Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Out of the Mouths of Aunts

cover of March 2020 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
To read the whole issue online, click the image

Every month I write a column for the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, a not-for-profit community magazine. In this month’s issue, I shared one of my favourite sources of story ideas: eavesdropping.


As an inveterate eavesdropper, I shamelessly raid overheard conversations for fun phrases to put into the mouths of my fictional characters.

While I may not remember a meeting time from one day to the next (top tip: hold all meetings to coincide with elevenses), when it comes to other people’s one-liners, I have the carved-in-stone memory of a Ten Commandments tablet.

Impressive Pledge

Inspired by old memories

In my twenties, I worked alongside an ardent vegan, in the days when this now common lifestyle choice was rare. One day over coffee she announced that she could only ever marry another vegan. The chance of falling in love with a man who met this as well as all the usual criteria seemed to me about as likely as the miller’s daughter guessing Rumpelstiltskin’s name. Twenty years later, I used her declaration of intent as a starting point for “Housetraining Thomas”, my short story about finding partners in my collection Marry in Haste. (In case you’re wondering, my friend she eventually settled for a vegetarian and in true fairytale style they are living happily ever after.)

Legendary Lessons

A Westonbirt alumna’s quote borrowed with her permission

Working at Westonbirt School in the late 1998, I harvested a great line from former pupil Jane Reid. When compiling alumnae’s memories for the school’s seventieth birthday, I asked, “What’s the most useful thing you learned at school?” Without hesitation Jane replied, “At my prep school, how to steam open an envelope and at my senior school not to sign anything I hadn’t read.” With her permission, I lent her words of wisdom to Miss Harnett (aka Hairnet), the eccentric headmistress in my recent novel Secrets at St Bride’s.

Family Favourites

cover of The Natter of Knitters
Auntie Minnie helped!

I’m equally insouciant with members of my family. Like Bertie Wooster, I’m blessed with a fine collection of characterful aunts. When my father was reading my new novella, The Natter of Knitters, he instantly recognised a favourite saying of his Auntie Minnie’s, spoken in my story by a character worried about the well-being of a very slender neighbour: “Where does she keep her organs?” In a similar vein, my grandmother, spotting someone bending over would say “Have you seen my nice bottom?”

old family photo
Grandmothers and aged aunts – a great source of quotable quotes

I wonder whether I shall pass any memorable phrases of my own down the generations? At the moment, the main contender is “Steady, Teddy”, said to any small child who is getting out of hand (and occasionally my teenage daughter). And that, I confess, was copied from my favourite television programme as a toddler, Andy Pandy. Once a thief…


cover of Young by Name
Earlier columns from the Tetbury Advertiser, available in paperback and ebook

If you’d like to read more of my columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, you’ll find the first six years’ worth in this collection, available in paperback and ebook. I’ll compile another at the end of this year.

Click here to order as an ebook

Click here to order the paperback from Amazon, or ask your local bookshop to order it in using ISBN 978-1911223030.

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Nought to 60 in No Time At All

Click the image to read the whole magazine online

For ten years now, I’ve been a regular contributor to the Tetbury Advertiser, a multiple-award-winning community magazine run by the Tetbury Lions. As well as providing a valuable community news service, it donates any profits from advertising to local good causes. I’m proud to be a part of it. 

The monthly deadline is around the middle of the month prior to the cover date, so I wrote my column for the February issue around the time of a very big birthday…

When the calendar flipped over to 2020, I was very pleased. I’ve always liked round numbers. 18 days later, another round number was due to enter my life: I was about to turn 60.

It was hard to understand where all that time has gone. But when I wondered why I was having trouble sourcing a new refill for a favourite pen, I realised I’d had the pen for 42 years.

For the Love of 60

headshot of Grandma in a beret
My beloved Grandma – always me + 60

Despite my natural aversion to growing old, I have always loved the number 60. Write it in Roman numerals (I’m currently learning Latin), and it looks like the suffix of a luxury car model:  LX.

At primary school, 60 was my favourite times table answer. My love affair with maths ended as soon as we got beyond arithmetic.

I also liked 60 because it was the age my beloved grandmother turned just after my entry into the world. Throughout my childhood she was therefore my age plus 60. To my childish imagination, this seemed a significant bond, almost like us being twins, despite her being a Victorian.

The Perks of Turning 60

Back to 2020, and as my big day approached, there were reminders everywhere I went. Signs enticed those over 60 to claim extra points at Boots, 25% off at the local optician, and a significant discount with a railcard.

A few days before my birthday, I found myself in a hospital’s charity bookshop. I’d been meaning to read more Graham Greene since enjoying his autobiography last year, so when I spotted his name on the spine of an ancient Penguin (the book brand, not the bird), I pulled it off the shelf without checking the title.

