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 Personal life, Writing

She Stoops to Conkers*

This post first appeared in the November 2018 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

(Photo of conkers by Dawid Zawila via Unsplash.com)

While I was growing up in a suburb where many roads were lined with horse chestnut trees, playing conkers was one of my favourite autumn games. I still can’t walk past a freshly fallen conker without picking it up and slipping it into my pocket. My grown-up excuse for collecting conkers and taking them home is that they’re an effective spider deterrent.

Nature’s timing is perfect, because the conker harvest coincides with the mass migration of spiders from our gardens into our homes. Escaping from the chill and damp outdoors is the arachnid equivalent of flying south for the winter.

However, I’ve just heard on the radio that ingesting conkers can be harmful to dogs. They contain a toxin called aesculin, also present in every other part of the horse chestnut tree, which can make dogs very ill and in rare cases prove fatal.

On his podcast, the radio presenter, Rhod Gilbert, wondered how to reconcile his arachnophobic wife who fills their house with conkers and a pet dog who perceives every conker to be a dog toy. How to keep both of them happy and safe?

My cat Dorothy suggests the answer. All summer she’s been snacking on flies and moths. Rhod just needs to follow her example and cut out the middleman (the conker).

If he trains his dog to eat spiders, his problem will be solved.

For more information about dogs and conkers, visit: www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-advice/conkers-and-dogs.

(photo of 1905 performance – public domain)

* With apologies to 18th century Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith for repurposing the title of his excellent and very funny play, She Stoops to Conquer.


Meanwhile in other news…

cover of Springtime for Murder

I’ve just launched Sophie Sayers’ fifth Village Mystery,
Springtime for Murder,
now available in paperback and ebook.

 

cover of Murder in the Manger

If it’s a more seasonal read that you’re after,
check out her third adventure,
Murder in the Manger
a cheery antidote to festive stress.

 

Coming in 2019:

  • Murder Your Darlings (Sophie Sayers #6)
  • Flat Chance (Staffroom at St Bride’s #1)
Posted in Personal life, Writing

Spring Fever

It seems appropriate to share my post for the March issue of the Tetbury Advertiser on the first official day of spring – also my beloved parents’ 65th wedding anniversary. Such a romantic and positive day for them to have got married, I always think.

cover of the March issue of the Tetbury AdvertiserAdmiring the green shoots of daffodils popping up in my front garden, I’m struck by their similarity to post-hibernation grizzly bears. Both spend the winter tucked away, hidden and forgotten, in a kind of cocoon: bulb and cave, respectively. Seeing them emerge in spring is enough to warm the heart of any mortal, though round these parts you’re more likely to spot the former than the latter.

A friend advises me that narcissi contain a natural form of antifreeze. I bet hibernating bears would like some of that, but unfortunately it’s not in a form that’s accessible to them or to us. Otherwise I could have offered a bunch of daffodils to my husband for his car radiator when its burst hose deposited all his antifreeze on the M4 yesterday.

Fur Fury

Further signs of spring at Young Towers are the little tufts of white, orange and black fur scattered throughout the house. Unlike me, Dorothy, our calico cat, takes no heed of the maxim “Cast not a clout till May be out” (or, possibly may with a little m, as in the flower, depending on which version of the saying you prefer). Dorothy starts ditching her winter coat as soon as the days are noticeably longer. By mid-February, she’s kitten-skittish, despite her middle age.

blue sky over the rec
Big spring skies above the Hawkesbury Recreation Ground

I know the feeling. A single day of forget-me-not blue skies and bright sunshine is enough to infect me with spring fever even in stubbornly sub-zero temperatures. That is, until I stumble across an article identifying this notional affliction as a tangible, physical and serious illness. Common around March in pre-industrial times, “spring disease” was characterised by muscle weakness, wounds that wouldn’t heal, and loose teeth. It could even prove fatal.

C Fever

dorothy looking out of the window at the snow
“Ok, who’s hidden the spring flowers?”

Although the article is hardly ideal reading the night before a dental appointment, I brace myself to investigate. The disease turns out to be scurvy, caused by a winter diet low in fresh fruit and vegetables. By early spring, the only sources of Vitamin C were vegetables that didn’t rot during storage, such as leeks and cabbages, and, once we’d discovered them, potatoes. Given my impending trip to the dentist, I concoct a supper consisting entirely of all three vegetables, just to be on the safe side.

Confident that I can now enjoy my spring fever without losing my teeth, I step out next morning into a crisply cold but sunny day, ready to visit the dentist. But unlike Dorothy, I keep my winter coat on.


Cover of Murder by the Book
Coming this spring: the fourth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery

You’ll find a further taste of spring in the fourth novel in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, Murder by the Book, to be launched at the FREE Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April. The ebook is already available to pre-order at a special earlybird price of just 99p/99c here: viewbook.at/MurderByTheBook

 

 

Posted in Personal life, Reading, Travel, Writing

A Holiday from Housework

cat sitting on cushion
“Don’t you dare pack my favourite cushion!”

You can tell a holiday is looming in our household when the place starts to look unusually tidy. As if the effort of planning and packing for a trip away is not enough, I pile on the pressure by insisting that the house is spick and span before we go. It never looks tidier than the day we go away.

“Who are you tidying it for, burglars?” asked a friend, curious as to why I was in such a frenzy one morning.

Actually, it’s for me – so that when I walk back into the house on our return, I think “Ooh, how lovely – I’d forgotten how nice our house is!” rather than “Oh god, what a mess”.

