After volunteering to help man the Swishing rail at a village event run by our local Women’s Institute (WI) later this month, it occurs to me that perhaps I ought to find out exactly what I am letting myself in for. I know that in this context swishing means swapping clothes, but I’m intrigued by the derivation of the term.
World Class Performers Interview
I am always flattered to be asked to appear on other websites, so when I was invited recently to be a guest on a blog with the grand title of World Class Performers, I couldn’t resist taking time out to answer their questions.
It’s not often that I’m asked to talk so much about my background and my personal life, so I thought I’d share it here in case any of my own blog’s followers might like to read it.
Click the image to read the interview in full.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Unfortunately, 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
Meanwhile 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.
The 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!
Reverting to Type
We’re all used to October being a month of change, with leaves changing colour and clocks turning back, but for me this month heralds an even bigger transformation than usual: I’m giving up my part-time day job to write full-time.
I’m very excited at this prospect. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child, when I remember being made to read to the whole of my infants’ school a story that I’d written about a witch.
I’m slightly embarrassed to have taken nearly half a century to achieve my childhood dream, but according to an informal survey I’ve just conducted, I’m actually ahead of the game. Although my friends remember their early career ambitions, few have yet to fulfil them.
Which is probably just as well, or the world would be overcrowded with ballet dancers, gymnasts, engine drivers and airline pilots. The good news is that there would also be plenty of air hostesses to look after the pilots, and enough hairdressers to keep them all well groomed.
Some of my friends’ ambitions were less predictable. Libi, for example, planned to be either a nun or a stripper, whereas Norio was torn between a fashion designer and “a digger of wells in Africa”.
Sam’s objective was admirably broad: “I wanted to be everything.” Cleverly, she has achieved her aim, at least by proxy: she became a careers advisor.
But even Sam’s ambitious plan was trumped by my friend Lucienne’s.
“I wanted to be the Queen,” she confessed. “I am very disappointed that I am merely a writer.”
Well, that’s put me in my place!
With thanks to everyone who took part in this survey: Jo, Liz, Jacky, 2 x Jackies, Kate, Claudia, Jade, Jo, Craig, James, 2 x Sandras, Libi, Letty, Liz, Simone, Sam, Lorraine, Norio, Sue, Charlotte, Beth, Maurice, Stephen, Cindy, Sara, Debbie, Jim, Corrina, Susannah, 2 x Louise, Beverley, plus lots of others who did go on to become writers even if it wasn’t their childhood ambition: Helena Mallett, Joanne Phillips, Catriona Troth, Lindsay Stanberry Flynn, Christine Nolfi, Linda Gillard, Bart van Goethem, Peter St John, Stuart MacAllister, Darlene Elizabeth Williams, Dinah Reed, Anna Belfrage, Caz Greenham, Bobbie Coelho, Carol Edgerley & Alison Morton!
(This article first appeared in the Hawkesbury Parish News, October 2013)
My Gooseberry Harvest
Picking gooseberries in my garden today for the first time in years, I murmur (with apologies to Dylan Thomas) that gooseberries do not go gentle into that dark night (of my deep freezer). I’d forgotten just how painful they are to pick, due to the long, sharp spines cunningly interspersed between the fruits.
In the early evening sunshine, it’s a battle of wills. I want to harvest its fruit at the peak of ripeness, before the forecast thunderstorms arrive and turn their now firm berries to mush, but the spiny bush seems determined to repel me. But I don’t give up. To stop myself fretting about how much time it’s taking, I fall to thinking of when I first became aware of gooseberries, when I was a child.
There was a neat grid of soft fruit bushes at the bottom of our next door neighbour’s garden. The man of the house tended his soft fruit carefully, and I watched the berries fatten from a distance. Although I was friendly with his children, and used to go next door to play, I was never allowed to taste a single berry; nor were his children allowed to pick them from the bush. They were forbidden fruit.
But I did get to taste gooseberries regularly at my Grandma’s house, where I went at school dinner time every day during my primary school years. (In those days, it was a case of eat school dinners or go home – I don’t know why packed lunch was not an option.)
Grandma’s gooseberry tart was sublime. She baked it in an old-fashioned dish, which lent a not unpleasant tinny flavour to her delicious pastry. After it was cooked, she sprinkled caster sugar over the top, which pooled in little indentations where the pastry lid undulated over the gooseberries. We’d eat the pie cold, as she’d have made it for Sunday dinner with my Grandpa the day before. From the first bite, its chilled acidity coated the inside of my mouth. As I ran back up the road for afternoon school, I carried the delicious tang with me. I can even taste it now.
Cottage Garden Idyll
20 years later, finding soft fruit in the garden was one of the reasons that I was desperate to buy the cottage I live in now. For a long time, I had enough blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries to justify jam-making. By the end of August, one shelf in my larder had the look of a jewellery box about it, rich colours shining out through deep rows of neat glass jars.
But about ten years ago, these bushes reached the end of their natural lives. In the interests of crop rotation, their former beds were designated for less beautiful foods – potatoes, courgettes, beans. All useful staples but none to make your colander look like you’ve plundered Aladdin’s cave.
Then last year a kind gardening friend bestowed upon us some surplus soft fruit plants. Thanks to the wet spring and recent heatwave, I’m now able to pick my own blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries for the first time in a decade.
A decade is long enough for me to have forgotten how prickly gooseberry bushes are. Picking gooseberries is as hazardous as clipping a hedgehog’s toenails. My arms and hands are quickly etched with scratches.
These fat red fruits may be raging against the dying of the light, but soon they’ll be in the dark depths of my freezer (not quite enough for jam this year). In a few months’ time, I’m planning to rustle up my own gooseberry pie. On a dark winter’s day, it’ll be a great way of bringing back memories of this summer’s heatwave – and, from a much more distant past, the warmth of my grandmother’s love.
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