present and promises hope for the future. It’s certainly cheered me up.

There’s only one missing piece of the jigsaw: I’m still searching for a truly immortal plant. Japanese knotweed need not apply.


In Other News

In all of my novels, gardens feature prominently, whether in the village of Wendlebury Barrow, where Sophie Sayers nurtures the garden she’s inherited from her late great aunt, or at St Bride’s School nearby, where Gemma Lamb finds peace and solitude in the extensive school landscape.

cover of The Clutch of Eggs
A fun quick read that kicks off in Sophie Sayers’ garden…

I’ve just published a new story, The Clutch of Eggs, that starts off with an episode in Sophie’s garden, when her cat Blossom brings her in a wild bird’s egg, unleashing a comical chain of events that ends up putting Wendlebury Barrow on the map for all the wrong reasons.

A quick read (a third the length of one of my novels) in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series, features all the regular characters from the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, as well as some engaging new ones, including a handsome tourist, a trio of birdwatching brothers, and an affectionate dachshund named Bunty.

The Clutch of Eggs is now available as a a postcard-sized paperback (6″ x 4″) and in all the popular ebook formats. You’ll find the buying links for both below.

In the meantime, here’s the opening chapter to whet your appetite.


CHAPTER 1 – The Foundling Egg

“Look at this, Hector!”

I held out my hand to reveal what I’d carried so carefully all the way from my cottage to Hector’s House, the village bookshop.

Instead of giving me my usual morning hug before flipping the door sign to “open”, Hector (my boyfriend as well as my boss) stood back in awe of the object’s fragility.

“What’s that, your breakfast? It’s a bit on the small side. You’re not on a diet, are you?”

I stroked the pristine white shell with my fingertip.

“No, silly, it’s a bird’s egg. What sort of monster do you take me for? I don’t eat birds’ eggs for breakfast. Apart from hens’ eggs, I mean.”

I was glad I’d had toast that morning instead.

“That’s no hen’s egg. It’s far too small. Did you get it from the village shop? I’d heard Carol had started stocking quails’ eggs, but I thought they were speckled.”

“Yes, she has, and they are. She’s thrilled to have something to put on her Q shelf at last.” Carol organises her stock alphabetically to make things easier to find. “But I’ve no idea what sort of bird laid this egg.”

Hector slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out the key to his flat above the bookshop.

“I’ll fetch the vintage Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs from my curiosities collection upstairs. That’ll help us identify it.”

He turned the door sign to “open” before dashing outside and disappearing round the corner of the shop.

“What if it’s not a vintage bird?” I called after him, but his footsteps were already pounding up the stairs to his flat.

I like to tease Hector about the funny old books that fill his spare bedroom. He’s never read most of them, he just likes the look and feel of them. I can’t understand why he doesn’t add a second-hand department to the shop. He’d have more than enough stock, and it would provide a useful source of extra income for the business. We’re always looking for new income streams. It’s not easy keeping a rural bookshop in profit.

The sun was shining brightly now, so, still cradling the egg with my spare hand, I propped the door open with our cast-iron doorstop, which is shaped like a pile of old books. The fresh spring air was full of the scent of new leaves, the shrubs and trees along the high street acid green with new growth. I lingered on the threshold for a deep breath before going back inside, where I gently set my egg on the trade counter to await Hector’s verdict. To make sure it wouldn’t roll away and fall on the floor, I surrounded it with a little wall of stationery.

As Hector’s footsteps thundered back down the stairs, I headed for the tearoom, which is my domain, and fired up the coffee machine. We always start our working day with a caffeine fix. The smell of fresh coffee helps lure our first customers in off the street, too – mums returning from the school run.

Hector strode back into the shop brandishing a small hardback with a plain tan cover. Taking his usual seat at the trade counter, he started to flick through its yellowing pages. He didn’t look up when I set down in front of him a tiny espresso cup branded with The Birds by Daphne du Maurier. My wit was wasted on him. To be fair, the book he was reading was engrossing. On almost every page there was a precise and beautiful watercolour illustration of a bird’s egg, each one different.

“Surprisingly few eggs seem to be plain white like yours. Or the same shape.”

I gazed at the egg nestling in its pen of pens.

“Surely it’s just egg-shaped? Hence the expression.”

He held the book up to show me.

“This one’s the right colour, but it’s longer and thinner than your egg, while this one is more rounded.” He paused at the swift’s page. “The swift’s is plain white, but it’s too long.”

“Isn’t it too early for a swift, anyway?”

“Yes, you’re right. They won’t arrive for another week or two yet.” He flicked through a few more pages. The lesser-spotted woodpecker lays small white eggs the right shape, but I doubt you’ve got a woodpecker in your garden. They’re a bit shy and more of a forest dweller. Besides, it says here they don’t start laying till May.” He looked up from the book. “You did find this egg in your garden, didn’t you?”

I beamed with pride.

“I didn’t. Blossom did. She brought it in to me this morning. Isn’t she clever?” Blossom is my kitten. Hector’s not keen on cats, but I thought this show of skill might raise her in his estimation. “Do you realise how gentle Blossom must have been to pick up something as fragile as an egg in her mouth without breaking it? To carry it all the way from wherever she found it to my kitchen? I think she meant it as a present for me.”

Hector moved the book closer to his eyes. The print was tiny. Encouraged by his silence, I continued.

“At first, I thought she’d squashed her ping-pong ball, but no. It’s as perfect an egg as you’ll find anywhere in nature.”