Until now, I’d always assumed that when our cat Dorothy regards us with suspicion as we prepare for our holidays, it is because she equates the act of packing with being abandoned her for a fortnight, and she’s anxious as to whether she’ll get her daily biscuit ration. But as I cleared a longstanding collection of my husband’s shoes from the bottom of the stairs this afternoon, it occurred to me that she’s probably just bewildered by so much sudden change to her territory.

I also hit upon a simple way to keep a tidy house all year round: I just need to go on holiday more often.

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

Cover of the paperback showing blurb
Need some light reading for your own summer holiday? My collection of very short stories is perfect for whiling away time in airports and on the beach. Available to order from all good bookshops, and from the usual online stores.

 

Posted in Family, Personal life

Enter The Snow Cat

The calico cat on a cushion
Making herself at home already

(New post about how a stray cat turned up in the first winter snow storm)

On the first day that the snow fell during this latest cold snap, snowbound at home and idly dabbling on my netbook, I spot a notice on a friend’s Facebook page:

Is anyone in Hawkesbury missing a cat? quite a small cat -white with patches of colour? He/she is very hungry (just devoured 2 tins of tuna), and sheltering in my next door neighbour’s open garage. Please ask around, the cat needs to go home xxx

Feeling skittish, as it’s my birthday, I post my reply without a moment’s hesitation:

 If no-one claims her, I could have a cat for my birthday! Just need to persuade Gordon….

I’ve been thinking for a long time that I’d like to have a cat again. It’s several years since my last one died, but I’ve made a deal with myself that I’ll only do so if one decides to acquire me – i.e. a stray turns up on my doorstep. Turning up on a neighbour’s doorstep (where there live two big dogs) is the next best thing.

The reason for my wavering is that one of my very best friends is allergic to cats. It was a consoling factor when my last cat died that this friend would be able to visit me at home without risking hospitalisation.

The calico cat and its new bed
The calico cat and the lesser-spotted little girl

A snowy day is a quiet day, even with my daughter home from school, which is closed due to the weather. I figure that temporarily hosting this cat while we track down its owner will produce a welcome source of entertainment for us both for the afternoon. With the SOS already doing the rounds on Facebook, it surely won’t be long before we’re able to witness a happy reunion for the cat and its owner.

Another neighbour, also on Facebook, calls to check whether I’m serious.

“It’s a lovely little white cat, Deb,” he says. “I’d have it, but my cat wouldn’t like it.”

I nod and my daughter beams. Moments later, he returns, bearing cat.

It is indeed a beautiful cat, and not just white. Its thick fur is a multitude of black and ginger blotches, against a white background. It looks as if it’s been made from leftover bits of other cats. Its black-rimmed amber eyes remind me of Cleopatra’s.  Google advises me that it’s a calico cat, which I’m pleased about. I’ve always wanted one of those, without actually knowing what that name meant.

Speaking of names – what to call it? There’s no collar , although the creature’s immaculate, dense fur and easy manner in our presence suggests that it’s domesticated.

“I think I’ll call it Dora, because it keeps Exploring,” decides Laura, as the cat flattens itself to creep beneath our kitchen counters.

Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion, from The Wond...

Dora later elongates to Dorothy, without us making a conscious decision. Perhaps the name has been subliminally suggested by the postcard, propped up on the dresser, of Judy Garland’s famous ruby slippers from the film of the Wizard of Oz. Or maybe, like the Cowardly Lion, it’s just got lots on its way along the Yellow Brick Road (a nickname given, incidentally, to the part of the Cotswold Way that runs behind our village).

I confine Dorothy to the back of the house (kitchen, utility room, bathroom), while we gauge its grasp of housetraining. Our neighbour returns with cat food, bound to be needed later, even though he’s just fed it two tins of tuna before he brought it down. Dorothy had apparently eaten them voraciously. No wonder she’s looking plump.

I put down on a dish on the floor the bacon rind left over from breakfast. Whoosh! With the speed of the dirt in a Cillit Bang advert, it’s gone. Dorothy looks up hopefully from the empty dish. Moments later, a sachet of cat food is inside her.

“Mummy, why does Dorothy’s tummy keep twitching?” Laura asks.

Gingerly, if you’ll forgive the pun, I encircle the cat’s tummy with my hands. It’s solid. And moving.

A new scenario pops into my mind.

“I hope she’s not been dumped because she’s pregnant.”

It’s happened round here before: city-dwellers abandoning unwanted pregnant cats in the village, assuming the poor creature will find a new berth catching mice on a farm. Call me cynical, but I don’t believe the cats make it out here on their own, Dick Whittington style, setting off from home to in search of streets paved with Whiskas. And certainly not in snow.

Teaching the calico cat to read
“Meet my new best friend”

We make the cat a bed in a cardboard box and turn an old washing-up bowl into a litter tray filled with dirt from a discarded plant pot in the conservatory (there’s no digging up the garden under snow).  Laura, ever the bountiful hostess, makes it toys to play with and reads it stories as they lie on their tummies together on the floor. She wonders how long it would take her to teach it to read.

Meanwhile, cleaning out the litter tray, I’m beginning to remember the disadvantages of cat ownership. I take a picture and put it on Facebook with the message:

If you recognise this cat, please notify its owners and put them in touch with me to reclaim it

One week on, and Dorothy must surely be thinking “There’s no place like home.”