A Special Vintage

headshot of Debbie Young against Cheltenham Lit Fest logo
Reading at Cheltenham Literature Festival at the tender age of 56 and channelling Grandma’s love of hats

It turned out to be A Burnt-out Case, set in a leper colony in the Belgian Congo. (Whoever donated that novel to a hospital bookshop lacked tact.) Wondering when it was published, I consulted the copyright page. You’ve guessed it: 1960, same vintage as me. At secondary school, I wrote a history essay (possibly with that now empty pen) about the Belgian Congo gaining independence, but I couldn’t remember the year it took place. I looked it up on line. Who’d have thought it? 1960.

Finally, when I woke on the big day, I was relieved to realise that not only did I feel no older than the day before, but that my grandmother, if she were still alive, would next month turn 120 – exactly twice my new age. That pleased me immensely – and made me feel much younger. Then her daughter, my 89-year-old aunt, wrote in her birthday card to me that the sixties are the best time of your life. So, all in all, I’m sold on the idea of turning 60 now. So let the good times roll… and with discounts!

CLICK HERE TO READ THE WHOLE OF THE FEBRUARY ISSUE OF THE TETBURY ADVERTISER FOR FREE ONLINE


For the Love of Knitting

One of the many traits I inherited from Grandma was a love of knitting – the theme of my latest book, The Natter of Knitters.

It’s now available as a cute compact paperback the size of a picture postcard – the perfect size to slip in a birthday card for knitting addict friends! -, as well as in all ebook for

cover of The Natter of Knitters
The first in a fun new series of quick reads

mats.

It’s a quick read – a short novella, about 20% the length of one of my novels – and features Sophie Sayers and friends from Wendlebury Barrow, as well as introducing new ones, such as the officious Mrs Fortescue, organiser of the village yarnbombing event, and Ariel Fey, self-appointed defender of local sheep.

Posted in Family, Personal life

A Tale of Two Grandmothers – and Tea Sets

(A post in praise of my two late grandmothers and their different attitudes to matching china tea-sets, crockery and cutlery)

Now here’s a little-known antidote to stress: take a few moments to admire matching crockery, as displayed on the Welsh dresser in my kitchen.

My Welsh dresser
By far the most orderly part of my house

There are many reasons why the sight of this dresser gives me great pleasure:

  • a folksy look that goes well with our country cottage
  • light and cheerful colours
  • vintage design from the 1920s (it often pops on tea-tables in period TV dramas)
  • sentimental value, the first pieces being a wedding present from a special friend
  • low cost, thanks to a factory shop that sold cheap seconds (sadly now closed)
  • ease of replacement via Chinasearch

But most important of all is that it reminds me of tea with my grandmothers, though their attitudes to china were polar opposites.

Grandma’s Matching China Tea-Service

Grandma's tiered cake plate
Who ate all the cakes?

My paternal Grandma favoured matching crockery. She had a classic set of pale sage green utility china which was brought out every Saturday when we went to tea.

For my brother, sister and me were reserved three melamine cups and saucers, long after the age when we couldn’t be trusted with breakables. My brother’s was chocolate brown, there was deep rose pink for my sister and tangerine for me.

Toning tastefully with the china, a stylish set of tiered plates sporting a 1950s fern pattern always graced the centre of the tea-table. The bottom tier was reserved for thinly sliced, fresh-cut bread and butter, with cakes and biscuits of gradually reducing size on the top two tiers. Viennese whirls, Swiss creams and chocolate covered marshmallows still make me think of tea at Grandma’s, served from those elegant plates, and eaten politely all sitting well-behaved around the table, me perched on a stool brought in especially from the kitchen because there were more people than chairs.

Toy tea set in Beatrix Potter's Mrs Tiggywinkle design
Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggywinkle always reminds me of Grandma

The orderliness of the tea-table was as dependable as the bananas offered to the three of us as a treat after tea. Unlike us, Grandma remembered rationing and regretted the prolonged absence of such fruit from her own children’s diet during the war. I didn’t always want one, but I knew instinctively to pretend that I did, and accepted with gratitude.

My siblings and I were born in the same order as her children – my father sandwiched between my two aunts – and it must sometimes have felt like an action replay to have the three of us there, particularly as my brother was the image of my father as a boy.

Equally reliable was her pressing a shilling (equivalent to the modern 5p) into our hands as we left – our weekly pocket money. Our other, wealthier grandparents gave us each a halfcrown (12½p), but I was always careful to show equal gratitude to Grandma and Grandpa.

