Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

My Missing Month: A Missive from a Scottish Summer

green mountains and blue sky
Scotland’s green and pleasant land this August

Deep into seasons of mellow fruitfulness now (and wind and rain!), our summer holiday seems like ancient history , but for sake of keeping a complete record on my blog, here’s my column for the September edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News, which I sent in from the Scottish Highlands on my summer holiday to meet its mid-August deadline.

Taking our summer break during the school holidays, we are used to leaving home when the Cotswold countryside is green and tidy and returning to find it golden brown and unkempt. It’s as predictable a transformation as from pre-holiday hairdo to post-holiday hair; only the colours are different.

But this year we were wrong-footed by the early burnishing of the fields. Thanks to the July heatwave, the local landscape was baked brown before we left.  Even that hardy perennial, grass, instead of springing back beneath our bare feet, crunched underfoot like broken biscuits.

The further north we drove, the greener the landscape. Not least because there was rain. Lots of rain. The fields beyond Gretna were as bright and fresh as any you might find in the Emerald Isle.

And the days lengthened. At the time of writing this column, ensconced in Glencoe, we are far enough north for dusk to fall a full forty minutes later than in Hawkesbury. August in the Highlands feels like Hawkesbury’s July.

So when we get home, as we always do, in time for the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, we’re going to be completely confused. We all know that the Village Show marks the last day of a Hawkesbury summer. But my body clock will still be waiting for August to begin.

image of Buddha statue among autumn leaves
Goodbye, summer, it’s been fun!
Posted in Personal life, Writing

Season of Mists and Mellow Idleness

Cover of October issue of the Tetbury Advertiser

(My column for the October 2017 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser)

People often say to me “I don’t know how you do so much”.

But I have plenty of sins of omission, because, as an optimist, I am constantly trying to fit more into the day than can physically be done.

I wish I could bring myself to subscribe to the Fall Off the Desk rule invented by my former boss. She held that if you ignored a task for long enough, there’d no point in doing it.

Harnessing Time’s Chariot

Not being that defeatist, I decided last month to re-embrace the timesheet. Years ago, working as a consultant, I had to keep timesheets to demonstrate I’d spent no more hours on a client’s business than they had contracted to pay for. These days, my chief client is me, but I hoped the practice might help me get more ticks on my action list each day – or at least excuse me from wasting precious time on the ironing.

cover of Dull Men of Great Britain
Cover photo via Amazon

The last time I filled in timesheets was before the invention of smartphone time management apps. We got by with paper lists or commercial systems such as Filofax. Such systems may look smart, but they’re not exactly exciting. My novelist friend Alison Morton‘s husband’s collection of Filofaxes earned him a place in the book Dull Men of Britain, alongside a drainspotter. No, that’s not a typo.

Squirrelling Time Away

So this time round, I decided to go high-tech, choosing from a wide selection an app called Toggl, because it reminded me of Tog, the red squirrel from the 1960s children’s television series Pogle’s Wood.

Toggl lets you set a timer running as you begin each new task. My first experiments were fun, but flawed, due to pilot error. I kept forgetting to turn it off when I went to lunch, logging five-minute tasks as taking an hour. Usually I turn my computer off before I got to bed, but when I forgot, Toggl recorded a gruelling night shift. I may burn the candle at both ends, but I’m not that bad. With constant mistakes reducing its accuracy, Toggl’s novelty started to wear off, and I wondered whether to send the little squirrel into hibernation.

Tuning into a New Trick

Then by chance over breakfast, I heard an article on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme promoting the importance of idleness to the creative mind.

To be more productive, it suggested, I shouldn’t be managing my working hours but increasing my down-time.

I already knew my best ideas arise when I’m not actually trying. Sure enough, after the programme finished, I got the idea for this column not at my desk but while in the bathroom cleaning my teeth. Well, it could have been worse.

Here’s to a season of mists and mellow idleness for us all. I think we deserve it.

Cover of Young by Name

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read my collected columns from my first six years of writing for the Tetbury Advertiser.

Now available in ebook from all good eretailers, and in paperback online and from your favourite independent local bookshop – just quote ISBN 9781911223030 to order.

 

***STOP PRESS***

The Tetbury Advertiser has just won another award for parish magazines – best for content and third place overall. Congratulations to the Tetbury Lions, who run it to raise money for charity, to the tireless editor Richard Smith, and to all my fellow contributors. What a team! 

 

 

Posted in Reading, Writing

A Book for All Seasons: The Joy of Seasonal Reading and Writing

This post about seasonal writing first appeared on 30th August on the Authors Electric blog, for which I’m now a regular monthly contributor. (I write a new post on the 30th of each month).

When I started planning the cosy mystery series I’m currently writing, I thought I had a bright idea: I’d make the seven books span the course of the year.

What’s not to love about writing a book for all seasons, and then some? Whatever the time of year, I’d have a topical book to tout.

Given that my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are set in a small (fictional) English village (no surprises there), its residents are naturally very conscious of the seasonal changes, and their social calendar dictated by the time of year.That’s just how it is in the small (non-fictional) English village in which I’ve lived for the last twenty-six years. Here in my real life village, I’m so much more aware of the passage of the seasons than when I lived and worked in and around London.

Working in a city centre, I was more likely to spot the season by what was in shop windows, rather than by the appearance (or disappearance) of lambs and the like.

Bikinis in Marks and Spencers? Ah, then it must be February.

I much prefer the rural indication of the coming of spring: seeing the lambs appear down my lane.