Hector harrumphed. “I just hope Blossom didn’t despatch the mother bird while she was at her nest.” He shot me a mournful look. “Although that would cut short the mother’s distress at losing her egg.”

A wave of vicarious guilt swept over me.

“There aren’t any nests in my garden,” I began, despite realising I hadn’t actually checked. Might nests be hidden among the fresh spring foliage? My dense evergreens would also provide perfect camouflage.

Our conversation was cut short by a hum of chatter approaching from the direction of the school, so Hector set down the book to continue his investigations later.

A chilly breeze struck up as the school run-mums arrived. Although reluctant to shut out the spring, I closed the door behind them.

It was only when I was starting to serve their coffee that I realised Hector hadn’t given me my morning hug.


Like to know what happens next? Here are the buying links again: 

As ever, if you read and enjoy this book, I would really appreciate it if you take a moment to leave a sentence or two on the website where you bought it saying why you liked it. Good reviews encourage other readers to buy my books! 

 

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Dwelling in Marble Halls

My column for the November 2020 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News (written part way through October), I’m reminiscing about a vivid memory of an unusual building that I admired as a child. 

One of the cheerier aspects of our strange times is the trend for displaying something interesting in our front windows and gardens. Rainbows, teddy bears and thank-you messages to essential workers lift our spirits and foster a sense of community.

photo of teddy bears on window seat

As this issue goes to press and the clocks go back, many of us are putting out pumpkins and scarecrows for two village trails set to brighten half term week, bringing pleasure to adults and children alike.

David Bowie scarecrow with poppy buttonhole
I kept my David Bowie scarecrow topical for a bit longer by adding a poppy buttonhole for Remembrance Day

Such expressions of public spirit remind me of the window displays I love to see on holiday in historic harbour villages. In cobbled streets running higgledy-piggledy down to the sea, the deep windowsills of old fishermen’s cottages are filled with shells, driftwood, glass fishing floats and other maritime treasures, arranged to face the street for the entertainment of tourists.

Marvellous Marbles

My favourite gesture of this kind dates back to my childhood. A few streets from where I was born stood a bungalow whose lower front wall was studded with glass marbles, the currency of the school playground. Not for this householder the boring grey pebbledash that adorned every other house on our interwar estate. To my childish eye, the substitution of marbles for pebbles seemed genius.

Why would anyone bother with dreary pebbles when they could have marbles instead?

It was not as if any children ever pinched the marbles, which were firmly embedded in cement. This bungalow wasn’t Sidcup’s answer to the Parthenon: these weren’t the Elgin Marbles. Besides, we were too much in awe of their beauty to even touch them, and every single marble stayed put.

I used to detour past this house every week on my way home from school to visit Mam, my maternal grandmother, yet I never once saw who lived in the marble house. I hoped he or she knew what joy their random act of fun had brought to local children.

I vowed that when I grew up, I’d decorate my house the same way.

photo of a single marble on my deskUnfortunately, Cotswold stone and pebbledash are not a good mix. I’ve therefore had to content myself with sharing my love of books instead of my love of marbles, via the Little Free Library on my own front wall. At least the books aren’t cemented into place, and passers-by are actively encouraged to extract a book to take home.

But on my writing desk there sits a marble, and it never fails to reignite my childish sense of wonder at simple pleasures.


IN OTHER NEWS

New Quick Read: The Clutch of Eggs

image of paperback edition of The Clutch of EggsMeanwhile I’ve just published a new story that I wrote in the summer, The Clutch of Eggs, the second in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads series.

This series of stories is set in the village from my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and which also appears briefly in my St Bride’s School novels.

The short novellas (about 25-35% of the length of one of my novels) feature Sophie Sayers, Hector Munro and friends, and each one regales a series of incidents revolving around a specific theme. There is an element of mystery, as with my novels, and some minor crimes and misdemeanours, but definitely no murders!

As you might guess from the title, The Clutch of Eggs involves wild birds, birdwatchers and oologists – the technical term I learned recently for anyone who studies or collects birds’ eggs. The mysterious appearance of two wild birds’ eggs starts a train of events that ends up putting the village on the map for all the wrong reasons.

Among the new characters joining the regular cast are a handsome oologist and a trio of birdwatching brothers.

Meanwhile an endearing sausage dog called Bunty inadvertently fuels Sophie and Hector’s ongoing argument about which is better: cats or dogs.

Can Sophie save the day and create order out of chaos? Not to mention keeping everyone on the right side of the law – collecting wild birds’ eggs has been illegal for decades.

This story was inspired by a wonderful exhibition that I saw last year at Bristol City Museum, called Natural Selection, staged by father-and-son team Peter Holden (ornithologist) and Andy Holden (artist). It piqued my interest in birds’ eggs and in the psychology of egg collecting, and during the summer I read a lot of fascinating books about birds, eggs and birdwatching.

You don’t need to know or care about birds or their eggs to enjoy this book – just to enjoy tales of village life with engaging characters, quirky events and gentle humour.

knitted bird with bookThe Clutch of Eggs is available as an ebook and as a compact paperback. The cute postcard format (6″ x 4″) that is a great size to slip in your pocket or handback for reading on the move, or to tuck inside a birthday or Christmas card as an easy-to-post present.

It should be available to order from your local bookshop soon, but if you have any problems sourcing it, just send me a message via my contact form here, and I’ll pop one in the post to you.

As always, if you read and enjoy The Clutch of Eggs or any of my books, I would be very grateful if you could spare a moment to leave a brief review on the site at which you bought it. Reviews help attract new readers to my books, and new readers are always welcome!