Mam’s Mad Medley of China & Cutlery

Emma Bridgewater design tea set
My daughter’s toy tea set by Emma Bridgewater

While I loved this orderly tea-time ritual, I also adored my other grandmother’s more anarchic approach to crockery. At Mam’s, we didn’t even have to sit up to the table, balancing our tea plates on cushions on our laps while we watched television. On my grandather’s salary as an accountant, they could certainly have afforded matching china, but it never occurred to Mam to buy it. Every plate in her cupboard bore a different design, and although some cups had a matching saucer, no two came from the same set. 

The same was true of the cutlery, some of which was cheap and ancient, imparting like a condiment an odd metallic flavour to each forkful. One year my parents replaced our cutlery and presented Mam with their old, still serviceable stainless steel set. She regarded it with undisguised suspicion.

My daughter's drawing of a wombat drinking tea at a tea table
My daughter would like to show you her picture of a wombat drinking tea. As they do.

Having noticed that some of Mam’s china was chipped, I bought her a beautiful bone china cup and saucer one birthday, splashing out more than I should from my student budget. The set was adorned with a delicate lily-of-the-valley designed – Mam loved lilies – and the word “August”, because her birthday fell on August 1st. I thought this personal touch would ensure that only she would ever use it, and I hoped it would enhance the pot of tea with which she fuelled herself each morning before anyone else in the household was awake. She admired it enthusiastically before tucking it carefully away for safekeeping.

Three matching coffee cups and saucers with pattern reminiscent of coffee and cream stirred together
Matching coffee cups, snapped up at a Farm Open Day recently

Like Grandma, she could not shake off the memories of the Great Depression, followed by wartime rationing. When she died not long after that birthday, not only was the August cup and saucer still in its box, but in her airing cupboard we discovered unopened packets of tea and sugar, carefully stashed away against any future risk of shortages.

Decades have passed now since both my grandmothers died, but I still sometimes have such vivid encounters with them in my dreams that it comes as a shock when on waking I realise they’re no longer with us. And what usually happens in those dreams? Well, of course, I’m visiting their houses for tea.

National Trust tea tray showing a tea party
My favourite tea tray, bought eons ago from the National Trust

If you enjoyed this post, you might like other articles about my grandparents:

Posted in Family

Bowled Over by Fond Memories of My Grandma

A set of six washing up bowls

I really didn’t need six new washing up bowls. I didn’t even need just one. But there was something so appealing about this neat nest of bowls, quite apart from their low price, that made them irresistible.

Of the two of us, I’m usually the stronger one going round Lidl. Whereas my husband cannot exit the shop without another household tool or gadget, I’m happy to leave with just their fruit, vegetables and chocolate.

“It’s only a bargain if you actually need it,” still echoes in my head: sage counselling from my best friend’s mother, probably the most sensible person in the world.

But I pick up these bowls and turn them round in my hands, pondering why I’m so drawn to them. It’s always a mistake to handle something you’re trying to resist buying. It’s known in the trade as “puppy dog selling”: the tactile experience makes you keener to buy than if you’d just looked. (Ironically, my husband once used this technique to convince me to adopt a kitten.)

And then the penny drops. It is a Proustian madeleine moment. For these simple plastic bowls whisk me back to my grandma’s kitchen. Or rather, her scullery, as she always called it. Born in 1900, she had grown up with a smattering of Victorian vocabulary that never left her.

Old photo of Grandpa and GrandmaTo Grandma, her small terraced house would have seemed modern, being built around 1930, when Sidcup was starting to segue from a Kentish village into a London suburb. For decades, Grandpa walked to the railway station for a civilised 30 minute commute into the City.

The house may have been modern, but it was also compact. The scullery was no more than a narrow galley, with cupboards and appliances down one side and a slim glass-fronted  cupboard mounted on the wall opposite. The appliances were few: a rounded, low, old-fashioned fridge; a small gas stove and a wall-mounted gas geyser to heat the water, its pilot light permanently glowing blue until you turned the tap, when with a whoosh! a little row of blue flames came to life to heat the water as we needed it. A slightly intoxicating smell wafted out as the hot water ran, though not as pungent as the paraffin heater in the bathroom.

Beneath the geyser was a big old white sink, and in the sink lived a plastic washing up bowl. Grandma’s preferred colours for the plastic washing up bowl were a deep rose pink and a peach, which, if melded together, would have combined to make her favourite colour: flame. The washing up bowl of the moment provided a welcome splash of colour in an otherwise grey and shady space, matched only by three bright Melamine cups and saucers in the wall cupboard, where they lay in wait for when my brother and sister and me came to tea once a week. My sister’s cup and saucer were rose pink, my brother’s mocha and mine was tangerine.