Seasonal Satisfaction

Yes, I often share my street with sheep, or sometimes cows. Today we passed a few chickens pottering about at the roadside outside the local farm shop. Well, where else would a chicken go to do its shopping?

And if there’s a traffic jam down my way, it’s more likely to be caused by a farm vehicle than a stream of commuter cars. On nearby Sodbury Common, herds of cows frequently block the road.

For those who don’t live in the country, reading the Sophie Sayers books will give them the chance to enjoy the seasons vicariously as they work their way through the series.

Seasonal books = seasonal reading = seasonal sales.

Good plan. 

Until I try to launch my new autumn read, Trick or Murder?, full of mists and mellow murder, on a searingly hot August Bank Holiday weekend, when we can almost convince ourselves that summer still has weeks to run.
It felt indecent to be talking about October already

I find myself not wanting to even think about the autumn, never mind promote my autumn-themed book. 

It seems unkind to remind people that autumn is just around the corner, like the supermarkets that start hyping back-to-school wear the minute the schools break up for their summer holidays.

Standing in scorching sunshine talking about Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night – key events in Trick or Murder? – seems as tasteless as touting mince pies and Christmas cards in September. Yes, I know Tesco’s will be doing that. I rest my case.

 I know that commercial traders, including bookshops, will carry on regardless, marketing things at least a season before we really want to think about them.

But I’ve decided to launch my Christmas special for the series, Murder in the Manger, for the day after Guy Fawkes’ Night, and not a minute sooner.

Time passes us by all too fast without me fast-forwarding the seasons.

In the meantime, I plan to make the most of whatever remains of the summer sunshine.

May we all have many sunny days yet to come. 
cover of Best Murder in Show cover of Trick or Murder?

The first two books in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series are now available in ebook and paperback. You don’t need to read them in order, if you prefer to start with the one most appropriate for the current season. The third book, Murder in the Manger, will be out on November 6th.

Posted in Personal life

I’m Jamming

Spot the subliminal message on the discarded ice cream box behind the jar...
Spot the subliminal message on the discarded ice cream box behind the jar…

(This post was originally written for the October issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News)

No, not in the Bob Marley and the Wailers sense (much as I love them), but in terms of preserving fruit.

I hadn’t made jam for years, but when I ran out of jam on a Sunday after the village shop had closed, I decided to bite the bullet – or rather the gooseberry – not least because I still had last year’s fruit in my freezer. I’d been lapped by the seasons.

Before dusting off my old jam kettle, hanging redundant in the larder for years, I consulted my book of jam recipes. Its pages bear so many splodges that it almost counts as scratch-and-sniff. The book reminded me what a gloriously simple process jam-making is. It’s more like chemistry than cooking, and when it goes well, with the kettle full and fragrantly bubbling, it’s as exciting as discovering the secret of alchemy.

When my first batch produced the perfect set, I was glad I hadn’t forgotten how to do it. Jam-making is thus rather like riding a bicycle, only stickier.

The Joy of Jam

And what a difference there is in the taste! Home-made jam is to factory jam as swimming in the sea is to a dip in Yate pool. It’s like seeing an Old Master in a gallery rather than in a picture book, or viewing a landscape with the naked eye rather than through a camera lens. It’s a genuine, all-round sensory experience.

My first taste of this batch of gleaming red gooseberry and apple jam, a tantalising medley of colour, sharpness and sweetness, put me in mind of the moment when I got my first prescription glasses and looked out of the window at the woodland on the hill beyond the garden.

“My goodness, have those trees always had so many separate leaves?” I wondered, used to seeing just a large green blur.

My biggest problem now will be to make these jars last. After all, it’s never too early to start planning for the Hawkesbury Show…

You might enjoy some of my previous posts about the village show:

It’s Show Time!

Hawkesbury Show and Tell

East, West, Our Village Show’s Best

Posted in Family, Personal life

The Wisdom of Estate Agents

(This post was originally written for the September edition of Hawkesbury Parish News, my local community’s newsletter)

Photo of Laura in purple frock and tiara
My daughter Laura as Carnival Queen’s attendant at this year’s Village Show

Twenty-three years ago, when I was negotiating to buy my house in Hawkesbury Upton, there were four significant facts that I’m glad I didn’t know at the time, because they’d have made the process much more stressful. But with hindsight it seems remiss of the estate agent not to have told me:

  • there is an excellent village primary school
  • the village is in the catchment area for an equally good secondary school, with admission pretty much guaranteed for anyone who lives here
  • the extraordinary annual village show – the undisputed highlight of the village year – would make me proud to call Hawkesbury Upton my home
  • climate change and the subsequent increased rainfall would make me very glad indeed to have a house on high ground
Photo of Laura in her new school uniform
Laura ready for her first day at secondary school (still inadvertently wearing the purple sparkly nail polish from the Show)

All four of these factors have given me cause for celebration this year, when my daughter left the primary school with a glowing report, gained a place at KLB, and was picked as Carnival Queen’s Attendant for the Show – and on numerous occasions throughout the year we’ve watched copious rainwater flowing away from our house, downhill, down the middle of our road.

But as September begins, I’m mindful of two more facts omitted from the estate agent’s blurb that I was left to learn from my new neighbours:

  • the day of the village show is the last day of summer
  • when it’s jacket weather in Chipping Sodbury, it’s overcoat weather in Hawkesbury Upton

Perhaps that estate agent was smarter than I gave him credit for. Now where did I leave my overcoat?