Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

A Penguin’s View of Tetbury

cover of February Tetbury Advertiser featuring penguin
My regular Young By Name column made the front cover in this issue (Click image to read whole issue online)

This post first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser‘s February 2019 edition.

I make no secret of the fact that I hate February, with its dull, short days, and no redeeming feature besides brevity. At least January includes my birthday (the day I’m writing this). But by February, I am usually pining for blue skies, bright flowers, and green leaves, instead of grey, grey, grey, and I’m longing to flip the calendar to March.

But this year my attitude has changed after reading some books about early polar explorers, including Michael Palin’s Erebus: the Story of a Ship. These books have given me a new perspective not only on the frozen north and south but also on my home turf.

Armchair Travellers All

Although few of us have come close to the North or South Pole, these days we all feel we know what the Arctic and Antarctic landscapes looks like, thanks to television documentaries. Not so for the early explorers. Obviously there was no television, but even photography was in its very infancy. The daguerrotypes taken of officers before the Erebus set off in search of the North West passage were the very latest in 19th century technology. Only in the 20th century did we start to see photographic evidence such as the remarkable work of Frank Hurley, whose accompanied Shackleton and others. The only visual records of the Erebus’s journeys north and south are the crew’s drawings and paintings.

According to Michael Palin, one of the crew in the Erebus’s early 19th century polar voyages was startled at his first sight of icebergs, expecting them to be clear, like ice cubes in a glass of Scotch. They’d never seen Antarctic penguins, either, although they might have spotted variants native to South America, South Africa and Tasmania on their way south.

Picking Up On Penguins

But how much more remarkable would a penguin find the Cotswolds? There’s so much here that is completely absent from the Antarctic: trees, grass, and other terrestrial plants and flowers; stone walls dividing fields; rolling green hills instead of stark mountains; roads and automobiles; four-legged animals; and, for the most part, people.

Set a penguin down in the middle of Tetbury, or anywhere in the Cotswold countryside, and its mind would surely be blown by the extraordinary display of colour, texture, shapes and sizes, even in the middle of winter, compared to the whites, blues and greys down south. If you wanted to break your penguin in gently, you could show a bit of camaraderie by wearing a dinner suit, and find it a field carpeted with snowdrops.

So this year I have a new strategy to stop me succumbing to the February blues. Instead of bemoaning the grey winter days, I will try to view the local landscape through the eyes of a visiting Antarctic penguin. The transformation is remarkable, like the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opens the door of her black-and-white house to reveal the glorious Technicolor Munchkinland.

Even so, I’ll still be craving the spring.

cover of Springtime for Murder
And in the spring, Sophie Sayers’ fancy lightly turn to thoughts of… murder!

If you’d like a bit of spring reading to cheer you up, Springtime for Murder, Sophie Sayers’ fifth village mystery, could just hit the spot. Available in paperback online and to order from all good bookshops, and also as an ebook for Kindle. For more information, and to read the first chapter on my website, please click here

Posted in Family, Reading, Writing

Cheltenham Literature Festival: It’s A Family Affair

Cover of Michael Palin's new travel book, Brazil
I’m not sure why it says “Ogres” on the cover behind him.

(A new post inspired by my recent trips to Cheltenham Literature Festival and Bath Festival of Children’s Literature. How cultured am I?!)

Sitting with my sister in a Cheltenham cafe on Saturday with the cheerful hubbub of the Literary Festival all around us, I’m scanning the room to catch a waiter’s eye when a mother and daughter at the next table distract me from placing my order.

Like us, they are clearly here to enjoy one or more of the many authors’ talks in today’s Festival programme. We’ve just come from hearing Michael Palin talk about Brazil, his new travelogue, at Cheltenham Racecourse, and we’re shortly to catch an audience with Alexander McCall Smith. I wonder which events this mother and daughter will attend. There’s certainly something on offer for every age and literary taste.

But it’s not their itinerary that holds my attention. What mesmerises me is their mature, measured mother-daughter relationship, conducted over a very grown-up lunch – a sharing platter of French hors-d’hoeuvres.

The daughter has the sleek, healthy hair of a young woman in her prime. It’s still long enough to be girlish but it’s firmly under control, the top layer swept back and held impeccably in place by a patterned clasp. She wears well-tailored, elegant clothing, but carries a ridiculously tiny handbag – the mark of a woman who thinks she’s grown up but has, as yet, no need to accommodate the inevitable luggage that accompanies motherhood.

Laura's favourite Hello Kitty handbag
Laura’s favourite handbag of the moment

Her mother, with steely grey hair, is equally well groomed. They share manners and mannerisms as they sample the food before them, chatting companionably. The lack of urgency about their meeting suggests they see each other often. This is no major catch-up or landmark meeting. Sometimes they don’t speak at all, but neither seems to mind. They are just comfortable in each other’s company, mutually respectful and at ease. They finish their modest meal, and when the daughter slips off to the ladies, clutching her small handbag, the mother picks up the tab.

I fast-forward 15 years, to when my daughter Laura, now aged nine, will be about the same age as this young woman. I try to picture her grown up, docked of the plaits with which we currently try to subdue her unruly thick hair. I imagine her with smooth, loose, tangle-free locks resting on the shoulders of a woman’s carefully chosen, matching clothes, rather than on the mad mix of patterns and colours that she’ll wear if left to choose her own clothes for the day.

Opposite her, in my mind’s eye, I see myself – older, greyer, but contented. I hope I will be as healthy and in as good shape as this mother is before me.  I fall again to wondering which event they’re heading for next. Which events will Laura and I attend, in fifteen years time? Where will her interests lie? Will she even be interested in the Literature Festival, or will she prefer the Cheltenham Festivals in other disciplines: Music, Science and Jazz? I’ll have to wait and see.

Laura in conversation with  Gruffalo author and illustrator Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
Discussing the finer points of their new book, “Superworm”.

But my money’s on the Literature Festival. Just a week before, Laura and I were lucky enough to attend the launch event of the Bath Festival of Children’s Literature, featuring  Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler.

Getting ready to go to it, Laura had chosen her own clothes: a pink and grey velvet and tulle floral party frock, with vertically striped sun-top beneath it and on her feet violently coloured stripey socks that remind me of liquorice allsorts.  Coaxing her out of the socks into plain tights and boots, I felt guilty for censoring her style for the sake of what others in the audience might think.

When we arrived at the talk, she was shy at first, but soon gained enough confidence to put her hand up to ask Julia and Axel a  question and to speak directly to them afterwards when we queued to have a book signed. I was proud – but then I’m always proud of my daughter – and I was glad that she doesn’t yet feel too old to openly enjoy good picture books. I wanted the moment to last.

But now, just a week later in Cheltenham, I realised that I don’t really want her life to stand still at all. Watching the mother and daughter leave the cafe, I discovered a small part inside of me that’s looking forward to every next step. But please, not just yet. I’ll even let her wear her stripey socks in public if it clinches the deal.

Laura's stripey socks

If you enjoyed this post, you might like these other accounts inspired by days out with my daughter:

All Aboard for A Trip Back In Time

Never Too Old For A Trip To The Zoo