In this narrow space, Grandma would potter up and down, busy but contented, reminding me of Mrs Tiggywinkle in her pinny and hairnet. Every day while I was at primary school, I came home to Grandma’s for lunch, looking forward to what she’d produce from her scullery. Her considerable culinary skills had enabled her to feed her young family through the rationing of the Second World War and it was simple, healthy, delicious food. Everything in the scullery seemed old and well worn, from the wavy-edged pyrex pudding bowls to the tin pie-dishes that gave her delicious gooseberry tart a tingling metallic after-taste. I loved them all. Years of having to make do and mend meant nothing was wasted; things were only replaced when really necessary.

old photo of my GrandmaLike the washing up bowl. Grandma showed me how after so many uses the smooth bowl would start to roughen. Eventually little whitened tags of plastic would stick up as the plastic  wore thin. At a certain point – probably every three or four years – she would decide enough was enough, and splash out, so to speak, on another. The purchase of a new one was a significant occasion that made a big impression upon me. I’ve never liked waste ever since – one of the many valuable qualities that I picked up from my dear  Grandma.

But now, thanks to the temptations of Lidl, I am the proud possessor of not one but six new plastic washing up bowls. In Grandma’s book, that would count as a wild extravagance. But I think if she knew the reason I succumbed, it’s an extravagance she’d find very easy to forgive.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy this one about Grandma’s economic policy for her retirement: A Two-Sheet Solution or this one about her old piano: Tuning Grandma’s Piano: The Antidote to Chopsticks

Posted in Family

Tuning Grandma’s Piano (The Antidote To Chopsticks)

English: Piano tuner's most basic tools: tunin...
It's not all black and white: inside a piano (image via Wikipedia)

The only thing worse than hearing chopsticks played repeatedly on the piano is hearing chopsticks played repeatedly on a piano that is badly out of tune.

At the turn of the year, my daughter acquires this party trick from a school friend who has learned it from her cousin over Christmas. Chopsticks spreads like a virus among children. There can be few who are naturally immune. Roll on the day when the MMR vaccine gives way to the MMRC – Mumps, Measles, Rubella and Chopsticks.

But as this vaccination has yet to be invented, I decide the most effective remedy for my household is to get my piano tuned. My previous tuner in Bristol having retired, I scour the internet in hope of finding a new one closer to home. To my amazement, I discover there’s one in Didmarton – virtually on my doorstep. A phone call later he’s literally on my doorstep, toolbag in hand.

Clearing the photos and other debris from the top of the piano, I explain to him the history of my particular instrument. As I do, I realise why I’ve been so tardy in getting it tuned: I’m worried that it’s now beyond redemption and will have to be written off. A humble “cottage upright”, it’s not a valuable instrument, but it is precious to me.

Exactly a hundred years old, it belonged to my beloved grandmother, who was born in 1900. Her stepfather bought it for her when she was about eight – the age my daughter is now. In her twenties, she took it to her new marital home in Sidcup. (I can still picture the piano in the corner of her dining room, family photos and trinkets on the top, and I often dream that I’m back in that room having tea.)

Grandma and my more musical cousin

Her husband, my grandfather, was a gifted musician, too poor to afford a musical career, but music was always his passion, passed down the family line. Unfortunately his musical genes passed me by, but I did eventually gain the piano. It went first to my more talented cousin, whose skills soon outgrew the instrument’s powers. A trained opera singer, she played this piano at my wedding reception.

That I have chosen the right piano tuner to revive this family heirloom soon becomes clear. He reveals that his mother was also born in 1900. When I tell him my daughter’s name is Laura, he immediately begins to play the eponymous tune, which I’ve never come across before, declaring it to be his favourite. When she comes home from school, Laura will be thrilled.

Lovingly he coaxes the piano back into good order. He suppresses the squeaks that had lately haunted the pedals. He handcrafts new wooden shafts that give new voice to keys that had turned dumb. In turn, little by little, he brings each note back to just where it should be in the scale.

And then comes the grand finale: that fabulous moment when he shows off his handiwork by playing pieces that test every note on the keyboard. It’s the piano tuner’s equivalent to the typist’s quick brown fox jumping over the lazy dog.

Even if there is no cure for chopsticks, this is a most effective antidote. Thank you, Mr Felton – and may there be many encores.

This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, a great place to find a piano tuner and many other friendly local service providers!

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If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in another post about how my lovely Grandma, contemporary of the Suffragette Movement, taught me to value my right to vote:

I Wear My Vote on My Sleeve

and this one about how one of her old ornaments inspired my new business venture:

The Reading Man